Koans are puzzles or problems that are presented to students in some branches of Zen, to loosen the mind of concepts and attachments, and hasten enlightenment. Students can spend months or years on a single koan, before the teacher (called sensei, or for teachers who are more senior or are politically connected, roshi) judges the student to have “passed” at a dokusan (face-to-face meeting), and to be ready for the next koan.
But for the busy student who cannot afford to spend months or years on some weird riddle, we present answers to a few of the more common koans here as a service.
(Holding out the shippei, the teaching stick.) “What is this? If you say that it is a shippei, you negate its essence; but if you do not, you deny the fact. Now, what is it?”
This is an elementary koan, intended to determine whether the student can move even a step beyond words. The proper response is to reach out and grasp the shippei yourself, and give it a firm shake. The teacher may yank the stick away when you reach for it, but persist! Higher marks will be given the more doggedly you pursue the teacher and the stick around the room, and even out into the zendo if necessary. If running is necessary, be sure to hold your robes high to get maximum speed.
A monk asked Master Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” Joshu answered, “Mu!” Now show me this Mu!
This koan tests the ability to go beyond words in a way that spontaneously reflects the student’s inner nature. Accordingly, you should spontaneously do whichever of these best reflects your inner nature:
- Say “No monk, no Joshu, no dog, no Mu” (avoid smugness),
- Sit silently until the teacher relents and admits you have passed the koan,
- Scream “Mu!” in a loud harsh voice, while doing that thing with your arms and shoulders that monsters always do in anime,
- Strike the teacher in the face (always satisfying, and applicable to nearly any koan, but do not use it more than once),
- Flash your boobs (most commonly used by female students, but if you are a male student and it reflects your inner nature, spontaneously go for it).
“Why did Bodhidharma come from India to China?”
The proper answer to this koan depends upon the season.
- Spring: “The sun shines, and buds appear.”
- Summer: “Water flows cool in the night.”
- Autumn: “The wind blows, and leaves rustle.”
- Winter: “Damn, it’s cold in the zendo; I’m freezing my ass off!” (note that if it is winter and you are not freezing your ass off in the zendo, it is not a real zendo, but some Disneyfied version, and you will pass the koans regardless of your answers, because they want good reviews on Yelp).
“Find your original face, before your parents were born.”
This is a very difficult koan; accordingly you should fail to pass it for at least a month (or at any rate at least a week), or Roshi will be suspicious. After several dokusans at which you admit you have not yet found your original face, you should either burst into spontaneous open-hearted laughter (best with the “jolly” or “nurturing” teacher), or suddenly strike the teacher in the face (or, if you have used that answer previously, strike yourself in the face).
Some teachers will pretend that the student has not passed the koan even when the correct answer has been given once; in this case give the same answer again at the next dokusan, and the teacher will pass you this time, thus appearing especially enigmatic.
Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”
There is no correct answer to this koan; it has been assigned to you because your teacher hates you.
Next week: “Spirit in the Stillness: Tips on flirting during Sesshin”.
This is of course satire, poking fun at the idea that koans have straightforward answers; it is not intended to poke fun at Buddhist teachers or students or anything. Not that there’d be anything wrong with that. In a nice way. But anyway, the reader is advised not to try using any of these on actual Zen teachers; results are unlikely to be pleasant.
I’ve never done koan practice of any kind, and have a hard time imagining what it’s actually like. Presumably rather than looking for any particular answer, the teacher looks for something in the face-to-face interaction that shows that the student has achieved some particular level of insight from working on the problem. But I dunno! The silly paragraphs above just popped into my head while doing normal ol’ zazen last weekend; they sounded funnier while revolving in my head when I should have been just letting them go, but here they are anyway.