What is Zen Koan?
Updated: Mar 14
A koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Koans are “surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.”
There’s a tradition of koan study to transform your heart and the way you move in the world. Koans don’t really explain things. Instead, they show you something by opening a gate.
Usually if we want to understand something we take it up to the top floor and find a shelf with a label for it. If we do that with meditation, we are still outside of our own lives. Instead, you can let the koan into your heart and your body. Let it change you.
The most important thing is not to judge, criticize, assess, or find fault with anything that arises in your mind. This includes how you are doing with the koan. If you can’t help it and you do judge, criticize, assess, and find fault with yourself, don’t criticize that. Then the compassion has somewhere to come in.
Koans are not about finding an answer, but to see for ourselves that our intellections can never provide us with a completely satisfying answer. Even if you think that you found an answer, replying with an answer is not the goal. It is up to the teacher to decide when the student has properly understood the koan. The revelation might come in the form of a smile or a look in their eye, or simply by observing their posture as they wrestle and eventually surrender to the sentence.
Examples of Zen Koans:
If you practice sitting as Buddha, you must kill Buddha.
When asked why he practiced zen, the student said, “Because I intend to become a Buddha.”
His teacher picked up a brick and started polishing it. The student asked “What are you doing?” The teacher replied, “I am trying to make a mirror.”
“How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
“How can you become Buddha by doing zazen? If you understand sitting Zen, you will know that Zen is not about sitting or lying down. If you want to learn sitting Buddha, know that sitting Buddha is without any fixed form. Do not use discrimination in the non-abiding dharma. If you practice sitting as Buddha, you must kill Buddha. If you are attached to the sitting form, you are not yet mastering the essential principle.”
The student heard this admonition and felt as if he had tasted sweet nectar. — Dōgen Zenji
Wash you bowls.
Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.
Is That So?
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbours as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parent went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbours and everything else he needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?
Right & Wrong
When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case.
Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again bankei disregarded the matter. this angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise they woudl leave in a body.
When bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. "You are wise brothers," he told them. "You know what is right and what is not right. You may somewhere else to study if ou wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave."
A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him.
Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge.
The tiger sniffed at him from above.
Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine.
The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
These koans, or parables, were translated into English from a book called the Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand), written late in the thirteenth century by the Japanese Zen teacher Muju (the "non-dweller"), and from anecdotes of Zen monks taken from various books published in Japan around the turn of the 20th century.