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What is a Kōan? Zen Buddhism's Path Without a Way


Learning by unlearning, recognizing the original nature of the mind, the sound of one hand clapping: adopting the mind of the beginner.

In the West, Buddhist monks are often represented on television or in films as enlightened, enigmatic masters, who pose impossible riddles to challenge the intelligence and imaginations of their disciples. We hear them ask questions like “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”  Or the classic “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?”

The practice of Zen (or zazen) doesn’t seek knowledge in a Western sense. That’s to say, it doesn’t try to know something that it doesn’t already know through scientific or experimental methods. The goal is to reach satori, enlightenment, but no one who’s not experienced it themselves can know if it’s been reached. A kōan is a didactic tool which works through paradox: a student learns unlearning, and a teacher teaches a refusal to teach, such that the mind recognizes its true nature.

It’s not just a game of aphorisms and puns. The maxims and famous phrases of philosophers conform a wealth of wisdom that readers may find more or less useful, but the kōan does not address the “intellectual” mind, nor does it respond with ingenuity. To see how one works in practice, let’s tell a little story:

A student sits outside the master’s room and bangs three times on a small drum. When the master chimes a bell, the student is permitted to enter. The student crosses the threshold and bows, and then assumes the position of meditation and repeats the kōan which the master had instructed be solved. Then the student offers an answer.

If the student’s response is unsatisfactory, the master chimes the bell again, the student must continue working on the same kōan. Here “work” doesn’t mean “think” but rather “stop thinking.” The master may give clues or comment on the student’s response, and although they’re posed in the form of a question, kōans are not exactly riddles, and they don’t have correct answers.

On occasion, a master’s rejection may lead students to despair, and even to violence. The master tells the story of a student who, in frustration at not being able to offer an answer to a kōan, took a toad who happened to be passing by and flung it at the master. At that, the master replied: “Too intellectual!”

Even aggressive and somewhat comical responses like that relayed above are learned answers, and the work of the dual mind, the accumulation of ignorance from which the student of Zen seeks liberation. The kōan is not merely an intellectual challenge, but a way for a student to “observe the mind of the heart” (sesshin), to leave behind obvious and learned answers, and to put oneself in a position to see things and the world in its unusual novelty.

One of the most famous kōan is attributed to the master, Linji. “If you meet Buddha Gautama, kill him.” In the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, master Suzuki offered an explanation to the riddle: “Kill Buddha if Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill him because you should assume your own Buddha nature.” If you think of Buddha as a devotional image, you’re creating a false expectation, and this will prevent you from recognizing your own “Buddha-ness.” That’s why “killing Buddha” means “to destroy one’s own ideas and preconceptions about what Buddha is,” and to recognize it in oneself, and in anything.

Another of the more famous kōans reads thus: “A monk asked Zhaozhōu, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’, to which Zhaozhōu replied ‘Wu.’”

The kōan, in the practice of Zen, is a path without a way. The point of arrival and the point of departure take place in the student’s original mind. Learning unlearning is thus part of the daily life of the zazen practitioner.

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