Famous Koans/Utter Nonsense

1.”Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”

If it’s Linji’s dog it may have distemper. The veterinary diagnosis is unclear.

2.”Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”
Same as the sound the audience makes when Hui-Neng’s punk band is playing. Hui-Neng plays drums. He had a choice between that or flute and felt the flute “just isn’t really me”.

3.”If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound?”

I have 3 pounds of flax stuffed in my ears because of that damn band next door. They practice day and night.

4.”What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?”

Inattentive travel agent. He was only going to Sarnath. Halfway there Bodhidharma asked the cart driver, “Are you taking the long way? I’m not paying  extra for a side trip!” The driver replied, “You’ll get where you’re going. Relax and enjoy the mountain scenery.”

5.”What is Buddha?”
While hearing an explanation to this one day Wumen got up and left the temple. He got in a Lexus and drove out the gate. The Lexus turned out to be stolen. Police did not file charges.

“6. Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.”
Hakuin was polishing the water in a pond one day and dropped his cloth in alarm. He told of his experience. The abbot said “Go back to polishing water”

7.”Who hears?”
If you wear the head of an elephant you will still not keep the flies out of the pudding. Bankei sighed since he had just dreamed that an elephant had trampled his garden.

8.”Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?”
Bassui gave his comb to the neighbor who had brought him some eggs.

9.”Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”
Dogen asked him for a band-aid for his paper cut.

10.Nothing will do. What do you do?’
Ikkyu was breaking walnuts with a rock. Crows kept stealing the nuts. He turned his robe inside-out.
11. What is the Way?
Zhaozhou couldn’t find his breakfast bowl. He had to eat right out of the pot.

Koans – Some Definitions and Notes

  • “A koan is a Zen presentation in the form of a Zen challenge” (Richard DeMartino 1983)
  • “…stories and verses that present fundamental perspectives on life and no-life, the nature of the self, the relationship of the self to the earth – and how these interweave. Such stories and verses are called koans, and their study is the process of realizing their truths.” (Robert Aitken 1990)
  • “Koans are the folk stories of Zen Buddhism, metaphorical narratives that particularize essential nature. Each koan is a window that show the whole truth but just from a single vantage. It is limited in perspective.One hundred koans give one hundred vantages. When they are enriched with insightful comments and poems, then you have ten thousand vantages. There is no end to this process of enrichment.” (Robert Aitken 1990)
  • “…the term hwadu usually refers to the particular question itself as well as the state of mind to be cultivated through concentrating upon the question. … the term hwadu is also used as a virtual synonym for the Japanese term koan (K. kong an). Technically speaking, though, these terms differ in meaning. A koan – literally ” a public case” – is a description of an entire situation, usually of a dialogue between a Zen master and his disciple; the hwadu is only the central point of the exchange which is then singled out as a topic for meditation.” (Stephen Batchelor 1985)
  • “The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single man, but rather the highest principle … [that] accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like […] a great fire that consumes all who come near it.” (Chung-feng Ming-pen [1263-1323] )
  • “These stories and sayings contain patterns, like blueprints, for various inner exercises in attention, mental posture, and higher perception, summarized in extremely brief vignettes enabling the individual to hold entire universes of thought in mind all at once, without running through doctrinal discourses or disrupting ordinary consciousness of everyday affairs.” (Thomas Cleary 1994)
  • “It is exactly the no-way-out situation in which the human being finds itself – that fundamental and unbridgeable inner cleavage of that being which is conscious of itself – that is said to be the way….[Zen Master Shin’ichi] Hisamatsu put this into a more general form: ‘Doshitemo ikanakereba do suru ka?‘: ‘Nothing will do. What do you do?’ He called this the ‘fundamental koan’ – i.e., the koan that is the common denominator of the thousands of extant koans.” (Urs App 1994)
  • “In the past, kong-an practicing meant checking someone’s enlightenment.Now we use kong-ans to make our lives correct… You must use kong-ans to take away your opinions. When you take away your opinions, your mind is clear like space, which means from moment to moment you can reflect any situation and respond correctly and meticulously.” (Seung Sahn 1992)
  • “In Zen, practitioners use kung-an as subjects for meditation until their mind come to awakening. There is a big difference between a kung-an and a math problem – the solution of the math problem is included in the problem itself, while the response to the kung-an lies in the life of the practitioner. The kung-an is a useful instrument in the work of awakening, just as a pick is a useful instrument in working on the ground. What is accomplished from working on the ground depends on the person doing the work and not just on the pick. The kung-an is not an enigma to resolve; this is why we cannot say that it is a theme or subject of meditation.” (Thich Nhat Hanh 1995)

List above adapted from Zen Buddhism Koan Study Pages

Links to Various Koan Collections

Shoyoroku (E. Book of Serenity, C. Ts’ung-jung lu)-listing without commentary

Hekiganroku (E. The blue cliff record, C. Pi-yen-lu)-listing without commentary

Mumonkan (E. The gateless gate)

Shaseki-shu (collection of stone and sand)  Also available here

Seung Sahn’s Twelve Gates – as used in Kuan Um school

Zen Koans – listing

Zen Koan Database-available in English and Spanish. Contributions welcome.


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