The Zen Koan is a written or verbal puzzle used in the teaching of Buddhism to bring the student to the level of satori or enlightenment. According to D T Suzuki in An Introduction To Zen Buddhism, the word Koan “…now denotes some anecdote of an ancient master, or a dialogue between master and monks, or a statement or question put forward by a teacher, all of which are used as the means for opening one’s mind to the truth of Zen.”(Suzuki 102). Koans are often in the form of statements that seem, at first, to make little or no sense. This aspect of a Koan is intended to help the student concentrate on the words and pull meaning from them in the same way that they must pull meaning from themselves in order to achieve “satori”.
Koans sometimes seem to be constructed of two contradicting concepts, which may be true from the standpoint of the dynamics of language. This joining of two opposing concepts is meant to show the student that all concepts are actually a part of one another since they exist in the same world. Koans are intended to join the opposing concepts within the student, which is the “oneness” of Zen Buddhism. “Zen masters, by this means, would force the evolution of the Zen consciousness into the minds of their less endowed disciples.”(Suzuki 102). The real “self” of Zen lies in the harmony of opposites. To those who pay more attention to the actual written words of the Koan, Koans will never make sense. Koans are deliberately meant to defy the logic that exists in the world outside the self, the world of government and social constructs. They are meant to help the student see the world undistorted by these learned concepts. The language of a Koan also uses simple concepts and objects that are universal. Keeping the subject simple, the student does not have to worry themselves over the symbolism of the subject, but rather, what the entire composition of the Koan represents. The composition as a whole, once it is thought of in this way, should reveal something about the wholeness of the individual who has figured it out. An example of this duality and simplicity is found in the following Koan: “When your mind is not dwelling on the duality of good and evil, what is your original face before you were born?”(Suzuki 104).
The subjects of koans tend to be simple objects such as trees, animals or aspects of nature. Or simple words for concepts or emotions, such as love, hate, good and evil . This attention to simplicity helps the student to view the entire Koan, instead of being anchored to a complex, abstract concept. The reasoning behind every Koan is the same, that the world is one interdependent whole and that each separate one of us is that Whole. In the above Koan, there is simplicity in the choice of the words “good and evil” over any words that may represent these symbolically. In fact, the first part of the Koan may not even be the most important part, but only stated to make the student realize that they are concerned with the duality of the outside world. The conflicts of the outside world have been distracting the student from realizing the purity of their own face “before you were born.”
The famous Koan that goes: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is interesting in the sense that if one thinks of it in terms of the logic that they were taught by the outside world, there is no such sound. “Ordinarily, a sound is heard only when two hands are clapping, and in that sense no sound can come from one hand alone….” This Koan, however, is meant to “…strike at the root of our everyday experience, which is constructed on so-called scientific or logical basis”(Suzuki 105). The duality here lies in what we have been taught to be logical. The Koan threatens our knowledge of the way our world is supposed to work. “ The Koans, therefore, as we have seen, are generally such as to shut up all possible avenues to rationalization”(Suzuki 108).
The Zen Buddhist Koan is naturally irrational, and is meant to oppose the knowledge the student possesses on the surface, to be exchanged for inner knowledge. This implies that, according to Zen, all humans have a natural core that “knows” all things are one whole. The Koan helps the student to pull this information to the surface, to live inside out. It tells the student to learn how to be undistracted by the events of the world outside the self. To live as if all events are happening outside as well as inside and are all interrelated.