From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This is a list of koans roughly organized according to style. Each koan is presented along with known context and possible interpretations.


Everything is best[edit]

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
"Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.
"Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."
At these words Banzan became enlightened.


A cup of tea[edit]

Joshu asked a monk who appeared for the first time in the hall, "Have I ever seen you here before?"
The monk answered, "No sir, you have not."
"Then have a cup of tea," said Joshu.
He turned to another monk. "Have I ever seen you here before?" he said.
"Yes sir, of course you have," said the second monk.
"Then have a cup of tea," said Joshu.
Later, the managing monk of the monastery asked Joshu, "How is it that you make the same offer of tea whatever the reply to your question?"
At this Joshu shouted, "Manager, are you still here?"
"Of course, master!" the manager answered. "Then have a cup of tea," said Joshu.

Joshu's cypress[edit]

A monk asked Joshu, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"
Joshu said, "The cypress tree in the garden."

Shih-shuang's seven straight ways[edit]

Shih-shuang was a Zen master in China who died without giving transmission. After his funeral ceremony, somebody had to give a formal Dharma speech, so many people asked the head monk.
As the head monk was about to begin speaking from the rostrum, Shih-shuang's attendant, a fifteen-year-old boy named Chiu-feng, came forward and said, "Our teacher often taught about the seven straight ways:
  1. resting
  2. ceasing
  3. the cold, clear water of autumn
  4. one mind for ten thousand years
  5. cold ashes under a rotten log
  6. a heavy censer in an ancient shrine
  7. one line of incense smoke rising in the still air
If you understand the true meaning of the seven straight ways, you can give the Dharma speech. If you don't, you cannot. Now tell me, what does this illustrate?"
"One color, different function," the head monk replied.
"I cannot believe that."
"If you don't believe me, I'll show you." The head monk then lit a stick of incense, placed it in the burner, and quietly watched it burn down. Then he died.
Many people exclaimed, "Ah, this great monk has also died!"
Chiu-feng only patted the head monk's back slowly three times, saying, "Sitting, die. Standing, die. Either way, no hindrance. But Shih-shuang's true meaning cannot be found even in a dream."

Teachings of the insentient[edit]

Master Tozan called on Ungon and asked, "Who can hear the teaching of insentient beings?"
Ungon said, "It can be heard by the insentient."
Tozan asked, "Do you hear it?"
Ungon replied, "If I heard it, you wouldn't hear my teaching."
Tozan said, "If so, then I don't hear your teaching."
Ungon said, "If you don't even hear my teaching, how much less the teaching of the insentient?"
Tozan was greatly enlightened at this.

Tozan's three pounds of flax[edit]

A monk asked Tozan, "What is the Buddha?"
Tozan replied, "Three pounds of flax."


Lotus blossum, lotus leaves[edit]

A monk asked Chimon, "Before the lotus blossom has emerged from the water, what is it?"
Chimon said, "A lotus blossom."
The monk pursued, "After it has come out of the water, what is it?"
Chimon replied, "Lotus leaves."


The fire god seeks fire[edit]

A monk had been training under a master for three years.
One day his master asked, "Why have you never come to me for instruction?"
The monk explained that when he was with his former master he had a realization.
"I had asked my former master," the monk said, "'What is the self of a Zen practitioner?' He replied: 'The fire god seeks fire.'"
"That is a good statement, indeed, but you do not yet really understand it."
The monk replied, "It is like fire seeking fire, or the self looking for itself. What could be more ridiculous?"
The master declared, "Indeed, you have not understood at all."
Hearing this, the monk became agitated and left the monastery.
As he walked away, however, doubt settled upon him, and so he returned to beg the master, in all sincerity, "What is the self of a Zen practitioner?"
The master replied: "The fire god seeks fire!"
The monk was immediately enlightened.

Non sequitur[edit]

Ummon's dried dung[edit]

A monk asked Ummon,"What is Buddha?"
Ummon answered, "Dried dung."

Statement of fact[edit]

A gold Buddha[edit]

A student asked, "What is the Buddha?"
The teacher replied, "It is a thing of clay on the mantel, covered in gold."

Two truths[edit]

Shuzan's staff[edit]

Shuzan held up his staff and waved it before his monks.
"If you call this a staff," he said, "you deny its eternal life. If you do not call this a staff, you deny its present fact. Tell me, just what do you propose to call it?"


Every way is the true way[edit]

Joshu asked the teacher Nansen, "What is the True Way?"
Nansen answered, "Every way is the true Way."
Joshu asked, "Can I study it?"
Nansen answered, "The more you study, the further from the Way."
Joshu asked, "If I don't study it, how can I know it?"
Nansen answered, "The Way does not belong to things seen: nor to things unseen. It does not belong to things known, nor to things unknown. Do not seek it, study it, or name it. To find yourself on it, open yourself as wide as the sky."

Hold up one finger[edit]

One day, Zen master Sol Bong visited Kum Sun Hermitage in Jeong Hae Sah Temple and asked Zen master Man Gong, "The Buddha held up a flower. What does this mean?"
Man Gong held up one finger.
Sol Bong bowed to him.
"What did you attain?" Man Gong asked.
Sol Bong replied, "A second offense is not permitted."


The monk eats[edit]

A hungry monk went to the owner of a restaurant and asked her, "If I can inspire you with a Buddhist teaching, will you give me a meal?", to which the pious restaurateur eagerly said, "Yes."
With confidence that he would earn his lunch, the monk solemnly quoted the Heart Sutra: "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form."
"Wonderful! Marvelous! How profound!" exalted the woman. "Please monk, wait here a moment."
The saliva was flowing freely in the hungry monk's mouth as the woman brought an enormous plate from the kitchen, covered with a lid. "Sit down, Venerable Sir. Here are the chopsticks. Here's a glass of water. Here is the sauce," said the woman.
Then she placed the heavy plate before the expectant monk, removed the lid, and revealed an empty plate. "If form is emptiness and emptiness is form", said the woman, "then, Venerable Sir, eat emptiness!"

Huineng's flag[edit]

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."

Ummon's robes[edit]

Zen master Ummon said: "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?"


Joshu's dog[edit]

A monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have the Buddha-nature?"
Joshu replied, "Mu."

See also[edit]