Thursday, May 28, 2009


Recently I came across a few questions and while travelling too, few very strange looking questions arose in my mind and it reminded me of a Koan.

For those of you who don't know, A Koan is a tradition in Zen. It is basically kind of a question of a very strange kind that may seem weird or absolutely meaningless and is given to a disciple to think on it. It might even be a question that has no answer but the student has to think over it. It is also to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.

Thus, the Koan has a specific purpose. A student or disciple is given a Koan to ponder over, and he goes into his room and sits alone- only he and the question exist and that is the only thing he does. Till the time he finds a solution, he just stays with the question, and does nothing else. And there have been instances where they have done this for days, months and even many years! For years, day in and day out, they only think over the question. And many have become enlightened just by this. This is actually just a method, a device, the question itself is not important and nor is the answer. It is the effort, sincere effort put in by the disciple that does the trick. For these questions, you cannot use your normal ways of thinking and logic and anything else. You have to give yourself to this question and become the question itself.............

The purpose of kōans is for a Zen practitioner to become aware of the difference between themselves, their mind, and their beliefs that influence how they see the world as an aspect of realizing their True nature. Paradoxes tend to arouse the mind for an extended duration as the mind goes around and around trying to resolve the paradox or kōan to an "answer". This is a lot like a dog chasing its tail and, while it's chasing, the mind makes itself more visible. Once a Zen practitioner becomes aware of their mind as an independent form, the kōan makes sense and the teaching point is realized.

And out of the hundreds of Koans that exist, perhaps none is as popular as this one- "What is the sound of the one-hand clapping?" You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together, so what is the sound of a one hand clap!

Below is what Osho has said about Koans-

Zen has a special method of meditation. They call it koan or 'ko-an'. A koan is a puzzle. But it is not like an ordinary puzzle. It is a puzzle that cannot be solved. Ordinary puzzles can be solved, they are meant to be solved. They may be difficult, but they are not impossible. A koan is an impossible puzzle. You cannot solve it; there is no way to solve it. For example, this is a Zen koan: what is the sound of one hand clapping? If you use two hands a sound is created, but if you use only one hand, what sound is created? This is a koan. Impossible to solve. Whatsoever you say will be wrong. Unless you remain totally silent, everything will be wrong. This koan is to create a total silence in you, where no answer is coming. If answers are coming they will go on being the wrong answers, because every answer is wrong – no sound can be created by one hand... --Osho

Theoretically it sounds simple, but no matter how silly, illogical, foolish or outrageous the question seems, the question has to be pondered over with utmost sincerity and it will almost drive you mad! But through this realization is possible. It is a tremendously powerful device. And though it is quite torturous for the student or disciple, if it can awaken him, then nothing better than it!

" 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.

A few other Koans are:
- Does a dog have the Buddha nature?
-What is your original face before you were born?

A few other questions, which I don't think are Koans as such but seem to be quite similar- of the same category. A couple of questions that I recently came across and read on the Internet-

1) If you lock a table in a dark room, with concrete walls and no windows. Bolt shut the door and have no way of looking in, does the table still exist?

2) If a tree falls in the woods, but no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

For this second question above, I put it in Google and found a Wiki Answers page. Check it out to see how the mind can think over it and how many points of view there can be. Here is the link: LINK

There are also many Zen stories that seem really impossible, silly and outrageous (I am again using this word!), and even funny. I will just mention a few of them- :


1) Noticing that his father was growing old, the son of a burglar asked his father to teach him the trade so that he could carry on the family business after his father had retired.
The father agreed, and that night they broke into a house together.Opening a large chest the father told his son to go in and pick out the clothing. As soon as the boy was inside, the father locked the chest and then made a lot of noise so that the whole house was aroused. Then he slipped quietly away.
Locked inside the chest the boy was angry, terrified, and puzzled as to how he was going to get out. Then an idea flashed to him- he made a noise like a cat. The family told a maid to take a candle and examine the chest. When the lid was unlocked the boy jumped out, blew the candle, pushed his way past the astonished maid, and ran out. The people ran after him. Noticing a well by the side of the road the boy threw in a large stone, then hid in the darkness. The pursuers gathered around the well trying to see the burglar drowning himself.
When the boy got home he was very angry at his father and he tried to tell him the story; but the father said: 'Don't bother to tell me the details, you are here- you have learned the art.'

2) Trading Dialogue for Lodging
Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wondering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.
In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.
A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teachings. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. "Go and request the dialogue in silence," he cautioned.
So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.
Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: "Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me."
"Relate the dialogue to me," said the elder one.
"Well," explained the traveler, "first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here." With this, the traveler left.
"Where is that fellow?" asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
"I understand you won the debate."
"Won nothing. I'm going to beat him up."
"Tell me the subject of the debate," asked the elder one.
"Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch held up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!"

3) The Zen Master Hakuin was honored by his neighbours as on who led a pure life.
One day it was discoverd that a beautiful girl who lived near hakuin was pregnant.
The parents were very angry. At first the girl would not say who the father was, but after much harassment she named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to Hakuin, but all he would say was, "Is that so?"
After the child was born it was taken to Hakuin - who had lost his reputation by this time, although he didn't seem much disturbed by the fact.
Hakuin took great care of the child. He obtained milk, food, and everything else the child needed from his neighbours.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer, so she told her parents the truth - the real father was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl went round at once to Hakuin to tell him the story, apologize at great length, ask his forgiveness and get the child back.
As the master willingly yielded the child he said, "Is that so?"

Finally before leaving, a question for you to ponder over. If you had not come across and read my post, would this post still have been there? :)


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