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An introduction to Zen Koans

Updated on October 7, 2010

What is a Koan

A kōan is generally a question, that has no direct or logical answer. These are questions asked by Zen masters to their students, so that the student begins to think. As there is no direct answer that the rational mind can provide, students often meditate on kōans for several. months. The ultimate goal of this exercise, is to attain a higher level of thought. Most of these kōans have no single answer, and the teachers deem an answer correct when the student demonstrates his new thought patterns and state of mind.
Zen literature is full of kōans, several dating back to over a thousand years. As we know Zen is all about awareness and peace of mind, kōans form an important tool that instantly alter your sense of awareness and bring peace of mind when solved.

Some kōans to get you started

Now that we know about this intriguing and weird tool to alter your state of mind, why not start using it.

One of the commonly used kōans is

A monk was once asked "What is Buddha?"
He replied, "3 pounds of hemp"

"What do you think is the meaning of this?" - is what your Zen master would ask you.

For a person new to Zen, the above two sentences might seem completely incoherent. Indeed, these sentences make no sense to the logical mind. There is a definite need for deeper thought. After a lot of thought, I figured that the monk might have been carrying 3 pounds of hemp at that time, and as the essence of Zen is to live in the present and have a complete awareness of what you are doing, the 3 pounds of hemp meant Buddha to me. But this is only what I inferred, and you could infer something completely different which makes complete sense to you. There is no right or wrong answer, the goal is only to set your mind thinking.

Now, if you think that was good, here are a two more:

  1. What is the sound that you hear, if you clap with one hand ?
  2. What did you look like / Where were you before you were born ?

There is a huge list of kōans available at : The Blue Cliff Record

Zen is a concept that forces you to look inward for answers. Do not get frustrated if you think most of these kōans are not making sense to you. Give yourself sometime, think about it, and before you know it, your level of thought will never be the same again.


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