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The Iron Flute 100 Zen Koans

Updated on February 17, 2014

My Review of The Iron Flute (100 Zen Koans and Stories)

A reader reviews the Zen book The Iron Flute a collection of 100 Koans - 100 stories meant to shake up how we view the here and now. Originally I purchased the book to read over a rainy weekend, twenty years later it caught my eye sitting between numerous unread companions, and I read it. If I had read it when I originally bought it I'm sure my perception and understanding would have been far different then what it is today and I'm certain my reading of it those twenty years ago would have been arid.

The Iron Flute collection of Koans originally compiled by Genro in the 1780's, it includes additional commentary on each Koan from his student Fugai, it was translated by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout McCandless in 1950's.

The book begins with an intro from a contemporary Zen priest, Steve Hagen. "When I first began practicing Zen under Dainin Katagiri Roshi, he asked me to comment on a Zen koan. I told him, in all honesty, that I found the koan puzzling. Immediately his face wrinkled up as if he had bitten into a lemon. "Not puzzle!" he shouted. He quickly made it clear to me that Zen teachings are not puzzles to which we students are expected to come up with clever answers".

Over the century's many approaches to Koans have developed but few explanations seem to speak to the definition found in this book "Koans are expressions of immediate awareness before we categorize, label, arrange or evaluate everything" Reality without coloring or prejudice is additionally a clear view. Many Zen teachers and authors suggest that you leave your preconceived notions at the door when you read a Koan and just let it work within you. Perhaps like marinating the koan itself without the traditional grinding of thoughts will come to meaning all by itself.

So the approach in reading or studying a Koan seems like a puzzle or maze some crazy Zen master is beckoning you to become trapped in, but this is missing the point entirely. A Koan may best be approached as something you perceive here and now, and not something you add layers of intellectual analysis to. If you're new to Koans try reading one, and then just sit with it. The koan Itself is not magic or some new age trick, it's an expression of here and now. Even my attempt to explain fails as I'm caught in trying to explain meaning with my own words and perceptions, simplicity eludes me. My explanation is itself a coloring of the koan egg.

Here is the first Koan in The Iron Flute

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate,

the Buddha called to him, "Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?"

Manjusri replied, "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?"

The book offers scads of commentary for each of the 100 koans, though the commentary at times will seem even further away from understanding, remember understanding intellectually is not the goal. Each Koan presented is uniquely a moment by itself and if you read The Iron Flute like a novel please go back later and take each one by itself. If your a beginner you might try reading it out-loud or have someone read it out-loud to you.

What's The Point

Indeed what's the point of my digging out gems from the book and sharing them with you? If the point of koans is an experience then as an old Zen monk might say, " who cares what I say, who cares that I may think the book is important." Important, indeed...what a rascal I am.

Coloring Reality With A Thought - what do you bring to the Koan table

What Is Your Favorite Thought Color?

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reality can not be constructed, it is already here

Rate it, if you dare...

On a scale of 1-7, what did you REALLY think?

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Manjushri Stood

"One day Manjushri stood outside the gate when Buddha called to him. 'Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?'

'I do not see a thing outside the gate. Why should I enter?' Manjushri answered."

Manjushri is either a fool or a Buddha. I am not sure which. Either he doesn't see anything beyond the gate because he is not looking, his eyesight is defective or he sees with the eye of the Dharma. Those who see with such eyes see there is no Inside or Outside, Left or Right, Here or There.There is, and that is all.

The Iron Flute....

please share any Zen thoughts or experiences

Unfolding of Zen in my life can be glimpsed at Zen Automat - I'm a blockhead who doesn't understand Zen but what the heck....

Unfolding of Zen in my life can be glimpsed at Zen Automat - A blockheads attempt to understand Zen but who most certainly doesn't understand Zen. Where's the door out of this place anyways?

Comments - have you read or do you plan on reading the book?

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    • earthybirthymum profile image


      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wonderful Lense.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      @Zen Automat: Manjushri is still here. Smile that in becoming the gate you may have opened yourself so another can pass through. The gate does not concern itself on being on the inside or outside it is both.

      Thus my thanks, and my thanks again.

    • Zen Automat profile imageAUTHOR

      Zen Automat 

      7 years ago from New Hampshire

      @anonymous: Owl thanks for stopping over to have a look at my page. It is my understanding that there is no gate, maybe my attempt to explain has made me the gate and Manjushri has left the building.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Webnh When I read your thoughts on how to think of a koan I wanted to see the meaning of experiencing them in the present rather than as a gateway to the depths.

      Then I wondered if I was on the outside of the gate or you were.

      My final question became are you Manjushri, the Buddha or the gate?

      Thank you.

    • Zen Automat profile imageAUTHOR

      Zen Automat 

      7 years ago from New Hampshire

      @efriedman: It was a revelation to me as well when I let go of the puzzle way of looking at Koans. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Zen Automat profile imageAUTHOR

      Zen Automat 

      7 years ago from New Hampshire

      @Diana Wenzel: I'm glad you found this lens helpful.. thanks for stopping by..

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      I would love to read this book. You provided me with fresh insights about the koan experience. I need to go sit with a koan and just be.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Control peace within the mind in order to bring peace within the body.

    • efriedman profile image


      7 years ago

      I am intrigued, particularly by your suggestion to experience the Koan without seeing it as a puzzle. Thank you.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      No plans yet as i read the shobogenzo nowadays....

    • Zen Automat profile imageAUTHOR

      Zen Automat 

      8 years ago from New Hampshire

      @Board-Game-Brooke: A Koan a day, I always say :) thanks for dropping by and leaving a blessing

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 

      8 years ago from US/TN

      Interesting! This makes me want to find my Zen book and revisit some koans. Blessed!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Not read the book but know Zen carries a message of peace and wisdom.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      8 years ago

      It sounds like an interesting zen read from your accounting. Angel blessed.


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