The Zen Koan
Of the many ingenuities in the Zen tradition, one of the most subtle is the koan (Chi. kung-an [公案], pronounced in Japanese as two syllables: ko-an). A koan is a Zen “problem” or a Zen “story” or a theme of zazen to be made clear, and may be thought of as an ideal of bafflement.
As Steven Heine points out, the koan is “Zen’s main religious symbol,”1 and Dale Wright observes that “koan meditation may be the most condensed and self-conscious linguistic practice ever devised in any culture.”2
Zen master Robert Aitken: “Koans are the folk stories of Zen Buddhism, metaphorical narratives that particularize essential nature. Each koan is a window that shows the whole truth but just from a single vantage. It is limited in perspective. One hundred koans give one hundred vantages. When they are enriched with insightful comments and poems, then you have ten thousand vantages. There is no end to this process of enrichment.”
One of the most famous and widely used koans is the Mu Koan, or Joshu’s Dog:
A monk asked Joshu in all earnestness,
“Has a dog Buddha nature or not?”
The Japanese word mu [無] means “no,” “not,” or “nothingness.”
As Aitken observes, “Forty generations of Zen students have breathed the word Mu, evoking the living presence of the Old Buddha himself. Thus Mu is an arcanum, an ancient word or phrase that successive seekers down through the centuries have focused upon and found to be an opening into spiritual understanding. In everyday usage the word ‘Mu’ means ‘does not have’—but if that were Joshu’s entire meaning, there wouldn’t be any Zen.”3
1. Steven Heine, Dogen and the Koan Tradition, p. 87
2. Robert Aitken, The Gateless Barrier, p. 10.
3. Dale Wright, Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism, p. 81
Heinrich Dumoulin points out the Chinese origin: “The use of koans in Zen Buddhism is a unique phenomenon in the history of religion; nothing like it exists in other religious traditions. Developed in China, koans testify to an authentically Chinese mentality, particularly in the way they are rooted in real life. If Zen can be called the Chinese expression of Buddhism, then koans are the most Chinese dimension of Zen.”