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Kōan (Chinese, gong'an; Korean, kongan; "case for judgment" or "public case") is an administrative and legal term that was first adopted by the Chan (Korean, Sŏn; Japanese, Zen) school in Song-dynasty China (960–1279). The Japanese pronunciation of the term, kōan, has become standard in English usage. The term mainly refers to the usually enigmatic, frequently startling, and sometimes shocking stories about legendary Chan masters' encounters with disciples and other interlocutors. The kōan may be the most distinctive feature of Chan Buddhism, where it is understood as an unmediated articulation of enlightenment (Chinese, wu; Japanese, satori; awakening). Since the tenth century, Chan students throughout East Asia have studied and pondered kōans in order to gain a sudden breakthrough of insight into the minds of the ancient Chan masters and into their own primordial buddha-minds.

The best-known kōan is probably the one about the Tang-dynasty (618–907) Chan master Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897), who reportedly was asked: "Does a dog have the buddha-nature or not?," to which he replied "It doesn't" (Chinese, wu; Japanese, mu; Korean, mu), or simply "no." Zhaozhou's answer poses an impossible and confusing contradiction of the MahĀyĀna Buddhist notion, central to all of Chan, that every sentient being is endowed with the buddha-nature or tathĀgatagarbha. Another famous kōan is the one about the master Nanquan Puyuan (748–835), who is said to have challenged two monks who were fighting over the ownership of a cat to demonstrate their enlightened minds to him on the spot. When neither could do so, Nanquan Puyuan hacked the cat in two, in gross violation of the Buddhist precept against killing. Other kōan stories about Tang Chan masters describe shouting, hitting, and other erratic behavior, although some kōan stories seem utterly mundane, such as when Zhaozhou is said to have told a student who asked for instruction to go wash his breakfast bowls.

Kōans are understood to embody the enlightened minds of the ancient Chan masters and to communicate a truth that cannot be expressed in ordinary discourse. Many kōans, like "Zhouzhou's dog" and "Nanquan's cat," can be interpreted as being about transcending habitual dichotomies like subject and object, and recognizing the oneness of everything in the universe, but such rational analysis is considered foolish and futile. Truly comprehending a kōan is thought to entail a sudden and direct nondualistic experience of an ultimate reality, which fundamentally differs from any intellectual understanding.

Since the tenth century, kōan commentary has been a favorite means of instruction in all the East Asian Chan schools, and later kōans also came to be used as objects for meditation. Although initially only stories that were held up for special comment by a later Chan master were considered kōans, eventually virtually any story about a Chan master could be called a kōan. The term also came to refer to any phrase or saying that was used to challenge students of Chan, such as "Why did Bodhidharma come to the West?" or "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Kōan literature

It is uncertain when exactly kōans first began to be produced. Early Chan materials from the sixth and seventh centuries show that kōans were not a feature of early Chan, although the later tradition created many kōan stories about the early masters.

It is the Chinese Chan masters of the eighth to mid-tenth centuries who most often are the protagonists of kōan stories, but few facts about this so-called golden age of Chan exist and no sources that contain kōans can be reliably dated to that period. The earliest datable source for kōans is the groundbreaking genealogical Chan history, the Zutang ji (Korean, Chodang chip; Collection from the Hall of the Patriarchs) from 952. Later genealogical Chan histories are also important sources for kōans, but the most influential was the Jingde chuandeng lu (Records of the Transmission of the Lamplight [of enlightenment compiled during the] Jingde Era) from 1004, and many of the most commonly used kōans come from this work. Kōans can also be found in collections focusing on individual Chan masters. Such collections, which are known as "recorded sayings" or "discourse records" (Chinese, yulu), were first published during the Song dynasty.

Early in the Song it became common for Chan masters to sermonize on select kōans and offer their own comments (usually just as enigmatic as the original stories), often with verses expressing their understanding. This gave rise to a number of published collections of kōans with appended commentary by a specific master. These collections themselves sometimes became the object of several levels of commentary by still other Chan masters, creating complex and multilayered works of literature. The most famous of these compilations is Yuanwu Keqin's (1063–1135) Biyan lu (Japanese, Hekigan roku; Blue Cliff Record), which itself has become a common subject of commentary by modern Japanese and Western Zen masters.

Kōan commentary and other types of kōan literature are best understood as literary genres created by a Song-dynasty Chan school that was looking back to an age of semimythical ancestors. Song Chan masters themselves are almost never the subject of kōan stories. An important audience for this literature has always been the secular educated elite, whose support has been crucial to the fortunes of all the East Asian Chan schools.

Kanhua Chan

In the eleventh century, some Chinese Chan masters began to assign particular kōans to individual students to ponder; in several accounts such mulling over a kōan is reported to have led to an enlightenment experience for the student. Initially, this seems to have been a general contemplation of the kōan that was not specifically associated with formal meditation.

However, in the twelfth century a new meditative technique developed in which the kōan became the subject of intense reflection. This form of meditation, which had no counterpart in traditional Indian meditation practice, became known as kanhua Chan (Korean, kanhwa Sŏn; Japanese, kanna Zen; "Chan of observing the key phrase" or "kōan introspection Chan") and was first formulated by Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) of the Linji Chan tradition. Dahui directed his students to meditate on the crucial part of a kōan, the huatou (Korean, hwadu; Japanese, watō; critical phrase, keyword, or punchline). In Dahui's favorite kōan, "Zhaozhou's dog," the word wu (no) is the huatou. According to Dahui, prolonged and intense attention to the huatou, maintained not only in sitting meditation but in all activities, will cause a huge "ball of doubt" to form, which will eventually burst into an enlightenment experience.

Scholars have commonly accepted the Chan school's own view of the development of kanhua Chan as a response to a "spiritual decline" in the Song and an effort to preserve the wisdom and insights of the great Tang Chan masters. However, in "The 'Shortcut' Approach of K'an-Hua Meditation" (1987) Robert Buswell argues that kanhua Chan can be better understood as a culmination of internal developments in Chan "whereby its subitist rhetoric came to be extended to pedagogy and finally to practice." In "Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung-Dynasty Ch'an"(1999) Morten Schlütter suggests that Dahui championed kanhua Chan, in large part, as a corrective to the mozhao Chan (Japanese, mokushō; silent illumination) meditation that was taught in the rival Caodong tradition of Chan, which Dahui condemned as quietistic and not leading to enlightenment. Dahui seems especially concerned that Caodong masters were teaching silent illumination to members of the secular educated elite, and competition for patronage was clearly an element in the dispute.

Kōan use after Dahui

Dahui's development of kanhua Chan exerted an enormous influence on kōan use and Chan meditation in all of East Asia. However, it is important to be aware that the older practices of kōan study and kōan commentary were never abandoned and continued to exist alongside the practice of kanhua Chan.

In Japan, kanhua Chan was taken up in the Rinzai (Chinese, Linji) sect of Zen, where kōans were eventually systematized by the reformer Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768) and his disciples into a curriculum of five main levels. Students meditate on the huatou (Japanese, watō) of a series of kōans and have to pass each kōan in meetings with the Zen master (known as sanzen or dokusan) by giving the answers considered correct in their Zen master's particular lineage. The answers, and answers to related follow-up questions, are supposed to be kept secret, but, in fact, crib-sheets exist. However, Zen masters are thought to be able to distinguish an answer that demonstrates true insight (Japanese, kenshō) from one that has simply been memorized. Finishing the entire kōan curriculum to the satisfaction of the Zen master ends the training of a student, who is now ready to function as a Zen master. However, completing the curriculum takes many years, and most students leave long before completion to take over their family temples.

The founder of the Japanese Sōtō (Chinese, Caodong) sect of Zen, DŌgen (1200–1253), who became heir to the Caodong tradition of Chan, did not advocate kanhua Chan meditation, and it has never been employed in the Sōtō sect. However, Dōgen often commented on kōans as a means of instruction, and medieval Sōtō students were formally trained in kōan commentary. After reforms in the eighteenth century the Sōtō sect sought to differentiate itself from the Rinzai sect and kōan use became rare in Sōtō.

In Korea, Dahui's kanhua Chan quickly took root, mainly through the efforts of the great Sŏn master Chinul (1158–1210) and his disciple Hyesim (1178–1234), and kanhua Chan eventually came to dominate Korean Buddhist meditation practice. In Korean Sŏn, a student will usually only contemplate a few kōans over a lifetime, based on the notion that resolving one kōan is resolving them all.

In China, kanhua Chan became a standard for Chan meditation soon after Dahui, even in the Caodong tradition that Dahui had criticized. Kanhua Chan continues to be important in Chinese Chan through the twentieth century, although earlier types of meditation, similar to silent illumination, are also considered legitimate.

See also:Chan School; China; Japan; Korea; Meditation


Bodiford, William M. Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Buswell, Robert E., Jr. "The 'Short-Cut' Approach of K'an-Hua Meditation: The Evolution of a Practical Subitism in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism." In Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, ed. Peter N. Gregory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Cleary, J. C., and Cleary, Thomas, trans. and eds. The Blue Cliff Record. Boston: Shambhala, 1977.

Foulk, T. Griffith. "The Form and Function of Kōan Literature: A Historical Overview." In The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, ed. Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hoffmann, Yoel, trans. and ed. The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Kōans with Answers. New York: Basic Books, 1975.

Hori, G. Victor Sogen. "Teaching and Learning in the Rinzai Zen Monastery." Journal of Japanese Studies 20, no. 1 (1994): 5–35.

Hsieh, Ding-hwa Evelyn. "Yüan-Wu K'o-Ch'in's (1063–1135) Teaching of Ch'an Kung-an Practice: A Transition from Literary Study of Ch'an Kung-an to the Practical K'an-Hua Ch'an." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17, no. 1 (1994): 66–95.

Schlütter, Morten. "Silent Illumination, Kung-an Introspection, and the Competition for Lay Patronage in Sung-Dynasty Ch'an." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel Getz. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Morten SchlÜtter


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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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