A koan (pronounced KO-ahn) is a cryptic and paradoxical question used by Zen Buddhists during meditation to help unravel the great truths about themselves and the universe. For centuries, Zen Masters have been using Koans to test their students and to provoke deep thought and “great doubt”. The job for the student is to “solve” the koan - to look deep within, to struggle and exhaust the analytic mind and the egoistic will to find the answer on a spiritual and intuitive level. They have been described as a kind of can-opener for the mind, a way to escape the conventional web of thoughts and feelings, and enter a world that is more open and free.
To a non-practitioner of Zen, Koans often seem to be unanswerable or meaningless questions. They don’t make sense and to find a resolution appears almost impossible. But in Zen practice, they are far from meaningless; they are not riddles or puzzles. They exist to communicate some aspect of Zen teaching and to shock one’s mind into awareness; they are there to make you think...and think…and think some more. The interesting part for those of us outside the Zen world is that there is no definitive interpretation to a Koan, responses may vary …AND…there may be many correct answers. There is no right one. What you are, what you know, and what you believe is what you get. So what is the purpose? In layman’s terms, they are there to teach the student that the world is a whole, and the cognitive mind’s tendency to separate and label the world is incorrect. In other words, they mean to communicate the non-dualistic nature of the world.
Perhaps the most famous koan demonstrates this well: “The sound of one hand clapping is the same as the sound of two hands clapping”. The intellectual side of us will look for the logical solution to this confusing question– how can one hand clap and produce sound? Not possible. If we try to intellectually figure it out, we are completely missing the point. Instead we need to immerse ourselves into the question, let it sit with us, and with time let an “answer” come to us organically.
Now, the above Koan has many interpretations and attempts to answer it are various. But the general consensus is this: nothing in our lives isun-dual or unrelated – in other words, two hands are required to clap, which means that in your life everything is dualistic. Everything depends on past and future, everything is cause and effect. Koans teach us that our intellect cannot give us the complete picture and that we need to think outside the box.
1.) A Koan is:
A. A paradoxical question used by Zen Buddhists
B. What you get with your ice cream
C. Used to unravel great truths about the universe
D. The name of a famous Zen Master
E. Both A & C
2.) There is always a definitive answer to a Koan.
3.) What are Koans meant to do for the student?
A. To communicate an aspect of Zen teaching
B. To shock one’s mind into awareness
C. Provide meaning by making one think
D. Give enlightenment through confusion and disillusionment
E. A, B & C
4.) There are many interpretations to the well-known Koan, “The sound of one hand clapping is the same as the sound of two hands clapping”.
5.) We must use logic and reasoning when trying to resolve a Koan.