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Right: Dragons are symbols of Zen.  This is a chanting room at a Zen temple.

Below:  A Japanese mountain Temple

Koan - Kung'an - Zen Riddle

Q: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
A: "The sound of one hand clapping koan that became a cliché.

OK then. . .

Q: What is a koan?

A: Koan reads: in Chinese and Japanese.  The characters literally mean "public case".  They are sometimes referred to as "Zen riddles". They are short "problems" assigned by a Zen master to a student.  The student meditates on it to break thorough their reliance on conventional logic. 

Background
Early Zen masters in China used unconventional methods of training.  Yelling, striking students, apparently illogical conversations and behaviour and preventing students from taking notes.  One of these was koan.  Most koan are situations and related questions from famous Masters.  They cannot be answered logically, but through the student's insight into heir true nature.  Accordingly the correct answer is not the same from one student to another.  A teacher may give a student a particular koan according tot heir analysis of the student's needs and abilities.  The student goes away and in future meeting with the teacher, discusses their progress on the problem.

Many koan were complied by students about 1,000 years ago into several, now famous books.  Some of the best  known are the Blue Cliff Record and The Gateless Gate, but Master Hui Neng's Platform Sutra contains a really good one.  To paraphrase:

 

Master Hui Neng meets Hui Ming, a monk that was a four star General in his previous, lay life.  He was rough and hot tempered.  Such people are often great monks because their need is great.  Hui Ming asks the Master for instruction.

The Master instructs him to refrain from thinking and blank his mind.  After a considerable time the Master asked him "When you are thinking of neither good, nor evil, what is at that particular moment, Venerable Sir, your original face?"

Hui Ming was suddenly enlightened.

 

Eventually koan became a thing of the Lin chi (Rinzai) Zen school.  Other schools are not against koan, but have their own methods.  The process of recording the koan created new problems.  Scholastic types could tread all the histories and imitate the "illogical" responses to the Master's questions or pretend to be a Master themselves.  People like this still exist so always be careful who you trust with your mind.  Fooling a master is more difficult. 

An attempt to do so once became a koan itself.  A couple of monks arrived at a temple, and were interviewed by the head monk, as was the custom.  The first question illicite a brilliant answer, but the head monk suspected it was born of cleverness rather than insight, so he asked the same question again.  He got the same answer, so he threw the monks out of the temple for pretending to be enlightened.  The Head monk knew that the second time you ask a question, it becomes a different question.  It would only be the same if it existed independent of the previous question.  All things are dependant. 

Understanding koan by reading them is a bit like teaching an alien to have a sense of humour by telling jokes and then explaining them.  It is far better to tell the joke and attempt to help them to get the joke. 

Here are some sample koan.

A monk asked "What is the living meaning of Zen Buddhism?"

Master Zhao Zhao replied "The cypress tree in the yard"

When Yunyan was sweeping, Douwu said "Too busy"

Yunyan said "You should know when there's one who isn't busy"

Douwu said "If so, there's a second moon"

Yunyan held up the broom and said "Which moon is this?"

A monk asked Joshu "Does a new born infant still have six consciousnesses?"

Joshu replied "A ball tossed into rushing water"

The monk asked "What is the meaning of "A ball tossed into rushing water"?"

Joshu replied  "Moment to moment non-stop flow."

A monk requested "I have entered the monastery: please give me some guidance"

Master Zhao Zhao replied " Have you eaten breakfast yet?"

"Yes"

"Then go wash your bowl"

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