In the Buddhist tradition, Zen employs koans to rattle the cage of the mind in meditation. Koans come in the form of a question, story, dialogue or an event in history. Koans developed in the 13th century in Chinese monasteries, then Japan and Korea. They continue to be explored. Numbers of koans are numberless.
The koan blows holes in the rational thought to get access to a deeper truth, liberating, insightful and sometimes enlightening.
Intellectual analysis through extensive thinking often leads the thinker in circles. The koan can confound all the conventional agreements about what is and what isn’t.
The application befuddles the everyday mind with meditation enabling the penny to drop and the door open wide.
Koans can trigger healthy doubts in the mind. The Buddhist tradition says: A small doubt leads to a small awakening. A medium-sized doubt leads to a medium-sized awakening. A big doubt leads to a big awakening.
I met with Da Soen Sa Nim (1927-2004), a Korean Zen master, resident in his monastery in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. in the 1990s. We sat in front of each other and exchanged a few words. Then he picked up his watch and said “What is this? if you say it’s a watch, you’ve got an ordinary mind. if you say it’s not a watch, you are stupid What is it?
I said, “It’s ten past four.” He bowed. I bowed.
Then he said to me, “If you see a dog and your think that is what it is, you have an ordinary mind. if you say it’s not a dog you are stupid. What is it?
I said “Woof. Woof.” He bowed. I bowed.
The Zen Master employs the koan to touch something deep within, an original response from original mind, from emptiness.
17 Koans to Meditate on for Kensho (insight) and Waking Up
I have included my to-the-point response – italics. If you make something or nothing of the response, you make a koan out of the response.
1. A Monk: What is a Buddha?
The Master: A dry piece of shit.
This means no more than that
That means no more than this
2. A Monk: What is the place where all Buddhas attain complete liberation
The Master: East Mountain walks on the water.
The mind falls upon a place
The place falls upon a mind
The collision hides/reveals the reality.
3. The Master: Be careful to avoid misusing the mind.
It is misusing the mind to attain Buddhahood and become a Buddha.
It is misusing the mind to study the sutras and expound the teachings
It is misusing the mind to walk to stand to sit to lie down.
To eat rice this is misusing the mind or shit and piss.
It is misusing the mind to move, to be still,
To go, to come – this is misusing the mind.
There’s one more misuse of the mind.
I’m not going to explain it to you because once a word enters nine oxen cannot pull it out.
Use of the mind confirms misuse of the mind.
Misuse of the mind confirms use of the mind.
Nothing to add. Nothing more to enter.
Why? Nine oxen.
4. A Monk: Which way is the road Yangquan?
The Master: I bought this sickle for 30 coins.
A Monk: I didn’t ask you about the sickle. Which way is the road to Yangquan?
The Master: I can really use this. It is so sharp.
To go in any direction take you away.
The sickle is sharp to cut off the way
5. Twenty monks were practicing meditation. Several monks fell in love with a beautiful nun, named Eshun. Her head was shaved, and she wore robes. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.
Eshun did not reply. The following day the Master gave a Dharma talk to the Sangha of monks and nuns.
Eshun arose to address the one who had written to her: If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.
Fearless Eshun exposed the two to reveal the unspoken.
6. The Monk asked. If you kill your mother and father, you can repent in front of the Buddha. If you kill the Buddhas and ancestors, where can you repent?
The Master: Exposed.
What more can be said? Exposed.
7. After a sudden enlightenment, a monk composed the verse
A single talk, all knowledge forgotten,
No need for further study and practice
Daily activities proclaimed the ancient way,
No more falling into passive stillness
Wherever I go I leave no trace in this world
I forget the proper conduct
Everywhere Masters of the way speak of this as the highest.
Forms, practices, disciplines, conduct
No trace, no weight, no matter, never mind.
8. A monk: What is a Buddha?
The Master: Three pounds of hemp.
Three pounds of hemp confirm the Buddha. Obviously.
9. A monk: What is your style of practice?
The Master: I wrap my straw sandals in my robes.
A monk: What does that mean? I go in my bare feet?
The Master answered. If you find a dead snake in the road, don’t kill it.
Take it home in a bottomless basket.
Something is something
Nothing is something
Something confirms nothing
Nothing confirms something
The bottomless basket speaks of emptiness
10. Monk: Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth?
The Master: I always remember springtime in southern China. The birds sing among innumerable kinds of fragrant flowers.
Speaking confirms the truth of silence.
Silence confirms the truth of speaking
Words/Wordless. Find a difference.
11. A Monk: Is there a teaching no Master ever preached before?
The Master: Yes, there is.
The teaching never preached has never been preached and never will be.
If it had been taught, it would not dissolve the monk’s question.
The 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. Her parents discovered she was pregnant
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment she named Hakuin.
In great anger the parent went to the Master to confront him.
The Master: Is that so?
That was all he would say.
After the birth, the young woman’s parents brough the baby brought to Hakuin.
Parent: This is your child.
The Master: Is that so?
He took care of the baby. He obtained milk from his neighbours and everything else he needed.
A year later the young mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man working in the fish market.
Her mother and father at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to collect the child back.
The Master: Is that so? Then handed the little over to the baby’s grandparents.
Is that so?
Pass the baby milk.
13. A Monk: “I have just entered the monastery.
Please give me instructions, Master.”
The Master: Have you had your breakfast?
A Monk: Yes, I have
The Master: Then wash your bowls.
The finite forms hide beside and in formless overtures.
14.The Master saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma:
Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?
How can Bodhidharma (5th-th Century Patriarch, Founder of the Chan Buddhist Tradition) have a beard, or anything else for that matter?
15. Two monks argue about a flag.
One monk says: The flag moves.
The other monk says: The wind is moving.
An enlightened monk walks by and says, Not the wind, not the flag; the mind is moving.
The minds of two monks dwell in the spell of Mara (the Deceiver)
Mind blows around in the wind of views.
16. A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain.
One evening a thief visited only to discover there was nothing to steal.
The Master caught him. You have come a long way to visit me. You should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.
The Master sat naked in his hut watching the moon. Poor fellow. I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.
One who owns nothing has something to give away.
17. Two monks met a beautiful young woman in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross over to the other side of a river.
First Monk: I can carry you across the river.
Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over to the other side.
The second monk did not speak again until that night when they reached the temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself.
The second monk: We are monks. We do not go near women, especially if they are young and lovely. Why did you do that?
The first monk: I left the girl there. Are you still carrying her?
The second monk had a weight on his shoulders.
The first monk pointed to it.
May all beings emerge from the deep
May all beings know the impact of insights
May all beings recognise the limitless.