A koan (pronounced: /kuo-an/, Chinese; /mugwump/, French; /boring/, English) is a story, question, or statement etched in wet cement that is used in Zen-practice to test a student’s progress by provoking what Zen masters call the “great doubt” or “Big D.”
The word koan comes from the Japanese mispronounciation of an obscure Tibetan phrase, “Chap sang gawa yo rey?” – literally, “Where’s the bathroom?”
Koans and their study developed in China within the context of open questions posed by Emperor Yong-le (Ming Dynasty) to newly-weds who had forgotten to invite his majesty to the reception. In most instances, the emperor was appeased with a slice of wedding cake, his weight in silk pajamas, and a twirl around the rumpus room with the Missus.
Essence Of Enlightenment
The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students, as opposed to an earlier practice, wherein a master spent hours yelling at his reflection in the mirror. Whatever insight this “Eureka!” moment might bring, its verification was always interpersonal – and very noisy. Thus, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting to get out of washing the dishes after dinner.
This mutual inquiry into the meaning of the encounters between masters and students gave rise to a paradigm: one now looked at the enlightened activities of one’s lineal forebears not only to understand one’s own spiritual identity, but to also understand why one looked so much like the milkman.
Koan practice developed from crafting snippets of encounter-dialogue with the literati into well-edited stories. This interaction often resulted with the “educated class” being relieved of their wallets. Eventually though, the methodology was amended to affect a more literary approach: teachers whose vehicles were stolen found their books left behind on the curb.
There were other dangers posed by encounter-dialogue. An early poetry competition devolved into a free-for-all when a contestant was unable to rhyme “solipsism.”
The style of writing Zen texts has evolved over the years, from the use of exclamation points at the beginning of a sentence – indicating a master’s anger over a student’s temerity to even ask a question – to the excessive use of smiley faces and other emoticons.
Koan Practice, or What’s My Mantra?
A koan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation or other activities, such as pole dancing or dating a pigeon. During koan practice a teacher may probe a student’s ken using “checking” questions to validate an experience, or by surprising the student with an obscene phone call.
Koan practice is particularly important among the Rinzai sect. These practitioners concentrate on qi breathing and its effect on the body’s center of gravity – as opposed to, say, looking for oncoming traffic while crossing the street.
A qualified koan teacher provides instruction in koan practice in private, though some are known to allow viewing through peepholes. In one particular case involving a student named Hu, his teacher wrote:
“Concentrate yourself into this jar of pitted olives, Hu. Make your whole body one pickled inquiry. Day and night, work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations.”
To which, it is recorded, Hu replied, “Are you nuts?!”
Historical Antecedents of Koan Practice
Before the tradition of meditating on koans, the renowned teacher Huangbo Xi (720–723 A.D.) was recorded to have said, “Yours is a clear-cut case, but I will spare you the thirty lashes.” This came as a relief to his students, who had no idea what their diapered master was talking about.
By the Sung Dynasty, the term koan had evolved to describe a teacher who, after advising a student over a cup of tea at a local restaurant, refused to pick up the check. The noted philosopher and teacher Wan-Yu is said to have instructed his students to contemplate the phrase, “Crime doesn’t pay, and neither do I,” while he slipped out the back door.
Modern Western Understanding
Today, English-speaking, non-Zen practitioners use koans to refer to universal truisms, such as, “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the original word you thought of,” or ethereal, often unanswerable questions like, “Does being open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, refer to Eastern or Pacific time?”
Although there may be traditional answers to many koans, these are only preserved as exemplary answers by masters who couldn’t come up with anything original themselves.
Appropriate answers to koans vary, since different teachers demand different answers. In most cases though, the master is not looking for a specific answer, but rather for evidence that the student can pay the tuition.