Maximillian Laumeister

Buddhist Koans

A Koan is a short story used as a teaching tool in Zen Buddhism. It’s like a fable, but without a clear-cut solution.

Koan, Japanese Kōan, in Zen Buddhism of Japan, a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices, particularly in the Rinzai sect. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level. Each such exercise constitutes both a communication of some aspect of Zen experience and a test of the novice’s competence.

Koan - Encyclopedia Britannica

Below are select koans that resonate with me.

Reciting Sutras

A farmer requested a Tendai priest to recite sutras for his wife, who had died. After the recitation was over the farmer asked: ‘Do you think my wife will gain merit from this?’

‘Not only your wife but all sentient beings will benefit from the recitation of sutras,’ answered the priest.

‘If you say all sentient beings will benefit,’ said the farmer, ‘my wife may be very weak and others will take advantage of her, getting the benefit she should have. So please recite sutras just for her.’

The priest explained that it was the desire of a Buddhist to offer blessings and wish merit for every living being.

That is a fine teaching,’ concluded the farmer, ‘but please make one exception. I have a neighbor who is rough and mean to me. Just exclude him from all those sentient beings.’

A Cup Of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912) received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said. ‘You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

A Parable

Buddha told a parable in a sutra: A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, mother tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

The Moon Cannot Be Stolen

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. ‘You may have come a long way to visit me,’ he told the prowler, ‘and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. ‘Poor fellow,’ he mused, ‘I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.’

The Sound of One Hand

The masts of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protégé named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the olds disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind- wandering.

Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

‘Wait a while,’ said Mokurai. ‘You are too young.’

But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.

In the evening little Toyo went at the props time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.

‘You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,’ said Mokurai. ‘Now show me the sound of one hand.’

Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. ‘Ah, I have it!’ he proclaimed.

The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.

‘No, no,’ said Mokurai. That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.’

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. ‘What can the sound of one hand be?’ He happened to hear some water dripping. ‘I have it,’ imagined Toyo.

When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.

‘What is that?’ asked Mokurai. That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.’

In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand.

He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.

He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.

At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. ‘I could collect no more,’ he explained later. ‘So I reached the soundless sound.’

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.

Open Your Own Treasure House

Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: ‘What do you seek?’

‘Enlightenment,’ replied Daiju.

‘You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?’ Baso asked.

Daiju inquired : ‘Where is my treasure house?’

Baso answered: ‘What you are asking is your treasure house.’

Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends:

‘Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.’

Not Far From Buddahood

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: ‘Have you ever read the Christian Bible?’

‘No, read it to me,’ said Gasan. The student opened the Bible and read from St Mattew: ‘And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.’

Gasan said: ‘Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.’

The student continued reading: ‘Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.’

Gasan remarked: ‘That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.’

Calling Card

Keichu, the great Zen teacher of the Meiji era, was the head of Tofuku, a cathedral in Kyoto. One day the governor of Kyoto called upon him for the first time.

His attendant presented the card of the governor, which read: Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto.

‘I have no business with such a fellow.’ said Keichu to his attendant. Tell him to get out of here.’

The attendant carried the card back with apologies. ‘That was my error,’ said the governor and with a pencil he scratched out the words Governor of Kyoto. ‘Ask your teacher again.’

‘Oh, is that Kitagaki?’ exclaimed the teacher when he saw the card. ‘I want to see that fellow.

The Taste of Banzo’s Sword

Matajuro Yagyu was the son of a famous swordsman. His father, believing that his son’s work was too mediocre to anticipate mastership, disowned him.

So Matajuro went to Mount Fuhra and there found the famous swordsman Banzo. But Banzo confirmed the father’s judgment. ‘You wish to learn swordsmanship under my guidance?’ asked Banzo. ‘You cannot fulfill the requirements.’

‘But if I work hard, how many years will it take me to be come a master?’ persisted the youth.

‘The rest of your life,’ replied Banzo.

I cannot wait that long,’ explained Matajuro. ‘I am willing to pass through any hardship if only you will teach me. If I become your devoted servant, how long might it be?’

‘Oh, maybe ten years,’ Banzo relented.

‘My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him,’ continued Matajuro. ‘If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me!’

‘Oh, maybe thirty years.’ said Banzo.

‘Why is that?’ asked Matajuro. ‘First you say ten and now thirty years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!’

‘Well,’ said Banzo, ‘in that case you will have to remain with me for seventy years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.’

‘Very well.’ declared the youth, understanding at last that he was being rebuked for impatience, ‘I agree.’

Matajuro was told never to speak of fencing and never to touch a sword. He cooked for his master, washed the dishes, made his bed, and cleaned the yard, cared for the garden, all without a word of swordsmanship.

Three years passed. Still Matajuro labored on. Thinking of his future he was sad. He had not even begun to learn the art to which he had devoted his life.

But one day Banzo crept up behind him and gave him a terrific blow with a wooden sword.

The following day, when Matajuro was cooking rice, Banzo, again sprang upon him unexpectedly.

After that, day and night, Matajuro had to defend himself from unexpected thrusts. Not a moment passed in any day that he did not have to think of the taste of Banzo’s sword.

He learned so rapidly he brought smiles to the face of his master. Matajuro became the greatest swordsman in the land.

More Zen Koans (pdf)