'Koan' is a Japanese word coming from the
Chinese, gong-an, that means public
dictate. Later, with master Rinzai (Chinese:
Lin-Chi), koan became a specialized term
for Zen Buddhism (in Chinese, Ch’an
Buddhism, from the Sanskrit word: dhyana, “meditation”)
referring to the metaphysical, mind-blasting
problems given to students to solve, such
as “What is the sound of one hand
clapping?” or “What is the
color of the wind?”. Rinzai Zen developed
a long list of more than 700 koans over
the centuries to facilitate students towards
reaching the meditation state of “No-Thoughts” known
as Satori (Enlightenment) and
to promote an intuitive towards an intellectual
understanding of the world.
A koan can be thought of as a puzzle. Unlike
a puzzle, a koan does not necessarily have
a logical or inferential answer or solution.
In fact, it may have no answer at all.
The effect of a koan can be to break the
student out of his “thinking” mind.
Some koans can be obscure and impenetrable.
Often, they are paradoxical and seem nonsensical.
A koan is not an end to itself, but the
means to an end. They are tools for achieving
insight on a level not encountered in everyday
life or catalysts for awakening one’s
true nature. They often recount a debate
(in Japanese: mondo) between master
and disciple, where the master’s
response or question is said to reveal
the deep nature of things as they are.
Koans are then a kind of process of negation
of non-self to seeking the nature of the
real Self, like the ‘neti neti’ (not
this, not that) process of the Hindus.
3 examples of koan puzzles
1. One-finger Zen
Gutei’s (Chu-chi, in Chinese)
favorite answer to any question asked was
the raising of his finger. His little apprentice
copied this, and whenever he was asked
about his master’s teachings, he
would raise his finger. Learning of this,
master called upon the boy one day and
cut off his finger. In fear and pain, the
boy tried to run off, but the teacher called
him to return and raised his finger. The
boy tried to imitate his teacher as usual,
but he didn’t have a finger any more,
and then the whole meaning came clear to
The long and short of it is that copying
is slavery. One should not follow the letter,
but seize the spirit...
2. A shorter line
One day Joshu drew a line with his hand
on the floor of the open courtyard and
told Nan-in and Tozan to make the line
shorter without touching any part of it.
Nan-in approached and stood staring at
the puzzle, but he was unable to solve
Finally Tozan stepped forward and drew
a longer line next to the first one, but
without touching it.
Everyone in the court looked at it and
agreed. The first line was definitely shorter...
3. Absence of Information
“Can a shadow travel faster than light?”, asked Takuan.
This question has no answer because a shadow
is maybe able to travel faster than light,
but so what? What’s actually traveling?
It’s not really an object just the
image of an object. It is not a violation
of the special theory of relativity because
you cannot transmit information using a
shadow. This is one of the key points of
the theory. Information can be transmitted
by light, but a shadow marks the absence
of light and as such no information can
be transmitted. It’s like saying
when you don’t speak the silence
is travelling faster than sound. Silence
doesn’t transmit information, but
on the other hand absence of information
can also be a kind of information, so...
This question is absurd and irrelevant!
Nansen sought to find the true nature of
reality. He meditated daily in front of
the fence surrounding his humble dwelling.
He would look out at the world through
a missing slat in the fence. Beyond his
yard was a green pasture with a small herd
of cattle. Every morning the cows would
walk past the fence in single file on their
way to graze. Every evening they would
return, again in single file.
One morning after the herd had passed him,
Nansen sat in deep contemplation. Suddenly,
he 'saw the light', and he arose and proclaimed, “The
nose causes the tail!”.
Two Zen Masters who had not met for ten
years passed each other on the street.
The first Master said “Hello!”.
The second Master thought to himself: “He
still talks too much”.
Silence. All that exists is truth
itself, therefore words are not necessary.
In Zen phylosophy silence doesn’t
mean ‘silent mind’, but
to think or act with awareness and