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A kōan (pronounced /ˈkoʊ.ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案pinyin: gōng-àn; Korean: gong'an; Vietnamese: công án) is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition. One widely known kōan is "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" (oral tradition attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769, considered a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan).


In summary

Kōans originate in the sayings and events in the lives of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century) as its ancestor. Kōans reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons, and sometimes confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.[citation needed] Zen teachers often recite and comment on kōans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their kōan practice using "checking questions" to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, "capping phrases" (jakugo), and verses inspired by the kōan.

As part of the training of teachers, monks, and students, kōan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records. They may consist of a perplexing element or a concise but critical word or phrase (話頭 huà-tóu) extracted from the story. It may also refer to poetry and commentary added to the story by later Zen teachers.

English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use kōan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Even so, a kōan is not a riddle or a puzzle.[1] Appropriate responses to a kōan vary, as different teachers may demand different responses to a given kōan, and answers may vary by circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple's answer is: "Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good." The master is looking not for an answer in a specific form, but for evidence that the disciple has grasped the state of mind expressed by the kōan itself.

Thus, though there may be "traditional answers" (kenjō 見処 or kenge 見解) to many kōans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers given in the past by various masters during their own training. In practice, any answer could be correct, provided that it conveys proof of personal realization. Kōan training can only be done with a qualified teacher who has the "eye" to see a disciple's depth of attainment. In the Rinzai Zen school, which uses kōans extensively, the teacher certification process includes an appraisal of proficiency in using that school's extensive kōan curriculum. In Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch'an, Korean Son, and Vietnamese Thien, and Western Zen, kōans play similar roles, although significant cultural differences exist.


  • A student asked Master Yun-Men (949 C.E.) "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?" Master replied, "Mount Sumeru!"
  • A monk asked Zhàozhōu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" Zhaozhou said, "."
    • ("Zhaozhou" is rendered as "Chao-chou" in Wade-Giles, and pronounced "Joshu" in Japanese. "Wu" appears as "mu" in archaic Japanese, meaning "no", "not", "nonbeing", or "without" in English. This is a fragment of Case #1 of the Wúménguān. However, note that a similar kōan records that, on another occasion, Zhaozhou said "yes" in response: Case #18 of the Book of Serenity. Essentially this koan is a reference to that which has no name, but lip-service is pointless here, thus the Zen emphasis on practice. At the same time do not construe of Mu as meaning, "no," as advised in The Three Pillars of Zen)
  • Huìnéng asked Hui Ming, "Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born."
    • (This is a fragment of case #23 of the Wumenguan.)
  • A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, "What is Buddha?" Dongshan said, "Three pounds of flax."
    • (This is a fragment of case #18 of the Wumenguan as well as case #12 of the Blue Cliff Record.)
  • A monk asked Zhaozhou, "What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher's (i.e., Bodhidharma's) coming from the west?" Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in front of the hall."
    • (This is a fragment of case #37 of the Wumenguan as well as case #47 of the Book of Serenity.)

Roles of the kōan in Zen practice

Kōans collectively form a substantial body of literature studied by Zen practitioners and scholars worldwide. Kōan collections commonly referenced in English include the Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku), the Book of Equanimity (also known as the Book of Serenity; Chinese: Cōngróng Lù; Japanese: Shoyoroku), both collected in their present forms during the 12th century); and The Gateless Gate (also known as The Gateless Barrier; Chinese: Wúménguān; Japanese: Mumonkan) collected during the 13th century). In these and subsequent collections, a terse "main case" of a kōan often accompanies prefatory remarks, commentary, poems, proverbs and other phrases, and further commentary about prior emendations.

Kōan literature typically derives from older texts and traditions, including texts that record the sayings and actions of sages; from Transmission of the Lamp records, which document the monastic tradition of certifying teachers; and from folklore and cultural reference points common among medieval Chinese. According to McGill professor Victor Hori, a native English speaker who has experienced extensive kōan training in Japanese monasteries, kōan literature was also influenced by the pre-Zen Chinese tradition of the "literary game" — a competition involving improvised poetry.[2] Over centuries, contemporary collections continued to inspire commentary, and current kōan collections contain modern commentaries. New kōans on occasion are proposed and collected — sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest.

A kōan or part of a kōan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation and other activities, often called "kōan practice" (as distinct from "kōan study", the study of kōan literature). Generally, a qualified teacher provides instruction in kōan practice to qualified students in private. In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 ("Zhaozhou's Dog"), Wumen (Mumon) wrote "...concentrate yourself into this 'Wú'...making your whole body one great inquiry. Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations."[3] Arousing this great inquiry, or "Great Doubt" is an essential element of kōan practice. In an attempt to illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen further commented: "It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't."

A kōan may be used as a test of a Zen student's ability. For monks in formal training, and for some laypersons, a teacher invokes a kōan and demands some definite response from a student during private interviews. Kōans are presented by teachers to students and other members of the community, and are often presented with the teacher's unique commentary. A kōan may seem to be the subject of a talk or private interview with a student. However, a kōan is said to supersede subject-object duality and thus cannot necessarily be said to be the "subject" of such encounters. The dialog, lecture, or sermon may more resemble performance, ritual duty, or poetry reading.

Etymology and the evolving meaning of kōan

Kōan is a Japanese rendering of the Chinese term (公案), transliterated kung-an (Wade-Giles) or gōng'àn (Pinyin). Chung Feng Ming Pen (中峰明本 1263-1323) wrote that kung-an is an abbreviation for kung-fu an-tu (公府之案牘, Pinyin gōngfǔ zhī àndú, pronounced in Japanese as ko-fu no an-toku), which referred to a "public record" or the "case records of a public law court"[4] in Tang-dynasty China. Kōan/kung-an thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality that go beyond the private opinion of one person, and a teacher may test the student's ability to recognize and understand that principle. Moreover, commentaries in kōan collections bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents. An article by T. Griffith Foulk claims "...Its literal meaning is the 'table' or 'bench' an of a 'magistrate' or 'judge' kung..."[4] Apparently, kung-an was itself originally a metaphor — an article of furniture that came to denote legal precedents.

A well-known example of this legal usage is The Cases of Judge Dee (狄公安 Di Gongan in Chinese) a Ming dynasty novel based on a real Tang dynasty judge. In the same way, Zen kōan collections are public records of the notable sayings and actions of Zen disciples and masters attempting to pass on the teaching, whether successfully or not.

Before the tradition of meditating on kōans was recorded, Huangbo Xiyun (720-814) and Yun Men (864-949) are both recorded to have uttered the line "Yours is a clear-cut case (chien-cheng kung-an) but I spare you thirty blows", seeming to pass judgement over students' feeble expressions of enlightenment. Xuedou Zhongxian (雪竇重顯 980-1052) — the original compiler of the 100 cases that later served as the basis for the Blue Cliff Record — used the term kung-an just once in that collection (according to Foulk[4]) in Case #64.

Yuanwu (圜悟克勤 1063-1135), compiler of the Blue Cliff Record (碧巌録) in its present form, "gained some insight" by contemplating (kan) kōans.[5] Yuanwu may have been instructed to contemplate phrases by his teachers Chen-ju Mu-che (dates unknown) and Wu-tzu Fa-yen (五祖法演 ?-1104). Thus, by the Sung Dynasty, the term kung-an had apparently taken on roughly its present meaning from the legal jargon.

Subsequent interpreters have influenced the way the term kōan is used. Dōgen Zenji wrote of Genjokōan, which points out that everyday life experiences is the fundamental kōan. Hakuin Ekaku recommended preparing for kōan practice by concentrating on qi breathing and its effect on the body's center of gravity, called the dantian or "hara" in Japanese — thereby associating kōan practice with pre-existing Taoist and Yogic chakra meditative practices.[citation needed]

The role of kōans in the Soto, Rinzai, and other sects

Kōan practice — concentrating on kōans during meditation and other activities — is particularly important among Japanese practitioners of the Rinzai sect of Zen. However, study of kōan literature is common to both Soto and Rinzai Zen. However, while only few Soto practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation, many Soto practitioners are very familiar with kōans.

The Soto sect has indeed a strong historical connection with kōans, and many kōan collections were compiled by Soto priests. During the 13th century, Dōgen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, compiled some 300 kōans in the volumes known as the Greater Shōbōgenzō. Other kōans collections compiled and annotated by Soto priests include The Iron Flute (Japanese: Tetteki Tosui, compiled by Genro in 1783) and Verses and Commentaries on One Hundred Old Cases of Tenchian (Japanese: Tenchian hyakusoku hyoju, compiled by Tetsumon in 1771.) However, according to Michael Mohr, "...kōan practice was largely expunged from the Soto school through the efforts of Gento Sokuchu (1729-1807), the eleventh abbot of Entsuji, who in 1795 was nominated abbot of Eiheiji".[6]

Many members of Japan's Sanbo Kyodan sect, and of various schools derived from that sect in North America, Europe, and Australia, use kōans in their meditative practice. Sanbo Kyodan was established in the 20th century, and has roots in both the Soto and Rinzai traditions.

Interpretation of kōans

The purpose of kōans for a Zen practitioner is to become aware of the difference between themselves, their mind, and their beliefs that influence how they see the world as an aspect of realizing their true nature.[citation needed] Paradoxes tend to arouse the mind for an extended duration as the mind goes round and around trying to resolve the paradox or kōan to an "answer". This is a lot like a dog chasing its tail and, while it's chasing, the mind makes itself more visible. Once a Zen practitioner becomes aware of their mind as an independent form, the kōan makes sense and the teaching point is realized.[citation needed]

Zen teachers and practitioners insist that the meaning of a kōan can only be demonstrated in a live experience. Texts (including kōan collections and encyclopedia articles) cannot convey that meaning. Yet the Zen tradition has produced a large amount of literature, including thousands of kōans and at least dozens of volumes of commentary. Nevertheless, teachers have long alerted students to the danger of confusing the interpretation of a kōan with the realization of a kōan. When teachers say "do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon", they indicate that awakening is the realization of your True nature — not ability to interpret a kōan with the mind.

Many traditions have students solve kōans in a series. As a kōan is resolved, another kōan is presented to the student. The kōans perhaps cause the student to shift their perspective in different ways creating what might be viewed as expansion.

Even so, kōans emerge from a literary context, and understanding that context can often remove some — but presumably not all — of the mystery surrounding a kōan. For example, evidence[7] suggests that when a monk asked Zhaozhou "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?", the monk was asking a question that students had asked teachers for generations. The controversy over whether or not all beings have the potential for enlightenment is even older[8] — and, in fact, vigorous controversy[9] still surrounds the matter of Buddha nature.

No amount of interpretation seems to be able to exhaust a kōan, so it's unlikely that there can be a "definitive" interpretation. Teachers typically warn against over-intellectualizing kōans, but the mysteries of kōans compel some students to place them in their original context — for example, by clarifying metaphors that were likely well-known to monks at the time the kōans originally circulated.

Classical Kōan collections


The Blue Cliff Record

The Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: 碧巖錄 Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku) is a collection of 100 kōans compiled in 1125 by Yuanwu Keqin (圜悟克勤 1063 – 1135).

The Book of Equanimity

The Book of Equanimity or Book of Serenity (Chinese: 從容録; Japanese: 従容録 Shōyōroku) is a collection of 100 Kōans compiled in the 12th century by Hongzhi Zhengjue (Chinese: 宏智正覺; Japanese: Wanshi Zenji) (1091 – 1157).

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (Chinese: 無門關 Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan) is a collection of 48 kōans and commentaries published in 1228 by Chinese monk Wumen (無門) (1183-1260). The title may be more accurately rendered as Gateless Barrier or Gateless Checkpoint).

Five kōans in the collection derive from the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou Congshen, (transliterated as Chao-chou in Wade-Giles and pronounced Jōshū in Japanese).

The True Dharma Eye

The True Dharma Eye 300 (Shōbōgenzō Sanbyakusoku) is a collection of 300 kōan-s compiled by Eihei Dōgen.

Other traditional kōans

Killing the Buddha

If you meet the Buddha, kill him.
If you are thinking about Buddha, this is thinking and delusion, not awakening. One must destroy preconceptions of the Buddha. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind during an introduction to Zazen, "Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature."

The sound of one hand

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
Hakuin Ekaku
" the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan...When one realizes ("makes real") this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand." — G. Victor Sogen Hori, Translating the Zen Phrase Book[10]

See also


  1. ^ See Ruth Fuller Sasaki's introduction on page xi of The Zen Kōan, Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Harvest/HBJ, 1965; see also Steve Hagen's introduction on page vii of the 2000 edition of The Iron Flute (subtitle) 100 Zen Kōans, translated into English by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Stout McCandless, originally Tetteki Tosui, Genro, 1783; see also pp xiii, 26, and 212 of The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan), Robert Aitken, North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1991, incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228); see also p64 of Two Arrows Meeting in Mid Air (subtitle) The Zen Kōan, John Daido Loori, Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont/Tokyo, 1994.
  2. ^ See chapter 4 of Zen Sand (subtitle) The Book of Capping Phrases for Kōan Practice, Victor Sogen Hori, 2003, University of Hawai'i Press.pdf of Introduction
  3. ^ The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) Zen comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkei Shibayama (1894-1974), Translated from Chinese and Japanese into English by Sumiko Kudo, Shambhala Publications, 1974; incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228).
  4. ^ a b c See The Zen Kōan (see note [1]) p4-6, and also "The form and function of kōan literature" (subtitle) "A historical overview", T. Griffith Foulk, in The Kōan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p21-22. Assertions that the literal meaning of kung-an is the table, desk, or bench of a magistrate appear on page 18 of the article by Foulk, and also in Seeing Through Zen, (subtitle) Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, John R. MacRae, 2003, University of California Press, p172-173 note 16.
  5. ^ See Zen Letters (subtitle) Teachings of Yuanwu, Yuanwu Kequin (1063-1135), translated into English by J. C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary, 1994, Shambhala Publications, p16, and "Before the empty eon versus A dog has no Buddha-nature" (subtitle) "Kung-an use in the Ts'ao-tung tradition and Ta-hui's Kung-an introspction Ch'an", Morten Schlutter, in The Kōan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p185-186.
  6. ^ "Emerging from Nonduality" (subtitle) "Kōan Practice in the Rinzai tradition since Hakuin", Michael Mohr, in The Kōan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p245.
  7. ^ See the commentary on case #1 in The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkei Shibayama, translated to English by Sumiko Kudo, 1974, Shambhala Publications.
  8. ^ See "Tao-sheng's Theory of Sudden Enlightenment", Whalen Lai, in Sudden and Gradual (subtitle) Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, p173 and 191. The latter page documents how in 429 or thereabouts (more than 400 years before Zhaozhou), Tao-sheng was expelled from the Buddhist monastic community for defending the idea that incorrigible persons (icchantika) do indeed have Buddha-nature (fo-hsing).
  9. ^ Pruning the Bodhi Tree (subtitle) The Storm over Critical Buddhism Jamie Hubbard and Paul L. Swanson, eds, 1997, University of Hawaii Press; for example see Chapter 1, "Why They Say Zen Is Not Buddhism" (subtitle) "Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature", Paul L. Swanson.
  10. ^ Translating the Zen Phrase Book, G. Victor Sogen Hori, Nanzan Bulletin 23, 1999, p44-58. [1]

Dates are as per Zen's Chinese Heritage, subtitled The masters and their teachings by Andy Ferguson, published in 2000 by Wisdom Publications.

Further reading

  • Loori, John Daido. Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Koan Study. Wisdom Publications, 2005. ISBN 978-0861713691
  • Hoffmann, The Sound of the One Hand. Basic Books, 1975. ISBN 9780465080793 This book contains examples of how some Zen practitioners answer the koans "correctly". Originally published in Japan almost a century ago as a critique of fossilization of Zen, that is formalization of koan practice.
  • Kirchner, Thomas Yuho, and Ueda Shizuteru 上田閑照. Entangling Vines : Zen Koans of the Shumon Kattoshu 宗門葛藤集. Saga Tenryuji (Japan): Tenryu-ji Institute for Philosophy and Religion, 2004.

External links


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