Introduction to Zen Koans


What is a Koan?

One of the most commonly met but most puzzling aspects of Zen is koan. Literally, koan means "public case". It is not, as some of us may imagine, a public case in law courts, but a record often in the form of a short story of an encounter between a master and one or more students frequently involving a seemingly illogical question and answer. It is termed "public" because while the encounter was initially private (and actually took place), it has been quoted or cited so often by both Zen as well as non-Zen practitioners that it has become public.

Why was a particular koan recorded, and why has it been mentioned so often? This is because it is usually the record of Zen practitioner attaining an awakening or enlightenment. (An awakening is a glimpse of cosmic reality; enlightenment is the direct experience of cosmic reality itself.) Later, Zen masters used koans to trigger such a glimpse or experience in their students, or to test if the students already had such an attainment.

Where is My Treasure?

Some examples may make this clearer. When the great Zen master Zhao Zhou first met his teacher Ma Zu, the teacher asked him why did he come. "To seek the Buddha's way," Zhao Zhou replied. Ma Zu said that there was nothing in his temple and reprimanded Zhao Zhou for not looking after his own treasure.

Zhao Zhou prostrated and asked, "Where is my treasure?" Ma Zu answered, "Now that is asking me, is your own treasure. It has everything it needs; and it lacks nothing; its use is spontaneous. What for do you seek outside?" At that instant Zhao Zhou was awakened.

This recorded story is a koan, used by later masters as a catalase to help their students to attain an awakening or as a tool to test if they had been awakened. Those who have been awakened will know intuitively why Zhao Zhou himself was his own treasure; those who are ripe may instantly be awakened on hearing this or a similar koan. Those who are not ready may see nothing logical in the encounter.

Those who know will appreciate how simple, direct and effective Ma Zu was in helping Zhao Zhou to be awakened. Ma Zu was one of the greatest Zen teachers in history; more than a hundred of his students became great Zen masters themselves!

Why are Koans "Unintelligible"?

Let us examine how Ma Zu helped another of his famous pupil, Bai Zhang, to be awakened. When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, "If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place." The master retorted, "If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?"

Apparently ignoring the master's retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang's words, "If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place." Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, "What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest."

Every verbal exchange or action in the above koan was a test, a catalase or a confirmation. Of course, to the uninitiated the various exchanges and actions may not make any sense -- just as to those who do not speak Spanish "que hora es" would be meaningless. It should be known that there is no play of words, no tricks or riddles in koans; in the above two koans, for example, both the teacher and the pupil used words concisely and precisely, and they meant exactly what they said.

Why, then, you did not understand what they said? It is because the koans were not meant for you. Koans were actually given by masters to their students who had spent many years studying and practising Zen; they were not given as riddles to test your intelligence. Hence, if you don't understand koans (or for that matter Spanish or astronomy), it means you haven't studied and practised Zen (or Spanish or astronomy), not that you don't have high intelligence quota.

Seemingly Illogical Questions

There are different types of koans. One type takes the form of a seemingly illogical question used by a master to teach or test his students. "What was your face like before you were born?" and "What is the sound of clapping with one hand?" are two classic examples. Often the teacher is not interested in what the students answer but how they answer. If you think about the answer, verbalize it or intellectualize it, you will never get the answer. In Zen jargons, this is expressed as Zen is beyond thought, beyond words, beyond intellectualization.

A common analogy may make this clear. Suppose your swimming instructor asks, "Can you swim?" If you start to think what swimming is, or describe in words how you would swim, or intellectualize why you should swim, whatever answer you give is not what your instructor wants. It does not matter what you say or do, as soon as you are in water, he will have an answer.

Similarly, when a master asks you about your original face or the sound of one clapping-hand, if you start thinking what your original face is, or how to make a sound with one hand, or why anybody could ask such silly questions, whatever answer you give is not the "Zen" answer. But as soon as you say or do something, the master will know your developmental level in Zen.

Towards Cosmic Realization

If you are a serious Zen practitioner working towards a Zen awakening through koans, you should not worry about the deeper, spiritual meaning hidden in them. You would know the meaning once you attained an awakening.

Why mustn't you know the meaning now? Because if you do so, you would have to think, to verbalize and to intellectualize. In other words, you would defeat the very purpose of working on the koans, which is an extra-ordinary tool to help you go beyond thought, words and intellectualization.

But if you, like most people, are reading about koans for fun or for some wisdom, the following explanation may help to clear away doubts and puzzlement. First, let us examine why Zen seeks to go beyond thought, words and intellectualization. Zen is a training towards cosmic realization. Ultimate reality -- called variously as God, Allah, Tao, Brahman and Buddhahood -- is undifferentiated.

But because we are unenlightened, we see ultimate reality differentiated into the phenomenal world. In other words, because of the ways our eyes are set to interpret electromagnetic waves, the manner our collective human consciousness has been conditioned to organize data, because of other limitation of our senses, and other factors, we experience reality as differentiated into countless entities like people, houses, cars, stars, elephants and myriad other things.

Why and how ultimate reality is transformed into the phenomenal world is explained by the Buddha in the doctrine of dependent origination, which explains the transformation in 12 stages. The use of thought, words and intellectualization contributes to this transformation. Because thought arises, we think of reality as different entities; because we use words, we interpret and describe reality as different entities; because of intellectualization we conceptualize reality as differentiated.

Ultimate Reality and Phenomenal World

For example, once we think of a tree, use words to describe it or intellectualize it in relation with other things, we separate a part of transcendental reality into an entity which we interpret as a tree. Scientists are saying the same things at a micro-cosmic level. An electron, for example, has no boundary. But when we think of an electron, verbalize an electron or intellectualize an electron, we carve out a tiny part of the undifferentiated cosmic energy field and conceptualize it as an electron. In scientific terms, the electromagnetic waves collapse into a particle.

As soon as we think, verbalize or intellectualize, we interpret reality as the phenomenal world. Therefore, to experience reality as undifferentiated -- which is the ultimate and absolute truth -- we have to go beyond thoughts, words and intellectualization. Meditation and working on koans are two principal ways in Zen to attain this highest spiritual fulfillment.

Spiritual Meaning of Koans

When Ma Zu said that he had nothing, he referred to ultimate reality, which is transcendental and undifferentiated. When this great master said that Zhao Zhou himself was the treasure he was seeking after, he meant that the phenomenal body of Zhao Zhou is an illusion; actually Zhao Zhou is an integral part of ultimate reality. Zhao Zhou who had practised Zen for many years before his teacher recommended him to Ma Zu, grasped the point intuitively and became awakened.

In the next koan, when Ma Zu stared at a feather duster, Bai Zhang knew his master was testing him. When he said that they had to take the feather duster from its place if they had to use it, he meant that while cosmic reality is undifferentiated in its ultimate form, in its application in the phenomenal world it is differentiated into countless entities. When Ma Zu said that if he took off Bai Zhang's skin, what would become of Bai Zhang, he was asking his disciple in an arcane manner what would happen if the phenomenal world was separated from ultimate reality. To indicate his understanding that the phenomenal world and ultimate reality is actually the same, but interpreted differently, he started to use the feather duster.

Using Bai Zhang own words, Ma Zu tested him further. When Bai Zhang returned the feather duster instead of continuing to use it, the master realized that Bai Zhang's understanding was incomplete and was based on verbalization, i.e. the verbal description about form and application, or symbolically about ultimate reality and the phenomenal world. So he shouted to deafen Bai Zhang. At that time, instruction, which is a form of verbalization, was given orally from master to students. When Bai Zhang was temporarily deaf, he could not listen to instruction, or verbalization, giving him the opportunity to look directly into his mind and realize its true nature.

Awakening in An Instant

When a master asked his students "What is your original face like before you were born?", "What is the sound of clapping with one hand?", and other seemingly illogical questions, he forces his students to abandon thinking, verbalization and intellectualization. This is because no matter how they think, how they use words or how they intellectualize, they cannot get the answers. Hopefully, this may trigger off an awakening in an instant. This instant of awakening may occur immediately, or after many years of meditating on the koans in a non-thought, non-verbalized and non-intellectual manner.

One must not be mistaken to think that thoughts, words and intellect are useless in Zen. In fact there are more thoughts, words and intellect in Zen literature than in any other Buddhist literature, but Zen Buddhists as well as other Buddhists always insists that thoughts, words and intellect are sub-ordinate to direct experience in spiritual cultivation. In other words, any spiritual fulfillment, from the most basic to the highest, has to be experienced, not just talked about or read from books. An analogy is again helpful. If you want to find out the taste of an apple, or what internal force in martial arts or energy flow in chi kung is, no amount of thinking, reading or philosophizing can give you a satisfactory answer. You have to eat an apple, or practise martial arts or chi kung to experience it.

The more it is so in Zen. This explanation may increase your understanding of Zen, but to attain any mundane benefits or spiritual fulfillment, you have to practise and experience it.

These details are compiled from various sources.

Living Karate - Sydney Matsubayashi Ryu