Koan Buddhism


A kōan (Japanese transcription: こうあん, Japanese pronunciation on'yomi of the Chinese term: 公案, gōng'àn, literally: "precedent-setting ruling"), or koan, is a brief anecdote or exchange between a master and his disciple that is absurd, enigmatic, or paradoxical, not soliciting ordinary logic, used in some schools of Chan Buddhism (called son in Korea, Zen in Japan, or thiền in Vietnam).

A hua tou (Chinese term; Japanese: wato) is similar but consists only of a short sentence, sometimes from a kōan.

According to the Chinese encyclopedic dictionary Cihai published in 1936, the kōan is an object of meditation that is said to produce satori or else to enable discernment between enlightenment and misguidance.

The term gōng'àn is borrowed from the legal vocabulary of ancient China. Close to the meaning of ukase, it referred to official decisions of government offices that had the force of law.

Today kōan are one of the primary teaching and disciplinary tools of the Rinzai tradition. The Sōtō tradition has given more importance to the single sitting posture known as zazen which is based on the teaching of Dogen.


Gong'an (koan in Japanese) were developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) based on recordings of the words of Chan masters, who quoted many stories from "A famous recording of a Chan figure from the past with disciples or other interlocutors and then offering their own commentary ".

These stories and accompanying commentaries were used for student education and their analyses were disseminated in Buddhist teachings.

Although the first Japanese kōan were written as early as the ninth century, most kōan were compiled in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE. They number in the hundreds, and bear witness to several centuries of transmission of Chan Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan.

According to the legend, at his birth, Siddhartha Gautama took a few steps, pointed to the sky with one hand and to the earth with the other and said: "Between Heaven and Earth, I am the only venerable one" (Tenjo Tenge Yui Ga Doku Son). The phrase is often considered the first kōan.


The kōan presents itself as a paradox, even an aporia, impossible to resolve intellectually. The meditator must forsake his or her habitual understanding of phenomena in order to be penetrated by another form of intuitive knowledge.

The kōan is often contained in the record of a discussion between two Chan (or Zen) masters. Many of these discussions have been included in kōan anthologies.

The kōan, in its pure form, is not a riddle, nor is it a witticism passed on by the master to the disciple. It is not a matter of repeating some obscurity, of triturating an enigma, but of working with a century-old paradox of wisdom, which would be transmitted personally, in the intimacy between master and student.

The student then takes to heart the resolution of the kōan, and practices it during formal sessions, and more broadly during each of his daily activities. In time and combined with that of zazen, this practice will enable him to attain satori.

The wato is the key word or short phrase on which the student focuses.

A number of kōan have been commented on. But it is said that the commentary does not make one understand the kōan: it only opens the way to it. It is up to each person to understand, to live the kōan.

Sometimes a monk is assigned a single kōan for his entire monastic life.

Levels of kōan

In the Rinzai school, there are five categories of kōan, and the difficulty increases at each level. The student begins with the hosshin kōan (hosshin = Body of the Law) which enable him or her to discover enlightenment and gradually become familiar with the True Nature of Reality, Buddha nature.

At the second stage come the kikan kōan (kikan = auxiliary, tool) which help the student to develop his ability to discriminate in a world that is one of non-differentiation.

The third level, that of gonsen kōan (gonsen = clarification of words): they lead the student to examine carefully the meaning of the words of the old masters, and thus to go beyond purely verbal definitions.

The student then enters level four where he studies the nanto kōan (nanto = difficult to succeed), which are particularly difficult to solve, as their name suggests. In the fifth and final stage, the teacher once again carefully examines the student's understanding to make sure it is real and deep.

He must then confront the Go-i kōan, or kōan of the five degrees of enlightenment of the venerable Dongshan Liangjie.


Among the most famous collections of kōan are the following titles from China and Japan.


The Wu men guan ("The Gateless Barrier") is one of the two major collections of kōans in Chan and Zen literature, compiled by Wumen Huikai (1183-1260).

There is also the Bi yan lu ("The Collection of the Blue Cliff"), the oldest collection of gong'an in chan literature, written in the eleventh century by chan master Yuanwu Keqin (1063-1135), a master of the Yangqi lineage of chan of the Lin ji school, originally from Sichuan, China.

Composed in the eleventh century, the Cong rong lu ("The Book of Serenity") collects the one hundred kōans of the chan master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091-1157), of the Caodong school of China.


Keizan Jôkin's Denkoroku ("The Book of the Transmission of Light") collects stories of Dharma transmission in the lineage of the 52 patriarchs of the Sôtô school.

Also worth mentioning is an important work by Dôgen, the Shinji Shōbōgenzō ("Shôbôgenzô in Chinese"), a collection of 300 kōans, as well as the Zenrin-kushū ("Zen Garden Sentences"), a collection of 6,000 kōans published in 1688, which is an expanded version of the Ku Zôshi by Tōyō Eichō.

Examples of kōan

Hakuin Ekaku is responsible for one of the most famous kōans: "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?"

The gateless barrier also includes several very famous kōans. Here are four examples, in Catherine Despeux's translation:

- One day a monk asks Reverend Zhaozhou (Japanese: Joshu), "Does a dog also have Buddha nature or not?" Joshu replied, "No [Wu]."

- One day, a monk asked Cloud Carrier (Yunmen), "What is Buddha?" Cloud-bearer: "A stick to dry the bran [shit]."

- A monk asked Cave-Mount (Dongshan), "How is Buddhahood?" Dongshan replied, "Three pounds of hemp."

- The Reverend Ornament-smoke (Xiyangyan (en)) once said, "It is like a monk in a tree, hanging on a branch only by his mouth, without his hands grasping the tree or his feet leaning on it. If someone at the foot of the tree asks him what is the meaning of the coming of the West [of Bodhidharma], not to answer is an offense to the questioner; to answer is to lose one's life. At this very moment, what to do? "

We also find this contemporary example, linked to the metaphysical aspect of quantum physics in this dialogue: "The student: 'Is light a wave or a particle?'/ The teacher (Zen master astrophysicist): 'Yes.' "

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