Buddhist koans are an ancient and incredibly effective tool for spiritual teaching. They are known to many in the west as “unanswerable” questions, meant to puzzle and provoke a student’s thinking. This is a misconception.
In traditional Zen Buddhism, koans are intended to be answered, though the answer may be difficult to find, and there may be many “correct” answers. The real purpose of a koan is to communicate the non-dualistic nature of the world.
In layman’s terms, they mean to teach a student that the world is a whole, and the cognitive mind’s tendency to separate and label the world is futile, and essentially incorrect. Perhaps the most famous koan demonstrates this well:
“Two Hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?”
This koan illustrates how difficult it is for us to reduce dualistic things (the two hands) into a singular whole (the sound of one hand). Koans are meant to be contemplated and focused on completely. Zen masters often tell their students to make “[their] whole body one great inquiry.” In perusing this list, I recommend you do the same, lingering a while on each koan, letting it become your only focus for a while.
With hard work, koans can greatly assist one on their spiritual journey.
1) Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.
One said, “The flag moves.”
The other said, “The wind moves.”
They argued back and forth but could not agree.
Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”
The two monks were struck with awe.
2) What is your original face before you were born?
3) When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?
4) As the roof was leaking, a zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.
5) If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
6) Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen. Lung-t’an asked him why he didn’t go back home. Te-shan answered, “Because it’s dark.”
Lung-t’an then lit a candle and handed it to him. As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out. Te-shan had a sudden realisation, and bowed.
7) A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the way?” Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.”
8) The world is such a wide world, why do you answer a bell and don ceremonial robes?
9) BASO said to a monk, “If I see you have a staff, I will give it to you. If I see you have no staff, I will take it away from you.
10) WAKUAN stood in front of a picture of Bodhidharma. In the picture, Bodhidharma was wearing a beard. “Now why doesn’t that fellow wear a beard?” asked Wakuan.
11) Keichu, the first wheelmaker, made two wheels. Each had fifty spokes. Suppose you cut out the hubs? Would there still be a wheel?”
12) THE MASTER Tozan was weighing some flax. A monk came up to him in the storeroom and said, “Tell me, what is Buddha?”
Tozan answered, “Here: five pounds of flax.”
13) Zen is a man hanging from a tree over a cliff. He is holding onto a twig with his teeth. His hands hold no branch. His feet can find no branch. Up on the cliff-edge a man shouts at him: ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from India into China?’
If he fails to answer he is lost. If he answers, he dies. What must he do?
14) Daibai asked Baso: `What is Buddha?’ Baso said: ‘This mind is Buddha.’
15) A monk asked Ummon: `What is Buddha?’ Ummon answered him: `Dried dung.’