has become popular in the West as a result of the importation
of these spiritual ideas by, amongst others, Dr. T. Suzuki.
Zen promotes a very different way of understanding and dealing
with reality. One of the most baffling aspects of Zen to the
Western mind is the practice of Koans. Koans are teaching tool
used to break down the barriers to enlightenment.
What are the
purposes of Koans?
Koans are a method of training the mind in order
to achieve the state of Satori. Satori is a very difficult concept
to describe in a few words. It is essentially the goal of all
Zen mediation and can be compared to the term enlightenment
or insight into the nature of reality. These two aspects, Koan
exercises and Satori are the central aspects of Zen. A further
aspect to Zen should also be considered. This is the practice
of Zazen. Zazen is the practice of mediation that involves sitting
cross-legged in deep contemplation.
Another term for Zazen is "Dhyana". This term
means to perceive or to reflect upon. Zazen is used to reach
the conclusion of a Koan. Therefore the Koan and Zazen methods
are essential in Zen training.
Koan literarily translated means "A public document".
It refers to a statement made by a Master to a student of Zen
or a discussion or dialogue between Master and student. The
purpose of a Koan is to open the mind and perception to the
truth. Koans are questions or riddles designed as instruments
by the Zen Master to aid the student in finding the truth behind
the everyday images of reality.
How do Koans function?
Koans are not rational questions with final linear
conclusions. They are especially designed for one purpose; this
purpose is to open the mind that has been closed by habitual
responses to the world and reality.
The above statement needs a bit of explanation.
Our perception of the world is clouded by, firstly, the habitual
responses that we are taught by society and secondly, by the
habit forming creation of our own selves or ego's. In everyday
life and through societal education, we develop ideas about
reality and possibilities that our peers verify. We accept these
"laws" as immutable on the basis of their habitual occurrence
and certification by society. For example, scientific authorities
state that there is a law of gravity and that time is linear
and proceeds form one second to the next. These "truths" are
supported and bolstered by schools, society and our peers until
they become unquestionable fact. This also applies to our ideas
of human personality and of ourselves. Change then becomes an
almost impossible task within the framework of conventional
However, science has already placed question
marks next to the accepted facts of western society. Einstein's
theory of relativity and quantum physics are just two examples.
The purpose of Zen Koans is to upset or dislocate the mind from
these habitual ideas of reality and open the mind to the other
possibilities and, eventually, to Satori or knowledge of reality.
The Koan works at various levels and on various
stages of the student's progress in understanding Zen. At its
most elementary stage the Zen Koan is intended to question what
the student takes for commonplace reality and to question that
which is seen to be logically impossible. It is only in this
way that the student can be prepared for spiritual reality that
transcends or goes beyond ordinary logical knowledge.
is an example of a Zen Koan.
The Monk Mayo asked this question of the Sixth
patriarch: "What is Zen?" the Patriarch replied that, "when
your mind is not dwelling on the dualism of good and evil, what
is your original face before you were born?"
This question seems nonsensical, but this is
only so when measured against the linear logical requirements
of society. The question is intended to open the initiated mind
to possibilities beyond the rational. It is also designed so
as to waken the student to the possibility that spiritual answers
require a different mode of thought.
Zen master Dogen had a saying that is appropriate
in the present context. He said that in order to perceive reality
we must "drop mind and body". In other words, it is essential
to drop all habits of thought and preconceptions in order to
understand the truth. The Koan forces the student to face this
type of thinking. The answer to the question " what is your
original face before you were born?" cannot be answered on the
level of rational logic. It points towards the possibility of
knowing or understanding without the constructs of reason and
habitual response. The question suggests we have to approach
spiritual reality as if we had knowledge of things before we
were taught the ways of thinking of this world: in other words,
" before we were born".
In trying to answer the Koan, the student will
come to a mental "precipice", as it were, where all the methods
and procedures of accepted thinking no longer function. The
purpose of the Koan is to shove the student over this precipice
into an area of experience that is completely new. This is the
spiritual reality that the Zen master is attempting to guide
the student towards.
A similar Koan is "What is the sound of one hand
clapping?" Of course, in terms of the conventional world there
can be no sound from a single hand. Sound logically needs two
hands clapping. However, the question presumes that one hand
clapping has already created a sound and that it can be heard.
The question is not about sound or hands clapping, although
this is quite conceivable within the context of Zen. The question
is rather about hearing the impossible, which is only termed
impossible within the framework of conventional reality. The
Zen master is therefore pressing and encouraging the student
to critique ordinary reality and to force the mind into other
areas of understanding.
Browse Zen Koans
by Gary Smith