The Koans of Zen and Meditative Question

“The Koan is the door,
the answer is the key.

But the basic point is not about opening the door,

 It is about what you will see there…»

(Probably, if I have put it here, 
someone might have said this somewhere…)



In one of the previous articles of this blog in have outlined a fundamental aspect of understanding the meditation (dhiana). And in particular the fact that “meditation is a question”. In the sense that one’s genuine meditating is the attempt to find an answer to some question that will take a person into the meta-context in relation to the situation considered and modify the affective evaluation of the situation itself. In this relation I cannot but mention one of the techniques used in another significant esoteric tradition, that is, “Zen” or “Chan” Buddhism, the more over that the hieroglyph ‘zen’ (Chinese ‘chan’) comes as the Japanese (and, correspondingly, Chinese) pronunciation of the Sanskrit term ‘dhiana’. I mean here the technique of Koans.

As you know a koan is a specific type of question that a teacher asks his student in order to stimulate his achieving the state of “enlightenment” or comprehending the core point of the tradition. The koans of Zen are usually known for their expressed illogicality and paradoxicality. The inability to give an answer or the attempt to give a formal or “cunning” answer was punished by striking one’s head with a stick. There are well-known koans like the question about the sound of the clap made by one hand, about the methods of drawing out a goose that has grown up in a bottle with narrow bottleneck and so on. There are a good number of popular collections of koans like, for instance, the Medieval “The Gateless Gate” collection by Mumonkan.

To give you a starter I shall quote the koan about one hand clapping:


“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”

Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.

The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.

“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping. “I have it,”imagined Toyo.

When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.

“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”

In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.

He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.

At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.


The followers of the modern “popular” Zen explain the core point of koans as the attempt to “go beyond the limits of the rational mind”; yet I believe that the majority of those telling these phases don’t understand their meaning very well. Moreover, I’m afraid that the meaning, the sense of them is no better than the attempt to translate “chitta-vritti-nirodhah” as “cessation of the mind activity”. But the thing even worse is that I have seen many ‘Zen’ people of our days who use the analogous koan-like paradoxical answers in order to conceal their ignorance in some issues and to pull the legs of the people around. According to some parables there were the “masters” of this kind in old Japan as well… Nevertheless I consider the Zen koans to be a constructive practice that gives most interesting hints about the very essence of the meditation, though – and I will show it later – the koans alone, translated into English language and taken beyond the cultural context cannot stimulate one’s enlightenment.

In order to solve the task set let us using the sample of the one-hand-clap koan try to understand what in general the paradoxicality of the problem is. Of course we shall from the beginning left aside the “cunning” answers like “the clap of one hand is the sound of clapping one’s body or a finger snap” and award those answering this way with imaginative strike of a bamboo stick on their naïve heads. Let us single out the core point of the problem. We USUALLY use the ‘clap’ to refer to the sound that comes when TWO palms come into contact.  Thus it is by logic impossible to answer the koan within this system of description. By logic, but not by fact. Because the initial descriptive pattern itself is primitive. It does contain the original collision, yet we were not noticing it prior to asking the proper question. And indeed, let us look at this question through the eyes of a physicist. The question of a clap is a question of a shock wave, the nature of sound, the equation described by the Mach cone etc. And true to form, the nature of the sound can be perfectly well described by corresponding equations – but not the words. By the way, the sound generated by the hand that moves faster that the sonic sound will be the clap proper))). Of course it was not what the authors of the koan meant for at that time in China they had no idea about differential equations at all, but they had a perfect idea of how imperfect the verbal description of the phenomenon is. Probably, even better than people in Europe did, since being hieroglyphic by nature the Chinese language is much stronger related to the integral construct of the NOTION expressed by an integral hieroglyph. I think that the culture that does not fragmentize words into letters was able to invent neither the differential calculus that fragmentizes the segments into their infinitely small components nor the theory of probability.

Thus the key point of the koan lies in its actualizing, its bringing out the primitiveness and self-contradictoriness of the verbal descriptive model. To answer the koan means to generate a new, a more complicated meta-contextual model that can be formed as a result of the Samadhi insight which I consider to be the enlightenment that is sought. The one who solved the koan by no means managed to go “beyond words”, i.e. into the meta-context, yet going beyond the words means one’s transition to more complicated languages of description, sometimes non-verbal ones (mathematical, statistical etc.). In this sense the title of the aforementioned collection of koans “the gateless gate” in a totally amazing way – once again through using the koan – illustrates this principle. The gate (i.e. something that does not let a person out) is the system of his words and concepts and no one prevents him from stepping over these words by creating a more conceptual system (grid). The imperfection of words is aptly illustrated in the following classical koan:


Whenever Hyakujo delivered a Zen lecture, an old man was always there with the monks listening to it; and when they left the Hall, so did he. One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujo asked,”Who are you?”

The old man replied, “Yes, I am not a human being, but in the far distant past, when the Kashapa Buddha (the Sixth Buddha of the Seven Ancient Buddhas) preached in this world, I was the head monk in this mountain area. On one occasion a monk asked me whether an enlightened man could fall again under the law of causation, and I answered that he could not. Thus I became a fox for 500 rebirths and am still a fox. I beg you to release me from this condition through your Zen words.”

Then he asked Hyakujo,”Is an enlightened man subject to the law of causation?” Hyakujo answered, “The enlightened man does not discriminate himself from the law of causation”

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened, and said with a bow, “I am now released from rebirth as a fox and my body will be found on the other side of the mountain. May I request that you bury me as a dead monk?”


In order to illustrate this idea let us for a while turn away from classical koans and set another tasks: the ‘koans’ are possible (or may have already been created) in the discourses of our days. It would be interesting to find them or to try to create them. To my mind the best known instance of modern koan in physics was the principle of wave-particle duality of the light. Prior to early XX cent. the physicists did notice yet could not explain the fact that in some of their experiments the light was acting as a wave while in others it behaved like a particle. In order to “explain” this fact they invented the said principle that is in fact collisional within it. Yet it shall be collisional only at the level of everyday logic in which scope we visualize “wave” as an oceanic wave, and “corpuscle” as a little piece of matter. However these are just our phantasies. All that ‘dualism” vanished when the wave equations were put down together with their solutions that in some threshold case give the “corpuscular” solutions. At least, visible contradictions disappeared… The attempt to eliminate the collision has generated a new significantly complicated and non-contradictory model of description.

Let us invent koans in other spheres as well. For instance, sociology. According to its definition “democracy is the rule (power) of people”. The “power” in its turn (after M. Weber) is as the ability of an actor (or actors) to realize his or her will in a social action, even against the will of other actors. Yet who is then the application object in democracy? For the “people” are not able to realize their will contrary to their own desire!!!! We have encountered the demonstration of a well-known paradox from the theory of sets in politics and have established a new koan for which solution we will have to reject completely the ancient Greek definitions of democracy and to review Weber’s definition of power and its nature.

I shall leave my creative reader with an opportunity to actualize the koans within the sphere of his or her competence and shall on my part finish the post with the following consideration. We might remember that among 5 types of vritti listed by Patanjali the 3 vrittis – pramana, viparyaya and vikalpa – are ‘intellectual’, and only 2 – nidra and smriti – are referred to one’s emotional sphere. Тhe method of working with koans and meditations of similar kind are addressed to those very initial three ones since these methods are extremely effective in fighting the “void notions” (vikalpa) that the outlook of a common person is swarmed with.