What are Koans

What are Koans

A Zen progressive teaching method

In the Zen school of Rinzai, the use of Koans, often a paradoxical statement, is often used to initiate the internal Socratic method in the students, to break down prior deeply held notions that hold them back from ‘Enlightenment’.

The Tibetan Lamrim, the tibitan monastic style of teaching, is known as the graduated path, that is near identical to the Socratic method of teaching.

Mondo, a Chinese word that means ‘Dialog between Student and teacher, is the same meaning as Lamrim, and is the Socratic method of teaching, a progressive teaching style.

In a progressive method of teaching, it is the goal of the teacher to get the student to teach themselves, as is what the Socratic Method does.

The Socratic Method and Culture

Socrates (470 – 399 BC) was the greatest philosopher of them all. His teachings and methods spread like wildfire throughout all of the Ancient world, even in to the Indo-Aryan regions where Buddhism and Zen where eventually developed.

Indo-Aryan Region

Time and culture has clearly had its influence on the varieties of Socratic Methods of teaching, though the fundamental core of the method has not changed.


Is a Koan just Intellectual Sophistry

The criticism of Zen koans, and sometimes rightly so, is that it is intellectual sophistry designed to bring the student to a predetermined conclusion.

Sophistry, meaning a clever deception, is often found in politics, advertisements, and popular religious paths of the Faiths and Good Deeds.In the paths of Wisdom, sophistry is meaning ‘False Wisdom’ and is often detected because the conclusions are inherently false or subjective by nature.

Socrates and Euthyphro

Sophistry in action

Statement: This apple taste terrible

Sophistry: It’s only because you dislike the price of the apple

Sophistry is detected in that it: cleverly changes the subject, and blames or flatters the statement, or the one making it.

The Koan construct

  1. The statement or paradox
  2. The critical question
  3. The revised statement
  4. Repeat 2 & 3 till Enlightenment 

In the graduated path of learning, the student once understanding the method, then self-initiates it in all things. In a religious context, the Koan is a method to break-through ignorance, delusions, and deeply self-held notions that are just not so.

Can you see the wisdom?

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.

Monk and Flag Koan

You’re doing it wrong

Zen Schools of North and South China grealy disagreed with each other about the Path of Zen. The northern school said that spiritual awakening is a slow path through serene meditation, where the Southern School said that awakening is an fast path through Koan work (Socratic Method). In Japan, the Southern school is known as Rinzai (After the Chinese Southern Patriarch) and was considered heretical when it was founded in Japan, and its temples burned and monks killed. However, after a time the Rinzai school eventually took hold in Japan and no longer are its temples burnt or the monks murdered.

Buddhist temples for the most part are where the wealthy nobles and merchants sent their children for education even up to the mid 1900’s. Students where well versed in what we in the west call ‘Classical Education’ that is to critically think, debate, and think independently  – all of this prior to Koan work or serene meditation.

Without the proper prerequisites, would be liken to one entering a boxing match with a prize fighter without any training or instruction. There is only one result: Disaster!

Adaptation to culture and the times

Linji, also known as Rinzai in Japanese, was a Chinese Zennist around 800CE. At that time, Linji was extremely critical of the state of decadence in Ch’an, in a sense he was the original Dark Zennist of his time.

Linji introduced a reformed Ch’an that took on an ‘immediacy of enlightenment’ teaching, that used the Socratic Methodology, Meditations, and Koans.

As often, religious philosophy and its methods are introduced ‘as is’ from the origination. Over time this origination import grows stale, decadent, and corrupt – and this leads to a revolt that ushers in a reformation of the religious philosophy and methods that reflects the current culture. This is how lineages are branch, and sects are created. You see the branching all though the Christian churches, and it’s just the same in the Buddhist and Zen churches too.

Linji (Rinzai)

The Zen teacher and student

The Koan, Meditation (Zazen) and Mondo (Socratic Debate) is the foundation of Zen methodology. For one without the others would be liken to a cart missing a wheel, only able to go in circles to nowhere.

It is the position of the Zen teacher to guide and instruct the students along the Zen Path, however what is a Zen teacher to do with a student who comes ill prepared?

This seems to be the predicament in the West; where students are poorly educated, mind’s filled with fantasy and nonsense, and willfully ignorant to the point that they don’t think they have to learn, or unlearn, anything at all!

The awakening of awareness of reality

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

The prerequisites, Koans, and Mondo all work together to bring the student to the point of ‘Spiritual Awakening’ where all delusions, fantasies and prior held notions are laid down for the final time.

Thus, all those things prior to the Awakening will still be done after awakening, though the awareness of the reality of those things is known, and the delusions, fantasies, and false notions that once thought as concrete and real, are now just a fading memory.

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Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website