Koans are generally thought of as a traditional and fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. These brief teachable moments can be a story, dialogue, question, or statement. They intrigue and annoy equally as their “meaning” is usually not fully understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition.

A post I saw on Tricycle proposed that we might have personal koans – open-ended questions that guide us.

“How do we live a life we can’t hold on to?’ is one such question asked by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel in her book The Power of an Open Question.

How do we live with the fact that the moment we’re born we move closer to death; when we fall in love we sign up for grief? How do we reconcile that gain always ends in loss; gathering, in separation? I don’t know if my question will ever find an answer. But I see it as a question to live by. I’ve always felt that if you have a genuine question you should explore it. All you have to do is continue to ask it and pay attention.

If you view a koan as a starting point for personal, meditative inquiry, then a question can serve that purpose.

Koans transcend ordinary questions and answers or solutions because though the mind is engaged, it does not search for security or conclusions.

The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha's Path to Freedom
The Power of an Open Question: The Buddha’s Path to Freedom

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans
The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans