Tuesday, January 18, 2011

what can a fish know of fire? | Kōan

when i think a question,
i think that i can know an answer;
but what can a fish know of fire?

The kōan is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism.

A koan consists of a story, dialogue, question, or statement, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. One widely known kōan is "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?" (oral tradition attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686–1769, considered a reviver of the kōan tradition in Japan). The word koan, the name by which the practice is known to the West, comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters (公案).

Direct pointing at the mind of man, seeing one's nature and becoming Buddha.

Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴?, January 19, 1685 - January 18, 1768) was one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism. He revived the Rinzai school from a moribund period of stagnation, refocusing it on its traditionally rigorous training methods integrating meditation and koan practice. Hakuin's influence was such that all Rinzai Zen masters today trace their lineage through him, and all modern practitioners of Rinzai Zen use practices directly derived from his teachings.

Scroll calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku (depicts Bodhidharma). Caption: Jikishin ninshin, Kensho jobutsu: “Direct pointing at the mind of man, seeing one's nature and becoming Buddha.”

Kōans originate in the sayings and events in the lives of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th–6th century) as its ancestor.

Kōan is used both as a meditation device and as an expression of Enlightenment (satori)– a radical experiential insight into the nature of things and the self alike.

Satori is a Japanese Buddhist term for enlightenment that literally means "understanding". In the Zen Buddhist tradition, satori refers to a flash of sudden awareness, or individual enlightenment, and is considered a "first step" or embarkation toward nirvana. Satori is typically juxtaposed with the related term kensho, which translates as "seeing one's nature". Kensho experiences tend to be briefer glimpses, while satori is considered to be a deeper spiritual experience.


Nirvāna is a central concept in Indian religions - the state of being free from suffering. The word literally means "blowing out" — referring, in the Buddhist context, to the blowing out of the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.


Kenshō is a Japanese term for enlightenment experiences. It is most commonly used within the confines of Zen Buddhism.
Literally it means "seeing one's nature" or "true self." It generally "refers to the realization of nonduality of subject and object." Frequently used in juxtaposition with satori (or, "catching on"), there is sometimes a distinction made between the two in that some consider satori to be qualitatively deeper. Kenshō itself has been said to be "...a blissful realization where a person's inner nature, the originally pure mind, is directly known as an illuminating emptiness, a thusness which is dynamic and immanent in the world." Kenshō experiences are tiered, in that they escalate from initial glimpses into the nature of mind, on to an experience of emptiness, and then perhaps on to Buddhahood.

Kōans reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such {enlightened} persons and sometimes confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.[citation needed] Zen teachers often recite and comment on kōans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their kōan practice using "checking questions" to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, "capping phrases" (jakugo), and verses inspired by the kōan.

A Capping Phrase (着語/箸語 jakugo?), or 下語 (agyo?) of a kōan is a proof of solution of the case riddle, but not the solution itself. In Zen Buddhism, kōan is used both as a meditation device and as an expression of Enlightenment (悟り/覚り satori?) – a radical experiential insight into the nature of things and the self alike. A capping phrase is supposedly an articulation of such enlightening experience, most of the time in verse.

V. Sōgen Hori describes the process of the kōan training as follows:
"Rinzai monasteries in Japan vary in the way they conduct kōan practice, but in the Myōshin-ji–Daitoku-ji branch, when a monk has passed a kōan the Zen teacher will instruct him to bring a “capping phrase” ... The monk selects a verse or phrase that expresses the insight he has had while meditating on the kōan. He searches for this capping phrase in one of the several Zen phrase books that have been especially compiled for this purpose. If the monk continues into advanced stages of the Rinzai Zen kōan curriculum, he will receive further literary assignments: the writing of explanations in Japanese, called kakiwake 書き分け, and the composition of Chinese-style poetry, called nenrō 拈弄... The research and writing required to complete kakiwake and nenrō writing assignments can consume considerable amounts of time during the later stages of a monk’s stay in the monastery."

A kōan or part of a kōan may serve as a point of concentration during meditation and other activities, often called "kōan practice" (as distinct from "kōan study", the study of kōan literature). Generally, a qualified teacher provides instruction in kōan practice in private.

In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 ("Zhaozhou's Dog"), Wumen (Mumon) wrote:
"...concentrate yourself into this 'Wú'... making your whole body one great inquiry. Day and night work intently at it. Do not attempt nihilistic or dualistic interpretations."

(Chinese traditional: 無, simplified: 无 pinyin: wú ) - Mu in Japanese/Korean, is a negation which has been translated variously as "not," "nothing," "without," "nothingness," "non existent," "non being," or evocatively simply as "no thing." [neutrality is disputed]

Arousing this great inquiry or "Great Doubt" is an essential element of kōan practice. To illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen commented
It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can't.

As part of the training of teachers, monks, and students, kōan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records. They may consist of a perplexing element or a concise but critical word or phrase (話頭 huà-tóu) extracted from the story. It may also refer to poetry and commentary added to the story by later Zen teachers.

Links --

@Wikipedia -
Kōan | Jakugo
Zen Buddhism
Hakuin Ekaku | Bodhidharma
Satori | Nirvāna | Kenshō
External links -
The Gateless Gate - 48 Zen kōans compiled in the early 13th century
Book of Serenity A collection of 100 kōans, originally compiled in the 12th century

see also:

•   "...about Zen & Buddhism"

•   "autumn wind (not exactly haiku?)"

•   Zen Playlist at YouTube

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