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Kōan

Kōan (Chin., Kung-an; ‘public announcement’, or ‘precedent for public use’). A fundamental practice in Zen training, challenging the pupil through a question, or a phrase or answer to a question, which presents a paradox or puzzle. A kōan cannot be understood or answered in conventional terms: it requires a pupil to abandon reliance on ordinary ways of understanding in order to move into or towards enlightenment. The origins of kōan are uncertain, but predate Nan-yüan Hui-yung (d. 930 CE) to whom the first use is attributed. The earliest surviving collection is in the writings of Fen-yang Shan-chao (Fen-yang lu; Jap., Funʾyōroku), including a series of 100 kōan questions (chieh-wen; Jap., kitsumon). Fen-yang was of the Rinzai school, and the use of kōans is particularly associated with Rinzai (kanna zen), but is not exclusive to it. Under Fen-yang's successor, Shih-shuang, Li Tsu-hsü produced Tenshō Kōtōroku, one of the five foundation chronicles of Zen in the Sung period, containing many kōans. Among Shih-shuang's pupils, Wu-tsu Fa-yen extended the short, sharp kōan to its height. Fa-yen's main pupil, Yüan-wu K'o-ch'in (1036–1135) was a vital figure in developing kōan method in this period, completing the Blue Cliff Record (Chin., Pi-yen-lu; Jap., Hekigan-roku, for which see HSÜEH-TOU CH'UNG-HSIEN TSIEN).

The second largest collection of the Sung period is Ts'ung-jung lu (Jap., Shōyōroku), assembled by Wan-sung Hsing-hsiu (1166–1246). It was followed (1229) by the Wu-men-kuan (Jap., Mumonkan), edited by Wu-men Hui-k'ai (1183–1260). About 1,700 kōans survive, of which about 600 are in active use.

In Rinzai, five types of kōan are identified: (i) hosshin-kōan, to create awareness of identity with buddha-nature (bussho); (ii) kikan-kōan, to create ability nevertheless to discern distinctions within non-distinction; (iii) gonsen-kōan, creating awareness of the deep meaning of the sayings of the masters; (iv) nantō-kōan, grappling with the hardest to solve; (v) go-i-kōan: when the other four have been worked through, the insight gained is tested once more.

See also MU; WATO.

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koan

koan (kō´än) [Jap.,=public question; Chin. kung-an], a subject for meditation in Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, usually one of the sayings of a great Zen master of the past. In the formative period of Ch'an in China, masters tested the enlightenment of their students and of each other through statements and dialogue that expressed spiritual intuition in nonrational, paradoxical language. In later generations records of such conversations began to be used for teaching, and the first collections of subjects, or koans, were made in the 11th cent. Koan practice was transmitted to Japan as part of Zen in the 13th cent., and it remains one of the main practices of the Rinzai sect. The most famous koan collections are the Wu-men-kuan (Jap. Mu-mon-kan) or "Gateless Gate" and the Pi-yen-lu (Jap. Heki-gan-roku) or "Blue Cliff Records." A well-known koan is: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism (1956); I. Miura and R. F. Sasaki, Zen Dust (1966); H. Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (1989).

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koan

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