ZEN Koans

zen zazen meditation
What is a KOAN?

A koan is a surprising or paradoxical word or phrase, taken from an anecdote, that is used as an object of meditation in traditions descended from Chinese Chan Buddhism, like Japanese Zen. Contemplating these words is part of the training given by a teacher to help a Buddhist student to awaken.”

A kōan (公案) (/ˈkæn, ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng’àn, [kʊ́ŋ ân]; Korean: 화두, hwadu; Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and to practice or test a student’s progress in Zen. 

 

What is a ZEN Meditation?

Zazen is a meditation technique & one of main practices of Zen.

Through a form of meditation based on breathing, its called Zazen. It’s easy and anyone can do it. 

READ MORE on ZAZEN Meditation

 

Zen Koan Original face Hui Neng

Zen Koan Case 23: Hui-neng Neither Good nor Evil

THE CASE The Sixth Ancestor was pursued by Ming the head monk as far as Ta-yü Peak. The teacher, seeing Ming coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, “This robe represents the Dharma. There should be no fighting over it. You may take it back with you.” Ming tried to lift it up, but it was as immovable as a mountain.

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Zen Koan Case 16 Sound of Bell

Zen Koan Case 16: Yun-men: The sound of the Bell

THE CASE Yün-men said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?” WU-MEN’S COMMENT All you Zen students, training in the Way, don’t be victimized by sounds; don’t follow up on forms. You may have realization on hearing a sound or enlightenment on seeing a form—that’s natural. But don’t you know

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Zen Koan What is Buddha

Zen Koan Case 18 What is Buddha?

THE CASE A monk asked Tung-shan, “What is Buddha?” Tung-shan said, “Three pounds of flax.” WU-MEN’S COMMENT Old Man Tung-shan attained something of clam-Zen. He opened the two halves of his shell a bit and exposed his liver and intestines. Be that as it may, tell me: where do you see Tung-shan? WU-MEN’S VERSE Thrusting forth “three pounds of flax!” The words are intimate, mind

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Zen Koans

Zen Koan Case 19 What is Tao?

Nan-ch’üan: “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” Chao-chou asked Nan-ch’üan, “What is the Tao?” Nan-ch’üan said, “Ordinary mind is the Tao.” Chao-chou asked, “Should I try to direct myself toward it?” Nan-ch’üan said, “If you try to direct yourself you betray your own practice.” Chao-chou asked, “How can I know the Tao if I don’t direct myself?” Nan-ch’üan said, “The Tao is not subject to knowing

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Zen Koan and Quotes

Zen Famous Koans & Stories

“What is the sound of one hand?”

– Zen Koan

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

– Zen Story

“What was your face before your parents were born?”

– Zen Koan

Below are from The Gateless Barrier which is generally acknowledged to be the fundamental koan collection in the literature of Zen.

CASE 1 Chao-chou’s Dog:

A monk asked Chao-chou,
“Has the dog Buddha nature or not?”
Chao-chou said, “Mu.”

CASE 2 Pai-chang’s Fox

THE CASE Once when Pai-chang gave a series of talks, a certain old man was always there listening together with the monks. When they left, he would leave too. One day, however, he remained behind. Pai-chang asked him, “Who are you, standing here before me?” The old man replied, “I am not a human being. In the far distant past, in the time of Kāśyapa Buddha, I was head priest at this mountain. One day a monk asked me, ‘Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?’ I replied, ‘Such a person does not fall under the law of cause and effect.’ With this I was reborn five hundred times as a fox. Please say a turning word for me and release me from the body of a fox.” He then asked Pai-chang, “Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect or not?” Pai-chang said, “Such a person does not evade the law of cause and effect.” Hearing this, the old man immediately was enlightened. Making his bows he said, “I am released from the body of a fox. The body is on the other side of this mountain. I wish to make a request of you. Please, Abbot, perform my funeral as for a priest.” Pai-chang had a head monk strike the signal board and inform the assembly that after the noon meal there would be a funeral service for a priest. The monks talked about this in wonder. “All of us are well. There is no one in the morgue. What does the teacher mean?”

Not falling into cause and effect can bring the wild fox to life; not obscuring cause and effect kills him stone dead. If you still don’t understand why don’t you go to the foot of the north cliff and take a look at him. Trans. by Norman Waddell After the meal, Pai-chang led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain. And there, with his staff, he poked out the body of a dead fox. He then performed the ceremony of cremation. That evening he took the high seat before his assembly and told the monks the whole story. Huang-po stepped forward and said, “As you say, the old man missed the turning word and was reborn as a fox five hundred times. What if he had given the right answer each time he was asked a question—what would have happened then?” Pai-chang said, “Just step up here closer, and I’ll tell you.” Huang-po went up to Pai-chang and slapped him in the face. Pai-chang clapped his hands and laughed, saying, “I thought the Barbarian had a red beard, but here is a red-bearded Barbarian.” WU-MEN’S COMMENT “Not falling under the law of cause and effect.” Why should this prompt five hundred lives as a fox? “Not evading the law of cause and effect.” Why should this prompt a return to human life? If you have the single eye of realization, you will appreciate how old Pai-chang lived five hundred lives as a fox as lives of grace. WU-MEN’S VERSE Not falling, not evading— two faces of the same die. Not evading, not falling— a thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes.

CASE 3 Chü-chih Raises One Finger

Whenever Chü-chih was asked a question, he simply raised one finger.

One day a visitor asked Chü-chih’s attendant what …

CASE 4 Huo-an’s Beardless Barbarian

THE CASE Huo-an asked, “Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?” 

CASE 5 Hsiang-yen: Up a Tree
The priest Hsiang-yen said, “It is as though you were up in a tree, hanging from a branch with your teeth. Your hands and feet can’t touch any branch. Someone appears beneath the tree and asks, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?’ If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility. If you do answer, you lose your life. What do you do?”
 
 
CASE 6 The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower
 
Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdhrakūta, he twirled a flower before his assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahākāśyapa broke into a smile. The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahākāśyapa.”
 
 
CASE 7 Chao-chou: “Wash Your Bowl”
A monk said to Chao-chou, “I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me.” Chao-chou said, “Have you eaten your rice gruel?” The monk said, “Yes, I have.” Chao-chou said, “Wash your bowl.” The monk understood.
 
CASE 8 Hsi-chung Builds Carts
THE CASE The priest Yüeh-an said to a monk, “Hsi-chung made a hundred carts. If you take off both wheels and the axle, what would be vividly apparent?” 
 
CASE 9 Ch’ing-jang’s Nonattained Buddha
A monk asked the priest Ch’ing-jang of Hsing-yang, “The Buddha of Supremely Pervading, Surpassing Wisdom did zazen on the Bodhi Seat for ten kalpas, but the Dharma of the Buddha did not manifest itself and he could not attain Buddhahood. Why was this?” Ch’ing-jang said, “Your question is exactly to the point.” The monk said, “But he did zazen on the Bodhi Seat; why couldn’t he attain Buddhahood?” Ch’ing-jang said, “Because he is a nonattained Buddha.” 
 
CASE 10 Ch’ing-shui: Solitary and Destitute
A monk said to Ts’ao-shan, “I am Ch’ing-shui, solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.” Ts’ao-shan said, “Venerable Shui!” Ch’ing-shui said, “Yes, sir!” Ts’ao-shan said, “You have already drunk three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say that you have not moistened your lips.” 
 
 
CASE 11 Chao-chou and the Hermits
Chao-chou went to a hermit’s cottage and asked, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” The hermit lifted up his fist. Chao-chou said, “The water is too shallow for a ship to anchor.” And he left. Again he went to a hermit’s cottage and asked, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” This hermit too lifted up his fist. Chao-chou said, “Freely you give, freely you take away, freely you kill, freely you give life.” And he made a full bow.
 
CASE 12 Jui-yen Calls “Master”
The priest Jui-yen called “Master!” to himself every day and answered himself “Yes!” Then he would say “Be aware!” and reply “Yes!” “Don’t be deceived by others!” “No, no!”
 
CASE 13 Te-shan: Bowls in Hand
THE CASE Te-shan one day descended to the dining hall, bowls in hand. Hsüeh-feng asked him, “Where are you going with your bowls in hand, Old Teacher? The bell has not rung, and the drum has not sounded.” Te-shan turned and went back to his room. Hsüeh-feng brought up this matter with Yen-t’ou. Yen-t’ou said, “Te-shan, great as he is, does not yet know the last word.” Hearing about this, Te-shan sent for Yen-t’ou and asked, “Don’t you approve of this old monk?” Yen-t’ou whispered his meaning. Te-shan said nothing further. Next day, when Te-shan took the high seat before his assembly, his presentation was very different from usual. Yen-t’ou came to the front of the hall, rubbing his hands and laughing loudly, saying, “How delightful! Our Old Boss has got hold of the last word. From now on, no one under heaven can outdo him!” 
 
CASE 14 Nan-ch’üan Kills the Cat
The priest Nan-ch’üan found monks of the eastern and western halls arguing about a cat. He held up the cat and said, “Everyone! If you can say something, I will spare this cat. If you can’t say anything, I will cut off its head.” No one could say a word, so Nan-ch’üan cut the cat into two. That evening, Chao-chou returned from outside and Nan-ch’üan told him what happened. Chao-chou removed a sandal from his foot, put it on his head, and walked out. Nan-ch’üan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been spared.”
 
CASE 15 Tung-shan’s Sixty Blows
Tung-shan came to see Yün-men. Yün-men asked him, “Where were you most recently?” Tung-shan said, “At Ch’a-tu.” Yün-men said, “Where were you during the summer?” Tung-shan said, “At Pao-tzu Monastery in Hu-nan.” Yün-men said, “When did you leave there?” Tung-shan said, “August 25th.” Yün-men said, “I spare you sixty blows.” Next day, Tung-shan came again and said, “Yesterday you said you spared me sixty blows. I don’t know where I was at fault.” Yün-men said, “You rice bag! Do you go about in such a way, now west of the river, now south of the lake!” With this, Tung-shan had great satori.
 
 
 
 
CASE 16 Yün-men: The Sound of the Bell
THE CASE Yün-men said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”
 
 
CASE 17 Kuo-shih’s Three Calls
Chung Kuo-shih called his attendant three times, and three times his attendant responded. Kuo-shih said, “I was about to say that I was ungrateful to you. But the fact is that you are ungrateful to me.”
 
 
CASE 20 Sung-yüan’s Person of Great Strength
The priest Sung-yüan asked, “Why can’t the person of great strength lift up a leg?” Again he said, “It is not with the tongue that you speak.”
 
 
CASE 21 Yün-men’s Dried Shitstick
A monk asked Yün-men, “What is Buddha?” Yün-men said, “Dried shitstick.” 
 
CASE 22 Mahākāśyapa’s Flagpole
Ananda asked Mahākāśyapa, “The World-Honored One transmitted the robe of gold brocade to you. What else did he transmit to you?” Kāśyapa said, “Ananda!” Ananda answered, “Yes!” Kāśyapa said, “Knock down the flagpole at the gate.
 
CASE 23 Hui-neng: “Neither Good Nor Evil”
The Sixth Ancestor was pursued by Ming the head monk as far as Ta-yü Peak. The teacher, seeing Ming coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, “This robe represents the Dharma. There should be no fighting over it. You may take it back with you.”
 
Ming tried to lift it up, but it was as immovable as a mountain. Shivering and trembling, he said, “I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, lay brother, please open the Way for me.” The teacher said, “Don’t think good; don’t think evil. At this very moment, what is the original face of Ming the head monk?” In that instant Ming had great satori. Sweat ran from his entire body. In tears he made his bows saying, “Beside these secret words and secret meanings, is there anything of further significance?”
 
The teacher said, “What I have just conveyed to you is not secret. If you reflect on your own face, whatever is secret will be right there with you.”
 
Ming said, “Though I practiced at Huang-mei with the assembly, I could not truly realize my original face. Now, thanks to your pointed instruction, I am like someone who drinks water and knows personally whether it is cold or warm. Lay brother, you are now my teacher.”
 
The teacher said, “If you can say that, then let us both call Huang-mei our teacher. Maintain your realization carefully.”
 

The Gateless Barrier

The Gateless Barrier is generally acknowledged to be the fundamental koan collection in the literature of Zen.

Gathered together by Wu-men (Mumon), a thirteenth-century master of the Lin-chi (Rinzai) school, it is composed of forty-eight koans, or cases, each accompanied by a brief comment and poem by Wu-men.

Robert Aitken, one of the premier American Zen masters, has translated Wu-men’s text, supplementing the original with his own commentary — the first such commentary by a Western master — making the profound truths of Zen Buddhism accessible to serious contemporary students and relevant to current social concerns.

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