“Every life is full of koans, and yet you can’t learn from a book how to understand them. You need someone to put you in the right frame of mind to see the puzzles and paradoxes of your experience.”  – Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul

I plan to keep posting some koans here. I hope that some of you will try to answer them. If you do, I’d love to see your “answers” or ideas in the comments.

They are not easy to answer. That is part of their purpose.

A kōan in Zen Buddhism is a story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used to teach, and whose meaning defies rational thinking.

They are not “unanswerable” or “meaningless” but a teacher does not expect a student to give a “correct” answer or response. The contemplation of the koan is more important than the answer. And those answers vary based on the person, the time and the situation.

Yes, you can find books of koans that include “answers” but don’t get excited in a Cliff Notes kind of I-found-the-answer sort of way.

An example –

One koan asks “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

If you look in a book it will tell you that a teacher named Joshu once replied to the question with “Mu”, meaning “No”. This is a very brief and surprising answer. Don’t all sentient beings, including a dog, have the potential to realize Buddhahood?

Further explications of Joshu’s answer from A Dialogue on Zen Koans may only cause further confusion:

…Joshu’s “Mu” is called a hua-wei meaning “word-tail”. For the practitioner thinking “Mu” in his mind’s eye, it is merely a hua-wei, being no more than a mental image, or more precisely, a mental sound. In the exercise, itself, hua-wei chiefly refers to representational thinking. “Mu”, let us say, is the grand representation of all! Imagine, then, trying to transcend “Mu”, seeing the pure antecedentness of the hua-wei called the hau-t’ou, meaning ‘ante-word’. But that is what we have to do. Basically, this means to look at the suchness which comes prior to the arising of Mu in our mind’s eye. If we look correctly, we will see the first trace of Buddha Mind, understanding that the myriad of things issue from this abode which is free of mental images.

Was that helpful?

Perhaps a more satisfying kind of answer is one given to the first koan I posted which was made famous by J.D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye.

What is the sound of the one hand clapping?

One answer is that the pupil faces his master, takes a correct posture, and without a word thrusts one hand forward.

Or, it is the wind.
Or, it is the silence that is the essence of being.
Or, it is what the unenlightened hear.

Keep answering.

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
The Zen Koan: Its History and Use in Rinzai Zen
The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans