Koans are paradoxical statements or questions used in Zen Buddhism to provoke deep contemplation and insight into the nature of reality and consciousness. By presenting seemingly illogical or nonsensical scenarios, koans challenge the rational mind and encourage practitioners to transcend dualistic thinking and directly experience the true nature of existence. Through prolonged meditation and reflection on koans, individuals may attain moments of profound awakening or enlightenment.

Koan 84

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

Koan 83

Eureka! All There Is Is Is

(I have found it; all there is is is.)

Acronym: EATIII (pronounced as “80”)

Eureka!,* an expression of overwhelming joy upon realizing truth.

“8” has no beginning nor end; like an endless knot that twists and turns in every direction; the symbol of infinity, upright. “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. They are a whole, not a hole.

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

As the self is a thing, the self views the Everything as individual things. As the soul, we know there are no things as every thing is a facet of the Everything.

EATIII is a paradox. Eureka!, “I have found it;” yet there is nothing to be found as there is no it. All there is is being and becoming. The being and becoming is beyond description, other than it is what it is whatever it is. This is ultimate truth: A hand cannot grasp itself, the seeker is what they are seeking; all is interconnected oneness.

The way to ultimate truth is suggested by a word related to eureka: heuristic. Heuristic refers to experience-based techniques for problem-solving, learning, discovery and, ultimately, knowing. It is the antithesis of learning from a guru or texts. It is exemplified by zazen meditation with eyes open and unfocused; not differentiating any particular thing from the Everything.

 

*The exclamation “Eureka!” is attributed to the Greek mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Archimedes (d. 212 BC). According to legend, he proclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!” after stepping into a bath and realizing that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the submerged part of his body. This simple insight provided the basis for solving the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects. Excited to share his discovery, Archimedes leaped out of the bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, shouting “Eureka! Eureka!” The story illustrates how an insight has the power to move us to behave outside social norms or, alternatively, that an unconventional approach (or view) of everyday things leads to insight.

Koan 82

“He learns so much. When does he have time to know anything?” — Kotzker Rebbe

Koan 4

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

 

On the surface, from moment to moment, all things seem like water, not to noticeably change. Yet, beneath the surface, all things are everchanging, like fire.

While water as the surface of fire seems absurd, the appearance of things is unlike their true nature.

We see water and fire as mutually exclusive. Yet, they are one thing: different facets of the Everything.

Water appears in many shapes and forms and can be variously described. Yet, the essence of water is, as is the essence of every thing, light.

What we see everywhere, but rarely notice, is light. Things are not things, just light reflecting off things. The things we think we surely see are reflections of ourselves.

This koan was presented to Kanako as a family motto. It suggests the family interacts with others in a calm, nourishing and practical way (like water), yet at the family’s core are powerful emotions, like fire.

Koan 81

When you see every thing as enlightening, you become enlightened.

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 77

Enlightenment is so simple, so obvious. But like a joke that not everyone gets, it’s not funny when it needs to be explained.

“When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.” — Confucius

Koan 76

Only when you know what you are, you can appreciate who you are.

Koan 38

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

Way Of Way 437

Are you Earth, fire, air or water?

 

Earth is physical.

Fire is emotional.

Air is conceptual.

Water is practical.

Koan 75

The self that thinks it knows, doesn’t know anything. Once you know the self, you know there is nothing to know.

Koan 74

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

Koan 69

“Serving yourself is a form of idolatry.”  — Kotzker Rebbe

Koan 72

It has no name.

It cannot be described.

It is an illusion, but not when it is what it is whatever it is.

What is is?

Koan 9

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

 

Love is the connectedness that dispels the duality separating what is our self and not our self.

By loving, we exist not for our finite self but beyond our self.

Free from the constraints of the self, we are joyous and realize we are eternal.

Yet, there are many whose self is so powerful and controlling they rather be loved than loving; though no self is powerful enough to survive death.

Koan 68

“He who doesn’t see God everywhere isn’t capable of seeing God anywhere.” — Kotzker Rebbe

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, like an idol, an independent existence. This negates the reality that everything is God, an interconnected oneness.

Koan 71

Love your self to escape from your self.

Koan 62

The devil is in the details.

 

Without details, every thing is one thing: God.

Koan 60

Every it is an illusion, but the it that is the Everything.

Koan 30

We see the it but not the is; though all there is is is.

 

There are two types of vision, foveal and peripheral.

Foveal vision is the infinite “its” of objects we see when our eyes focus and create detailed discrete images.

Peripheral vision is unfocused. What we see with peripheral vision is vague and indescribable, the Everything. The function of peripheral vision is to arouse our attention to look for the presumed discrete “it” when peripheral vision senses changes in the relative motion of a facet of the Everything.

The “it” we think we see is an illusion; as all things are one thing: the “is”; everchanging, interconnected and interdependent facets of the Everything.

The illusionary “it” creates duality, the “it” and not the “it”. This illusion precludes us from realizing the oneness of the Everything.

Koan 59

How do you square a circle?

 

You don’t.

With only a compass and a straightedge (the tools of classical geometry), it’s impossible to square a circle (to construct a square with the same area as a given circle) due to the transcendental mathematical constant π (pi). That is, the space inside a circle is the the product of multiplying the diameter of the circle times pi. As pi is a transcendental number (an infinite, non-repeating decimal expansion), the space inside a circle is imprecise. The space inside a square is precise. Thus, as an imprecise space cannot precisely fill a precise space, one can never square a circle.

Transcendental numbers arise naturally in exponential growth and decay processes and are used extensively in calculus, probability, and mathematical analysis. Transcendental is also the nature of the universe; infinite (eternal) and everchanging.

Like trying to square a circle, the mind cannot precisely grasp or contain the entire universe. The mind, like a square, views things with words and thoughts that describe a universe as linear, logical and finite. Yet, the universe, like the space in a circle, is transcendental; infinite and everchanging.

While our eyes tell us that the space inside a circle must be a precise measure; in reality, the precise space will never be known precisely.

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.

Wisdom cannot be conveyed with words. Hence, a crow has no mouth, as “he who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak.” — Lao Tzu.

Koan 58

My parents were born after me. They were born just now, 98 light years from here.

 

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

 

Koan 5

There are more stars than grains of sand on earth. Am I smaller than a grain of sand?

Koan 33

Those who are enlightened are an illusion. Those who are enlightening are not.

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 34

Enjoy your self, otherwise it might make you miserable.

Koan 16

Love makes all things one thing.

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. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parent went to the master. “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else he needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”

 

This Zen koan, “Is that so?,” like koans generally, encourages self-reflection and the questioning of assumptions we hold without doubts. However, unlike other koans, it is unique in that 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, know we 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. That is the essence of wisdom. Wisdom leads us to conclude 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.

Moreover, without wisdom, there is no compassion (as the girl’s parents carelessly ruined Hakuin’s reputation). Yet, Hakuin, a man of wisdom and compassion, is unfazed by how he is thought of by others; for he knows who he is, beyond descriptions and thoughts.

As well, 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?

 

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

Responded 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.” However, the sound a cow makes (“mu,” pronounced “moo”) is perhaps what Zhaozhou meant.

Few would disagree that a dog is a physical manifestation of a certain kind of thing. Unlike a dog, Buddha nature is ambiguous; variously defined in uncertain terms. Yet, those who know Buddha nature, do not know what’s a dog; for a dog is not an independent static thing. It is an interdependent and temporary facet of one thing, the everything in the now.

The now is a manifestation of the soul, which is the everything before and after it is what it is whatever it is in the now. However, from the perspective of the now, the soul is nothing, mu. As every thing is the soul, it can only be said all things (such as, a dog and Buddha nature) are mu, nothing.

Alternatively, moo, the sound a cow makes, is what every thing is in the now: energy in a form we can sense, but beyond certain description as every thing is everchanging. Thus, it’s a fool’s errand to considered whether a dog has Buddha nature.

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; and soon there were other perspectives as well. A lively debate ensued, while the Zen master shook his head and laughed. Then, a 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?” The silence again filled the room as some students were shocked and others embarrassed by the aggressive arrogance of the student who shattered the clay pot. Then, 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 embracing their personal view without doubt; especially, their collective view of what breaking the pot meant in terms of respecting their Zen Master.

A pot is a pot, temporarily; as all things are everchanging. It cannot be described, as it is different now than it was in the now before now. Moreover, 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.

 

*Courtesy of Bill Wisher.

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 things is light; for all things are energy slowed down by the speed of light squared (E=M*C*C is M=E/C*C; Mass is Energy divided by the speed of light squared).

As all things are light, perceiving things as otherwise is an illusion.

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; for how can a gate be gateless?

A gate implies a separation. The Gateless Gate separates who we think we are (the self) and enlightenment (that we are one with the everything). However, the Gate is an illusion, as the Gate is gateless. That is, but for our self, we are enlightened.

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

Enlightenment dispels the illusory Gate (the self) which in turn dispels duality. Then, 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 the prison of our seemingly individual mind which is where the self resides. 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 the conceptual duality 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 an illusion, as all things are interdependent and interconnected. That is, all things are but one thing.

“A thousand roads enter it” suggests there are numerous approaches or paths that can potentially lead to enlightenment. That is, individuals have unique dispositions which may resonate more or less with different teachings, practices or 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 all things, wherein all distinctions between things dissolve.

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 apart and separate from that which is not one’s self. Yet, what specifically is consciousness has been long debated by philosophers, theologians, linguists, and scientists; yet, no consensus has emerged.

While the meaning of the word “rock” is universally agreed upon, it too is debatable. Is a rock truly an independent thing or a temporary illusion our eyes see in the flow of the everything?

If a rock is an independent thing, it may have consciousness that is beyond our general understanding of consciousness. As an illusion, a rock does not have consciousness.

Ultimately, every thing (including rocks and consciousness) is but an illusion, as all things are one thing: an expression of the everything in the now.

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 what 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 ever-changing, describing water is beyond the grasp of words; other than with one verse (uni-verse): 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 of water cannot be a wave without the sea.

Water is interconnected, from glacier, river and to the sea.

As drops of water, we fear not the rain; but together as a flood, over us they reign.

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 longer in water than air, though it’s difficult to hear under water.

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, vast and seemingly impassable, becomes by boat the easiest pathways between places.

Still waters are dead-silent, yet moving waters are alive with sounds.

In a pond, still waters are clear and turbulent waters opaque.

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

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

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

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

Counterintuitively, water (unlike most materials which contract when transitioning from liquid to solid form) expands when it freezes, which makes a quart of water weigh more than a quart of ice.

Symbolizing the cycle of life, water is born as rain, lives in infinite ways on Earth, and disappears as vapor; forming clouds for its rebirth.

Water is delightful as it is what it is whatever it is and how we see it is a reflection of who we are. A man of wisdom sees it variously.

 

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;” a state generally associated with the dissolution of the illusory self, resulting in transcending duality and the realization of our connectedness with the everything (the now and the space before and after the now).

Describing enlightenment as being two inches above the ground seems the antithesis of enlightenment, as it implies separation/duality. Yet, it also implies enlightenment is a state that is lighter than air, unaffected by fundamental rules of gravity (everyday reality), allowing us to rise above the material world.

In the context of meditation, Suzuki’s metaphor is like the space between breaths; when we are not engaged in the ever-changing now (breathing) and can observe the entire universe as it is.

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 78

Every thing is forever changing, but the everything is forever unchanged.

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, just illusions as all there is is the everything.

 

 

 

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; though the everything is manifested as an infinite number of seemingly independent things. As every thing is interdependent, essentially 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 and duality to realize the oneness of the everything.

Koan 45

Without a doubt, having no doubts is a misperception of reality.

Koan 18

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

Koan 46

Every emotion, other than love, is selfish. But, when the self expresses love, that’s selfish too.

Koan 35

A objective description of reality lacks a sense of reality.

Koan 9

All here is is is; every thing else, an illusion.

Koan 26

I am here and now. Any more specific description is an illusion.

Koan 80

God is the everything, but rarely noticed in every thing.

Koan 28

The sun is always and all ways shining; always the same and all ways not the same.

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 82

When the inside becomes the outside, we experience creation.

When the outside becomes the inside, we become the creator.

Koan 36

Judging someone reveals less about who they are than who we are.

Koan 42

Experiencing the everything precludes us from describing it.

Koan 37

While we are naturally eccentric, it’s difficult to be eccentric.

Koan 21

Why can’t a vegetarian become enlightened?

Koan 40

There are those who experience life very differently than others, but know they are not different which is what makes them different.

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

The mind is always open and often closed.

Koan 28

You here, long time?

 

More than 40 years back, I found myself in a NYC taxi. Though the driver didn’t greet me, he didn’t seem unfriendly. As he was dressed in clothes from the Indian subcontinent, I assumed he had recently arrived in the States. To get going a conversation, I asked him in mock pidgin English: “You here, long time?” To which he responded in the King’s English: “I have been here 10 years, but I don’t know if that is long or short.” We then both laughed.

Koan 65

The present is what remains when every thing else is absent.

.

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

Koan 48

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” — Voltaire