The koan

When the importance of the koan is understood, we may say that more than the half of Zen is understood. (Suzuki, 1953, p. 18)

“This time try three more days, and if after three days you have still not solved the koan, then you must die.” (Suzuki, 1965)
The term koan is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese word gong’an, which is a legal case. Koans are statements, questions or short exchanges (mondo) given by the ancient masters. These statements express some truth of the Dharma, but their meaning cannot be grasped through conventional reasoning. Students are formally assigned a koan and told to apply themselves to it day and night until they have come to a realization of understanding.

Students are told to focus not on the entire koan but on a word or short phrase known as the cue (huatou), such as Chao-chou’s “Wu!” The continuous focus on one thing shuts out all other thoughts, and the fact that the thing itself doesn’t yield to logic brings all thinking to a standstill. The student’s mind eventually reaches a point at which everything, including the student himself, has disappeared, and the only thing left in the universe is the cue. According to Dahui, lifting the cue to full awareness leads to the sudden exhaustion of all of one’s “tricky mental maneuvers,” and then awakening.

Self-realisation comes when the logical mind reaches its limit. If things are to be experienced in their true and essential nature, its thinking processes, which are based on abstract concepts, discriminating and judging, must be transcended by an appeal to a higher faculty of cognition. This faculty is the intuitive mind, which as we have seen is the link between the logical mind and Universal Mind. While it is not an individual organ like the logical mind, it has that which is much better: direct communication with Universal Mind. While intuition does not give information that can be analysed and categorized, it gives that which is far superior: self-realisation through identification with the infinite. – Lankavatara Sutra, “The Attainment of Self-Realisation(Goddard and Suzuki, 1932)

Some well-known koans are “The sound of one hand clapping,” “What does the One return to,” “The cypress tree in the courtyard,” “Who is it who carries around this corpse of yours,” “What was your face before your father and mother conceived you,” “To look at the Big Dipper in the north, face south,” Yun-men’s (Ummon) likening of the Buddha to a stick used in the latrine, and “To be or not to be, the wisteria leaning on the tree.”
D. T. Suzuki:

We cannot, however, ‘abandon’ ourselves just because we wish to to do so. It may seem an easy thing to do, but after all it is the last thing any being can do, for it is done only when we are most thoroughly convinced that there is no other way to meet the situation. We are always conscious of a tie, slender enough to be sure, but how strong when we try to cut it off! It is always holding us back . . .  Before being able to do this there must be a great deal of ‘searching’ or ‘contriving’ or ‘pondering’.  It is only when this process is brought to maturity that this ‘abandoning’ can take place. We can say that this ‘contriving’ is a form of purgation.

When all the traces of egotism are purged away, when the will to live is effectively put down, when the intellect gives up its hold on the discrimination between subject and object, then all the contrivances cease, the purgation is achieved, and the ‘abandonment’ is ready to take place.

All Zen masters are, therefore, quite emphatic about completing the whole process of ‘contriving and searching’. For an abandonment to be thoroughgoing, it is necessary for the preliminary process to be also thoroughgoing. The masters all teach the necessity of going on with this ‘searching’ as if one were fighting against a deadly enemy, or as if a poisonous arrow were piercing a vital part of the body or as if one were surrounded on all sides by raging flames . . .

Sholchi Kokushi, the founder of Tofukuji monastery, advises one to “imagine yourself to be down an old deep well; the only thought you then have will be to get out of it and you will be desperately engaged in finding a way of escape; from morning to evening this one thought will occupy the entire field of your consciousness.”

When one’s mind is so fully occupied with one single thought, strangely or miraculously there takes place a sudden awakening within oneself. All the ‘searching and contriving’ ceases, and with it comes the feeling that what was wanted is here, that all is well with the world and with oneself, and that the problem is now, for the first time, successfully and satisfactorily solved. The Chinese have the saying, “When you are in an impasse, there is an opening.”

The main thing to do when you find yourself in this mental extremity is to exhaust all your powers of ‘searching and contriving’, which means to concentrate all your energy on one single point and see how far you can go in this frontal attack. Whether you are pondering a knotty problem of philosophy or mathematics, or contriving a means of escape from oppressive conditions, or seeking a passage of liberation from an apparently hopeless situation, your empirical mind, psychologically speaking, is taxed to its limit of energy. But when the limit is transcended, a new source of energy in one form or another is tapped. (1953, pp. 70-72)

Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295):

With fury produce a fresh burst of determination and lift the cue (huatou) to full awareness. With respect to the cue, you must make the sensation of searching lasting—deep and intense. Either silently probe it with your mouth closed or look into it while saying it out loud. It should be as if you have lost an item important to you—you must find it yourself personally, and you must get it back yourself personally. In the midst of your daily activities, at all times and in all places, have no other thought. (Broughton, p. 7)

Wuzu Fayan (d. 1104):

You must fiercely apply energy, keep on raising this cue (huatou) to full awareness, probe day and night, locking it into position. (Broughton, p. 4)

Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163):

Over and over again keep lifting the cue to full awareness, over and over again keep your eye on it. When you notice it has no logic and no flavor and that your mind is squirming, it’s the locus wherein you, the higher man, relinquish your life. (Broughton, p. 34)

Lester Levenson:

The prime purpose of meditation is to quiet the mind. When we hold one thought with interest, as we hold it other thoughts keep dropping away. Thoughts of the day, what he did to me, what she did, what I should have done, etc., all these thoughts are active on a subconscious level. As we hold to one thought, these subconscious thoughts quiet; they become still. They drop into the background, and that quiets the mind.

Now, the most important thing in quieting the mind is interest. When you are very interested in something, you’ll override all other thoughts. Likewise, if, with intense interest, you want to know: What am I? What is this world? What is my relationship to it? If there’s a real burning desire to get the answer, then all other thoughts drop away and the mind becomes extremely concentrated. Then the answer shows itself. It comes from within. The answer is there all the time! The quieting of the thoughts allows us to see it, to see the answer that was there all the time, there in the realm of knowingness, the Self.

The starting point should be a strong desire for the answer. When that desire is strong we get the answer. That’s why man’s extremity is God’s opportunity: extreme adversity causes in us a desire to get out of it with such intensity that we concentrate our mind and discover the answer.

My wish to get the answer was so strong that in spite of my mind being one of the noisiest of minds, the answers began to come. I automatically fell into things (I knew no words for them) like samadhi. I would concentrate on a question with such intensity that I would lose awareness of this body, and then I would be aware of just a pure thought; the thought itself would be the only thing existing in this universe. That’s absorption, when the thinker and the thought become one—one loses consciousness of everything but that one thought. That’s a very concentrated state of mind and the answer is always discovered right there.

When I started my quest I thought that thinking would give me the answers. I had a mind that was as active as any mind could be. But I was at the end of the line. I had had a second heart attack and they told me I was finished, that I had only a short time to live and so I had to have the answers. And even though my mind was far more active than the great majority of minds, the intensity of the desire for the answers caused me to hold to one question at a time, obliterating all else. This concentration did it! (July 22, 1970 Session 11: “Meditation with a Quest”)

D. T. Suzuki:

An interpersonal relationship is sometimes spoken of in connection with the koan exercise when the master asks a question and the pupil takes it up in his interview with the master. Especially when the master stands rigidly and irrevocably against the pupil’s intellectual approach, the pupil, failing to know what to make of the situation, feels as if he were utterly depending on the master’s helping hand to pick him up. In Zen this kind of relationship between master and pupil is rejected as not conducive to the enlightenment experience on the part of the pupil. For it is the koan “Wu!” symbolizing the ultimate reality itself, and not the master, that will rise out of the pupil’s unconscious. It is the koan “Wu!” that makes the master knock down the pupil, who, when awakened, in turn slaps the master’s face. There is no self in its limited finite phase in this wrestling match. It is most important that this be unmistakably understood in the study of Zen. (1960, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, p. 58)

Kao-feng (1238-1285)

In olden days when I was at Shuang-ching, and before one month was over after my return to the Meditation Hall there, one night while deep in sleep I suddenly found myself fixing my attention on the question “All things return to the One, but where does this One return?” My attention was so rigidly fixed on this that I neglected sleeping, forgot to eat, and did not distinguish east from west, nor morning from night. While spreading the napkin, producing the bowls, or attending to my natural wants, whether I moved or rested, whether I talked or kept silent, my whole existence was wrapped up with the question “Where does this One return?” No other thoughts ever disturbed my consciousness; no, even if I wanted to stir up the least bit of thought irrelevant to the central one, I could not do so. It was like being screwed up or glued; however much I tried to shake myself off, it refused to move. Though I was in the midst of a crowd or congregation, I felt as if I were all by myself. From morning till evening, from evening till morning, so transparent, so tranquil, so majestically above all things were my feelings. Absolutely pure and not a particle of dust! My one thought covered eternity; so calm was the outside world, so oblivious of the existence of other people I was. Like an idiot, like an imbecile, six days and nights thus elapsed when I entered the Shrine with the rest, reciting the Sutras, and happened to raise my head and looked at the verse by Goso (“One hundred years–thirty-six thousand morns, This same old fellow moveth on forever”).

This made me all of a sudden awaken from the spell, and the meaning of “Who carries this lifeless corpse of yours?” burst upon me—the question once given by my old master. I felt as if this boundless space itself were broken up into pieces and the great Earth were altogether leveled away. I forgot myself, I forgot the world, it was like one mirror reflecting another. I tried several koan in my mind and found them so transparently clear! I was no more deceived as to the wonderful working of prajna.

Hakuin: Shoji Rojin

When [Koku and I] arrived at the Shoju-an hermitage, I received permission to be admitted as a student, then hung up my traveling staff to stay.

Once, after I had set forth my understanding to the master during interview, he said to me, “Commitment to the study of Zen must be genuine. How do you understand the koan about the dog and Buddha-nature?” “No way to lay a hand or foot on that,” I replied.

He abruptly reached out and caught my nose. Giving it a sharp push with his hand, he said, “Got a pretty good hand on it there!” I couldn’t make a single move, either forward or backward. I was unable to spit out a single syllable. That encounter put me into a very troubled state. I was totally frustrated and demoralized. I sat red-eyed and miserable, my cheeks burning from the constant tears.

The master took pity on me and assigned me some koans to work on: Su-shan’s Memorial Tower, The Water Buffalo Comes through the Window, Nan-ch’uan’s Death, Nan-ch’uan’s Flowering Shrub, The Hemp Robe of Ching-chou, Yun-men’s stick full of dried shit. “Anyone who gets past one of these fully deserves to be called a descendant of the Buddha and patriarchs, he said.”  (Wild Ivy, p. 30-32)

Richard de Martino: 

Accepted as a genuine Zen student, Hui-k’o then inquired after the truth. Bodhidharma declared it was not to be found outside of oneself. Hui-k’o, nevertheless, bared his plaint. His heart-mind was not at peace, and he implored the master to pacify it.

Here is further confirmation that Hui-k’o’s impelling vexation stemmed from his inner contradiction. The Chinese term, hsin, rendered as heart-mind, can mean heart or mind, but is more than either alone. The Greek psyche or the German Geist probably approach it more closely. In the terminology of this presentation, it may be taken to be the ego as subject. The ego as subject, in its situation of conditioned subjectivity, plagued by disquietude and unrest, pleads for pacification.

Bodhidharma, in anticipation, had already begun his guidance and instruction in declaring that a resolution could not be gained from the outside. Not yet comprehending, and, perhaps, out of a feeling of helplessness, or even desperation, Hui-k’o persisted and presented his plight, requesting Bodhidharma to alleviate it.

What was Bodhidharma’s response? Did he delve into Hui-k’o’s past—his personal history, parents, early childhood, when he first began to sense the disturbance, the cause, symptoms, and attending circumstances? Did he explore Hui-k’o’s present—his occupation, marital status, dreams, likes, and interests? Bodhidharma’s reply was: “Bring forth your heart-mind and I shall pacify it for you!”

Eschewing all the particularities of Hui-k’o’s life, past or present, Bodhidharma plunged immediately and directly into the living core of the human predicament itself. The ego, caught in the clutches of its own intrinsic contradiction and split, which it can neither resolve nor endure, is challenged to produce not anything it may feel to be its problem, but itself as apparent sufferer of the problem. Bring forth the ego-subject that is troubled! Bodhidharma, and Zen Buddhism after him, realizes that, finally and fundamentally, it is not that the ego has a problem, but that the ego is the problem. Show me who it is who is disturbed and you shall be pacified. (Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, pp. 153-154)

* * *

Chao-chou’s washing of the bowl:

A monk asked Chao-chou (778-897) to be instructed in Zen. Said the master, “Have you had your breakfast or not?” “Yes, master, I have,” answered the monk. “If so, wash your bowl,” was the immediate response, which at once opened the monk’s mind to the truth of Zen. (Suzuki, “Satori,” 1949, p. 238)

Chao-chou’s Wu:

When Chao-chou was asked by a monk whether there was Buddha-nature in the dog, the master barked, “Wu!”

A monk asked Chao-chou, “I read in the Sutra that all things return to the One, but to what does this One return?” Answered the master, “When I was in the province of Tsing I had a robe made which weighed seven chin.”

D. T. Suzuki’s comment on “Wu!”

The dog is a dog all the time, and is not aware of his being a dog, of his harbouring the Divine in himself; therefore he cannot transcend himself. He finds bones and jumps at the and eats them; he is thirsty and drinks water; periodically he chases females and fights with his rivals. When his life comes to an end, he just expires; he does not lament his fate, he has no regrets, no hopes, no aspirations. Why is all this so? Simply because he is not conscious of his Buddha-nature; he has not been awakened to the truth He lives Zen just the same, but he does not live by Zen. (1950, p. 12)

Hui-neng: “Not the wind, not the pennant”

One day I thought, “The time has come to spread the Dharma. I cannot stay in hiding forever.” Accordingly, I went to Dharma Essence Monastery in Guang Province, where Master Yinzong was lecturing on The Nirvana Sutra. At that time there was a pennant waving in the breeze. One monk there said, “The wind is moving.” Another monk said, “The pennant is moving.” They argued over this incessantly. I stepped forward and said, “It is your minds that are moving, kind sirs.”


Empty-handed I go and yet the spade is in my hands;
I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding.
When I pass over the bridge,
Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth flow.  (Suzuki, 1949, p. 272)

Broughton, Jeffrey L. (2015). The Chan Whip Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard de Martino (1960). Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. New York: Harper Colophon Books.

Goddard, Dwight and Suzuki, D. T. (1932). A Buddhist Bible (First Edition). (

Levenson, Lester (1993). Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Phoenix, Arizona: Sedona Institute. (

Koans from The Gateless Gate:

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1949). Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York: Grove Press.

Suzuki, D. T. (1950). Living By Zen. New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company.

Suzuki, D. T. (1965). The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. New York: University Books.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (Richard M. Jaffee, editor) (2014). Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I. Oakland: University of California Press. (

Waddell, Norman (2001). Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Shambhala Publications.