The Profound And Ancient Wisdom Of Zen Buddhist Koans

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.

Zen masters have been testing their students with these tales, topics, or phrases for centuries. Many koans can be traced back to the collectsof sayings amassed by Chinese clergymen in the 12 th and 13 th centuries.

Koans appears to have been paradoxes at first glance. It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning. Often, after a prolonged and depleting intellectual battle, the student realizes that the koan is actually meant to be understood by the spirit and by hunch.

Don Dianda, writer of “See for Your Ego: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation, ” set it this way in a blog for Elephant Journal:

The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner … Koans arent only puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and extols, Aha! the answer is three! They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depthsthe inner regions beyond knowing.

We asked a few of Zen Buddhists to share with us some koans that have been particularly useful in their practise. We hope their reflections will help you on your own spiritual journey.

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Dimitri Ehrlich
Songwriter, Author, Father

When asked why he practiced zen, the student told, Because I intend to become a Buddha.
His educator 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 sort, you are not yet mastering the essential principle.
The student heard this admonition and felt as if he had savor sweet nectar.
— Dgen Zenji

“As with most people, my spiritual struggle has always connected to the essence of this koan. Its important to me because it relates to the question of endeavor: How can I step outside of my conventional desire to gain a is a consequence of meditation practice? How is it possible to practice meditation without attachment to the fruit of our efforts? I guess approaching spiritual practice this style is impossible at first, because it almost pre-supposes a certain degree of enlightenment. And yet, if we are always thinking of meditation as a means to improve ourselves, to gain something from the effort and day we invest, the entire endeavour is subverted by our ordinary intellects addiction to worldly achievement. The truth is, when we first take refuge in Buddha, our motivation is dread. We are afraid of suffering. We want change. Escape. Liberty. Merely after we have gained some experience can we begin to switching the motivation, and explore these subtle traps of spiritual materialism. So this koan is a fantastic reminder to trust the purity of our primordial intellect. To recognise our constant mental habit of comprehending. And to see how grasping obliterates our innate wisdom.”
Songwriter, Author, Father

— Dgen Zenji

“As with most people, my spiritual struggle has always connected to the essence of this koan. Its important to me because it relates to the question of endeavor: How can I step outside of my conventional desire to gain a result from meditation practise? How is it possible to practice meditation without attachment to the fruit of our efforts? I guess approaching spiritual practice this style is impossible at first, because it almost pre-supposes a certain degree of enlightenment. And yet, if we are always thinking of meditation as a means to improve ourselves, to gain something from the effort and day we invest, the entire undertaking is subverted by our ordinary minds addiction to worldly achievement. The truth is, when we first seeking refuge in Buddha, our motivation is anxiety. We are afraid of suffering. We want change. Escape. Freedom. Merely after we have gained some experience can we begin to change the motivation, and explore these subtle traps of spiritual materialism. So this koan is a fantastic reminder to trust the purity of our primordial mind. To recognise our constant mental habit of comprehending. And to see how grasping obscures our innate wisdom.”

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Rev. Zesho Susan OConnell
Zen priest, President of the San Francisco Zen Center

Dizang asked Xiushan, Where do you come from?
Xiushan said, From the South.
Dizang told, How is Buddhism in the South these days?
Xiushan told, There is extensive discussion
Dizang told, How can that compare to me here planting the fields and building rice to eat?
Xiushan said, What can you do about the world?
Dizang said, What do you call the world?
— Book of Serenity

“Time and again during question and answer sessions after a Zen lecture, person will ask: ‘What is the use of merely sitting in silent meditation when there is so much suffering in the world? ‘ This topic is usually meant as a challenge to what seems a kind of passiveness. It is true that the world is full of suffering beings; humen, animals, plants, even the planet itself is deep suffering. Shouldnt we be having extensive debates, protesting, implementing solutions? This koan does for me what I think is the intention of all koans it stops my mind in mid step. It brings my awareness to the importance of asking questions before acting. Questions like: What is the nature of suffering and what is its ultimate cause? How can I help a world that I see as separate from myself? Wouldnt it be more beneficial in order to be allowed to deep is how the world is not something ‘out there’ that needs saving? If I consider the style we are all constantly, every moment, building the world then each simple, ordinary action I am able to take right here is ‘doing something about the world.’ And when it is time for another type of action, less simple or potentially more widely impactful, it is my intention that these actions will be grounded in not knowing what the world is, or what helping is.”
Zen priest, President of the San Francisco Zen Center

— Book of Serenity

“Time and again during question and answer sessions after a Zen lecture, someone will ask: ‘What is the use of only sitting in silent meditation when there is so much suffering in the world? ‘ This topic is usually entailed as a challenge to what seems a kind of passiveness. It is true that the world is full of suffering beings; humen, animals, plants, even the planet itself is deep suffering. Shouldnt we be having extensive discussions, protesting, implementing answers? This koan does for me what I think is the intention of all koans it stops my intellect in mid step. It brings my awareness to the importance of asking questions before acting. Questions like: What is the nature of suffering and what is its ultimate cause? How can I help a world that I see as separate from myself? Wouldnt it be more beneficial for me to profoundly is how the world is not something ‘out there’ that needs saving? If I consider the route we are all constantly, every moment, making the world then each simple, ordinary action I am able to take right here is ‘doing something about the world.’ And when it is time for another type of action, less simple or potentially more widely impactful, it is my intention that these actions will be grounded in not knowing what the world is, or what helping is.”

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Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Professor, Theology& Religious Studies, University of San Diego

Master[ Hui-an] asked[ Huai-jang ], “Where are you coming from? ”
Huai-jang told, “Mount Sung.”
The Master said, “What sort of thing comes here like this? ”
Huai-jang said, “To call it a ‘thing’ is to miss the mark.”
The Master said, “Can it be cultivated or experienced? ”
Huai-jang told, “It’s not that it isn’t cultivated or experienced, but instead that it isn’t corrupted or defiled.”
The Master said, “It’s just because it isn’t perverted or defiled that it’s treasured by all buddhas. You’re like this. And I’m like this.”
— The Platform Sutra

“In 1982, when I received full ordination as a bhikkhuni( fully ordained Buddhist nun) in Pusan, Korea, the senior nun among the ordination masters was a remarkable master named Hye Chun Sunim. Born into a family of privilege in 1918 in northern Korea, her life was turned upside down by war in the early 1950 s. When she traveled south as a refugee, she found consolation in a Buddhist monastery and decided to become a nun. Ascertained to reaching enlightenment, she went through unimaginable adversities to gain acceptance as a adherent of Songchol Sunim, the most famous Zen( Korean: Soen) master of her day something unheard of for nuns at the time.

When I met Hye Chun Sunim one afternoon in a sparse tatami room at the monastery, she asked my name, in a very formal way. I responded that my name was He Gong( Wisdom of Emptiness ), a Korean name that had just been given to me by Kusan Sunim, the most renowned Zen master alive at that time. Abruptly, I heard my name ring out through the room: ‘He Gong! ‘ Startled, I reacted, and she then asked, ‘Who responded when I called your name? ‘ The popular Korean koan( ‘What is this? ‘) calls us to wake up to the moment and attend to whatever we are experiencing in the moment. Ultimately, it calls us to question the nature of the ego. When the master called ‘He Gong! ‘ she called me to question my very identity. Wake up! Pay attention! Who are you anyway ?!? ”
Professor, Theology& Religious Survey, University of San Diego

— The Platform Sutra

“In 1982, when I received full ordination as a bhikkhuni( fully consecrated Buddhist nun) in Pusan, Korea, the senior nun among the ordination masters was a remarkable master named Hye Chun Sunim. Born into a family of privilege in 1918 in northern Korea, her life was turned upside down by war in the early 1950 s. When she traveled south as a refugee, she found consolation in a Buddhist monastery and decided to become a nun. Decided to reaching enlightenment, she went through unimaginable hardships to gain acceptance as a adherent of Songchol Sunim, the most famous Zen( Korean: Soen) master of her day something unheard of for nuns at the time.

When I gratified Hye Chun Sunim one afternoon in a sparse tatami room at the monastery, she asked my name, in a very formal way. I responded that my name was He Gong( Wisdom of Emptiness ), a Korean name that had just been given to me by Kusan Sunim, the most renowned Zen master alive at that time. Abruptly, I heard my name ring out through the room: ‘He Gong! ‘ Startled, I responded, and she then asked, ‘Who answered when I called your name? ‘ The popular Korean koan( ‘What is this? ‘) calls us to wake up to the moment and attend to whatever we are experiencing in the moment. Ultimately, it calls us to question the nature of the self. When the master called ‘He Gong! ‘ she called me to question my very identity. Wake up! Pay attention! Who are you anyway ?!? ”

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Don Dianda
Author, ‘See for Your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation’

Out of nowhere, the mind goes forth.
— The Diamond Sutra

“Working with this koan alters how I might satisfy the world in two ways. In one twisting, it opens life up in a manner that is where I cant expect anything to happen outside of the now, and in another, the koan takes my attention to my thoughts and opinions about what I come into contact with each moment. For example, I might ensure a tree and think ‘out of nowhere the tree arrives forth.’ Deepening into understanding the present in this style dedicates an object a sudden miraculous quality. For a moment, the tree is mind-boggling and I begin to touch on something innate beyond the confines of what I can conceive of or label. The fact that I take mundane shrubs, trees, stray cats, and rain squalls for granted or even deemed to be to be inconvenient nuisances at times is something the koan softly forces me to investigate more closely. What would life be like without these images, moments, and experiences? Do I create an inner world in which only some of what is present builds it through my ingrained mental filters? If yes, what would happen if I deconstructed these perimeters and removed them? Perhaps everything that graces my life has a subtle extraordinariness and that allowing this connection to blossom on its own is a practice that currently exists naturally when I just begin to notice.”
Author, ‘See for Your Ego: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation’

— The Diamond Sutra

“Working with this koan alters how I might meet the world in two ways. In one spin, it opens life up in a way where I cant expect anything to happen outside of the now, and in another, the koan takes my attention to my thoughts and sentiments about what I come into contact with each moment. For instance, I might find a tree and think ‘out of nowhere the tree comes forth.’ Deepening into understanding the present in this style dedicates an object a sudden miraculous quality. For a moment, the tree is mind-boggling and I begin to touch on something innate beyond the confines of what I can conceive of or label. The fact that I take mundane shrubs, trees, stray cats, and rainfall squalls for awarded or even deemed to be to be inconvenient nuisances at times is something the koan quietly forces me to analyze more closely. What would life be like without these images, moments, and experiences? Do I create an inner world in which only some of what is present stimulates it through my ingrained mental filters? If yes, what would happen if I deconstructed these borders and removed them? Maybe everything that graces my life has a subtle extraordinariness and that allowing this connection to blossom on its own is a practice that currently exists naturally when I only begin to notice.”

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Koshin Paley Ellison
Co-Founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
I have just entered the monastery, he told. Please give me instructions, Master.
Joshu told, Have you had your breakfast?
Yes, I have, replied the monk.
Then, said Joshu, wash your bowls.
The monk had an insight.

Mumons Poem
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realization.
If you know at once candlelight is flame,
The dinner has long been cooked.
— The Gateless Gate

“I love this koan. I am the student in the midst of my life, waiting for life to happen. I am the educator pointing to this latte on my desk. I am the bowl that needs washing and the breakfast already eaten. How do we enter our life fully? It is right here. How do we want to live? Can we permit all the joy and sorrows to enliven us? Or do we just go along with all our patterns and habits? People who are dying always remind me: ‘I cant believe I wasnt here for most of my life.’ Thats one of the more common things I hear, and the biggest unhappiness. Many people have not inhabited their life because theyre just waiting for other moments. Are we waiting for life to happen in the midst of life? How can we dedicate ourselves fully to our lives, moment to moment? Dont wait. Life is always right here.”

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