Q36. What is a koan in Zen meditation? Why can’t I understand koans even though I have read a lot on meditation? They make no sense to me.

A. A koan is a sort of dialogue between a master and his students that is used to check whether they have reached the final goal. At the same time, it can be a good question you can practice with. It is just like a maths question in maths, in that a question can be used to test students on one hand and can be material to study on the other hand; so it can be referred to as a Zen question. If you understand perfectly the principle of a question, you can solve other questions easily. Koans might seem to be funny and even look like a joke. Sometimes they may seem to make no sense at all. However, once you have reached the final goal, you will understand how clever, correct and beautiful they are.

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Some people think that each question has a single answer, and, memorising it, say they know the correct answer. The truth is that each koan has so many answers that we can’t say all the answers, even if we spend all our life saying the answers to a single question.
It is just like when five year old children are asked a maths question, “What is 3 + 2?” Not all, but most of them can provide only a single answer 5, because they have not mastered the four rules of arithmetic. However, most secondary school students know that though the answer to the question is 5, it can be said in countless other ways, such as 6 – 1, 1.5 + 3.5, 4 + 1, 4.8 + 0.2, 100 – 95 and so on. They also know that although each of the answers seemingly has a different form, all of them are perfectly correct answers.
If you expect to understand koans by reading books, it is natural for them to seem to make no sense at all. Trying to grasp them through reading is like trying to wash a mud-stained cloth with muddy water; it will make things more complicated, since koans are asked to check whether Zen students are freed from the illusions with which we are bound, but reading books is to create illusions. Only when you are freed from illusions can you understand them clearly.

All writing ©Boo Ahm. All images ©Simon Hathaway.

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