There are lots of zen lineages that use koans as part of a complete package of training. But there are also some that just do koan practice. Pass these koans, take these vows, and become a master. I know because I trained in one that was like that for a while.


By Daniel Scharpenburg

I was in monk training for a while, in a Linji Zen lineage as a Novice Monk.

Householders who take vows are usually called priests, but in this organization they use the word monk instead (needlessly confusing? I think so). I was encouraged to drop out of monk training because of something I wrote, way back when I wrote for another website, a much less cool website than this one.

People like to think that there are no articles of faith in Zen, you see. We aren’t silly like other people with their faith-based religions. It’s all logic and reason over here. We’re not even as silly as those Buddhists who believe in rebirth. Nope, nope, nope.

I’d say that there are at least two articles of faith in the Zen tradition, probably more. And I challenged one of them. I challenged one of Zen’s sacred cows—the entire concept of lineage. I think (as most historians do) that the concept of lineage was invented by some of the early Zen teachers in China a thousand or so years after the Buddha’s death. People came up with this idea that the only way to make their Buddhist school seem legitimate was to make it appear as if their teachings were the best because they were handed down directly from teacher to student since the Buddha himself, and somehow there was no evidence of that for 1000 years. This concept of lineage spread to Tibet. Even though the Zen masters were cast out of Tibet, many of their teachings were still practiced. And the Tibetans really loved the idea of lineage—they ran with it.

There’s not really a concept of lineage in Theravada, Tiantai, Huayan or Pure Land. And people who are deep within the Zen or Tibetan traditions sometimes don’t even realize that because they hear about lineage so much. Is lineage useful? I don’t know. I didn’t ask those questions. I just pointed out that it didn’t come from the Buddha. Not coming from the Buddha is okay. Buddhism is an evolving culture of awakening. But I feel that we should be honest and not pretend. Anyway, pointing this out as a Novice Zen Monk was considered heretical. I’m a Zen Heretic. That’s kind of cool (I became a lineage holder in the Empty Cloud Lineage later and now I’m even more convinced that lineage is made up).

Now, I gave that long and rambling introduction with probably more information than you needed because I’m writing something else heretical now. If other Zen Buddhists read this they probably won’t like it. Today I am writing about the other article of faith in the Zen tradition—Koan practice.

I have to unpack that a little because some of you may not know what koans are, and that’s okay. I’ll paint a picture for you before I analyze the practice.

Imagine you’re in a meditation hall. You’re practicing with other people, alternating between sitting meditation and walking meditation. Then, a bell rings. You go enter the teacher’s chamber (by the way, you probably refer to your teacher as “master”) and bow. You say something along the lines of: “My name is _________ and my practice is counting the breath.”

Then you sit down and your teacher raises his stick (he has a stick) and makes a knocking sound by pressing the bottom of it onto the floor. He says, “This stick, The Buddha, and your true nature: Are they all the same or are they different?”

His stick is elevated and you have to come up with an answer. If your answer is what the teacher is expecting then congratulations, you’ve passed the koan (I’ll tell you the answer at the end). You’ll return to your place in the meditation hall feeling very accomplished. But if your answer isn’t what the teacher is expecting, then you will return to your place in the meditation hall feeling sad, and you’ll wait for your next turn to try again. You’ll think about it for a long time.

There are several kinds of koans and that’s important to remember. Some of them are aphorisms—really short stories—and those can be fun. Here’s one I like:

The wind was flapping the temple flag and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved. They argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Patriarch said, “It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves, it is your  minds that move.” The monks were awe-struck.

That one is not a riddle, and I think it’s kind of cool. The Patriarch sure did make those monks look dumb, but did you gain any particular insight while reading that?

Here’s another one: If you meet the Buddha by the side of the road, kill him.

Linji, the founder of the Rinzai school said that. It makes you think, right? The Buddha’s dead; I can’t kill him. That’s not the point. The point is that those groups of Buddhists that worship the Buddha probably have the wrong idea. But, that’s not the kind of koan I’m talking about here. And, of course, I can read koans and enjoy them. I have a copy of the Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record. These are beloved koan collections and I like them.

At first koans were just stories like the ones I put up there. Students could just read them and say, “Man, our lineage is awesome.” But things changed.

During the Tang dynasty Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism became very popular. This new kid on the block had supplanted Pure Land as the coolest form of Buddhism in China and started stealing some of the best students (and ideas) away from previously powerful branches of Buddhism called Huayan and Tiantai. Zen was where it was at and everyone knew that. Even native Chinese traditions like Taoism and Confucianism were losing some of their best students and ideas.

A point came that Zen was so popular, so many students were flocking to temples, that the teachers realized they didn’t have time to meet all the needs of their students. These were not casual students like you might run into at your local temple, but ones that wanted real and deep teachings. Many of them wanted to become teachers themselves. The teachers wondered how they could possibly keep up. They came up with an idea—koans as riddles.

Previously a teacher had to spend serious time with their students to find out about their progress on the path. Koan practice changed that. The student was given a series of riddles and when they pass them all—BOOM—they’re ready to be a teacher. A teacher could find out a student is enlightened just by knowing if they could pass all the koans.

It turns out the journey to enlightenment is something you can test out of. Whew. Just pass some tests.

Now, eventually there was a pushback in China. The Zen tradition was attacked and they didn’t have the embarrassment of too many students anymore. But koans stuck around anyway, and so koans have been practiced for over 1000 years.

Now, one might say, “So what’s the big deal?”

I’m being a little unfair. There are lots of zen lineages that use koans as part of a complete package of training. But there are also some that just do koan practice. Pass these koans, take these vows, and become a master. I know because I trained in one that was like that for a while.

I’d like to submit, as someone that’s passed more than a few koans, that what they achieve is helping you figure out how your mind works a little bit. What they don’t achieve is turning you into a Master. People have the wrong idea about that. And, this is probably more heretical: koans are riddles.

Here’s a western riddle:

Never was, am always to be.  No one ever saw me, nor ever will, and yet, I am the confidence of all who live and breathe. What am I?

I don’t think that’s fundamentally different from a koan. Someone should answer it in the comments.

Pretending that koans are more special than riddles is like pretending the Blue Man Group is more than a clown show (it’s a clown show, sorry).

Are koans bad? Not necessarily, no.

But there is a whole crowd of teachers who think they’re fully enlightened Buddhas and their main reason for thinking that is that they are really good at riddles. REALLY GOOD. There are even those that think that koan practice is the central teaching of Buddhism. One of my teachers said he didn’t even meditate. He just did koan practice.

I’m not saying koans are awful. I’m just saying that Buddhism can be simple and straightforward. We don’t need to be deliberately confusing our students. I think that when people think that koans are central to the practice, they aren’t thinking about why koans were created in the first place, as a backup for a real teacher/student relationship.

A teacher/student relationship is important.


*the answer to the koan about the stick: you grab the stick from the teachers hand and touch it to the ground without saying a word. You answer without answering.


Photo: (Mark Stivers)

Editor: Dana Gornall