What are Koans?

A Koan (Japanese: ko-an, Chinese: go-ng-ān) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition. A famous koan is, "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" (oral tradition, attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769, considered a reviver of the koan tradition in Japan).

Koans originate in the sayings and doings of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century) as its ancestor. Koans are said to reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons, and sometimes said to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness. Zen teachers often recite and comment on koans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on koans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their koan practice using "checking questions" to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, "capping phrases", and verses inspired by the koan.

As used by teachers, monks, and students in training, koan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records, a perplexing element of the story, a concise but critical word or phrase extracted from the story, or to the story appended by poetry and commentary authored by later Zen teachers, sometimes layering commentary upon commentary. Less formally, the term koan sometimes refers to any experience that accompanies awakening or spiritual insight.

English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use koan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a koan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a koan. Even so, a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a koan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given koan, and a fixed answer cannot be correct in every circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple's answer is, "Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good." The master is looking, not for an answer in a specific form, but for evidence that the disciple has grasped the practical use of the koan in daily life, or in other words, has actually given up some previous attachment.

In the Rinzai Zen tradition the final set of koans is the ten precepts of Buddhism (Do not kill, and so on) which must be understood outside the dualism of right and wrong, but not in a monist or nihilist manner either. The Soto Zen tradition begins training with Dogen Zenji's koan-style description of this deeper meaning of the Precepts.

The word koan corresponds to the Chinese characters ?? which can be rendered in various ways: go-ng'ān (Chinese pinyin); kung-an (Chinese Wade-Giles); gong'an (Korean); công-án (Vietnamese); ko-an (Japanese Hepburn); often transliterated koan). Of these, "koan" is the most common in English. Just as Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch'an, Korean Son, and Vietnamese Thien, and Western Zen all share many features in common, likewise koans play similar roles in each, although significant cultural differences exist

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