If you know anything at all about Zen, you know the famous question about the sound of one hand clapping. While the brain teaser did indeed originate with a Zen master, it does not fully represent the nature of the koan. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, when Chan Buddhism, as Zen was known in China, flourished, koans became widely-used, explains the TED-Ed animated video above, as objects of meditation. “A collection of roughly one thousand, seven hundred bewildering philosophical thought experiments,” koans were ostensibly tools to practice living with the unexplainable mysteries of existence.
The name, notes the lesson, “originally gong-an in Chinese, translates to ‘public record or case.’ But unlike real-world court cases, koans were intentionally incomprehensible.” Koans are “Surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.” The lessons in ambiguity and paradox have their analogue, perhaps, in certain trains of thought in Medieval Catholic philosophy or the idealism of thinkers like George Berkeley, who might have first come up with the one about the tree falling in the forest.
But is the purpose of the koan simply to break the brain’s reliance on reason? It was certainly used this way. Zen Master Eihei Dogen, founder of Japanese Soto Zen traveled to China to study under the Chan Masters, and later criticized this kind of koan practice and other aspects of Chan, though he also collected 300 koans himself and they became integral to Soto tradition. Koans are not just absurdist zingers, they are, as the name says, cases—little stories, often about two monks in some kind of teacher and student relationship. Many of the students and teachers in these stories were patriarchs of Chan.
Like the sayings and doings of other religious patriarchs in other world religions, these “cases” have been collected with copious commentary in books like The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity. They show in snapshots the transmission of the teaching directly from teacher to student, rather than through sacred texts or rituals (hundreds of koans, rules, and rituals notwithstanding). That they are puzzling and ambiguous does not mean they are incomprehensible. Many seem more or less like fables, such as the oft-told story of the monk who carries a beautiful woman across a mud patch, then chastises his younger companion for bringing it up miles down the road.
Other koans are like Greek philosophical dialogues in miniature, such as the story in which two monks argue about the nature of a flag waving in the wind. A third steps in, Socrates-like, with a seemingly “right” answer that transcends both of their positions. The longevity of these vignettes lies in their subtlety—surface meanings only hint at what the stories are up to. Koans force those who take up their study to struggle with uncertainty and irresolution. They also frequently undermine the most common expectation that the teacher knows best.
Often posed as a kind of oblique verbal combat between teacher and student, koans include extremely harsh, even violent teachers, or teachers who seem to admit defeat, tacitly or otherwise, when a student gets the upper hand, or when both confront the speechless awe of not knowing. Attitudes of respect, reverence, humility, candor, and good humor prevail. Perhaps under all koan practice lies the idea of skillful means—the appropriate action to take in the moment, which can only be known in the moment.
In his short, humorous discussion of Zen koans above, Alan Watts tells the story of a Zen student who tricks his master and hits him with his own stick. The master responds with approval of the student’s tactics, but the koan does not suggest that everyone should do the same. That, as Dogen would argue, would be to have an idea about reality, rather than a wholly-engaged response to it. Whatever else koans show their students, they point again and again to this central human dilemma of thinking about living—in the past, present, or future—versus actually experiencing our lives.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him