“Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth.” ~ The Diamond Sutra
Koans are self-paradoxical riddles used as a meditation discipline in Zen Buddhism. The point of the koan is to exhaust the analytic and egoic mind in order to reveal the more intuitive no-mind.
They are not about arriving at an answer, but to see for ourselves that our intellections can never provide us with a completely satisfying answer. Some might even claim that koans are anti-intellectual. But they are neither anti-intellectual nor intellectual.
They simply point out that reality itself cannot be “caught.” For example, perhaps the two most well-known koans are as follows, simple and succinct, short and elegant…
“When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
“Question: What is Buddha? Answer: Three pounds of flax.”
The Zen koan serves as a scalpel used to cut into the mind of the meditator. It’s a hammer used to shatter fixed thinking, a Rubik’s Cube of words for the mind to unravel. Koans are not merely black and white riddles that our minds figure out suddenly and proclaim, “Aha! I’ve got the answer!”
They are ambiguous and paradoxical, waiting for our minds to open up enough to allow the space for deep intuition to emerge —beyond knowing and into no-minding, through the use of imaginative mindfulness.
Here are 5 Zen Koans that have the potential to open your mind.
1.) A Cup of Tea
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?”
This is a classic Zen koan about the importance of learning, unlearning, and relearning so as to remain sharp and free from fixed thinking. The imagery of the cup overflowing is a powerful symbol reminding us to let things go so that we can “pour” more experience into our lives.
The paradox is that we can never truly let go of what we’ve learned. It’s always retained on some level. In muscle memory, for example. What we’re “pouring out” of the “cup” of our minds is the ego’s attachment to learning and memory and a releasing of fixed opinions and rigid expectations.
Indeed, a mind-dump a day keeps the brainwash away. Similar to the Zen proverb, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Before learning, empty cup, wash cup. After learning, empty cup, wash cup.
2.) Muddy Road
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
This koan reminds me of the following quote by Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Ekido is so caught up in the rightness and wrongness of Tanzan’s actions that he becomes a victim to the static past at the expense of the dynamic present. Tanzan has already let it go.
Life is counter-intuitively situational. The human condition is never cut and dry. There are rules and there are laws. Some of which are in balance with greater cosmic law and some of which are not.
Sometimes the “right” thing to do is to do the “wrong” thing according to convention. Sometimes morality is just as muddy as the road Tanzan and Ekido were traveling down.
3.) A Parable
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
This is the ultimate koan on the power of living in the moment. As mortal beings we are constantly surrounded by death. We are forever pinched by two overwhelming infinities. No matter what we do there is a crushing sense of nothingness behind us dwarfed only by the crushing infinity that lies ahead of us.
As Sebastian Faulks said, “To conceive of ourselves as fragmentary matter cohering for a millisecond between two eternities of darkness is very difficult.”
The paradox is: how do we find joy or even happiness when caught between the rock and the hard place of life?
The trick is presence. The secret is awareness. The key is curiosity. All three are the epitome of life’s (a delicious red strawberry) overcoming of entropy (two mice gnawing at a vine) despite the inevitability of death (two hungry tigers).
4.) Futility and Absurdity
In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him.
“I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.”
“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.”
The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him.
“Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”
“Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.
Sometimes life is futile. Sometimes we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Sometimes good luck is disguised by bad luck and vice versa. Sometimes a kick in the ass propels us forward, and sometimes it’s just a plain old kick in the ass.
The absurdity of the human condition is both very painful and very laughable. It’s an ironic and incongruous and poignantly imperfect. But that’s also half the fun of it. Life comes at us fast, and sometimes the healthiest thing to do is to laugh despite the speed of it all.
Between the pain of life’s lessons and the medicinal laughter of cultivating a good sense of humor, there is the unvanquishable absurdity of life kicking us around. Sometimes all we can do is kick back with a ruthless sense of humor, not despite irony and incongruity, but because of them.
Dive in! The water is warm (and cold and safe and dangerous and sometimes there’s even oil in it). But don’t let that stop you from living; from dancing through the glaring futility and venomous absurdity of it all with a humor of the most high.
5.) Buddha’s Zen
Buddha said: “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”
One of the most powerful things we can do as mortal creatures perceiving a fleeting cosmos from a precarious perch, is to realize that all things are fleeting. All things are decaying.
All things are made up of the same perfectly imperfect matter as everything else. Permanence is just as much an illusion of reality as power is an illusion of culture. The wise thing is to be aware of both. And sometimes that requires an intellectual ruthlessness and an imaginative insouciance.
Buddha uses both in the above quote, tearing apart power constructs like they were flimsy pieces of parchment, poking holes in perceived ideologies with the hot poker of his words, and bringing the entire notion of fixed thinking crumbling down into the settled dust of free thinking, where the roots are finally allowed to be fed.
Gold melts into glittery nothingness. Fruit decays. Teachings become stagnations. The four seasons of life devour each other. What grows and flourishes eventually decays and dies. So be it.
But as Rumi profoundly stated, “Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.”