How Zen Koans Unlock the (Gateless) Gate of Enlightenment

By: Dave Roos  | 
Zen koans are used by Zen Buddhists during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and themselves. Ian Dyball/Shutterstock

Karate. Karaoke. Kimono. Like other familiar Japanese k-words, it's easy to reduce Zen koans into a Westernized novelty item (the Japanese word koan comes from the Chinese gong'an, which means "public case"). Maybe you've seen this famous koan on a paper placemat in a sushi restaurant:

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"


Hmm. It's tempting to be a smart aleck, like Bart Simpson, or to dismiss the supposedly "deep" question as ridiculous or nonsensical.

But if you take a minute to explore the long history and tradition of koans in Zen Buddhism — the first collections of Zen koans were compiled 1,000 years ago — you'll have a new appreciation for the power of these ancient riddles to unlock deep spiritual understanding, perhaps even enlightenment.

To dig deeper, we spoke with Steven Heine, a religion professor at Florida International University who has written many excellent books about Zen Buddhism and koans, including the accessible primer "Zen Koans."


Why Koans are the Heart of Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that was first developed in seventh-century China (where it's called Chan) and later took root in Japan and Korea in the 13th century. In Japanese, Zen means "meditation," and it's through countless hours of focused meditation that a Zen practitioner hopes to achieve enlightenment, a Buddha-like state of absolute understanding and detachment.

But that won't happen through meditation alone. At the heart of Zen Buddhism is the relationship between the student and the teacher or master. The job of the master is to help the student shed layers of ignorance, stubbornness and illusions to expose the "Buddha within," the knowledge and wisdom that has always been there waiting to be revealed.


The best tool for peeling back those layers is the koan. There are hundreds and hundreds of koans, but each one tells the story of a brief interaction — usually between a student and a teacher, but sometimes two teachers, or a teacher and a rival — that results in a sudden flash of insight.

"A koan is basically an encounter dialogue," says Heine. "Two or more individuals have a brief exchange — which can include words, gestures, even silence — and through that encounter, some kind of ignorance is exposed and understanding is revealed."

While every wisdom tradition uses stories to teach moral and spiritual truths (Jesus, for example, taught using parables), there's something different about a koan. Zen masters use koans to startle and disarm their students, and shake them from their spiritual slumber. That's why koans often seem contradictory, paradoxical and downright random.

"The koan is an instrument to get you from un-enlightenment to enlightenment," says Heine, "But it's more about the interaction you have with your teacher than the story itself. The story is a means to an end."


A History of Koans, Unsolved "Cases"

According to Heine, koans date back to the "golden age" of Zen Buddhism in China during the T'ang Dynasty (618 to 917 C.E.). In Chinese, the word for koan is gong'an, which means a "public record" or "legal case." Even today, a non-Buddhist in China would understand gong'an to mean a legal precedent or a detective story, says Heine.

When Zen came around, Chinese Buddhists appropriated the legal language of the gong'an or koan and applied it to cases of "spiritual crimes," says Heine. Each koan is referred to as a case and the crime to be solved might be stubbornness, ignorance, attachment, etc.


Koans were first written down in 1020 C.E. and bound in collections of cases. One of the best-known koan collections is "The Gateless Gate," a book compiled by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai in the early 13th century. Each case is accompanied by commentary by the master, called Mumon in the text.

In Mumon's preface to "The Gateless Gate," he concludes with a poem:

The great Way has no gate;
There are a thousand different roads.
If you pass through this barrier once,
you will walk independently in the universe.

In other words, the path to enlightenment passes through a "gateless gate." There is no real barrier, only the barrier of ignorance that we've constructed in our own minds. According to the 20th-century Japanese Zen master Kuon Yamada, the "thousand different roads" leading to enlightenment are koans. Koans are what will unlock the gateless gate inside ourselves.


Case No. 1: "Joshu's Dog"

"Joshu's Dog" is one of the most well-known koans, but it's more than a question about a dog.

The very first case in "The Gateless Gate" is also one of the best-known and thorniest koans in Zen Buddhism. It's called "Joshu's Dog."

A monk asked Joshu,
"Has the dog the Buddha nature?"
Joshu replied, "Mu (nothing)!"

Joshu is a legendary Zen master. The eager young monk asks Joshu a yes or no question: does a dog, a lowly animal, have the same innate ability to achieve enlightenment as the Buddha? And Joshu exclaims, "Nothing!"


On the surface, Joshu's answer makes no sense. It's similar to other koans, where a master replies by wordlessly raising a finger. Or by violently slapping the questioner in the face. But there's a method to the madness, which Mumon explained in his commentary:

For the pursuit of Zen, you must pass through the barriers (gates) set up by the Zen masters ... This one word "Mu" is the sole barrier. This is why it is called the Gateless Gate of Zen ... Would you like to pass through this barrier? Then concentrate your whole body ... into this question of what "Mu" is; day and night, without ceasing, hold it before you. It is neither nothingness, nor its relative "not" of "is" and "is not." It must be like gulping a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out ... Then, all the useless knowledge you have diligently learned until now is thrown away. As a fruit ripening in season, your internality and externality spontaneously become one ... Indeed your ego-shell suddenly is crushed, you can shake heaven and earth.

All that from a question about a dog?

The koan is a way of "completely uproot[ing] all the normal workings of one's mind," wrote Mumon. Instead of simply saying, "Yes, every living thing has the Buddha nature," Joshu wants us to meditate night and day on the concept of "nothing" in order to think beyond "yes and no," "Buddha or no Buddha" and connect with something universally true.

"Joshu's Dog" is one of the first koans presented to students of Zen Buddhism. It can take years to "solve" and the solution, as determined by the master, will vary according to what the individual student needs to learn.


Paradox, Double Binds and Deeper Meanings

Zen Buddhism migrated from China to Japan and Korea in the mid-1200s, says Heine, and each culture developed its own approach to koans. In Korea, Heine says, students were assigned one koan at a time, and they might meditate on that single koan for years before moving on to the next. In Japanese Zen tradition, there is a set curriculum of dozens or even hundreds of koans that each student has to "pass."

In the West, the conventional view of koans is that they are written to be purposefully paradoxical, even nonsensical. And there's good reason to think that way. Here are just a few classic koans that employ a "double-bind" — basically, a no-win situation.


A master holds up a stick and dares his students: "If you call this a stick, you will be clinging, and if you do not call this a stick, you will be ignoring the obvious. So, now, tell me, what do you call it?"

Another master challenges his students: "Keeping your tongues and lips closed, how will you speak?"

The master Pi-mo went around asking every monk he met:

What kinds of demons made you become a Buddhist priest? What kind of devil forced you to take up this pilgrimage? You will die from my pitchfork even if you explain it. You will die from my pitchfork even if you do not explain it. Now speak up quickly! Speak up quickly!

While Heine admits that some koans are simply mind games designed to break our brains and force us into new ways of seeing, others are rooted in ancient traditions that are hidden to most modern readers.

"If you immerse yourself in the context of the original tradition — which includes mythology, legends and cultural symbols from China, Japan and Korea — then you start to pick up on the obscure references," he says.

Here's an example. An eager monk asks his master, "Why did Zen come to Japan from China?" The master answers, "There is a cypress tree in the courtyard."

What? On the surface, it looks like another mind game. But through his research, Heine traced the koan back to a temple in Japan called the Cypress Forest Temple, which was surrounded by cypress trees.

"When you look at it that way, the meaning of the koan is clear," says Heine. "The master is saying, you're so eager that you're missing the forest for the trees. Instead of making no sense, it makes perfect sense."