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What is a Zen kōan?


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Q. What is a Zen kōan?

 A. The word kōan is a Japanese rendering of a Chinese term which serves as a metaphor for unique principles of reality that transcend the private opinion of any one person or group. In practice a kōan, which is deeply rooted in Zen philosophy and is a core element of the Wisdom Path is dialogue, questions, or statements, the meaning of which cannot be understood by logic or rational thinking, but which may be accessible through intuition or lateral thinking. A kōan may be no more than a seemingly meaningless thought you can use to solve problems or access wisdom. It does so through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious to the logical mind and is unlikely to be obtained through the use of traditional inductive or deductive thinking.  In essence, kōans may consist of various perplexing element(s), including contradiction, paradox, and ambiguity. Some contain a concise but critical word or phrase derived from a particular story that is designed to disrupt logical thought.

A kōan is not to be answered but rather to be contemplated upon.  Kōans may possess an evolving meaning for which there is seldom an appropriate response. It can’t be understood through reason, common sense or the intellect; it is not a riddle or a puzzle with the right answer.

Appropriate responses to a kōan will vary- different teachers may demand different responses to a given kōan, and the answers may vary by circumstance.  With kōan practice, you cut through mental concepts and logical thinking.  In this way, a shift in perception brings you from ordinary thought to pure awareness.  Kōans often seem paradoxical, but can also show you the assumptions and paradoxes that have come into existence in your way of thinking.

The purpose behind contemplation on kōans is to witness your own mind and transcend your usual sense of subject and object, perceiver and perceived.  Long ago Zen kōans were generally handed down verbally from master to student. Over centuries This practice ultimately created a rich oral tradition. As in Zen, reducing unnecessary struggle on the Wisdom path is best achieved by seeking the guidance of a qualified teacher. Such a wise teacher can provide instruction and guidance in all aspects of your Practice particularly your kōan practice.  If you wish to explore kōan based thinking you can begin the classic way by exploring some of the many books containing kōans.  They bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents but there is no one definitive kōan collection. A kōan collection is a public record of the notable sayings and actions of disciples and masters passing on their teachings to others.

Over the centuries numerous interpreters have influenced the way the term kōan is used.  One of the core places to contemplate kōans is during meditation. Here kōans may assist us to become aware of the distinction between ourself, our mind, and our beliefs. By doing so we can influence how we view the world. Ultimately kōans can help us realize our true nature.  Kōans are where the spiritual, the mystical and quantum thinking become one.  To think and view kōans as an anti-intellectual stream of thought in esoteric  Eastern Mysticism is a mistake.  To engage a kōan is to also explore fuzzy logic, quantum through and the type of non-linear mathematics that explores discoveries based on ambiguity, contradiction and paradox.

Once you are aware of your mind as an independent form, the kōan may make sense to you and the core teaching point will be realized. This is why the “Pure Moment”- where one becomes “One” with a kōan is often called “Realization”. Some respected masters have repeatedly pointed out that the paradox of everyday life experience is the most fundamental of all kōans. If you wish to explore classic Zen kōan and stories in greater depth there are many compilations available. Life really is a paradox and once you understand the rationale of this the journey becomes that much easier.

Classic Kōans

The most famous compilations of kōan are the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Equanimity, The Gateless Gate and the Collection of Stone and Sand.  One of my teachers used to update some of these kōans for 20th-century consumption.  Here are a few I cherish:

  • A student approached a spiritual Master: “What can you tell me about the Tibetan Book of the Dead?” the student asked. The Master replied instantly, “My dead grandmother also has no teeth.”
  • Two monks were arguing about a flag.  One said: ‘The flag is moving.’ The other said: ‘The wind is moving.’ A Master was passing by. He told them: ‘Not the wind, not the flag; the mind is moving.’
  • A mathematician interested in the Wisdom Path approached a respected master and asked, “Can you tell me the formula for the volume of a cylinder?” The Master replied, “Pour me a cup of tea.”
  • A student asked, “How does an enlightened person re-enter the ordinary world after living a monastic life?”The teacher replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”
  • The Zen Master Tanzan wrote sixty postal cards on the last day of his life and asked an attendant to mail them.  Then he passed away.  The cards read: “I am departing from this world today. This is my last announcement. Tanzan 27 July 1892.”
  • A student asked a master “What does one do before enlightenment?” The master answered, “Chop wood, carry water.” The student then asked, “What does one do after enlightenment.” The master answered, “Chop wood, carry water.”



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