Koans are paradoxical, nonsensical or confusing statements or questions used in Zen Buddhism to provoke deep contemplation and insight into the nature of reality and consciousness. Koans challenge the rational or conventional mind, encourage us to transcend illusions that create dualistic thinking and are a catalyst allowing us to directly experience the true nature and interconnectedness of all things. Through prolonged meditation and reflection on koans, individuals may attain moments of profound awakening or enlightenment where the true nature of reality is glimpsed.

Some of the koans below are discussed and others are left to the reader to contemplate.

Koan 23

“Enlightenment is like everyday consciousness, but two inches above the ground.” — D.T. Suzuki

 

Enlightenment is proverbially described as “being one with everything.” It is a state associated with the dissolution of the illusory self, transcending duality and realizing our oneness with the Everything.

Consciousness is consciousness. The consciousness of enlightenment is not different from everyday consciousness.

Describing enlightenment as being two inches above the ground seems the antithesis of enlightenment, as it implies separation/duality. On the contrary, two inches above the ground implies enlightenment is above the material world; unaffected by gravity, our conventional understanding of how the material world functions.

The “ground” represents the now. On the ground, when we are in the now, we experience the now through the self; a duality, the self and all that is not the self.

Enlightenment can be triggered when we are above the now; when we distance ourselves from the now to observe the now.

This can be done through meditation. The now is the breathing and when we are in the space between breaths we can observe the now. In this space, we realize the now is one thing (breathing) and we are the consciousness that creates the now. When we create the now, we are the now.

Koan 7

What do we see everywhere but rarely notice?

 

Light.

Things we see are not things, just light reflecting off things.

Moreover, the essence of all things is light, as all things are energy slowed by the speed of light squared. Energy is mass times the speed of light squared (E = MC²). Reconfigured, mass is energy divided by the spend of light squared (M = E/C²).

All things, inside and outside, are light.

Perceiving things otherwise, as solid or distinct from other things, is an illusion.

As all things are light, all things are enlightening.

When you see things as things are, what are you?

 

Koan 111

At the moment our senses awaken us, the mind puts us to sleep.

Koan 111

What separates people is not space but time.

Koan 118

Our days are numbered, but we have less time when we count them.

Koan 105

As every thing is unique, no thing is weird. But the mind is weird, as it sees things as normal or weird.

Koan 100

When we categorize others, we don’t know what they or we are.

Koan 116

To the eyes, every-thing is unique because the eyes have no memory.

The mind cannot see, it can only compare.

Koan 99

When you love everyone, it feels like everyone loves you.

Koan 98

Certainty makes us comfortable with reality because it’s not reality.

Koan 42

As enlightenment is so simple and obvious, it’s funny that some people don’t get it.

It’s even funnier when someone tries to explain it; like pointing your finger at the sun, yet the listener keeps looking at your finger.

Koan 113

Awakened, we don’t recognize any thing we see. Enlightened, there are no things, just light.

Koan 112

To the eyes, every thing is beautiful. To the mind, few things are beautiful.

Koan 97

Upon awakening, always good and not all ways good.

Koan 114

Awakening is the realization that our memories are just dreams.

Koan 96

We move forward by walking backward, experiencing things only after they’ve passed.

Koan 95

Our eyes see things horizontally, but our mind sees things vertically.

Koan 117

The Way to Liberation is a long meal with many courses; some to our liking, some not; some salty, bitter, sour or sweet. The sweet dessert comes not at the end, but when the means and the ends are one.

Koan 107

Where we stand depends on where we sit.

Koan 94

As the hand cannot grasp itself, how can the mind grasp itself?

Koan 89

Once you know you are not your self, what else do you need to know?

Koan 88

“Love is the absence of judgement.” — Dali Lama XIV

Koan 87

“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” — Sigmund Freud

Koan 86

When we distinguish our dreams from our memories, we are dreaming.

Koan 90

“The most dangerous thing of all is habit.” — Kotzker Rebbe

 

A life of habits awakens only when it’s time to die.

Koan 85

Can you be enlightened if you are not enlightening?

Koan 84

“More important than writing is erasing.” — Kotzker Rebbe

Koan 83

Eureka! All There Is Is Is.

 

Acronym: EATIII (pronounced as “80”)

“8” is the symbol of infinity (∞) drawn vertically. Graphically, it has no beginning nor end; like an endless knot constantly twisting and turning in different directions.

“8” is the universe: constantly changing and infinite in time.

“0” is a hole with two separate sides, inside and outside. However, their separateness is an illusion as they are interdependent; one cannot exist without the other. Together they are a whole, not a hole.

“0” is our experience of the universe: an illusion of separate things that are actually one thing.

 

Eureka means “I have found it.” Yet, there is nothing to be found as all there is is being and becoming; the Everything that is constantly changing and eternal.

Koan 4

“Water is the face of fire.” — Kanako Iiyama

 

The appearance of things is unlike their true nature.

Water, like most things, slowly changes its form. Yet, beneath the surface, all things are rapidly and constantly changing, like fire.

Water is transparent and reflective. When we don’t see the fire within water, what we see is a reflection of our self.

We perceive the world as discrete things, like water and fire. However, all things are aspects of the same interconnected thing, the Everything.

 

This koan is Kanako’s family motto. It suggests how the family interact with others:

Like water, we have a demeanor that is calm, nourishing and practical. Yet, like fire, we can cause great destruction.

Koan 118

Time is like water, drink it or it evaporates.

Koan 81

You are enlightened when every thing is enlightening.

Koan 79

Before and after the now, there is no time.

The now comes and goes in an instant, yet the now is eternal.

Where is time?

Koan 119

The light we see disappears in an instant. The light itself is forever.

Koan 76

When you know what you are, you always appreciate who you are.

Koan 38

You are what you are forever. Who you are is subject to change.

Koan 94

What is your Way:

 

Earth, fire, air or water?

Earth is physical.

Fire is emotional.

Air is conceptual.

Water is practical.

 

Rock, paper, or scissors?

Rock is nature.

Paper is civilization

Scissors is technology.

 

Red, yellow or blue?

Red is emotion.

Yellow is intuition.

Blue is thought.

 

Knife, fork or spoon?

 

Koan 120

The soul and the self are complimentary. The soul emits energy. The self absorbs energy. What then happens with the energy?

Koan 75

The self that thinks it knows, only knows illusions.

Koan 74

“Speech and silence are one and the same.” — Fuketsu Ensho

Koan 72

The it is an illusion, but not when the it is what it is whatever it is. What is it?

Koan 9

When we choose to be loved over loving, we will surely die.

 

Love is connectedness that dispels the duality of self and not self.

When connected by love, our finite self merges with what we love, creating a “beyond self.”

The “beyond self” continues beyond the lifespan of our finite self.

The finite self that prioritizes being loved cannot be loving. It is a powerful and controlling self, but not powerful enough to survive death.

Koan 63

“Whoever gets angry, it is as if he worshipped idols” — Zohar 1:27b

 

Getting angry at some one or thing presumes it has an independent existence, like an idol. That denies the existence of God which is the interconnected oneness of every thing.

Koan 71

Love your self to escape from your self.

Koan 62

The devil is in the details.

 

Without details, all things are one thing: God.

Koan 60

Every it is an illusion, except the it that is is.

Koan 30

We see many “its” but not the is; though all there is is is.

 

There are two types of vision, foveal and peripheral.

Foveal vision is when our eyes focus and we mentally create static images of seemingly independent things (“its”). As “its’ are our creations, the “its” are illusions.

Peripheral vision is unfocused. What it reveals is vague, continuous and dynamic; indescribable beyond that it is what it is whatever it is. It is the visible universe unaffected by our mind.

Peripheral vision is approximately 99% of our field of vision.

The “its” are illusions. The is is the Everything, being and becoming.

 

Koan 59

How do you square a circle?

 

Using only a compass and a straightedge, it’s impossible to square a circle — to construct a square with the same area as a given circle.

The space inside a circle is the product of multiplying the squared radius of the circle and π (pi)

π is a transcendental number; an infinite, non-repeating decimal expansion. That means the knowable space inside a circle is imprecise.

The space inside a square is precise.

As an imprecise space cannot precisely fill a precise space, a circle cannot be squared.

 

Transcendental numbers arise naturally in exponential growth and decay processes. They are used extensively in calculus, probability, and mathematical analysis.

Transcendental is also the nature of the universe; infinite expansion and everchanging.

The mind views the universe as a square, using words and thoughts to describe the universe in terms discrete and static. Yet, the universe is like the transcendental space in a circle; it cannot be precisely known.

Koan 19

“Crow with no mouth” — Ikkyu, 1394 – 1481

 

Can a crow with no mouth caw?

Does a crow with no mouth have a craw?

Is a crow with no mouth a crow?

A crow with no mouth is a crow with no mouth; it is what it is whatever it is.

Crows are exceptionally intelligent birds. They can solve complex problems, use tools, and even recognize human faces. They are also highly adaptable and thrive in various environments. They are keen observers and can consider alternative strategies to realizing their goals.

Crows represent wisdom.

“He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak.” — Lao Tzu.

As wisdom cannot be conveyed with words, a crow has no mouth.

Koan 91

My parents and I were born at the same time, but in different places.

 

When I was born on Earth, my parents were born somewhere 25 light years from Earth.

There is no time, just space. Every thing that was, is and will be happens at the same time but in different spaces.

Koan 93

There are more stars than grains of sand on earth. I look so much bigger than a star, but am I smaller than a grain of sand?

Koan 33

With many students, enlightened masters are a powerful illusion.

Koan 115

Enlightenment is realization every thing is essentially light.

Koan 47

What is calmer, the sea or me?

Koan 44

When we can’t identify what we are seeing, we are experiencing reality.

Koan 13

How can the now be infinitesimally small, yet contain an infinite number of things?

Koan 12

Is that so?

 

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. One day, her parents discovered she was pregnant.

This angered her parents, especially as she refused to tell them who got her pregnant. Eventually, she told them Hakuin was the father.

Furious, the parents told everyone in the community what Hakuin had done and confronted the master.

“Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born, the parents gave it to Hakuin. By then, he had lost his reputation as a righteous man, but that did not trouble him. He accepted the child and took very good care of it.

A year later, the baby’s mother could no longer hold back the truth. She told her parents the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The girl’s parents immediately went to Hakuin and apologized. They asked for forgiveness and to have the child back.

Hakuin willingly gave them the child and all he said was: “Is that so?”

 

“Is that so?,” like koans generally, encourages self-reflection and the questioning of assumptions we hold without doubts. However, unlike other koans, it isn’t disguised as a paradox or absurd riddle.

“Is that so?” Hakuin asks the girl’s parents to question their initial certainty that Hakuin fathered their daughter’s baby and their later certainty that he did not. Unlike the girl’s parents, we, the readers of this anecdote, don’t know who fathered the baby. Maybe the girl’s parents don’t know either.

“Is that so?” simply suggests we consider things from many perspectives. This is the essence of wisdom.

Wisdom is knowing that perceived truths change (like the girl’s claim as to who fathered her baby) and that, ultimately, no thing is truly knowable. This is the same conclusion we come to when considering paradoxes and absurd riddles.

The girl’s parents lack wisdom. They also lack compassion as they carelessly ruin Hakuin’s reputation.

Hakuin, a man of wisdom and compassion, knows what he is and is unfazed by who others think he is.

When we embody wisdom and compassion, we gracefully accept what comes our way and make the best of it.

Koan 11

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

 

The Pope: “It depends on the size of the pin.”

The Zen master: “What’s a pin?”

Koan 10

“Does a dog have Buddha nature?”

 

This is the first and perhaps most famous of 48 Zen koans compiled in the early 13th century in “The Gateless Gate.”

To the question, the Zen Master Zhaozhou responded: “Mu.”

Mu means “nothing.”

A dog is a dog. Buddha nature, enlightenment, is a concept.

Both are temporary illusions constructed by the mind and exist only in the now.

Before and after the now, all things (including a dog and Buddha nature) are one thing: nothing (mu).

Koan 8

What is it now?*

 

One day, a Zen master with a clay pot on a wooden table before him asked several students: “What is this?”

Some said it was a clay pot. Another said that it was an artifact. Another said it was an assemblage of clay and wood. Soon there were other perspectives as well. A lively debate ensued, while the Zen master shook his head and laughed.

One student approached the table and threw the pot to the ground where it cracked into many pieces. An audible silence enveloped the room until the student asked: “What is it now?”

Silence again filled the room. Some students were shocked and others embarrassed by the aggressive arrogance of the student who shattered their master’s clay pot. The silence was shattered by laughter from the Zen master and the student.

 

The Zen master and student laughed as they recognized the other students were like the blind men in the “Ten Men and the Elephant” parable. Each certain of their personal view and the collective view that breaking the pot was respecting their master.

A pot is a pot temporarily. All things are ever-changing. The pot cannot be described, as it is different now than it was in the now before now.

The pot, like every thing, does not have an independent existence. It is simply a facet of the temporary expression of the Everything. Ultimately, it is what it is whatever it is.

“What is it now?” begs the question: “What is now?”

 

*Courtesy of Bill Wisher.

Koan 6

What is a gateless gate?

 

“The Gateless Gate” is a 13th century compilation of 48 koans. The koans are meant to guide the Way to awakening and enlightenment. The Gate is what separates us from enlightenment.

The title itself is a koan, a nonsensical paradox: how can a gate be gateless?

A gate implies separation. The Gateless Gate separates who we think we are (the self) and enlightenment (what we are is the Everything).

However, the Gate is an illusion, as the Gate is gateless. That is, but for the self, we are enlightened.

The Gate is a creation of the self. The Gate is the perception that we are separate from all that is not the self. Separation creates duality, the antithesis of enlightenment.

Enlightenment dispels the illusory Gate which in turn dispels duality. What remains is our oneness with the Everything.

 

The book explains its title: “The Great Way has no Gate. A thousand roads enter it. When one passes through this Gateless Gate, he freely walks between heaven and earth.”

“The Great Way” is the Way to liberation (awakening and enlightenment) from our mind’s prison, the self. The mind creates descriptions, generalizations and stories that frame our experiences of the now, precluding us from experiencing the now as it is. The frame is the Gate.

Liberation dispenses with the Gate as we realize the Gate is an illusion of our mind’s creation. The illusion is conceptual dualities of yin and yang, the mundane and the divine, the self and the other, subject and object, good and bad.

Enlightenment is the realization that conceptual dualities are illusions. All things are interdependent and interconnected. All things are but one thing, the Everything.

“A thousand roads enter it” suggests there are numerous approaches or paths that can potentially lead to enlightenment. Individuals have unique dispositions which resonate with different teachings, practices and roles in life.

“When one passes through this Gateless Gate, he freely walks between heaven and earth” means that upon liberation one can move freely between dualistic concepts and directly experience the interconnectedness and oneness of the Everything.

The Great Way leads us to enlightenment: the realization that we are the Everything. It is characterized by wisdom and compassion. As the Everything, we can view the universe from infinite perspectives which is the essence of wisdom. Moreover, we treat every thing as we treat ourselves (compassion), for we are the Everything.

Koan 17

Does a rock have consciousness?

 

Consciousness generally refers to the state of being aware of one’s surroundings, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It is the subjective experience of being alive and having a sense of self as separate from that which is not one’s self. However, what exactly is consciousness has been long debated by philosophers, theologians, linguists, and scientists and no consensus has emerged.

While a rock is a rock, what is a rock?

Is a rock an independent thing or something given agency by our consciousness?

If a rock is an independent thing, it may have consciousness that is beyond our general understanding of consciousness.

Alternatively, if a rock is an illusion created by our mind, a rock does not have consciousness.

Every thing in the now is interdependent and interconnected. That is, every thing is not a thing, but a facet of one ever-changing thing, the Everything. Things in the now that appear independent, like a rock, are illusions created by the mind.

As a rock is an illusion, it does not have consciousness.

If we don’t recognize our consciousness has created the things in the Everything, we have the consciousness of a rock.

 

Koan 5

Who are you?

 

I am a mountain range. I am the sea.

I am the Everything, but not specifically me.

I am everchanging, that’s what I be,

not who you think you see.

I am what I am. There’s nothing else to me.

Koan 3

“A man of wisdom delights at water” — Confucius

 

Water is like the universe: one thing and yet many things.

As it’s everchanging, describing water is beyond the grasp of words; other than that it is what it is whatever it is.

Water manifests different shapes (clouds, rivers, oceans) and forms (vapor, liquid, and ice).

Water is interdependent, as a wave cannot be a wave without the sea.

Water is interconnected, from cloud to rain to river to sea.

As drops of water, we fear not rain over us. Together as a flood, water reigns over us.

On water we effortlessly float or panic and sink.

While essential to life, water also brings drowning and death.

Sound travels four times faster and further in water than air, though we can’t hear what someone is saying underwater.

Water is odorless and tasteless, yet present in everything that smells and tastes.

Though colorless in a glass, water has a bluish hue when it gathers in the ocean.

Water in lakes and oceans seems impassable, but the easiest path between places is by boat over water.

Still water is dead-silent. Moving water is alive with sounds.

In a pond, still water is clear and turbulent water opaque.

Seeing ourselves and surroundings in a reflecting pond, we don’t notice the water.

Water is impossible to grasp, but easily captured in cupped hands.

Water is weak, flowing to places of least resistance; unlike fire which destroys all in its way. Yet, water easily extinguishes fire.

While not hard like stone, high-pressure water cuts stone like it’s butter.

A quart of water weighs more than a quart of ice; as water expands when it freezes, unlike most materials which contract when transitioning from liquid to solid.

Water symbolizes the cycle of life. Water is born as rain, lives in the oceans and disappears as vapor, forming clouds for its rebirth.

Water is what it is whatever it is, but how we see it is a reflection of who we are. A man of wisdom sees water variously. That’s the essence of wisdom.

 

Koan 22

Now is forever. Everything else is out of time.

Koan 2

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

 

The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping. It is what it is whatever it is.

Koan 1

How old is Buddha?

 

Which Buddha are you asking about?

How (in what way) is Buddha old?

How old is Buddha at which point in Buddha’s life?

How old is Buddha now or at another time?

Isn’t Buddha now one day older than Buddha was yesterday?

How old is Buddha where; on Earth or someplace light years away?

How can Buddha be different in age than the Everything of which the Buddha is just a facet?

How can we know how old is Buddha as all things are forever changing, including the Buddha’s age as we speak?

Buddha is as old as Buddha is, whatever that is.

Koan 20

Both those who think they are rich or poor are poor.

Koan 14

“There is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes

 

In the now, the only constant is change. Yet, the now is eternally unchanged.

What seems new are things that are changing. Yet, things are not things. Things are just illusions, as all there is is one thing: the now that is now.

Koan 43

The now is always the same, always new.

Koan 32

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” — Linji Yixuan

 

In the now, there is only one thing: the Everything.

The Everything is manifested as an infinite number of seemingly independent things.

Yet, as every thing is interdependent, essentially all things are one thing.

Thinking of things (like the Buddha) as independent is but an illusion.

Illusionary things create duality, the thing and all that is not the thing.

On the road to enlightenment, we need to vanquish all illusions to realize the oneness of the Everything.

Koan 18

What does the universe look like from the other side of the mind, where there is no mind?

Koan 46

Love is selfless. But when the self expresses love, that’s selfish.

Koan 9

As all here is is is, what is is?

Koan 26

I am nothing and here and now. What am I?

Koan 80

As God is the Everything, why is God rarely noticed in every thing?

Koan 92

As the now moves so quickly, how can we see the now?

 

The Earth is rotating at 1,037 miles/hour and revolving around the sun at 66,616 miles/hour. Our solar system is revolving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy on average at 514,000 miles/hour. The Milky Way is moving towards the Andromeda Galaxy at 1,339,200 miles/hour.

We are moving at incomprehensible speeds and in various directions simultaneously. How can our senses inform us of the now; but by our mind slowing everything down and in turn making of things what it will?

From nothing comes the now and to nothing becomes the now.

Relative to the now that is coming and the now that was, the now now is so small that it can’t be seen.

So we look to the now that is coming and the now that once was, but all we see is the now we created.

Koan 19

When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

 

Mu (nothing). There is no tree and there is no sound, other than the agency our individual consciousness grants the tree and sound.

Koan 123

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” — Shunryu Suzuki

Experts think of possibilities based on their experience. The inexperienced are not likewise limited.

Koan 126

“[I]t is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.” — Matthew 15:10-20

 

Koan 82

When the inside becomes the outside, we are the creator. When the outside is the inside, we are creation.

Koan 105

As all things are everchanging, no thing is perfect but nothing is perfect.

Koan 127

“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” — Lao Tzu

Koan 21

Why can’t a self-identifying vegetarian become enlightened?

Koan 40

The enlightened experience life very differently than others, but know they are not different which is what makes them different.

Koan 124

“He who knows enough is enough will always have enough.” — Lao Tzu

 

It’s easy to satisfy our needs, but not our desires.

Koan 125

“He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak.” — Lao Tzu

 

When we speak, we are in the now.

As the now all ways engages our attention, we cannot observe the now.

He who knows is in the silent space outside the now, where he can observe the now and come to know it.

 

He who knows knows from experience. Experience cannot be conveyed with words, as a circle cannot be squared.

 

Koan 70

“What we see everywhere but rarely notice is our selves.” — Masako Nishi

Koan 67

“If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!” — Kotzker Rebbe

 

When Moses encountered God in the desert, Moses asked God who he was. God said: “I am what I am.” That is, God is indescribable because God is the Everything. Any other description implies God is one thing and not another; the antithesis of God.

If I am what I am and you are what you are, I and you are God. Hence, I treat you accordingly, as I treat myself. However, if I define myself in terms of what I am not (you), I am not God.

Koan 66

A clear mind sees every thing and understands nothing.

Koan 65

As the present is what remains when every thing else is absent, how do you describe the present?

Koan 64

The more you look the less you see.

Koan 50

We are all unique and the same, simultaneously.

Koan 49

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw