Zen Koans

The following is my notes.  From a dojo with Lesswrong Sydney about zen koans.  The recording is how it went down, some things might be hard to understand because there is no visual recording.  I would encourage you to try out the actions when you hear them, specifically one hand clapping.

You can listen along as you read the notes and try to get a better picture of the dojo.  I was reading over my notes as I talked and you can probably understand better if you listen as you read.

Download link: zen koans dojo small


Zen koans are these little riddles that come from Buddhism, they are meant to unlock the state of understanding that comes with enlightenment.  Or they are meant to guide you along the way to getting there.  But before we get into them it’s important to understand the history of zen, Taoism, Buddhism, and a few other things.

There is a system in mind that you are supposed to use when talking about and interacting with Zen koans and what is important to understand is that these are the sorts of things that people were instructed to spend years meditating on one or two line statements where you had to try to grasp what the hell is meant by this one statement.   So over like an hour right now we should be great to crack the secret? Right?  great.

Focused and diffused thinking from the book – a mind for numbers

The book a mind for numbers is written about being the type of brain that’s good at mathematics and one of the things it describes it is the difference between Focused thinking and diffuse thinking. – p37

“Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander.”You often first funnel a problem into your brain by focusing your attention on words—reading the book or looking at your notes from a lecture. Your thoughts rattle easily through the previously ingrained patterns and quickly settle on a solution.

Einstellung effect (pronounced EYE-nshtellung). In this phenomenon, an idea you already have in mind, or your simple initial thought, prevents a better idea or solution from being found.   You bumble about—your thoughts far from the actual solution—because the crowded known thoughts of the focused mode prevent you from springing to a new place where the solution might be found.

(sound familiar?)

System 1 and system 2 (From Daniel kahneman) – system 2 is very good at being specific and focusing and being particular and following instructions that are one by one and a list of something that you may have to concentrate very carefully on to get correct.

In contrast to that system 1 is a more broad understanding of things and includes a general sense of thinking.  (imagine an apple, imagine an ordinary page in a book, catch this ball)

Zen koans are trying to teach you something.  Unfortunately the monks of the time settled on a really annoying method for trying to teach each other and passing on their enlightenment.  For some context they were tricksters, they were comedians and they were pranksters as much as they were serious.  The koans as much as it’s a verbal instruction to think about this thing they want you to think about.  They want you to think about it as a riddle.  Think of it in the diffuse way as in don’t look too hard at it or else you cannot use system 1 that is good at that broad understanding of things, or the feeling of things.

Koans come in the context of monasteries. Monks doing menial tasks, living a simple existence so that they can concentrate on their meditation.  



Taoism briefly – translates as, “the way” and there is not much more to know.  Taoism likes to make fun of itself and remain unclear.  Any writing about the tao is said to be “not the real tao”.  Even “Tao” is not Tao.  Nevertheless even though we cannot name it and we cannot describe it, I find the phrase, “the way” to be oddly fitting to me.  Without being specific and without being concrete, that is THE WAY.  to be curious about the way and to ponder is the way.  But not too hard because if you try too hard that would be trying and therefore not actually travelling the way.  It’s cute, it’s self referential, it’s intentionally confusing, but it’s the way.

The 4 line poems.  The first line tells about something, the second line expands on it, the third suggests something new and the fourth line ties it all together.  

(7.   Announcement

Tanzan wrote sixty postal cards on the last day of his life, and asked an attendent to mail them. Then he passed away.

The cards read:

I am departing from this world.

This is my last announcement.


July 27, 1892)

(last poem of hoshin)


Koans are about the subject and object relationship.  

there is a “way of the rules”.

  • First rule to solve Zen koans: Look for THINGS, mentioned in the riddle.
  • Second rule: Look for ACTION mentioned in the riddle.
  • Third rule: Look for the uttering of HOLY actors.

Produce a combination of the first and second rules.

A Koan question sounds a bit challenging perhaps. But they are not designed for the “I” (me) self person to solve.  Zen Koan answers can only be found by the non-thinking, naive and childlike “Person”. For question-answer koans, the answer shouldn’t be explained but expressed by a sign, an action, a little charade.

Koans sound difficult, because they are based on three strange assumptions

  1. The world is simple and nothing else but everyday activities.
  2. Theory or concept are of no use.
  3. You, the actor is identical with everything.

Here’s an example.

The question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a rather well-known Zen Koan and often used as an initiation for Zen students.

It sounds difficult because it’s impossible to clap just one hand, isn’t it?

The answer is quite simple.

How do you clap both your hands? You lift both arms and clash the hands together, don’t you?

Try this movement again, but with one arm and hand only.

That’s it, the “sound” of one hand clapping.

they are also deceptively simple to rest on the surface understanding is to get them.

>What is the symbol of enlightenment? In Zen it is a black circle that surrounds the invisible whiteness of the empty universe.

<there are abstract koans and more understandable koans, I am being picky about the ones I share because I find them easy enough to understand>

  1.   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?”

I assume you get the point?

>”you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

that’s one level, obviously – if you never shut up and listen you will never learn

zen cares about that event

the experience of the understanding of the idea of, “shut up and listen”

and the experience of doing so.

there is more to the story…  If you imagine the nature of the event of emptying yourself and think about it.  That is what they are trying to impart the experience of emptying one’s self.

One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.

So what happened in this riddle?

Try this one too:

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?”

Manjusri replied, “I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?”

What’s going on?

Taoism has some kind of vague belief that everything is already enlightened.  In the first one Chao Chou was reminded that he does not need help because no one can force you to reach enlightenment.  You need to help yourself.  By lying down the other monk reminded him (sneakily) that he didn’t need help.

“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

Enlightenment looks the same from the outside.  The existence of life is the same but it happens with a sense of enlightenment

CASE 36. GOSO’S NO WORDS, NO SILENCE Goso said, “When you meet a Man of the Way on the road, greet him not with words, nor with silence. Tell me, how will you greet him?”


As the roof was leaking, a zen Master told two monks to bring something to catch the water. One brought a tub, the other a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second highly praised.


A monk asked Master Haryo, “What is the way?”

Haryo said, “An open-eyed man falling into the well.”


A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui’s monastery and asked the teacher, “All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin.

Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?” Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.


Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.

One said, “The flag moves.”

The other said, “The wind moves.”

They argued back and forth but could not agree.

Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”

The two monks were struck with awe.


A monk Hoen said: “The past and future Buddhas, both are his servants. Who is he?”

Mumon’s comment: If you realize clearly who he is, it is as if you met your own father on a busy street. There is no need to ask anyone whether or not your recognition is true.


Do not fight with another’s bow and arrow.
Do not ride another’s horse.
Do not discuss another’s faults.
Do not interfere with another’s work.  

asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?”

Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

  1. Just Go To Sleep

Gasan was sitting at the bedside of Tekisui three days before his teacher’s passing. Tekisui had already chosen him as his successor.

A temple recently had burned and Gasan was busy rebuilding the structure. Tekisui asked him: “What are you going to do when you get the temple rebuilt?”

“When your sickness is over we want you to speak there,” said Gasan.

“Suppose I do not live until then?”

“Then we will get someone else,” replied Gasan.

“Suppose you cannot find anyone?” continued Tekisui.

Gasan answered loudly: “Don’t ask such foolish questions. Just go to sleep.”


What is your original face before you were born?

>37.   Publishing the Sutras

>Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

>Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

>It happened that at that time the Uji Rive overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

>Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

>The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.


Shuzan held out his short staff and said, “If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”

  1.   The Most Valuable Thing in the World

Sozan, a Chinese Zen master, was asked by a student: “What is the most valuable thing in the world?”

The master replied: “The head of a dead cat.”

“Why is the head of a dead cat the most valuable thing in the world?” inquired the student.

Sozan replied: “Because no one can name its price.”


When you can do nothing, what can you do?

  1.   The Dead Man’s Answer

When Mamiya, who later became a well-known preacher, went to a teacher for personal guidance, he was asked to explain the sound of one hand.

Mamiya concentrated upon what the sound of one hand might be. “You are not working hard enough,” his teacher told him. “You are too attached to food, wealth, things, and that sound. It would be better if you died. That would solve the problem.”

The next time Mamiya appeared before his teacher he was again asked what he had to show regarding the sound of one hand. Mamiya at once fell over as if he were dead.

“You are dead all right,” observed the teacher, “But how about that sound?”

“I haven’t solved that yet,” replied Mamiya, looking up.

“Dead men do not speak,” said the teacher. “Get out!”


What is the sound of one hand clapping?


Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”


Elder Ting asked Lin-chi,

“Master, what is the great meaning of Buddha’s teachings?”

Lin-chi came down from his seat, slapped Ting and pushed him away.

Ting was stunned and stood motionless.

A monk nearby said, “Ting, why do you not bow?”

At that moment Ting attained great enlightenment.


When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?


One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, “Give me the best piece of meat you have.”

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words, Banzan was enlightened.


After taking the high seat to preach to the assembly, Fa-yen raised his hand and pointed to the bamboo blinds. Two monks went over and rolled them up in the same way. Fa-yen said, “One gains, one loses.”


Once Ma-tsu and Pai-chang were walking along and they saw some wild ducks fly by.

“What is that?” the Master asked.

“Wild ducks,” Pai-chang replied.

“Where have they gone?”

“They’ve flown away,” Pai-chang said.

The Master then twisted Pai-chang’s nose, and when Pai-chang cried out in pain, Ma-tsu said, “When have they ever flown away?”


One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.


Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen. Lung-t’an asked him why he didn’t go back home. Te-shan answered, “Because it’s dark.”

Lung-t’an then lit a candle and handed it to him. As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out. Te-shan had a sudden realisation, and bowed.


What is the colour of wind?


A monk asked Zhao Zhou to teach him.

Zhao Zhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”

The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”

“Then go wash your bowl,” said Zhao Zhou.

At that moment, the monk was enlightened.


If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.


A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, “What is Buddha?”

Tozan said: “This flax weighs three pounds.”


  1.   Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”


  1.   What Are You Doing! What Are You Saying!

In modern times a great deal of nonsense is talked about masters and disciples, and about the inheritance of a master’s teaching by favorite pupils, entitling them to pass the truth on to their adherents. Of course Zen should be imparted in this way, from heart to heart, and in the past it was really accomplished. Silence and humility reigned rather than profession and assertion. The one who received such a teaching kept the matter hidden even after twenty years. Not until another discovered through his own need that a real master was at hand was it learned hat the teaching had been imparted, and even then the occasion arose quite naturally and the teaching made its way in its own right. Under no circumstances did the teacher even claim “I am the successor of So-and-so.” Such a claim would prove quite the contrary.

The Zen master Mu-nan had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. “I am getting old,” he said, “and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I also have added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship.”

“If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it,” Shoju replied. “I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is.”

“I know that,” said Mu-nan. “Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol of having received the teaching. Here.”

The two happened to be talking before a brazier. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.

Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: “What are you doing!”

Shoju shouted back: “What are you saying!”


  1.   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 tresure house and use those treasures.”


  1.   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 Futara 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 become 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, 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.


  1.   The Last Poem of Hoshin

The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”

The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.

On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”

The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”

“Can you?” someone asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”

None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.

“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet or a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”

His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.

“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.

“Yes sir,” replied the writer.

Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brillancy

And return to brillancy.

What is this?

This poem was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”

Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

Thanks for reading!  I hope you liked the dojo.

Meta: this probably took 4+ hours to write, not including the time it took to become enlightened and then decide to try to share it.

To become enlightened you must first invent the universe.

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