Buddhism: Details about 'Koan'
Koans 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. Koans 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 koans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on koans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their koan 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 koan.
As used by teachers, monks, and students in training, koan 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 hua-tou) extracted from the story, or to the story appended by poetry and commentary authored by later Zen teachers, sometimes layering commentary upon commentary. Less formally, the term koan sometimes refers to any experience that accompanies awakening or spiritual insight.
English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use koan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a koan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate and timely response when asked about a koan. Even so, a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle1. Appropriate responses to a koan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given koan, and not all teachers assume that a fixed answer is correct in every circumstance.
The word koan 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); cong-an (Vietnamese); kōan (Japanese Hepburn; often transliterated koan). Of these, "koan" 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 koans play similar roles in each, although significant cultural differences exist.
Roles of the koan in Zen practice
Etymology and the evolving meaning of koan
Koan 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 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"4 in Tang-dynasty China. Koan/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 koan 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" of a "magistrate" or "judge" .."4. Apparently, kung-an was itself originally a metaphor—an article of furniture that came to denote legal precedents.
Before the tradition of meditating on koans was recorded, Huangbo Xiyun (720-814) and Yun Men (864-949) are both recorded to have uttered the line "Yours is a clear-cut case (chien-cheng kung-an) but I spare you thirty blows", seeming to pass judgement over students' feeble expressions of enlightenment. Xuedou Zhongxian (雪竇重顯 980-1052)—the original compiler of the 100 cases that later served as the basis for the Blue Cliff Record—used the term kung-an just once in that collection (according to Foulk4) in Case #64.
Yuanwu (圜悟克勤 1063-1135), compiler of the Blue Cliff Record (碧巌録) in its present form, "gained some insight" by contemplating (kan) koans5. 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 koan is used. Dogen Zenji wrote of Genjokoan, which relates everyday life experiences to koans. Hakuin Ekaku recommended preparing for koan 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 koan practice with pre-existing Taoist and Yogic chakra meditative practices.
The role of koans in the Soto, Rinzai, and other sects
Koan practice—concentrating on koans during meditation and other activities—is particularly important among Japanese practictioners of the Rinzai sect of Zen. However, study of koan literature is common to both Soto and Rinzai Zen. There is a common misconception that Soto and related schools do not use koans at all, but while few Soto practictioners concentrate on koans while meditating, many Soto practitioners are indeed highly familiar with koans.
In fact, the Soto sect has a strong historical connection with koans. Many koan collections were compiled by Soto priests. During the 13th century, Dogen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, compiled some 300 koans in the volumes known as the Greater Shobogenzo. Other koans 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, "..koan 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."6, p245.
A significant number of people who meditate with koans 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 koans
Zen teachers and practitioners insist that the meaning of a koan can only be demonstrated in a live experience. Texts (including koan collections and encyclopedia articles) cannot convey that meaning. Yet the Zen tradition has produced a great deal of literature, including thousands of koans and at least dozens of volumes of commentary. Nevertheless, teachers have long alerted students to the danger of confusing the interpretation of a koan with the realization of a koan. 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, koans emerge from a literary context, and understanding that context can often remove some — but presumably not all — of the mystery surrounding a koan. For example, evidence7 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 enlightment is even older8 — and in fact, vigorous controversy9 still surrounds the matter of Buddha nature.
No amount of interpretation seems to be able to exhaust a koan. So it's unlikely that there can be a "definitive" interpretation. Teachers typically warn against over-intellectualizing koans, but the mysteries of koans 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 koans originally circulated. In that spirit, we present some interpretations that are certainly not the last word.
The sound of one hand
The Gateless Gate
Wumenguan (無門關, pronounced Mumonkan in Japanese, often translated into English as The Gateless Gate but more accurately rendered as Gateless Barrier) is a collection of 48 koans and commentaries published in 1228 by Chinese monk Wumen (無門). Five koans in the collection derive from the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou Congshen, (transliterated as Chao-chou in Wade-Giles and pronounced Jōshū in Japanese).
Case 1: Zhaozhou's dog
A related koan in the Book of Serenity reinforces the teaching that Zhaozhou's response does not refer to affirmation or negation:
Case 6: Buddha holds out a flower
Case 7: Zhaozhou washes the bowl
Case 8: Keichu's wheel
Case 29: Huineng's flag
Case 37: Zhaozhou's cypress
Other traditional koans
What is the Buddha?
Zen teachers asked this question have given various answers. Here are some of them:
Killing the Buddha
The abbot's gift
Anecdotes of recent zen teachers have started to make their way into zen lore as koans, for example:
An introductory koan used by several Diamond Sangha teachers is, "Who hears?"
Hacker culture has invented a number of humorous koans which do not fit the normal definition of koan. See hacker koan.
See Ruth Fuller Sasaki's introduction on page xi of The Zen Koan, Isshu Miura and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Harvest/HBJ, 1965; see also Steve Hagen's introduction on page vii of the 2000 edition of The Iron Flute (subtitle) 100 Zen Koans, translated into English by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Stout McCandless, originally Tetteki Tosui, Genro, 1783; see also pp xiii, 26, and 212 of The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan), Robert Aitken, North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1991, incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228); see also p64 of Two Arrows Meeting in Mid Air (subtitle) The Zen Koan, John Daido Loori, Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont/Tokyo, 1994.
See chapter 4 of Zen Sand (subtitle) The Book of Capping Phrases for Koan Practice, Victor Sogen Hori, 2003, University of Hawai'i Press.
The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) Zen comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkei Shibayama (1894-1974), Translated from Chinese and Japanese into English by Sumiko Kudo, Shambhala Publications, 1974; incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228).
See The Zen Koan (see note ) p4-6, and also "The form and function of koan literature" (subtitle) "A historical overview", T. Griffith Foulk, in The Koan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p21-22. Assertions that the literal meaning of kung-an is the table, desk, or bench of a magistrate appear on page 18 of the article by Foulk, and also in Seeing Through Zen, (subtitle) Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism, John R. MacRae, 2003, University of California Press, p172-173 note 16.
See Zen Letters (subtitle) Teachings of Yuanwu, Yuanwu Kequin (1063-1135), translated into English by J. C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary, 1994, Shambhala Publications, p16, and "Before the empty eon versus A dog has no Buddha-nature" (subtitle) "Kung-an use in the Ts'ao-tung tradition and Ta-hui's Kung-an introspction Ch'an", Morten Schlutter, in The Koan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p185-186.
"Emerging from Nonduality" (subtitle) "Koan Practice in the Rinzai tradition since Hakuin", Michael Mohr, in The Koan (subtitle) Texts and contexts in Zen Buddhism, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds., 2000, Oxford University Press, p245.
See the commentary on case #1 in The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkei Shibayama, translated in English by Sumiko Kudo, 1974, Shambhala Publications.
See "Tao-sheng's Theory of Sudden Enlightenment", Whalen Lai, in Sudden and Gradual (subtitle) Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, p173 and 191. The latter page documents how in 429 or thereabouts (more than 400 years before Zhaozhou), Tao-sheng was expelled from the Buddhist monastic community for defending the idea that incorrigible persons (icchantika) do indeed have Buddha-nature (fo-hsing).
Pruning the Bodhi Tree (subtitle) The Storm over Critical Buddhism Jamie Hubbard and Paul L. Swanson, eds, 1997, University of Hawaii Press; for example see Chapter 1, "Why They Say Zen Is Not Buddhism" (subtitle) "Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature", Paul L. Swanson.
The Gateless Barrier (subtitle) The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan), Robert Aitken, North Point Press/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1991, incorporates Wu-Men Kuan (J. Mumonkan), Wu-Men, 1228); see p306, footnote 1 for Case #37.
Translating the Zen Phrase Book, G. Victor Sogen Hori, Nanzan Bulletin 23, 1999, p44-58.
Dates are as per Zen's Chinese Heritage, subtitled The masters and their teachings by Andy Ferguson, published in 2000 by Wisdom Publications. Koan Koan Koan Koan (Zen) 公案 Koan Koan Công án