Koans are specific to Zen Buddhism, although they can be incorporated and used in the spiritual practices of most practitioners. A Koan has two specific uses. The first use is as a spiritual exercise for the practitioner. The second use is as a test to gage the enlightenment and spiritual attainment of the practitioner.
When Koans have entered into Western practices, they have unfortunately been misrepresented in what they are meant to be and how they are meant to be used. A Koan will usually come in the form of a question. Sometimes it will also have an answer to the question. Often times this question and answer will be phrased into a very short story. A koan will, at a glance, appear to be nonsense or have no meaning. However it will actually have a very deep meaning. This meaning can only be determined through spiritual attainment, and often times koans are meditated on in order for the meaning to be derived.
The first misrepresentation is that a koan is a meditative tool. It is a thing without meaning that you’re supposed to meditate on to bring your mind to a state of nothingness and clarity. However meditating on nonsense to bring yourself to a mental void doesn’t really work that well in practice. Doing that isn’t going to bring about the kind of success a person usually wants. It’s also a tactic that would be tried by someone that isn’t very comfortable and experienced with meditation. That’s not something most would expect to find in the toolbox of a zen master. Also koans do have a meaning. They only appear as nonsense.
The second misrepresentation is that a koan is a sort of riddle. It’s not a riddle, although it is like a riddle in some ways, which may be how the confusion starts. Unlike a riddle, you will not be able to solve a koan with your mental prowess. It isn’t a matter of paying close attention to the wording and the meaning can’t be deduced and there isn’t a logical explanation. However it is like a riddle in a few ways. A riddle is a test of your mental prowess. It also practices your mental abilities and solving a riddle makes you more intelligent. In the same way a koan is a test of your spiritual prowess, and solving a koan increases your spiritual attainment. The difference between spiritual and mental prowess I’ll get more into when I start talking about what a koan is.
Finally the third misrepresentation is that a koan is a thing that can be understood if you understand the history and concepts of Zen Buddhism, or Buddhism in general, or Chinese language and culture. Now most of the most famous koans come out of Zen Buddhism and were written in China. If you have a good grasp of these things, you will have a better understanding of the koans, at least in regards as to what is written on the page. You’ll also have a better understanding of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West, or any other piece of Chinese literature. However you don’t need an understanding of these things in order to understand most koans (and some printed editions come with cliff notes for each koan to help you with these things). What I’m saying is that koans do not have blinds. This is an aspect of Western occultism, where there is information that is meant for the enlightened only, and the information won’t make sense unless you have a firm grasp of the basic concepts of the system. Understanding Zen Buddhism will not give you the tools you need to understand a koan.
So how does a koan work. A koan is filled with deep spiritual meaning if you can understand it, and your goal is to find that meaning. And there is more than one right answer. Koans can have multiple meanings. Koans can also have many different layers, with the meaning changing and evolving the deeper you get. Also each person is a vessel and medium through which the koan’s meaning is expressed, and so this expression will differ with each person.
Koans are generally solved through meditation. Being able to focus on the koan, to concentrate on it, and to look inside yourself and pull answers out of yourself is at the very beginning of solving the koan. You need to be able to do several other things though. For one you should be able to pull the energy off the koan. This will help you get an idea of what it feels like, what its creator was feeling and thinking, what it connects to, and it will help you read the very hidden subtext of it. You also need to be able to channel outward. Not just being able to speak to other things to get their opinion on it, but also being able to channel in the sense that you can access the storehouses of information that are out there. And if you can do that correctly, you should be able to find the connections, which can’t be derived logically, that you need to understand the meaning of the piece. And then you actually do need to have both the mental capacity and an understanding of life, the universe, and everything to the point where you can actually understand all of this information and what it means. Then you also need to be capable enough to express this meaning, at least to yourself if not to others.
There are several different collections of koans that have been put together. Two of the most famous classic collections are the Blue Cliff Record and the Gateless Gate. An English translation of these two works exists together in a book called “Two Zen Classics”. In addition to the koans, it also has a translation of the commentary that comes with it. My only problem lies with the notes. Sometimes they’re great, giving information on history, culture, and Buddhism that pertain to the koan. I do think that it’s lacking in regards to information on the actual translation choices chosen. But at other times the notes try to interpret the koan or the commentary, essentially providing a modern commentary on the koans. I think it’s unnecessary to do this, and I find this particular commentary to be from someone who does not fully understand the meaning of the koans. I also have to comment on the print quality of the book, which is not up to par considering the price of the book. On most pages the print is just fine, but in my copy there are definite printing errors where ink is smeared across the entire page.