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More correctly, koans.


Every Day Is a Good Day

Unmon said: "I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But what about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this!" Since none of the monks answered, he answered for them: "Every day is a good day."

No Cold and Heat

A monk asked Tozan, "How can we escape the cold and heat?" Tozan replied, "Why not go where there is no cold and heat?" "Is there such a place?" the monk asked. Tozan commented, "When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.

The Short Staff

Shuzan held out his short staff and said, "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?"

Joshu's Mu

Joshu (A.D. 778-897) was a famous Chinese Zen Master who lived in Joshu, the province from which he took his name. One day a troubled monk approached him, intending to ask the Master for guidance. A dog walked by. The monk asked Joshu, "Has that dog a Buddha-nature or not?" The monk had barely completed his question when Joshu shouted: "MU!"

Seijo's Two Souls

Chokan had a very beautiful daughter named Seijo. He also had a handsome young cousin named Ochu. Joking, he would often comment that they would make a fine married couple. Actually, he planned to give his daughter in marriage to another man. But young Seijo and Ochu took him seriously; they fell in love and thought themselves engaged. One day Chokan announced Seijo's betrothal to the other man. In rage and despair, Ochu left by boat. After several days journey, much to his astonishment and joy he discovered that Seijo was on the boat with him!

They went to a nearby city where they lived for several years and had two children. But Seijo could not forget her father; so Ochu decided to go back with her and ask the father's forgiveness and blessing. When they arrived, he left Seijo on the boat and went to the father's house. he humbly apologized to the father for taking his daughter away and asked forgiveness for them both.

"What is the meaning of all this madness?" the father exclaimed. Then he related that after Ochu had left, many years ago, his daughter Seijo had fallen ill and had lain comatose in bed since. Ochu assured him that he was mistaken, and, in proof, he brought Seijo from the boat. When she entered, the Seijo lying ill in bed rose to meet her, and the two became one.

Zen Master Goso, referrring to the legend, observed, "Seijo had two souls, one always sick at home and the other in the city, a married woman with two children. Which was the true soul?"

Bells and Robes

Zen Master Unmon said: "The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?"

Ganto's Two Meals

Kisan paid a visit to Ganto, who was living in quiet seclusion, and asked, "Brother, are you getting two meals regularly?" "The fourth son of the Cho family supports me, and I am very much obliged to him," said Ganto. "If you do not do your part well, you will be born as an ox in the next life and will have to repay him for what you owed him in this life," Kisan cautioned.

Ganto put his fists on his forehead but said nothing. "If you mean horns," Kisan said, "you must stick out your fingers on top of your head." But before he finished speaking, Ganto shouted, "Hey!" Kisan did not understand his meaning and said, "If you know something deeper, why don't you explain it to me?" Ganto hissed at him and said, "You have been studying Buddhism for thirty years, as I have, and you are still wandering around. I have nothing to do with you. Just get out." And with these words he shut the door in Kisan's face.

The fourth son of the Cho family happened to be passing by and, out of pity, took Kisan to his home. "Thirty years ago we were close friends," Kisan said sorrowfully, "but now he has attained something higher than I have and will not impart it to me."

That night Kisan could not sleep. He got up and went to Ganto's house. "Brother," he implored, "please be kind and preach the Dharma for me." Ganto opened the door and disclosed the teaching. The next morning Kisan returned home, happy with attainment.

Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu

Emperor Wu of China was a very benevolent Buddhist. He built many temples and monasteries, educated many monks, and performed countless philanthropic deeds in the name of Buddhism. He asked the great teacher Bodhidharma, "What merit is there in my good works?" Bodhidharma replied, "None whatsoever." The Emperor then asked, "What is the Primal meaning of Holy Reality?" Bodhidharma answered, "Emptiness, not holiness." The Emperor then queried, "Who, then, is this confronting me?" "I do not know," was Bodhidharma's reply. Since the Emperor did not understand, Bodhidharma left his kingdom.

Later, the Emperor related this conversation to an adviser, Prince Shiko. Shiko reprimanded him, saying that Bodhidharma was a great teacher possessed of the highest truth. The Emperor, filled with regret, dispatched a messenger to entreat Bodhidharma to return. But Shiko warned, "Even if all the people in the land went, that one will never return."

Returning to the Ordinary World

A monk asked Kegon, "How does an enligthtened one return to the ordinary world?" Kegon replied, "A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches."

No Beard

Wakuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma, "Why hasn't that fellow a beard?"

Everything is Best

One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, "Give me the best piece of meat you have." "Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best." At these words, Banzan was enlightened.

Manjusri Enters the Gate

One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, "Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?" Manjusri replied, "I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?"

Where to Meet after Death

Dogo paid a visit to his sick fellow monk, Ungan. "Where can I see you again if you die and leave only your corpse?" Dogo asked. "I will meet you where nothing dies," Ungan replied. Dogo criticized his response saying, "What you should have said is that there is no place where nothing is born and nothing dies and that we need not see each other at all."

A Philosopher Asks Buddha

A philosopher asked Buddha: "Without words, without silence, will you tell me the truth?" The Buddha sat quietly. The philosopher then bowed and thanked the Buddha, saying, "With your loving kindness I have cleared away my delusions and entered the true path." After the philosopher had gone, Ananda asked Buddha what the philosopher had attained. The Buddha commented, "A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip."

Jizo's Buddhism

One day, Jizo received one of Hofuku's disciples and asked him, "How does your teacher instruct you?" "My teacher instructs me to shut my eyes and see no evil thing; to cover my ears and hear no evil sound; to stop my mind-activities and form no wrong ideas," the monk replied. "I do not ask you to shut your eyes," Jizo said, "but you do not see a thing. I do not ask you to cover your ears, but you do not hear a sound. I do not ask you to cease your mind-activities, but you do not form any idea at all."

The Southern Mountain

Sekiso lived and taught on the Southern Mountain, and Kankei lived and taught on the Northern Mountain. One day, a monk came from the Northern Monastery to the Southern Monastery in search of teaching. Sekiso said to him, "My Southern Monastery is no better than the Monastery in the North." The monk did not know what reply to make. When he returned to Kankei and told him the story, Kankei said, "You should have told him that I am ready to enter Nirvana any day."

The Girl Comes Out of Meditation

Once upon a time, Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, went to an assemblage of Buddhas. By the time he arrived, all had departed except for the Buddha Sakyamuni and one girl. She was seated in a place of highest honor, deep in meditation. Manjusri asked the Buddha how it was possible for a mere girl to attain a depth of meditation that even he could not attain. The Buddha said, "Bring her out of meditation and ask her yourself."

So Manjusri walked around the girl three times a gesture of reverence, then snapped his fingers. She remained deep in meditation. He then tried rousing her by invoking all his magic powers; he even transported her to a high heaven. All was to no avail, so deep was her concentration. But suddenly, up from below the earth sprang Momyo, an unenlightened one. He snapped his fingers once, and the girl came out of her meditation.

The Real Way Is Not Difficult

Joshu addressed an assembly of monks: "The Real Way is not difficult;, but it dislikes the Relative. If there is but little speech, it is about the Relative or it is about the Absolute. This old monk is not within the Absolute. Do you value this or not?" A monk said to him, "If you are not within the Absolute, how can you judge its value?" Joshu said, "Neither do I know that." The monk argued, "Your Reverence, if you do not yet know, how is it that you say you are not within the Absolute?" Joshu said, "Your questioning is effective. Finish your worship and leave."

The Turtle in the Garden

A monk saw a turtle in the garden of Daizui's monastery and asked the teacher, "All beings cover their bones with flesh and skin. Why does this being cover its flesh and skin with bones?" Master Daizui took off one of his sandals and covered the turtle with it.

The Temple

One day Hofuku said to his disciples, "When one passes behind the temple, he meets Chang and Li, but he does not see anyone in front of it. Why is this? Which of the two roads is better?" A monk answered, "Something must be wrong with the sight. Nothing is gained without seeing." The Master scolded the monk, saying, "Stupid, the temple is always like this." The monk said, "If it were not the temple, one should see something." The Master said, "I am talking about the temple and nothing else."

Lotus Blossoms and Leaves

A monk asked Chimon, "Before the lotus blossom has emerged from the water, what is it?" Chimon said, "A lotus blossom." The monk pursued, "After it has come out of the water, what is it?" Chimon replied, "Lotus leaves."
Knuth = K = kook

koan /koh'an/ n.

A Zen teaching riddle. Classically, koans are attractive paradoxes to be meditated on; their purpose is to help one to enlightenment by temporarily jamming normal cognitive processing so that something more interesting can happen (this practice is associated with Rinzai Zen Buddhism). Defined here because hackers are very fond of the koan form and compose their own koans for humorous and/or enlightening effect. See Some AI Koans, has the X nature, hacker humor.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

  1. Gutei's Finger -- Whenever anyone asked him about Zen, the great master Gutei would quietly raise one finger into the air. A boy in the village began to imitate this behavior. Whenever he heard people talking about Gutei's teachings, he would interrupt the discussion and raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy's mischief. When he saw him in the street, he seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and began to run off, but Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned to look, Gutei raised his finger into the air. At that moment the boy became enlightened.
  2. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
  3. Once upon a time, Nan-in recieved a university professor at his home. The professor considered himself an expert on Zen, and he came to inverview Nan-in about it. When it was time for tea, Nan-in poured his visitor's cup, but when it was full, he did not stop pouring. The professor continued to watch until he could no longer restrain himself. "It is overflowing," the man exclaimed. No more will go in!"

    "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you, too, are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you are first empty, like the cup?"

  4. What is the color of the wind?
  5. Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree. Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, said, "Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves." The two monks were struck with awe.
  6. When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

    "Give me the best piece of meat you have," said the customer.

    "Everything in my shop is the best," replied the butcher. "You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best."

    At these words Banzan became enlightened.

  7. One day Chuang-tzu and a friend were walking along a riverbank. "How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water!" Chuang-tzu exclaimed.

    "You are not a fish," his friend said. "How do you know whether or not the fishes are enjoying themselves?"

    "You are not me," Chuang-tzu said. "How do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?"

  8. Two monks were once travelling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

    "Come on, girl," said the first monk. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

    The second monk did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he said. "It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

    "I left the girl there,: the first monk said. "Are you still carrying her?"

  9. A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
  10. A monk asked Chimon, "Before the lotus blossom has emerged from the water, what is it?"

    Chimon said, "A lotus blossom."

    The monk pursued, "After it has come out of the water, what is it?"

    Chimon replied, "Lotus leaves."

  11. Daibai asked Baso: `What is Buddha?'

    Baso said: `This mind is Buddha.'

More koans are forthcoming, as this is a work in progress.

Traditionally, this is a very short story which seems to make no sense which is given to a student of Zen Buddism by his teacher to meditate on. The teacher may also continuously demand explanations of the apparently incomprehensible from the student. When the student comes up with an answer his teacher will accept, he is given another koan.

Some Buddists who are not Zen Buddists have suggested that this procedure is necessary for those whose minds are more likely to interfere with enlightenment, and the more fortunate are those who do not need it.

More broadly in modern usage, this it any very short story or parable which does not seem to make sense at first, but bears thinking about. For instance, there are hackers who enjoy some AI koans.

孝安

Emperor Kōan, said to have reigned from 392-291 BC, was the sixth Emperor of Japan, according to the official chronology.

Pretty much nothing is known of Kōan's life or even if he actually ever existed, as the two earliest Japanese chronicles, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki, list only his name, life dates, and reign dates. And even these dates seem rather uninformative, as he is held to have lived 137 years and reigned for 102 of them.

As the fifth of eight Japanese emperors with literally no legends or stories at all about them, Kōan has been categorized by Japanese scholars as one of the Kesshi Hachidai (欠史八代), or "Eight Undocumented Sovereigns."

Jien, a 12th-century historian, did provide some additional information about Kōan, writing that he was the second son of Emperor Kōshō and that he ruled from the palace of Akitsushima-no-miya at Muro in Yamato province, but it is unknown where Jien, writing hundreds of years after the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, could have gotten this information other than by simply making it up.

Another suspicious aspect of Emperor Kōan is his name, which is incontrovertably a Chinese reign name with Buddhist overtones, despite the fact that he is supposed to have lived about 800 years before either Chinese writing or Buddhism arrived in Japan.

Not surprisingly, serious scholars of Japanese history don't take Kōan or any of the other early emperors very seriously.


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