What Is A Zen Koan? Learn How to Study Koans - Being Zen (2022)

What Is A Zen Koan?

A Koan is a short story or dialogue used in Zen practice. They were traditionally used by Zen teachers to test the “progress” of a student. In modern Zen, Koans are often used in conjunction with meditation practice and formal Sanzen or Dharma interviews. They are meant to focus the mind on the central questions of Zen by creating “great doubt”.

  • Who Am I?
  • What Is This?
  • What Is The One True Thing?

These questions are unanswerable. And that’s kind of the point.

Koan study, whether independently or with a teacher, is part of becoming comfortable with the unanswerable.

What Is A Zen Koan? Learn How to Study Koans - Being Zen (1)

Example Of A Zen Koan:

“Mu” is one of the most common Koans you might come across in Zen practice:

A monk once asked Jo Ju, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Jo Ju answered, “Mu!” (No)

That’s it. Does a dog have Buddha-nature? What does that even mean? Koans will often be accompanied by commentary. A teacher or Zen-master will provide their interpretation of the passage.

Zen Master Seung Shan of the Kwan Um School of Zen said the following about “Mu”:

1. Buddha said everything has Buddha-nature. Jo Ju said a dog has no Buddha-nature. Which one is correct?
2. Jo Ju said, “Mu!” What does this mean?
3. I ask you, does a dog have Buddha-nature?

From Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Twelve Gates.

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Analyzing a Koan

So what does the Koan mean?

There is really no right answer. Does a dog have Buddha nature? Yes and no are both correct and incorrect. Zen teachers often say that the point of a Koan is to feel the meaning in the essence of your being, rather than in your mind.

Some say the main takeaway of Mu is that silence is the nature of the Buddha. A dog barks, and thus does not have the nature of the Buddha.

That’s one possible interpretation.

(Video) Understanding Zen Koan Study and Practice

But rather than thinking and trying to solve the riddle, Koan study aims to make the student comfortable with not-knowing. “Don’t know mind” or “great doubt” is what some schools of Zen call the absence of thinking. Meditating brings us closer to “don’t know mind”. To the moment before thinking. Koan practice can also bring us closer to don’t know mind.

So rather than trying to solve the Koan, we try to understand that there is no answer. We try to feel the absence of an answer.

It’s kind of confusing, right?

I’ve always thought so.

But there’s something to it.

What Is A Zen Koan? Learn How to Study Koans - Being Zen (2)

Koan Interviews

If you ever get the chance to attend a Zen meditation retreat, you might have the opportunity to sit for a Koan interview. During a formal Koan interview, the teacher will present the student with a passage to contemplate. The teacher will then “asses” the student’s progress.

During my first formal interview, I was discussing a simple Koan with the teacher, when all of a sudden he slapped his leg, making a loud, startling sound.

“When I slapped my leg and we both heard that sound, neither one of us was thinking,” the teacher explained. “We were just hearing.”

“That is Zen” he went on. “The moment before thinking, when we are all one.”

That explanation resonated with me.

So Koan study can be a part of that moment before thinking. You can analyze as much as you want, but you’re never going to “solve” the puzzle. But when you feel the Koan in your being, you are coming closer to the moment before thinking.

The History Of Zen Koans

The term kōan is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word “gong’an”, which means, literally, “public case.” Early Kōans can be compared to case law and judicial precedent. Stories were passed down among generations and used to test a student’s understanding of principles.

Gong’ans first appeared during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), as Zen Masters recorded their stories and commented upon the tales of others. Once a passage had been formally commented upon by a Zen master, it officially became a Koan (or Gong’an). Early Koans were derived from East Asian “literary games”, breaking down longer works and dialogues into well-edited, succinct passages.

The use of Gong’ans experienced another shift during the Song dynasty (960-1297 AD). Zen Master Dahui Zonggao established the art of kan huatou, or inspecting the Koan. The Song era marked a shift towards introspective and silent meditation on a single phrase—or even a single word—from a Koan. This era also marked a shift away from formal teacher-student interviews and literal interpretation of texts. “Fundamental Zen”, as it would later come to be known was sometimes criticized by Confucianists and later sects as anti-intellectual, and many teachers would continue to stray away from strict, literal interpretations of Koans.

A few of the most well-known original Koan texts include:

(Video) Zen kōans: Unsolvable enigmas designed to break your brain - Puqun Li

  • The Gateless Gate by Wumen (1183-1260).
  • The Book of Equanimity by Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157).
  • The Blue Cliff Record by Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135).
  • Mana Shobogenzo by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)
What Is A Zen Koan? Learn How to Study Koans - Being Zen (3)

Koans In Modern Zen Practice

In contemporary Zen practice, introspective Koan practice is still predominant. Formal interviews and curriculum are still used in some teachings as well, but the precise function and importance placed on Koan study will vary from school to school. Most often, there will be a blend of introspective study and formal practice with a teacher.

Some schools—like the Boston School of Zen, for example—have a formal Koan curriculum. When practicing with the school, you study a sequence of Koans or spend time analyzing one particular writing (such as “Mu”).

Ultimately, studying Koans is a personal choice. Some find the practice to be a pathway to “Buddha mind”. Others find it tedious and confusing. But if nothing else, if you’re interested in Zen practice, it’s worth reading a few to understand what Koans are all about.

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More Examples Of Zen Koans

There are countless examples of Koans to study. It can be overwhelming to decide where to start! Below are some of our favorite Koan examples. Click on the link for the full text.

Dizang asked Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”

Xiushan said, “From the South.”

Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the South these days?”

Xiushan said, “There is extensive discussion””

Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?”

Xiushan said, “What can you do about the world?”

Dizang said, “What do you call the world?”

Book of Serenity

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

(Video) What is a Zen Koan?

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Shaseki-shu

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.

One said, “The flag moves.”

The other said, “The wind moves.”

They argued back and forth but could not agree.

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”

The two monks were struck with awe.

— Unknown

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”

Fayan said, “I am wandering aimlessly.”

“What do you think of wandering?”

“I don’t know.” “Not knowing is most intimate.”

Fayan was suddenly awakened.

The Book of Equanimity

(Video) How To Practice With A Koan | Everyday Zen

As Shakyamuni meditated beneath the bodhi tree, Mara pointed to the place where he sat and demanded, “Who witnesses your right to the seat of enlightenment?”

Shakyamuni reached a finger down to touch the ground. “I call the Earth as my witness,” he replied.

Green Koans

Kyogen said, “It (Zen) is like a man (monk) hanging by his teeth in a tree over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another man asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China from the West (India)?’ If the man in the tree does not answer, he misses the question, and if he answers, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?”

The Gateless Gate, Case 5

Chao Chou, teaching the assembly, said, “The Ultimate Path is without difficulty; just avoid picking and choosing.

As soon as there are words spoken, this is picking and choosing,”this is clarity.”

This old monk does not abide within clarity; do you still preserve anything or not?”

At that time a certain monk asked, since you do not abide within clarity, what do you preserve?

Chao Chou replied, don’t know either.”The monk said, “Since you don’t know, Teacher, why do you nevertheless say that you do not abide within clarity?”

Chao Chou said, It is enough to ask about the matter; bow and withdraw.”

The Blue Cliff Record

Attention! Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?” “I pilgrimage aimlessly,” replied Hogen. “What is the matter of your pilgrimage?” asked Jizo. “I don’t know,” replied Hogen. “Not knowing is the most intimate,” remarked Jizo. At that, Hogen experienced great enlightenment.

The Book of Equanimity, Case 20

A man came into the Zen Center smoking a cigarette, blowing smoke in the Buddha-statue’s face and dropping ashes on its lap. The abbot came in, saw the man, and said, “Are you crazy? Why are you dropping ashes on the Buddha?” The man answered, “Buddha is everything. Why not?” The abbot couldn’t answer and went away.

(Video) Alan Watts -- Zen Koans

Twelve Gates, Case 6

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FAQs

What is a Zen koan meaning? ›

koan, Japanese Kōan, in Zen Buddhism of Japan, a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices, particularly in the Rinzai sect.

What is an example of Zen koan? ›

When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping (1). Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth (2). Two monks are arguing about a flag.

How can I learn Zen koans? ›

To practise koans, find a quiet space - similar to the one you do your normal meditation in - and think about the question you're asking yourself, letting your mind wander but always trying to come back and focus on the specific koan. You can practice koans at any time and you can ponder them for as long as you'd like.

Do koans have answers? ›

It's all a hoax. Zen koans don't have answers. Only a naive person who believes everything he reads could ever think so.

How do you use koan in a sentence? ›

3. Brand published his chameleon koan in his Whole Earth Catalog, in 1974. 4. I think the final will guide my analysis of Martin Heidegger's "koan."

What is a koan designed to do quizlet? ›

- A koan is a verbal puzzle designed to short circuit the workings of the rational, logical mind. - It is used especially in Rinzai Zen as a means of triggering satori. Koan is designed to frustrate the thinking process.

How can I practice Zen? ›

12 Zen Practices To Incorporate Into Your Work Day
  1. Wake up 30 minutes earlier. Start your day off on the right foot by waking up 30 minutes earlier than usual. ...
  2. Open the window. ...
  3. Micro-clean. ...
  4. Practice mindful eating. ...
  5. Complete daunting tasks first. ...
  6. Mono-task. ...
  7. Take full breaks. ...
  8. Eat a light lunch.
4 Jun 2020

What is your original face Zen koan? ›

The original face is a term in Zen Buddhism, pointing to the nonduality of subject and object.

Is Zen religious? ›

Zen is not a philosophy or a religion. Zen tries to free the mind from the slavery of words and the constriction of logic. Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. Zen is meditation.

How do you pronounce Zen koan? ›

How to Pronounce Koan (Real Life Examples!) - YouTube

Who invented koan? ›

We do know that the Chinese teacher Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) made koan study a central part of Lin-chi (or Rinzai) Zen practice. Master Dahui and later Master Hakuin were the primary architects of the practice of koans that western Rinzai students encounter today.

What do Zen monks do? ›

Zen monks have rituals for many things they do, from eating to cleaning to meditation. Ritual gives something a sense of importance — if it's important enough to have a ritual, it's important enough to be given your entire attention, and to be done slowly and correctly.

What is the sound of one hand clapping mean? ›

The sound of one hand clapping is a koan. Zen Buddhist masters use these paradoxical stories or questions to force their pupils to slough reason in favor of sudden enlightenment. Koans are designed to be nonsensical‚ shocking‚ or humorous.

What technique for meditation in Buddhism that uses koans? ›

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. The goal of the practice is often termed kensho (seeing one's true nature).

How do you spell koan? ›

How To Say Koan - YouTube

Is koan a Scrabble word? ›

KOAN is a valid scrabble word.

What does the term satori mean? ›

Satori, Chinese Wu, in Zen Buddhism of Japan, the inner, intuitive experience of Enlightenment; Satori is said to be unexplainable, indescribable, and unintelligible by reason and logic.

What are the 3 characteristics of Zen? ›

Briefly describe these three characteristics of Zen: it is experiential, it is beyond words, and it is beyond logical thinking. The characteristic "it is experiential" emphasizes experiencing enlightenment the rejection of reality.

What are the 3 kinds of Zen art? ›

Painting, calligraphy, and the tea ceremony all served can be forms of meditation, and can serve as objects of meditation after they are done. A phrase such as “ordinary mind is the Way,” a lotus pond, or the peak of Mt.

What makes Zen unique? ›

Zen emphasizes rigorous self-restraint, meditation-practice and the subsequent insight into nature of mind (見性, Ch. jiànxìng, Jp. kensho, "perceiving the true nature") and nature of things (without arrogance or egotism), and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.

What is the symbol for Zen? ›

The classic symbol for Zen is the enso. It is known as the circle of enlightenment. There are two common symbol for zen enso's. One is a brushstroke of a closed circle.

What is the Zen motto? ›

The four Zen mottos, “special transmission outside doctrine,” “not to establish language,” “direct point to the mind,” and “seeing into one's nature and attaining the Buddhahood,” address the fundamental questions about language in its role of the expression and transmission of the spirituality.

What does Zen say about love? ›

Mutual enjoyment means happiness is multiplied

This also involves the ability to listen and be open to what the other person thinks, says, and does. According to Zen Buddhism, mutual enjoyment isn't just a quality of love, but also an unequivocal sign of its presence. Without mutual enjoyment, there's no love.

What's another word for Zen? ›

What is another word for Zen?
meditationcontemplation
introspectionreflection

How do I start living a Zen life? ›

The 7 Steps To Living A Zen Lifestyle
  1. Rise Early. Now, we are well aware that this is one of those tips that's way easier said than done. ...
  2. Exercise. We all know that exercise is important and that we could be doing more of it. ...
  3. Declutter. ...
  4. Take a Breather. ...
  5. Meditate. ...
  6. Treat Yourself. ...
  7. Don't Neglect Shut-Eye.
16 Oct 2018

How do I find my Zen? ›

Here are nine ways you can learn how to find your Zen.
  1. Admit How You Feel. ...
  2. Take a Deep Breath. ...
  3. Ask for Help. ...
  4. Unplug from Your Gadgets and Avoid Numbing Out. ...
  5. Do Something that Nourishes You. ...
  6. Embrace a Slight Shift Toward Positivity. ...
  7. Ask Yourself What Bravery and Positive Action Would Look Like in This Situation.
15 Dec 2019

What is a Zen face? ›

A treatment using a grounding blend of essential oils to relieve tension and stress in face and scalp while lifting tissue and draining lymph.

What is your original face before you were born Meaning? ›

There is a Zen koan that says: “Show me your original face before you were born.” A variation is: “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.” This koan asks us to stretch towards our real and authentic self — the self we are/were before we were born.

Is the mother Buddha real? ›

Queen Māyā of Shakya (Sanskrit: मायादेवी, Pali: Māyādevī) was the birth mother of Gautama Buddha, the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
...
Maya (mother of the Buddha)
Maya
DiedKapilavastu, Shakya Kingdom
Other namesMahamaya
SpouseŚuddhodana
ChildrenSiddhartha Gautama Buddha
7 more rows

Does Zen believe God? ›

It is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, no future abode to which the dead are destined, and, last of all, Zen has no soul whose welfare is to be looked after by somebody else and whose immortality is a matter of intense ...

What is a Zen master called? ›

"Sensei" (simply "teacher") is often applied in addressing the Zen teacher or "master". "Oshō", "virtuous monk/priest" is used for trainees who have acquired a basic level of priesthood.

Do Zen monks marry? ›

In fact, the great majority are married—at a whopping 90 per cent, the share is significantly higher than for the population in general. It is common practice in the Zen tradition for new clerics to spend time in training monasteries, where they temporarily live according to monastic rules and regulations.

Is a koan a poem? ›

Koans are not poetry as a rule, and do not aspire to being poetry, but are some type of simple teaching story that is a little bit like a riddle. If bright people could read koans and then simply “get it,” they wouldn't be koans.

What is koan study? ›

A kōan (公案) (/ˈkoʊæn, -ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn, [kʊ́ŋ ân]; Korean: 화두, hwadu; Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and to practice or test a student's progress in Zen.

What is your Buddha nature? ›

The founder of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, Dōgen Zenji, held that buddha-nature (busshō 仏性) was simply the true nature of reality and Being. This true nature was just impermanence, becoming and 'vast emptiness'.

What are the 4 Zen principles? ›

Some main principles of Zen philosophy are the denial of the ego, the focus on interconnectedness in the universe, the recognition of attachment as a source of suffering, and the realization that human perception is faulty.

What is a Zen state of mind? ›

2 or zen : a state of calm attentiveness in which one's actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort Perhaps that is the zen of gardening—you become one with the plants, lost in the rhythm of the tasks at hand.— Irene Virag. Zen.

What is a Zen life? ›

Zen is a term that describes a feeling of peace, oneness, and enlightenment. It also describes a type of Buddhism in which meditation is used to stay present and non-judgmental. Zen is practiced diligently over a lifetime.

Has the clap meaning? ›

“The clap” is a slang term for gonorrhea. People also call gonorrhea, “the drip.” These words can stigmatize and shame someone for having an STD. Gonorrhea is very common and treatable. It's spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

What is the sound of one hand clapping Youtube? ›

The Sound of One Hand Clapping - YouTube

What is Zen good for? ›

As with other forms of Buddhist meditation, Zen practice can benefit people in myriad ways, including providing tools to help cope with depression and anxiety issues. The deepest purpose is spiritual, as the practice of Zen meditation uncovers the innate clarity and workability of the mind.

Why do monks meditate all day? ›

In many Buddhist circles, monks learn to do things not for themselves, but for the whole world. When they meditate, it's for the sake of everyone. They attempt to attain enlightenment to reach their full potential and help those in need.

Where does Zen come from? ›

Zen traces its origins to India, but it was formalized in China. Chan, as it is known in China, was transmitted to Japan and took root there in the thirteenth century.

What is the sound of one hand clapping mean? ›

The sound of one hand clapping is a koan. Zen Buddhist masters use these paradoxical stories or questions to force their pupils to slough reason in favor of sudden enlightenment. Koans are designed to be nonsensical‚ shocking‚ or humorous.

What is your original face Zen koan? ›

The original face is a term in Zen Buddhism, pointing to the nonduality of subject and object.

Is a koan a poem? ›

Koans are not poetry as a rule, and do not aspire to being poetry, but are some type of simple teaching story that is a little bit like a riddle. If bright people could read koans and then simply “get it,” they wouldn't be koans.

What is this Korean Zen? ›

1. A school of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion and that is practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Also called Zen Buddhism.

Has the clap meaning? ›

“The clap” is a slang term for gonorrhea. People also call gonorrhea, “the drip.” These words can stigmatize and shame someone for having an STD. Gonorrhea is very common and treatable. It's spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

What is the sound of one hand clapping Youtube? ›

The Sound of One Hand Clapping - YouTube

What is a Zen face? ›

A treatment using a grounding blend of essential oils to relieve tension and stress in face and scalp while lifting tissue and draining lymph.

What is your original face before you were born Meaning? ›

There is a Zen koan that says: “Show me your original face before you were born.” A variation is: “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.” This koan asks us to stretch towards our real and authentic self — the self we are/were before we were born.

Is the mother Buddha real? ›

Queen Māyā of Shakya (Sanskrit: मायादेवी, Pali: Māyādevī) was the birth mother of Gautama Buddha, the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
...
Maya (mother of the Buddha)
Maya
DiedKapilavastu, Shakya Kingdom
Other namesMahamaya
SpouseŚuddhodana
ChildrenSiddhartha Gautama Buddha
7 more rows

Is Zen religious? ›

Zen is not a philosophy or a religion. Zen tries to free the mind from the slavery of words and the constriction of logic. Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. Zen is meditation.

What is your Buddha nature? ›

The founder of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, Dōgen Zenji, held that buddha-nature (busshō 仏性) was simply the true nature of reality and Being. This true nature was just impermanence, becoming and 'vast emptiness'.

How do you spell koan? ›

How To Say Koan - YouTube

Is Sun a Korean first name? ›

The name Sun is primarily a gender-neutral name of Korean origin that means Goodness.

How did Sayuri have baby? ›

An unmarried woman who chose to be a single mother, Sayuri gave birth to her son, Zen, through artificial insemination. Her day and night struggle has been broadcast on KBS every Sunday since early May on the popular child-rearing reality show "The Return of Superman."

Where is Zen Buddhism most practiced? ›

In modern Buddhist practice in Japan, Taiwan, and the West, lay students often attend these intensive practice sessions or retreats. These are held at many Zen centers or temples.

Videos

1. EMPTY ZEN: Koans for Enlightenment
(neuralsurfer)
2. What Is the Purpose Of Koans In Zen?
(Jason Quinn Zen)
3. 101 Zen Stories: Compilation of Zen Koans
(AudioBuddha)
4. Za-zen and the Koan by Alan Watts
(AudioBuddha)
5. What is Zen? How to read and reflect on Zen Koans? || Acharya Prashant (2018)
(Acharya Prashant)
6. What Is the Most Important Koan?
(Jason Quinn Zen)

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