Who Needs Koans?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Koan, as the Chinese characters used for its Chinese word kung-an (公案) suggests, stems from the word meaning “official document”. During the Sung Dynasty (9601279), koans, or statements and stories, collected in the “official document” were used extensively by Zen masters as a device for teaching their students, as a means of making them attain enlightenment.

Reflecting on a koan, however, does not mean figuring out its meaning through logical reasoning. The kind of intellectual reflection employed in Zen is called prajna, which is a different kind of intuition as the term is employed in Western philosophy. To differentiate the concept of intuition used in Zen from that employed in Western philosophy, Buddhists often call theirs as prajna-intuition. Further, prajna is differentiated from vijnana, which is the term Buddhists employ for logical reasoning. What differentiates prajna from vijnana is that, while vijnana presupposes the existence of both the seer and the seen, that duality between the seer and the seen ceases to exist in prajna.

Vijnana proceeds by differentiating between a koan as the object of reflection and the person who reflects on it. However, the whole point about a koan is not to attach any specific object to this koan or that. Without attaching any specific object and, therefore, meaning, a koan serves the role of guiding us into the world of prajna-intuition where the whole truth underlying all existences is revealed. And that revelation, we are told, usually comes to us in a flash of insight called Zen-experience.

This does not mean, however, that Zen denies the role of gradual learning, as Master Shen Yen points out: “Chan (Zen in Japanese) does teach gradual methods to beginning practitioners, but if a person has a solid foundation in meditation practice, a Chan master will try to guide them towards sudden enlightenment.”1 As a matter of fact, a Zen master employs a kind of dialectic called mondo for beginning practitioners before they are judged to be ready for sudden enlightenment. But the logical argument employed in Zen is very different from Aristotelian syllogism, for example, that leads us to a comfortable coincidence between the logical conclusion and our common-sense understanding of the world when properly applied. A favorite example used by philosophers to illustrate Aristotelian syllogism is the following: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Hence, Socrates is mortal. It is because prajna invites us into the world in which the seer is the seen and the seen is the seer that Zen resorts to paradoxical statements known as koan, as explained by Suzuki: “Paradoxical statements are therefore characteristic of prajna-intuition. As it transcends vijnana or logic, it does not mind contradicting itself; it knows that a contradiction is the outcome of differentiation, which is the work of vijnana.”2

As it comes as a result of prajna-intuition, Zen-enlightenment is neither an intellectual nor an emotional experience. As such, Zen-experience is unlike any common-sense experience of the world around us. In fact, we are asked to abandon all of our conventional concepts, ideas, and judgments. To quote the Japanese Zen master Dogen: “Drop all relationships, set aside all activities. Do not think about what is good or evil, and do not try to judge right from wrong. Do not try to control perceptions or conscious awareness, nor attempt to figure out your feelings, ideas, or viewpoints.”3

Confronted with contradictions that logical reasoning leads us into, we become aware that there are aspects to the world around us beyond our normal, logical comprehension of it. Zen thus urges us to skip over the logical comprehension of the way the world is, and to experience directly the totality of the world with prajna-intuition. The totality of the world around us contains not just the conventional and manifest world around us but also the transcendent world, or the world of ultimate reality. Having abandoned our intellectual endeavor to comprehend the world around us, Zen then urges us to come back to that world, going through our daily acts of living with the insight we have acquired. Indeed, when we have reached that stage of development in our practice, we no longer need koans. To quote Master Shen Yen again, “Chan transcends the ordinary and then returns to the ordinary.”4

  1. Master ShenYen, Tea Words: Early Chan Lectures in America (1980-1997), Elmhurst: Dharma Drum Publications, 2012, p. 150.
  2. Suzuki, D. T., Studies in Zen, New York: Dell Publishing, 1955, pp. 94-95.
  3. Dogen, Fukan Zazen-gi, as quoted in Wright, Thomas, “Tenzo Kyokun: Instructions for the Zen Cook” in Dogen/Uchiyama, How To Cook Your Life, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, p. 20.
  4. Master ShenYen, op. cit., p. 68.