According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Koan’ is a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment. Zen masters often use nonsensical or unsolvable riddles, or Koans, to bring about enlightenment.
Scholars say that “Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, as Chan Buddhism. It was strongly influenced by Taoism, and developed as a distinct school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan, where it became known as Seon Buddhism and Japanese Zen, respectively”. Chan is said to have been inspired by the Indian practice of Dhyana.
Meaning of Koan
Koan literally means “public announcement” and is based on anecdotes of Zen masters; it could also denote dialogue between master and disciple. The effort to solve a Koan is intended to exhaust the analytical intellect and kill the egoist will. Each such exercise constitutes both a communication of some aspect of Zen experience and to test the progress of a student in Zen practice.
The Zen way of attaining enlightenment is illustrated through a short story. A man once approached a Zen master and asked, “What is the way?” “Hear!” said the Zen master. Everything became silent including the inquirer except for the murmur of the water of a fountain that flowed near the hut of the master. When the master said, “Hear, this is the way,” he actually indicates the silent moment that had penetrated the consciousness of the seeker and not the sound of the water which one mistakenly comprehends. It is in the immediacy, by living fully moment to moment, that one attains enlightenment. In silence you are here and now. The sound of the water is only witness to it.
Ordinarily, a sound is created and heard when two hands are clapped. When a Zen master asks you to hear the sound of one hand clapping, he is trying to strike at the root of everyday experience of the disciple, based on logic. Concentrating on such Koans disrupts the rationality of mind and leads to a kind of Zen experience. In one sense these Koans always can’t be called nonsensical. If one wants to reason about them, there is enough room for him to do so. For example, you may symbolise one hand clapping with Anhad Naad or sound of cosmos- the unstruck sound.One has to undergo the process of resolving a Koan by meditating on it for a while, reflecting on it, and in the process, as meanings reveal themselves to the practitioner, reach his own spiritual experience. He is not to philosophise and intellectualise it for understanding it. The process must effectively shut off all avenues to rationalisation.
To understand a Koan in such an intellectual way is not Zen. According to Zen scholar, D. T Suzuki, “the Koan is intended to be nourished in those recesses of mind where no logical analysis can ever reach.” Though there are said to be 1,700 Koans in all, even a single Koan is enough for Self-realisation.
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