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Favorite Koans

In case you haven't heard the name before, a koan is a kind of Zen story.

I was first exposed to koans through Gödel, Escher, Bach—several are presented in the dialogue A Mu Offering, and more appear in the following chapter, Mumon and Gödel. (There are a few others in other places, as well.) More recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the sources of these koans, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, has been reprinted as a nice-looking trade paperback.

Here is my all-time favorite koan; it appears in both the above sources.

Joshu Investigates

A traveling monk asked an old woman the road to Taizan, a popular temple supposed to give wisdom to the one who worships there. The old woman said: “Go straight ahead.” When the monk proceeded a few steps, she said to herself: “He also is a common church-goer.”

Someone told this incident to Joshu, who said: “Wait until I investigate.” The next day he went and asked the same question, and the old woman gave the same answer.

Joshu remarked: “I have investigated that old woman.”

Here is another koan I like, quoted from Zen Flesh Zen Bones.

Everything Is Best

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.

The above immediately reminds me of the line from Candide,

In this best of all possible worlds … everything is for the best.

However, upon thinking about it, I think the two are talking about different things.

This final koan is also quoted from Zen Flesh Zen Bones.

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 that 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 circumstance 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!”

Although it is not the main point of the koan, it is interesting to hear how the Zen, or teaching, was imparted. The system of Zen memes does not require the owner to spread the word; in fact, it nearly requires the opposite.

It is also interesting that this koan does seem to have a point. In other circumstances, one might like to say that the point of koans is to be pointless. In fact, this is exactly the sort of thing Raymond Smullyan might have said in The Tao Is Silent.

* * *

Here's a little something from the internet.

Q: Why can't Buddha vacuum in the corner?

A: Because he has no attachments.


  See Also

  Achilles and the Tortoise on Koans
  Continued Fractions
  Favorite Things
  Some Thoughts
  Words Are Not Reality

@ March (2000)
o May (2006)