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Zen Buddhism Koan Study Pages

Edited by Dr T. Matthew Ciolek

[Est.: 2 Oct 1995. Last updated: 31 Mar 2013.]

The purpose of this document, which is a part of the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library and of the Zen Buddhism WWW Virtual Library, is to provide comprehensive and factual information about the koans (J.) [kung-ans (C.), kong-ans (C.), cong-an (Viet.), hua-t'ou (C.), hwadu (K.), wato (J.)] as used in the Zen training. Any updated information, corrections or comments will be appreciated. Please send email to Dr T. Matthew Ciolek tmciolek@ciolek.com
A Work in Progress - tmc

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Koan Study Pages - Table of Contents

  1. A Register of Known Koan Collections
  2. Works Dealing With the Koan Study
  3. Koans - Some Definitions

A Register of Known Koan Collections


Back to Table of Contents

Koans - Some Definitions

  • "A koan is a Zen presentation in the form of a Zen challenge" (DeMartino 1983)

  • "...stories and verses that present fundamental perspectives on life and no-life, the nature of the self, the relationship of the self to the earth - and how these interweave. Such stories and verses are called koans, and their study is the process of realising their truths." (Aitken 1990:xiii)

  • "Koan, J. Universal/Particular. A presentation of the harmony of the Universal and the Particular; a theme of Zazen to be made clear. A classic Mondo, or a Zen story." (Aitken 1993:212-213)

  • "Koans are the folk stories of Zen Buddhism, metaphorical narratives that particularize essential nature. Each koan is a window that show the whole truth but just from a single vantage. It is limited in perspective.One hundred koans give one hundred vantages. When they are enriched with insightful comments and poems, then you have ten thousand vantages. There is no end to this process of enrichment." (Aitken 1990b:ix)

  • "...the [Korean - tmc] term hwadu usually refers to the particular question itself as well as the state of mind to be cultivated through concentrating upon the question. [...] the term hwadu is also used as a virtual synonym for the Japanese term koan (K. kong an). Technically speaking, though, these terms differ in meaning. A koan - literally " a public case" - is a description of an entire situation, usually of a dialogue between a Zen master and his disciple; the hwadu is only the central point of the exchange which is then singled out as a topic for meditation." (Batchelor 1985:53)

  • "The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single man, but rather the highest principle ... [that - tmc ] accords with the spiritual source, tallies with the mysterious meaning, destroys birth-and-death, and transcends the passions. It cannot be understood by logic; it cannot be transmitted in words; it cannot be explained in writing; it cannot be measured by reason. It is like [...] a great fire that consumes all who come near it." (Chung-feng Ming-pen [1263-1323] quoted in Miura and Sasaki 1966:5)

  • "These stories and sayings contain patterns, like blueprints, for various inner exercises in attention, mental posture, and higher perception, summarized in extremely brief vignettes enabling the individual to hold entire universes of thought in mind all at once, without running through doctrinal discourses or disrupting ordinary consciousness of everyday affairs." (Cleary 1994:xv)

  • "A koan is simply the time and place where Truth is manifest. From the fundamental point of view, there is no time or place where Truth is not revealed: every place, every day, every event, every thought, every deed, and every person is a koan. In that senses, koans are neither obscure nor enigmatic. Howvere, a koan is more commonly understood as a tool for teaching true insight." (Shimano 1988:70)

  • "It is exactly the no-way-out situation in which the human being finds itself - that fundamental and unbridgeable inner cleavage of that being which is conscious of itself - that is said to be the way....[Zen Master Shin'ichi - tmc] Hisamatsu put this into a more general form: 'Doshitemo ikanakereba do suru ka?': 'Nothing will do. What do you do?' He called this the 'fundamental koan' - i.e., the koan that is the common denominator of the thousands of extant koans." (App 1994:52-53)

  • "In the past, kong-an practicing meant checking someone's enlightenment.Now we use kong-ans to make our lives correct... You must use kong-ans to take away your opinions. When you take away your opinions, your mind is clear like space, which means from moment to moment you can reflect any situation and respond correctly and meticulously." (Seung Sahn 1992:236)

  • "In Zen, practitioners use kung-an as subjects for meditation until their mind come to awakening. There is a big difference between a kung-an and a math problem - the solution of the math problem is included in the problem itself, while the response to the kung-an lies in the life of the practitioner. The kung-an is a useful instrument in the work of awakening, just as a pick is a useful instrument in working on the ground. What is accomplished from working on the ground depends on the person doing the work and not just on the pick. The kung-an is not an enigma to resolve; this is why we cannot say that it is a theme or subject of meditation." (Nhat Hanh 1995:57)

  • "There are all told about 1,700 koans, of which present-day Japanese Zen masters use only 500 to 600, since many are repetitious or are not so valuable for training purposes." (Schuhmacher and Woerner 1986:182)

    Sources of the above definitions

    Back to Table of Contents
    Updates, additions and corrections to this page have been kindly provided by:

    [1] Mr Lawrie Conole who brought to my attention a book by Nhat Hanh (1995) on the Khoa Hu (Viet.) (E. Lessons in Emptiness) koans.
    [2] Allan Matthews

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