What are some examples of koans?

Answered by Stephen Mosley

Popular Zen kōans are short paradoxical statements or stories that are used in Zen Buddhism to provoke deep contemplation and insight. They are often presented as questions or dialogue between a master and a student. Here are a few examples:

1. “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” This kōan challenges the student to go beyond dualistic thinking and directly experience the nature of reality without relying on conventional concepts or distinctions.

2. “Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.” This kōan points to the mysterious nature of the mind and its origin. It invites the student to investigate the source of thoughts and perceptions, ultimately realizing the emptiness and interdependence of all phenomena.

3. Two monks are arguing about a flag. One says, “The flag is moving.” The other says, “The wind is moving.” The Zen master, who happens to be passing by, says, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.” This kōan highlights the importance of recognizing the role of the mind in shaping our perception of reality. It encourages the student to see beyond surface-level appearances and discover the true nature of things.

4. A monk asked Zen master Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Joshu replied, “Mu.” Mu is a Japanese term that can be translated as “no” or “not.” This kōan challenges the student to go beyond conceptual thinking and intellectual speculation and directly experience the essence of Buddha-nature, which cannot be grasped by words or concepts.

5. A student asked Zen master Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Zen?” Zhaozhou replied, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” This kōan points to the inherent wisdom and enlightenment that can be found in everyday life and ordinary activities. It emphasizes the importance of being fully present and engaged in the present moment.

These examples of kōans represent just a small fraction of the vast collection of Zen teachings. Each kōan is designed to disrupt habitual patterns of thinking and perception, pushing the student to transcend dualistic concepts and directly experience the true nature of reality. The process of contemplating and meditating on kōans can lead to profound insights and awakenings, ultimately guiding the practitioner towards the realization of their true nature.