Welcome to the wonderful world of Zen Koans.
The Koan has been described as a short story or sentence that initially seems paradoxical in nature, but can have any number of solutions when we start to think “out of the box.” It has been a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Japan for a long time.
Here is an example of a Koan – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
At first blush this appears to be a riddle. But does it have an answer? And if so, is there more than one acceptable answer? How would you respond?
That particular Koan is attributed to Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769), and like all Koans can be answered in many different ways. One such answer could be:
“If there is a sound, it is the sound of God’s oneness loving, and it could never be heard with our outer ears, but more only ever silently felt, or heard by the inner ears of our own hearts.”
The Koan is often used as a test of a Zen student’s ability, and for monks in training. It can reflect the enlightened (Satori) or awakened state of a person, or can be used as a tool to “shock” a discursive mind into expansive thought and consciousness.
Koan literature typically derives from older texts and traditions, including texts that record the sayings and actions of sages, perhaps dating back to Bodhidharma (c. 5th–6th century).
Here are some for our enjoyment:
These Koans are attributed to Joshu (A.D. 778-897), a famous Chinese Zen Master who lived in the province Joshu …
Every Day Is a Good Day Unmon said: “I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But what about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this!”
Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them: “Every day is a good day.”
The Short Staff
Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”
Returning to the Ordinary World
A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”
Manjusri Enters the Gate
One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?” Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”
Other Koans …
As the roof was leaking, a Zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.
What is the colour of wind?
What is your original face before you were born?
Stories & parables and Koan riddles of Zen Masters …
A MASTER who lived as a hermit on a mountain was asked by a monk,
“What is the Way?”
“What a fine mountain this is,” the master said in reply.
“I am not asking you about the mountain, but about the Way.”
“So long as you cannot go beyond the mountain, my son, you cannot
reach the Way,” replied the master.
THE STUDENT Tokusan used to come to the master Ryutan in the evenings to talk and to listen. One night it was very late before
he was finished asking questions.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” asked Ryutan.
Tokusan bowed, and lifted the screen to go out. “The hall is very
dark,” he said.
“Here, take this candle,” said Ryutan, lighting one for the
Tokusan reached out his hand, and took the candle.
Ryutan leaned forward, and blew it out.
SEKISO said: “A man sits on top of a hundred-foot pole. How can he
go farther up?”
A master answered: “He should reach for enlightenment. Then he can
stand up into all four corners of the sky at once.
BASO said to a monk, “If I see you have a staff, I will give it to
you. If I see you have no staff, I will take it away from you.
THE MASTER Ikkyu showed his wisdom even as a child. Once he broke the precious heirloom teacup of his teacher, and was greatly upset. While he was wondering what to do, he heard his teacher
coming. Quickly he hid the pieces of the cup under his robe.
“Master,” he said, “why do things die?”
“It is perfectly natural for things to die and for the matter gathered in them to separate and disintegrate,” said the teacher.
“When its time has come every person and every thing must go.
“Master,” said little Ikkyu, showing the pieces, “it was time for
your cup to go.
WAKUAN stood in front of a picture of Bodhidharma. In the picture
Bodhidharma was wearing a beard.
“Now why doesn’t that fellow wear a beard?” asked Wakuan.
ONE WINDY day two monks were arguing about a flapping banner.
The first said, “I say the banner is moving, not the wind.”
The second said, “I say the wind is moving, not the banner.’
A third monk passed by and said, “The wind is not moving. The
banner is not moving. Your minds are moving.”
The world of Koans is intriguing and worthy of further study. But remember to supplement that study with meditation morning and evening, to foster better understanding and capture the aim of Koan practice, Satori (Enlightenment).