Koans: Riddles in the Zen Tradition

One aspect of Zen I have found to be unique after being raised in Western culture was the use of religious riddles called koans. Zen is different from Western religion as it does not typically require a subscription to a set of beliefs. It is well known that a Catholic priest is welcome to practice contemplation in a Zen temple as expressed in Philip Kapleau’s “The Three Pillars of Zen”. Western and Eastern religions are similar in the respect that at their root, they are paths toward freedom. What that looks like in the end is often up for debate. Zen is peculiar in the fact that in the tradition exists this system of riddles called koans which students are at times instructed to meditate upon and bring an answer to the Zen Master. In this way Zen can be seen as humorous at times, which can be a relief depending on the religious environment you were raised in. Koans are humorous much in the same way that jokes are.

When someone tells you a joke, it is typically a question which you know will have a ridiculous answer. It is never quite what you expected, yet at the same time you have the sensation of having the punch line on the tip of your tongue. Hearing a Zen koan is much like this feeling. First the master asks the student a question. Sure, it seems simple enough, but don’t forget. It’s a Zen master so the answer is supposed to represent your level of understanding. He will be the judge in whether or not the answer is good enough, or so it seems. As when the answer to a joke is revealed, in Zen koans there is a feeling of lightness when the punch line is delivered and it is very likely some will cause at least an internal smile. At most? Well sudden enlightenment of course! Although it is not always clear why. Anyhow the punchline must be some pretty potent stuff.

The koan is thought to have some significance to the students practice, and the correct response to a koan is equivalent in some degree to a type of insight into the nature of reality. Now there are many koans, and I have certainly not seen them all, but I can attest to a coexistence of satisfaction and confusion as they are resolved. I have heard many ways of explaining how a koan is supposed to be answered, and why some answers work and others don’t. I feel the most brief account has to do with this confusion which occurs. What koans often do is put an impossible task or a paradox before the student and ask him/her to either make it happen or solve it. The confusion arises due to the student striving to conceptually understand what is conceptually impossible. The irony in a koan is that the very conceptual understanding being used by the student is the same which produces the confusion. So in some ways, a Zen master can be seen as somewhat of a clever fellow attempting to get the conceptual system to break down for a moment and reveal an opening. This puts the practitioner in a non-conceptual state which can be sudden and intuitive. Zen koans often end with a perfectly ridiculous resolution to a problem accompanied by, hopefully, the unexpected awakening of a monk. Don’t we all love a nice wholesome happy ending?

One such koan is as follows:

A monk, Shexian, came to study with a famous master Shoushan. One day Shoushan held a bamboo comb up to his students and yelled ‘If you call this a comb you are committing an offence. If you don’t call it a bamboo comb then you are not true to yourself. Now! What do you see?’
The students were silent as nobody wanted to seem stupid, and nobody knew what to say. Suddenly Shexian grabbed the comb from the master and threw it on the ground and exclaimed, ‘What is it?’
Shoushan looked at him for some time and said
It was at this moment when Shexian had his first realization.

As you can see, the teacher put the students in a situation where there was not a correct answer. Even more so! He explained that virtually no answer would suffice, yet he gave one when the student asked. I also would not be inclined to explain why the master’s answer brought Shexian to his first realization, that would be to miss the point entirely. There are hundreds of koans online, traditional and non-traditional and I highly suggest reading them as they can be entertaining much like the “funnies” in the paper. Although it may be an acquired sense of humor, or very niche, if a student of Zen is given this question as an opportunity to further understanding whats the hurt in giving it a go?




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