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A kōan (公案) (//; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn, [kʊ́ŋ ân]; Korean: 공안 gong-an; Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and test a student's progress in Zen practice.
The Japanese term kōan is the Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese word gong'an (Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn; Wade–Giles: kung-an; literally: "public case"). The term is a compound word, consisting of the characters 公 "public; official; governmental; common; collective; fair; equitable" and 案 "table; desk; (law) case; record; file; plan; proposal."
According to the Yuan Dynasty Zen master Zhongfeng Mingben (中峰明本 1263–1323), gōng'àn originated as an abbreviation of gōngfǔ zhī àndú (公府之案牘, Japanese kōfu no antoku—literally the andu "official correspondence; documents; files" of a gongfu "government post"), which referred to a "public record" or the "case records of a public law court" in Tang-dynasty China.[note 1] Kōan/gong'an thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person, and a teacher may test the student's ability to recognize and understand that principle.
Commentaries in kōan collections bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents. An article by T. Griffith Foulk claims
Gong'an was itself originally a metaphor—an article of furniture that came to denote legal precedents. For example, Di Gong'an (狄公案) is the original title of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, the famous Chinese detective novel based on a historical Tang dynasty judge. Similarly, Zen kōan collections are public records of the notable sayings and actions of Zen disciples and masters attempting to pass on their teachings.
Gong'ans developed during the Tang dynasty (618–907) from the recorded sayings collections of Chán-masters, which quoted many stories of "a famous past Chán figure's encounter with disciples or other interlocutors and then offering his own comment on it". Those stories and the accompanying comments were used to educate students, and broaden their insight into the Buddhist teachings.
Those stories came to be known as gongan, "public cases". Such a story was only considered a gongan when it was commented upon by another Chán-master. This practice of commenting on the words and deeds of past masters confirmed the master's position as an awakened master in a lineage of awakened masters of the past.
Koan practice developed from a literary practice, styling snippets of encounter-dialogue into well-edited stories. It arose in interaction with "educated literati". There were dangers involved in such a literary approach, such as ascribing specific meanings to the cases. Dahui Zonggao is even said to have burned the woodblocks of the Blue Cliff Record, for the hindrance it had become to study of Chán by his students. Kōan literature was also influenced by the pre-Zen Chinese tradition of the "literary game"—a competition involving improvised poetry.
The style of writing of Zen texts has been influenced by "a variety of east Asian literary games":
- The extensive use of allusions, which create a feeling of disconnection with the main theme;
- Indirect references, such as titling a poem with one topic and composing a verse that seems on the surface to be totally unrelated;
- Inventive wordplay based on the fact that Hanzi (Chinese characters) are homophonic and convey multiple, often complementary or contradictory meanings;
- Linking the verses in a sustained string based on hidden points of connection or continuity, such as seasonal imagery or references to myths and legends.
During the Song dynasty (960–1297) the use of gongans took a decisive turn. Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163)[note 2] introduced the use of kanhua, "observing the phrase". In this practice students were to observe (kan) or concentrate on a single word or phrase (huatou), such as the famous mu of the mu-koan.
In the eleventh century this practice had become common. A new literary genre developed from this tradition as well. Collections of such commented cases were compiled which consisted of the case itself, accompanied by verse or prose commentary.
Dahui's invention was aimed at balancing the insight developed by reflection on the teachings with developing samatha, calmness of mind. Ironically, this development became in effect silent illumination, a "[re-absorbing] of koan-study into the "silence" of meditation (ch'an)". It led to a rejection of Buddhist learning:
Some extent of Buddhist learning could easily have been recognized as a precondition for sudden awakening in Chan. Sung masters, however, tended to take the rejection literally and nondialectically. In effect, what they instituted was a form of Zen fundamentalism: the tradition came to be increasingly anti-intellectual in orientation and, in the process, reduced its complex heritage to simple formulae for which literal interpretations were thought adequate.
This development left Chinese Chan vulnerable to criticisms by neo-Confucianism, which developed after the Sung Dynasty. Its anti-intellectual rhetoric was no match for the intellectual discourse of the neo-Confucianists.
The recorded encounter dialogues, and the koan collections which derived from this genre, mark a shift from solitary practice to interaction between master and student:
The essence of enlightenment came to be identified with the interaction between masters and students. Whatever insight dhyana might bring, its verification was always interpersonal. In effect, enlightenment came to be understood not so much as an insight, but as a way of acting in the world with other people
This mutual enquiry of the meaning of the encounters of masters and students of the past gave students a role model:
One looked at the enlightened activities of one's lineal forebears in order to understand one's own identity [...] taking the role of the participants and engaging in their dialogues instead[note 3]
Kōan training requires a qualified teacher who has the ability to judge a disciple's depth of attainment. In the Rinzai Zen school, which uses kōans extensively, the teacher certification process includes an appraisal of proficiency in using that school's extensive kōan curriculum.
When the Chán-tradition was introduced in Japan, Japanese monks had to master the Chinese language and specific expressions used in the koan-training. The desired "spontaneity" expressed by enlightened masters required a thorough study of Chinese language and poetry. Japanese Zen imitated the Chinese "syntax and stereotyped norms".
In the officially recognized monasteries belonging to the Gozan (Five Mountain System) the Chinese system was fully continued. Senior monks were supposed to compose Chinese verse in a complex style of matched counterpoints known as bienli wen. It took a lot of literary and intellectual skills for a monk to succeed in this system.
The Rinka-monasteries, the provincial temples with less control of the state, laid less stress on the correct command of the Chinese cultural idiom. These monasteries developed "more accessible methods of koan instruction". It had three features:
By standardizing the koan-curriculum every generation of students proceeded to the same series of koans. Students had to memorize a set number of stereotyped sayings, agyō, "appended words". The proper series of responses for each koan were taught by the master in private instruction-sessions to selected individual students who would inherit the dharma lineage.
Missanroku and missanchō, "Records of secret instruction" have been preserved for various Rinzai-lineages. They contain both the koan-curricula and the standardized answers.[note 4] In Sōtō-Zen they are called monsan, an abbreviation of monto hissan, "secret instructions of the lineage". The monsan follow a standard question-and-answer format. A series of questions is given, to be asked by the master. The answers are also given by the master, to be memorized by the student.
In the eighteenth century the Rinzai school became dominated by the legacy of Hakuin, who laid a strong emphasis on koan study as a means to gain kensho and develop insight. There are two curricula used in Rinzai, both derived from the principal heirs of Rinzai: the Takuju curriculum, and the Inzan curriculum. According to AMA Samy, "the koans and their standard answers are fixed."
During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century the tradition of koan-commentary became suppressed in the Sōtō-school, due to a reform movement that sought to standardise the procedures for dharma transmission. One reason for suppressing the koan-tradition in the Sōtō-school may have been to highlight the differences with the Rinzai-school, and create a clear identity. This movement also started to venerate Dogen as the founding teacher of the Sōtō-school. His teachings became the standard for the Sōtō-teachings, neglecting the fact that Dogen himself made extensive use of koan-commentary.
The popular western understanding sees kōan as referring to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and not a riddle or a puzzle. Teachers do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan. 
Koans are also understood as pointers to an unmediated "Pure Consciousness", devoid of cognitive activity. Victor Hori criticizes this understanding:
[A] pure consciousness without concepts, if there could be such a thing, would be a booming, buzzing confusion, a sensory field of flashes of light, unidentifiable sounds, ambiguous shapes, color patches without significance. This is not the consciousness of the enlightened Zen master.
[K]oan after koan explores the theme of nonduality. Hakuin's well-known koan, "Two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?" is clearly about two and one. The koan asks, you know what duality is, now what is nonduality? In "What is your original face before your mother and father were born?" the phrase "father and mother" alludes to duality. This is obvious to someone versed in the Chinese tradition, where so much philosophical thought is presented in the imagery of paired opposites. The phrase "your original face" alludes to the original nonduality.
Comparable statements are: "Look at the flower and the flower also looks"; "Guest and host interchange".
Study of kōan literature is common to all schools of Zen, though with varying emphases and curricula. The Rinzai-school uses extensive koan-curricula, checking questions, and jakogo ("capping phrases", quotations from Chinese poetry) in its use of koans. The Sanbo Kyodan, and its western derivates of Taizan Maezumi and the White Plum Asanga, also use koan-curricula, but have omitted the use of capping phrases. In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, the emphasis is on Hua Tou, the study of one koan throughout one's lifetime. In Japanese Sōtō-Zen, the use of koans has been abandoned since the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.
In the Rinzai-school, the Sanbo Kyodan, and the White Plum Asanga, koan practice starts with the assignment of a hosshi or "break-through koan", usually the mu-koan or "the sound of one hand clapping". In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, various koan can be used for the hua-tou practice.
Students are instructed to concentrate on the "word-head", like the phrase "mu". In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 ("Zhaozhou's Dog"), Wumen (Mumon) wrote:
... concentrate yourself into this 'Wú' ... making your whole body one great inquiry. Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations."
Arousing this great inquiry or "Great Doubt" is an essential element of kōan practice. It builds up "strong internal pressure (gidan), never stopping knocking from within at the door of [the] mind, demanding to be resolved". To illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen commented,
It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't.
Analysing the koan for its literal meaning won't lead to insight, though understanding the context from which koans emerged can make them more intelligible. For example, when a monk asked Zhaozhou (Joshu) "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?", the monk was referring to the understanding of the teachings on Buddha-nature, which were understood in the Chinese context of absolute and relative reality.[note 5]
The monk himself in his seeking is the koan. Realization of this is the insight; the response to the koan [...] Subject and object - this is two hands clapping. When the monk realizes that the koan is not merely an object of consciousness but is also he himself as the activity of seeking an answer to the koan, then subject and object are no longer separate and distinct [...] This is one hand clapping.
Various accounts can be found which describe this "becoming one" and the resulting breakthrough:
I was dead tired. That evening when I tried to settle down to sleep, the instant I laid my head on the pillow, I saw: "Ah, this outbreath is Mu!" Then: the in-breath too is Mu!" Next breath, too: Mu! Next breath: Mu, Mu! "Mu, a whole sequence of Mu! Croak, croak; meow, meow - these too are Mu! The bedding, the wall, the column, the sliding-door - these too are Mu! This, that and everything is Mu! Ha ha! Ha ha ha ha Ha! that roshi is a rascal! He's always tricking people with his 'Mu, Mu, Mu'!...[note 6]
But the use of the mu-koan has also been criticised. According to AMA Samy, the main aim is merely to "'become one' with the koan". Showing to have 'become one' with the first koan is enough to pass the first koan. According to Samy, this is not equal to prajna:
The one-pointed, non-intellectual concentration on the hua-t’ou (or Mu) is a pressure-cooker tactics, a reduction to a technique which can produce some psychic experiences. These methods and techniques are forced efforts which can even run on auto-pilot. They can produce experiences but not prajana wisdom. Some speak of ‘investigating’ the hua-t’ou, but it is rather a matter of concentration, which sometimes can provide insights, yet no more than that.
Teachers may probe students about their kōan practice using sassho, "checking questions" to validate their satori (understanding) or kensho (seeing the nature). For the mu-koan and the clapping hand-koan there are twenty to a hundred checking questions, depending on the teaching lineage. The checking questions serve to deepen the insight of the student, but also to test his or her understanding.
Those checking questions, and their answers, are part of a standardised set of questions and answers. Students are learning a "ritual performance", learning how to behave and response in specific ways, learning "clever repartees, ritualized language and gestures and be submissive to the master’s diktat and arbitration."
In the Rinzai-school, passing a koan and the checking questions has to be supplemented by jakugo, "capping phrases", citations of Chinese poetry to demonstrate the insight. Students can use collections of those citations, instead of composing poetry themselves.
After the initial insight further practice is necessary, to deepen the insight and learn to express it in daily life. In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, this further practice consists of further pondering of the same Hua Tou.[web 1] In Rinzai-Zen, this further practice is undertaken by further koan-study, for which elaborate curriculae exist. In Sōtō-Zen, Shikantaza is the main practice for deepening insight.
In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, the primary form of Koan-study is kanhua, "reflection on the koan", also called Hua Tou, "word head". In this practice, a fragment of the koan, such as "mu", or a "what is"-question is used by focusing on this fragment and repeating it over and over again:[web 2]
Who is it who now repeats the Buddha's name?
Who is dragging this corpse about?
What is this?
What is it?
What was the original face before my father and mother were born?
Who am I?[web 3]
This koan becomes a touchstone of our practice: it is a place to put our doubt, to cultivate great doubt, to allow the revelation of great faith, and to focus our great energy.
Kōan practice is particularly important among Japanese practitioners of the Rinzai sect.
This importance is reflected in writings in the Rinzai-school on the koan-genre. Zhongfeng Mingben[note 7] (1263–1323), a Chinese Chán-master who lived at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, revitalized the Rinzai-tradition, and put a strong emphasis on the use of koans. He saw the kung-ans as "work of literature [that] should be used as objective, universal standards to test the insight of monks who aspired to be recognized as Ch'an masters":
The koans do not represent the private opinion of a single man, but rather the hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas of the three realms and ten directions. This principle 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 the poisoned drum that kills all who hear it, or like a great fire that consumes all who come near it. What is called "the special transmission of the Vulture Peak" was the transmission of this; what is called the "direct pointing of Bodhidharma at Shao-lin-ssu" is this.
Musō Soseki (1275–1351), a Japanese contemporary of Zhongfeng Mingben, relativized the use of koans. The study of koans had become popular in Japan, due to the influence of Chinese masters such as Zhongfeng Mingben. Despite belonging to the Rinzai-school, Musō Soseki also made extensive use of richi (teaching), explaining the sutras, instead of kikan (koan). According to Musō Soseki, both are upaya, "skillful means" meant to educate students. Musō Soseki called both shōkogyu, "little jewels", tools to help the student to attain satori.[note 8]
In Rinzai a gradual succession of koans is studied. There are two general branches of curricula used within Rinzai, derived from the principal heirs of Rinzai: the Takuju curriculum, and the Inzan curriculum. However, there are a number of sub-branches of these, and additional variations of curriculum often exist between individual teaching lines which can reflect the recorded experiences of a particular lineage's members. Koan curricula are, in fact, subject to continued accretion and evolution over time, and thus are best considered living traditions of practice rather than set programs of study.
Koan practice starts with the shokan, or "first barrier", usually the mu-koan or the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" After having attained kensho, students continue their practice investigating subsequent koans. In the Takuju-school, after breakthrough students work through the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), the Blue Cliff Record (Hekigan-roku), the Entangling Vines (Shumon Kattoshu), and the Collection of Wings of the Blackbird (鴆羽集, Chin'u shū). The Inzan-school uses its own internally generated list of koans.
Hakuin's descendants developed a fivefold classification system:
According to Akizuki there was an older classification-system, in which the fifth category was Kojo, "Directed upwards". This category too was meant to rid the monk of any "stink of Zen". The very advanced practitioner may also receive the Matsugo no rokan, "The last barrier, and Saigo no ikketsu, "The final confirmation". "The last barrier" when one left the training hall, for example "Sum up all of the records of Rinzai in one word!" It is not meant to be solved immediately, but to be carried around in order to keep practising. "the final confirmation" may be another word for the same kind of koan.
Completing the koan-curriculum in the Rinzai-schools traditionally also led to a mastery of Chinese poetry and literary skills:
[D]isciples today are expected to spend a dozen or more years with a master to complete a full course of training in koan commentary. Only when a master is satisfied that a disciple can comment appropriately on a wide range of old cases will he recognize the latter as a dharma heir and give him formal "proof of transmission" (J. inka shomei). Thus, in reality, a lot more than satori is required for one to be recognized as a master (J. shike, roshi) in the Rinzai school of Zen at present. The accepted proof of satori is a set of literary and rhetorical skills that takes many years to acquire.
After completing the koan-training, Gogo no shugyo, post-satori training is necessary:
[I]t would take 10 years to solve all the kōans [...] in the sōdō. After the student has solved all koans, he can leave the sōdō and live on his own, but he is still not considered a roshi. For this he has to complete another ten years of training, called "go-go-no-shugyō" in Japanese. Literally, this means "practice after satori/enlightenment", but Fukushima preferred the translation "special practice". Fukushima would explain that the student builds up a "religious personality" during this decade. It is a kind of period that functions to test if the student is actually able to live in regular society and apply his koan understanding to daily life, after he has lived in an environment that can be quite surreal and detached from the lives of the rest of humanity. Usually, the student lives in small parish temple during this decade, not in a formal training monastery.[web 4]
Hakuin Ekaku, the 17th century revitalizer of the Rinzai school, taught several practices which serve to correct physical and mental imbalances arising from, among other things, incorrect or excessive koan practice. The "soft-butter" method (nanso no ho) and "introspection method" (naikan no ho) involve cultivation of ki centered on the tanden (Chinese:dantian). These practices are described in Hakuin's works Orategama and Yasen Kanna, and are still taught in some Rinzai lineages today.
Though few Sōtō practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation, the Sōtō sect has a strong historical connection with kōans, since many kōan collections were compiled by Sōtō priests.
During the 13th century, Dōgen, founder of the Sōtō sect in Japan, quoted 580 kōans in his teachings. He compiled some 300 kōans in the volumes known as the Greater Shōbōgenzō. Dōgen wrote of Genjokōan, which points out that everyday life experience is the fundamental kōan.
However, according to Michel Mohr,
The Sanbo Kyodan school and the White Plum Asanga, which originated with the Sōtō-priest Hakuun Yasutani, incorporates koan-study. The Sanbo kyodan places great emphasis on kensho, initial insight into one's true nature, as a start of real practice. It follows the so-called Harada-Yasutani koan-curriculum, which is derived from Hakuin's student Takuju. It is a shortened koan-curriculum, in which the socalled "capping phrases" are removed. The curriculum takes considerably less time to study than the Takuju-curriculum of Rinzai.
To attain kensho, most students are assigned the mu-koan. After breaking through, the student first studies twenty-two "in-house" koans, which are "unpublished and not for the general public", but are nevertheless published and commented upon.[web 5] There-after, the students goes through the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Equanimity, and the Record of Transmitting the Light. The koan-curriculum is completed by the Five ranks of Tozan and the precepts.
Kōans collectively form a substantial body of literature studied by Zen practitioners and scholars worldwide. Kōan collections commonly referenced in English include:
In these and subsequent collections, a terse "main case" of a kōan often accompanies prefatory remarks, poems, proverbs and other phrases, and further commentary about prior emendations.
The Book of Equanimity or Book of Serenity (Chinese: 從容録 Cóngróng lù; Japanese: 従容録 Shōyōroku) is a collection of 100 Kōans by Hongzhi Zhengjue (Chinese: 宏智正覺; Japanese: Wanshi Shōgaku) (1091–1157), compiled with commentaries by Wansong Xingxiu (1166–1246). The full title is The Record of the Temple of Equanimity With the Classic Odes of Venerable Tiantong Jue and the Responsive Commentary of Old Man Wansong 萬松老評唱天童覺和尚 頌古從容庵錄 (Wansong Laoren Pingchang Tiantong Jue Heshang Songgu Congrong An Lu) (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 48, No. 2004)
The Gateless Gate (Chinese: 無門關 Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan) is a collection of 48 kōans and commentaries published in 1228 by Chinese monk Wumen (無門) (1183–1260). The title may be more accurately rendered as Gateless Barrier or Gateless Checkpoint).
Five kōans in the collection derive from the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou Congshen, (transliterated as Chao-chou in Wade-Giles and pronounced Jōshū in Japanese).
The True Dharma Eye 300 (Shōbōgenzō Sanbyakusoku) is a collection of 300 kōans compiled by Eihei Dōgen. Upon arriving in China, Dogen Kigen first studied under Wuji Lepai, a disciple of Dahui, which is where he probably came into contact with Dahui Zonggaos (大慧宗杲) (1089–1163) Shōbōgenzō, the Zhengfayan zang (正法眼藏), "Treasury of the true dharma eye" (W-G.: Cheng-fa yen-tsang, J.: Shōbōgenzō) a collection of koans and dialogues compiled between 1147 and 1150 by Dahui Zonggao . Dahui's Shōbōgenzō is composed of three scrolls prefaced by three short introductory pieces. The Zongmen liandeng huiyao 宗門聯燈會要 was compiled in 1183 by Huiweng Wuming 晦翁悟明 (n.d.), three generations after Dahui in the same line; the sermon is found in zh 20 (x 79: 173a).
Other kōan collections compiled and annotated by Sōtō priests include:
("Zhaozhou" is rendered as "Chao-chou" in Wade-Giles, and pronounced "Joshu" in Japanese. "Wu" appears as "mu" in Japanese, meaning "no", "not", "nonbeing", or "without" in English. This is a fragment of Case #1 of the Wúménguān. However, another koan presents a longer version, in which Zhaozhou answered "yes" in response to the same question asked by a different monk: see Case #18 of the Book of Serenity.)
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? (隻手声あり、その声を聞け)
Victor Hori comments:
...in the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan ... When one realizes ("makes real") this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.[web 6]
Huìnéng asked Hui Ming, "Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born." (This is a fragment of case #23 of the Wumenguan.)
Thinking about the Buddha as an entity or deity is delusion, not awakening. One must destroy the preconception of the Buddha as separate and external before one can become internally as their own Buddha. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind during an introduction to Zazen,
Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.
One is only able to see a Buddha as he exists in separation from Buddha; the mind of the practitioner is thus still holding onto apparent duality.