The Koan

Mike Hess

In a message to the Prometheus Society’s fire list, wrote:

The whole point of a koan is that one has to live with it, keeping it alive as a living question, until an answer is
experienced, not just formulated.

I agree with this. Experience is the key word because the koan cannot be answered logically. The best-known koan is, of course, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I also like “What did you look like before your mother and father were born?” Both of these are verbal tricks. They are structured to appear like a normal sentence, and they even make use of normal-sounding vocabulary. Therefore, at first viewing, the mind is tricked into thinking that the question can be answered. It doesn’t take much reflection to realize that it can’t be answered in the typical verbal, logical way. I once heard a tape by the occidental Zen scholar, Alan Watts. He gave a unique, but metaphorically accurate, description of how a koan is ultimately
understood: he likened it to one’s understanding of a joke. The experience is immediate and usually visceral. If one hears the joke explained intellectually, then much of its humor goes away. The joke is not a perfect analogy of course, because it is usually understood quite quickly, when it is understood at all. The koan, in contrast, can take weeks, months and, in some
cases, years, to be understood. However, Watts’ point was that when the koan finally is understood, it is a visceral, experiential understanding, usually grasped by the entire personality, in much the same way that a joke is understood.

Finally, the koan points to an even deeper analogy that is, IMO, fully intended by the Zen master: just as the koan is a logically structured question that, in fact, needs to be answered experientially, so too all metaphysical questions can only be answered in this manner. Thus, the koan is not assigned to a student until after the Zen master has determined what the spiritual/existential/metaphysical problem is that the particular student has. A typical problem might be that the novice Zen student doesn’t understand, for example, “what is the meaning of the Buddha nature?”, and is bothered by this lack of comprehension. Note the similarity of the structure of this question to the koan: it is formulated in normal language and it even makes use of vocabulary that is familiar to an oriental student. However, rather than assigning this loaded metaphysical question (which has caused the student to seek out the Master in the first place) as the student’s actual koan, a real deflection occurs, and the Master assigns whatever koan he intuits will potentially lead the student to a breakthrough, or satori. As Kevin points out above, this understanding, if it comes at all, is an experienced answer; by definition it cannot be a logically formulated one. The Zen master decodes the fact that the student has finally grasped the meaning of the koan through the student’s behavior in delivering the answer to the koan, not through the verbal content of the answer itself.