Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Zen koans make fascinating reading. Some koans are long, some short. They might be unambiguous or they might be enigmatic. They may be poetical in their language or earthy.

The first collection of koans was compiled more than a thousand years ago, and it numbered some fifty verbal paradoxes known as cases. Today there are thousands of koans, and they continue to multiply without being assigned case numbers.

That reminds me of a professor I had for college English. He was adamant about writers using the word “case” when they meant an instance of something or a condition. For example, saying “In case it rains….” rather than “If it rains….” He would shout, “Only whisky comes in cases.”

As I said, koans are verbal paradoxes, brain teasers that have no real solution. Conversely, a single koan may have dozens of answers, all of them satisfactory. Koans are challenges intended to boggle the mind until the mind stops functioning in a rational manner and grasps concepts intuitively.

Working out a koan logically is not comprehending it. A koan must have intuitive meaning.

Paraphrasing one writer, koans are reminders that existence isn’t rational. Things don’t always make sense, and life isn’t always understandable.

A koan may seem ludicrous. But doesn’t life sometimes seem ridiculous? Why are there wars? Why do good people die young?

My father was not a Zen person. In fact he probably never even heard of Zen. But he was a genius at coming up with questions that could very well be koans because of their absurdity. One example I remember pondering for days: Why is a duck?

Understanding, catching hold, perception. These are some of the terms for Zen awakening. Awakening doesn’t come with logical reasoning because Western logic is like dividing something in half repeatedly. There’s no end.

Zen master Robert Aitken (The Gateless Barrier) mentions that perception has no end either. Nor does it have any beginning. Perception is now, and now opens the entire universe. In that instant you become intimate with all existence. That’s Zen.

Zen isn’t magic. It’s not mystical. It’s not supernatural. Zen is the air we breathe and the smell of rain. Zen is ordinary fact.

Aitken states that koans are “… stories and verses that present fundamental perspectives on life and no-life, the nature of the self, [and] the relationship of the self to the earth….”

When you encounter a koan, through reading it or hearing it, the koan will immediate sense or else it will baffle you. If it baffles it will wedge in your mind like a chunk of a peanut lodges in your throat. It will nag at you, and you’ll find yourself thinking about the darn thing maybe not every minute but at unexpected times.

You’ll be backing your car out of a parking space, watching your rearview mirror for crazy drivers, and all of a sudden a neon sign will flash in your brain. “What is the sound of mu?”

If you back into another car, you’ll know the sound of mu.

In Rinzai Zen koans are all-important because they’re considered essential steps on the path to enlightenment. Soto Zen doesn’t emphasize enlightenment as a goal, so it doesn’t regard koans a means to an end. Nevertheless, koans are thought-provoking, and as long as you don’t become attached to them they can be illuminating.

Koans, Zen brush paintings, and haiku are all Zen inspired. They differ widely in their form, but they’re related in that each leaves an empty space. That empty space requires you, the observer, to participate for fulfillment.

A koan may relate a story or a legend. One tells about an old fellow who was reborn five hundred times as a fox because he was unable to answer the question of whether an enlightened person fell under the law of cause and effect,

Koans may describe a verbal exchange that at the outset makes perfect sense but ends in apparent foolishness. Case 33 is a good example.

A monk asked Ma-tsu, “What is Buddha?”

Ma-tsu answered, “Not mind, not Buddha.”

Figure that out. No, don’t try to figure it out. Either you get it, or you don’t.

A koan may pose a question, as in the following.

“When you meet someone accomplished in the Tao, do not make your greeting with words or with silence. How will you make your greeting?”


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