AskDefine | Define koan

Dictionary Definition

koan n : a paradoxical annecdote or a riddle that has no solution; used in Zen Buddhism to show the inadequacy of logical reasoning

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Alternative spellings


From sc=Jpan (sc=Jpan), from gōngàn ‘official business’. rfe correct script for Chinese


  • /'kəʊɑ:n/


  1. In the context of "Zen Buddhism": A story about a Zen master and his student, sometimes like a riddle, other times like a fable, which has become an object of Zen study, and which, when meditated upon, may unlock mechanisms in the Zen student’s mind leading to satori.
    • 1979, Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid
      Achilles: Let me tell you a kōan about an imitator.
      Zen master Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A young novice began to imitate him in this way. When Gutei was told about the novice’s imitation, he sent for him and asked him if it were true. The novice admitted it was so. Gutei asked him if he understood. In reply the novice held up his index finger. Gutei promptly cut it off. The novice ran from the room, howling in pain. As he reached the threshold, Gutei called, “Boy!” When the novice turned, Gutei raised his index finger. At that instant the novice was enlightened.
  2. A riddle with no solution, used to provoke reflection on the inadequacy of logical reasoning, and to lead to enlightenment.
    • 1973, Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
      Gibberish. Or else a koan that Achtfaden isn’t equipped to master, a transcendent puzzle that could lead him to some moment of light.
    • 2001, Joyce Carol Oates, Middle Age : A Romance (Fourth Estate, paperback edition, 303)
      As always the koan “Why, Why am I here, why here” begins in her head, but she beats it back like a housewife with a broom.


zen story
riddle without solution

Extensive Definition

A kōan (公案; Japanese: kōan, Chinese: gōng-àn, Korean: gong'an, Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Chán (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet may be accessible to intuition. A famous kōan is: "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" (oral tradition, attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769, considered a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan).

In brief

Kōans originate in the sayings and doings of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century) as its ancestor. Kōans are said to reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons, and sometimes said to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness. Zen teachers often recite and comment on kōans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their kōan practice using "checking questions" to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, "capping phrases" (jakugo), and verses inspired by the kōan.
As used by teachers, monks, and students in training, kōan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records, a perplexing element of the story, a concise but critical word or phrase (話頭 huà-tóu) extracted from the story, or to the story appended by poetry and commentary authored by later Zen teachers, sometimes layering commentary upon commentary.
English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use kōan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. Even so, a kōan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a kōan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given kōan, and a fixed answer cannot be correct in every circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple's answer is: "Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good." The master is looking not for an answer in a specific form, but for evidence that the disciple has actually grasped the state of mind expressed by the koan itself.
Thus, though there may be so-called "traditional answers" (kenjo) to many koans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers given in the past by various masters during their own training. In reality, any answer could be correct, provided that it conveys proof of personal realization. Needless to say, koan training can only be done with a qualified teacher who has the "eye" to see a disciple's depth of attainment. In the Rinzai Zen school, which uses koans extensively, the teacher certification process includes an appraisal of proficiency in using that school's extensive koan curriculum.
The word kōan corresponds to the Chinese characters 公案 which can be rendered in various ways: gōng'àn (Chinese pinyin); kung-an (Chinese Wade-Giles); gong'an (Korean); công-án (Vietnamese); kōan (Japanese Hepburn); often transliterated kōan). Of these, "kōan" is the most common in English. Just as Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch'an, Korean Son, and Vietnamese Thien, and Western Zen all share many features in common, likewise kōans play similar roles in each, although significant cultural differences exist.


  • A student asked Master Yun-Men (949 C.E.) "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?" Master replied, "Mount Sumeru!"
  • A monk asked Zhàozhōu, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" Zhaozhou said, "".
    • ("Zhaozhou" is rendered as "Chao-chou" in Wade-Giles, and pronounced "Joshu" in Japanese. "Wu" appears as "mu" in archaic Japanese, meaning "no", "not", "nonbeing", or "without" in English. This is a fragment of Case #1 of the Wúménguān. However, note that a similar kōan records that, on another occasion, Zhaozhou said "yes" in response: Case #18 of the Book of Serenity.)
  • Huìnéng asked Hui Ming, "Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born".
    • (This is a fragment of case #23 of the Wumenguan.)
  • A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, "What is Buddha?" Dongshan said, "Three pounds of flax".
    • (This is a fragment of case #18 of the Wumenguan as well as case #12 of the Blue Cliff Record.)
  • A monk asked Zhaozhou, "What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher's (i.e., Bodhidharma's) coming from the west?" Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in front of the hall".
    • (This is a fragment of case #37 of the Wumenguan as well as case #47 of the Book of Serenity.)

Roles of the kōan in Zen practice

Kōans collectively form a substantial body of literature studied by Zen practitioners and scholars worldwide. Kōan collections commonly referenced in English include the Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku), the Book of Equanimity (also known as the Book of Serenity; Chinese: Cōngróng Lù; Japanese: Shoyoroku), both collected in their present forms during the 12th century); and The Gateless Gate (also known as The Gateless Barrier; Chinese: Wúménguān; Japanese: Mumonkan) collected during the 13th century). In these and subsequent collections, a terse "main case" of a kōan often accompanies prefatory remarks, commentary, poems, proverbs and other phrases, and further commentary, etc. about prior emendations. Kōan literature typically derives from older texts and traditions, including texts that record the sayings and doings of sages; from Transmission of the Lamp records, which document the monastic tradition of certifying teachers; and from folklore and cultural reference points common among medieval Chinese. According to McGill professor Victor Hori, a native English speaker who has experienced extensive kōan training in Japanese monasteries, kōan literature was also influenced by the pre-Zen Chinese tradition of the "literary game" — a competition involving improvised poetry. Over centuries, contemporary collections continued to inspire commentary, and current kōan collections contain modern commentaries. New kōans on occasion are proposed and collected — sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest.
A kōan or part of a kōan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation and other activities, often called "kōan practice" (as distinct from "kōan study", the study of kōan literature). Generally, a qualified teacher provides instruction in kōan practice to qualified students in private. In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 ("Zhaozhou's Dog"), Wumen (Mumon) wrote "...concentrate yourself into this 'Wu'...making your whole body one great inquiry. Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations." Arousing this great inquiry, or "Great Doubt" is an essential element of kōan practice. In an attempt to illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen further commented: "It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't."
A kōan may be used as a test of a Zen student's ability. For monks in formal training, and for some laypersons, a teacher invokes a kōan and demands some definite response from a student during private interviews.
Kōans are presented by teachers to students and other members of the community, often including the teacher's unique commentary. A kōan may seem to be the subject of a talk or private interview with a student. However, a kōan is said to supersede subject-object duality and thus cannot necessarily be said to be the "subject" of such encounters. The dialog, lecture, or sermon may more resemble performance, ritual duty, or poetry reading.

Etymology and the evolving meaning of kōan

Kōan is a Japanese rendering of the Chinese term (公案), transliterated kung-an (Wade-Giles) or gōng'àn (Pinyin). Chung Feng Ming Pen (中峰明本 1263-1323) wrote that kung-an is an abbreviation for kung-fu an-tu (公府之案牘, Pinyin gōngfǔ zhī àndú, pronounced in Japanese as ko-fu no an-toku), which referred to a "public record" or the "case records of a public law court" in Tang-dynasty China. Kōan/kung-an thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality that go beyond the private opinion of one person. A teacher's test also resembles the judgement of a student's ability to recognize and actualize that principle. Moreover, commentaries in kōan collections bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents. An article by T. Griffith Foulk claims "...Its literal meaning is the 'table' or 'bench' an of a 'magistrate' or 'judge' kung..." Yuanwu may have been instructed to contemplate phrases by his teachers Chen-ju Mu-che (dates unknown) and Wu-tzu Fa-yen (五祖法演 ?-1104). Thus, by the Sung Dynasty, the term kung-an had apparently taken on roughly its present meaning from the legal jargon.
Subsequent interpreters have influenced the way the term kōan is used. Dōgen Zenji wrote of Genjokōan, which points out that everyday life experiences is the fundamental kōan. Hakuin Ekaku recommended preparing for kōan practice by concentrating on qi breathing and its effect on the body's center of gravity, called the tanden or hara in Japanese — thereby associating kōan practice with pre-existing Taoist and Yogic chakra meditative practices.

The role of kōans in the Soto, Rinzai, and other sects

Kōan practice — concentrating on kōans during meditation and other activities — is particularly important among Japanese practictioners of the Rinzai sect of Zen. However, study of kōan literature is common to both Soto and Rinzai Zen. There is a common misconception that Soto and related schools do not use kōans at all, but while few Soto practictioners concentrate on kōans while meditating, many Soto practitioners are indeed highly familiar with kōans.
In fact, the Soto sect has a strong historical connection with kōans. Many kōan collections were compiled by Soto priests. During the 13th century, Dōgen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, compiled some 300 kōans in the volumes known as the Greater Shōbōgenzō. Other kōans collections compiled and annotated by Soto priests include The Iron Flute (Japanese: Tetteki Tosui, compiled by Genro in 1783) and Verses and Commentaries on One Hundred Old Cases of Tenchian (Japanese: Tenchian hyakusoku hyoju, compiled by Tetsumon in 1771.) However, according to Michael Mohr, "...kōan practice was largely expunged from the Soto school through the efforts of Gento Sokuchu (1729-1807), the eleventh abbot of Entsuji, who in 1795 was nominated abbot of Eiheiji".
A significant number of people who meditate with kōans are affiliated with Japan's Sanbo Kyodan sect, and with various schools derived from that sect in North America, Europe, and Australia. Sanbo Kyodan was established in the 20th century, and has roots in both the Soto and Rinzai traditions.

Interpretation of kōans

The purpose of koans is for a Zen practitioner's mind to match an enlightened being's mind. Once a Zen practitioner matches the mind of the master the koan makes sense and the teaching point is realized.
Zen teachers and practitioners insist that the meaning of a kōan can only be demonstrated in a live experience. Texts (including kōan collections and encyclopedia articles) cannot convey that meaning. Yet the Zen tradition has produced a great deal of literature, including thousands of kōans and at least dozens of volumes of commentary. Nevertheless, teachers have long alerted students to the danger of confusing the interpretation of a kōan with the realization of a kōan. When teachers say "do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon", they indicate that awakening is the standard — not ability to interpret.
Even so, kōans emerge from a literary context, and understanding that context can often remove some — but presumably not all — of the mystery surrounding a kōan. For example, evidence suggests that when a monk asked Zhaozhou "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?", the monk was asking a question that students had asked teachers for generations. The controversy over whether all beings have the potential for enlightenment is even older — and, in fact, vigorous controversy still surrounds the matter of Buddha nature.
No amount of interpretation seems to be able to exhaust a kōan, so it's unlikely that there can be a "definitive" interpretation. Teachers typically warn against over-intellectualizing kōans, but the mysteries of kōans compel some students to reduce (but not necessarily eliminate) the uncertainties — for example, by clarifying metaphors that were likely well-known to monks at the time the kōans originally circulated.

Classical Kōan collections

The Blue Cliff Record

The Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: 碧巖錄 Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku) is a collection of 100 koans compiled in 1125 by Yuanwu Keqin (圜悟克勤 10631135).

The Book of Equanimity

The Book of Equanimity or Book of Serenity (Chinese: 從容録; Japanese: 従容録 Shōyōroku) is a collection of 100 Koans compiled in the 12th century by Hongzhi Zhengjue (Chinese: 宏智正覺; Japanese: Wanshi Zenji) (10911157).

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (Chinese: 無門關 Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan) is a collection of 48 kōans and commentaries published in 1228 by Chinese monk Wumen (無門) (1183-1260). The title may be more accurately rendered as Gateless Barrier or Gateless Checkpoint).
Five kōans in the collection derive from the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou Congshen, (transliterated as Chao-chou in Wade-Giles and pronounced Jōshū in Japanese).

Other traditional kōans

Killing the Buddha

If you meet the Buddha, kill him.
If you are thinking about Buddha, this is thinking and delusion, not awakening. One must destroy preconceptions of the Buddha. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind during an introduction to Zazen, "Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature."

The sound of one hand

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
Hakuin Ekaku
''" the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan...When one realizes ("makes real") this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand." — G. Victor Sogen Hori, Translating the Zen Phrase Book
Another response to this koan is for the student to bow to the master, and then extend one hand towards him. In so doing, he is showing'' the master the answer, rather than trying to describe it.

What is the Buddha?

Zen teachers asked this question have given various answers. Here are some of them:
  • "Three pounds of flax." — Attributed to Dòngshān Shǒuchū (洞山守初) in case 18 of The Gateless Gate
  • "Dried dung." — Attributed to Yúnmén Wényǎn in case 21 of The Gateless Gate

Contemporary kōans

  • Anecdotes of recent Zen teachers have started to make their way into Zen lore as kōans, for example:
One day, a student of Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi confronted him at Sokoji, in his office, and said, "if you believe in freedom why do you keep your bird locked up in a cage?" Suzuki Roshi went over and opened the door of the cage and the bird flew out of the cage and out of the window. href=""> It is said that then Shunryu Suzuki turned to the student and said "That bird is free - you owe me a bird."
"'Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?' 'Woof'".
"If you have ice cream I will give you some.
If you have no ice cream I will take it away from you."
(It is an ice cream kōan.)
  • Hacker culture has recorded a number of humorous anecdotes that use the literary form of Chinese and Japanese kōans, but which describe non-religious breakthrough understanding or the merely inexplicable. See Hacker koan.


Dates are as per Zen's Chinese Heritage, subtitled The masters and their teachings by Andy Ferguson, published in 2000 by Wisdom Publications.

External links

koan in Czech: Kóan
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koan in Italian: Koan
koan in Hebrew: קואן
koan in Dutch: Koan (Zen)
koan in Japanese: 公案
koan in Norwegian: Kōan
koan in Polish: Gongan
koan in Russian: Коан
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koan in Vietnamese: Công án
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