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Kōan curriculum
June 16th, 2018

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Kōan curriculum

A reshare of led to the following questions: « How are koans used in teaching? Does one progress through a series of them, "completing" each one? Or does one revisit them again and again, finding a new answer each time without end? Do I understand this correctly, that improving the process of engagement is a noble goal, and that koans are often exercises towards that end? Or is it a test, pass or fail, in some kind of structured process? Or are they designed to help us learn how to ask helpful questions? All or none? Do I need an answer to continue practicing? ;-) »
Time to talk about the kōan curriculum ?

How are koans used in teaching? Does one progress through a series of them, "completing" each one?

I guess it might be useful to distinguish how they are used nowadays, vs. how they were.

Examples of historical considerations relevant to such a question:
• Kōans are a distinct feature of Chán / Zen / Sǒn / Thiền (, and are at the heart of "direct, mind-to-mind transmission" (
• It's been long considered within the very tradition he founded (the Soto school of Zen in Japan) that Eihei Dōgen (1200–1253) didn't use kōans… until the Shōbōgenzō (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, a collection of 300 kōans) was identified as his!
• Similarly, without the contributions of Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1768) in the Rinzai Zen tradition in Japan, and notably his fivefold classification system of kōans, it's possible this whole category of expedient means would have been forgotten.
• Sǒn, the Korean version of Chán/Zen, is also a descent from Línjì / Rinzai, but the influence of Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), and its Hua Tou (Korean: hwadu, Japanese: wato) reduction of kōans to their 'key phrases', might have lost a few too many details along the way if Japanese Zen had not survived.

One might note that the very existence of the Shōbōgenzō questions the assertion by Dōgen that he came back from China "empty-handed", but that's another matter… What's reasonably clear is that he didn't bring sūtras, statues, 'magical' props, etc. But there's also controversy (to say the least) as to whether he actually received transmission from his own Chán masters! He claimed as much, but there's no certificate to be seen…
And we know that Hakuin didn't receive inka from Shoju Rojin, of who he considered himself an heir though…

So nowadays, it's often considered that one has to go through a series of them, of increasing difficulties (according to Hakuin)…

It's also considered that completing the curriculum is necessary to receive Zen 'transmission' (inka shōmei) and to teach…
Yet, it's well known that spiritual materialism is a major trap (it's not about collecting or accumulating 'solved' kōans!).
Moreover, the kōan system is then reduced mostly to progressing through a series of riddles aimed at relinquishing views, then more views… polishing the mirror with finer and finer grained sandpaper… i.e. the very opposite of the "sudden awakening" it's meant to tell about, and to provide opportunities for!
Finally, it's then considered that one ought to continue perpetuating the lies of an 'unbroken' lineage since the Buddha, even though we know that it's already been broken (even before Hakuin, cf. Touzi Yiqing an ancestor of Dogen !) and the whole thing is a polemical propaganda invented (from the 6th century, and many times re-invented through the centuries) when some teachers needed to assert their legitimacy against the spiritual competition. My essay "The invention of Chán lineage" is available to regular readers/students of my posts, upon request. There's a Zen saying "Good children don't use their parents' money" about the fact that one shouldn't publicise oneself based on the achievements of one's teacher, but hey it's so convenient to say "my teacher was a great teacher, so I must be great if (s)he acknowledged me as a successor…" LOL!

Answering correctly by luck, by parroting the 'correct' answers of others, or by partial understanding isn't the point.
There's a very controversial book, The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans With Answers, from 1916, available in English translated by Yoel Hoffmann, which contained the 'answers' to kōans, supposedly according to 2 lineages (some of the best bits are in the footnotes though).
The book still is controversial and was recently dismissed in e.g.
Interestingly, there aren't solely the 'answers' to the kōans in this book, but also the answers to 'checking questions' (used by teachers to check that the student is not merely parroting the answer learnt from another)!
While the book was meant to breach a major taboo, in fact passing answers from monk to monk has been going on forever. The taboo was about public access (all religions like to pretend they have 'secret' teachings), not so much the cheating ;-)
And yet, while the book can be of interest, it's arcane and mostly unreadable to people not having solved some kōan previously! It can be used like "chess problems" can be used: if you don't know how to play chess (and I mean better than merely knowing the rules), you mostly will not be able to solve problems. But if you know how to play already, then they can be used to deepen your understanding, to keep in shape, to maintain your skills…

At several points in history, a few teachers considered that if you truly saw through one (any one) kōan, 'answering' all other kōans should be trivial afterwards… which didn't mean that no other work, no further progress was required, but it meant you either know how to see things as they are or you don't. Seeing things as they are might be the beginning of constructive engagement, so it's not the end of the spiritual journey, it's just the moment you finally have a clue about where to go next!

Either way (a progression of kōans —falling back into polishing the brick into a mirror— or a sudden 'complete' awakening from the very first kenshō), Zen kōans (and Sǒn hwadus) are expedient means to create doubt… a doubt supposedly helping the student to become more curious, to let go of prejudices, to actually open up to reality.
A related Zen saying states "Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, …"
A classic injunction is "Don't know" (
Leave at the door whatever you think you know; don't even trust yourself (, your previous realisations, your previous insights (!

The doubt can be directly about reality, or about the Dharma (if the student is lost in believing that the Dharma is some unquestionable 'truth', perfectly capturing what reality 'is' despite being a mental representation).
Hence, although "Zen is beyond scriptures", some kōans only make sense if you know of some Buddhist scriptures, e.g. the "Mu" koan (when a Zen master states that "no", a dog doesn't have buddha-nature… although some scriptures say all beings have buddha-nature)!
The kōan is an expedient means for the student to question, to enquire, to access reality directly, without referring to what the Buddha said, what some other kōan said (another kōan about the same Zen master states that he answered that "yes", a dog has buddha-nature!) or Zen master said (

Hence, it's not about a particular, predefined, preconceived, prejudiced answer anyway (, it's about spiritual autonomy, direct access, authenticity (, personal responsibility in embodying the Dharma (rather than blindly clinging to this ritual, that precept or these pre-digested bits of wisdom… It's about realising the "selfless true self" (
And we can have fun and analyse sūtras ( and kōans (,, or the recent, there might be some wisdom found in engaging with them, battling against the stream of our usual patterns of thoughts, in going through a curriculum of progressive difficulty, etc… and yet mental fabrications aren't the point (,! Daily ordinary life provides kōans just as valid as old Chinese teachers babbling (,

Kōans are a response to the analysis and certainties that arose from the 'success' of Buddhism, and from the abhidhamma period (; it's going back to the root of Buddhism, seeking to understand suffering, to see for oneself the origin of suffering, to realise the extinction of suffering… it goes back to the initial questioning (, instead of trying to find a consistent presentation of the suttas, it engages with the contradictions, turning suttas into questions more than answers (, and other past 'Zen' dialogues (and non-dialogues into questions more than answers.

So how are kōans used in teachings?
A teacher might give you one, to shake certainties and other transparent prisons which need to be relinquished in order for you to progress on the spiritual path!
And (s)he might reject all your answers for a while… or (s)he might accept your first answer, and congratulate you, if your hindrance was the thought that you're an incapable loser ;-) Teachers can be unpredictable like that (, you rarely know why they give you this kōan or that one ( ;-)

#Buddhism #Dharma #Zen #koan
As this is the second post of the "needlessly provocative" series, a.k.a. "not for the sake of popularity" series (, rest assured that yes, I know the image will unsettle some people… for them, it's particularly worth reading the next paragraph!
Image: part of "nirvana" series, in "the Museum project" by Atta Kim, published by Aperture, 2005… for which the photographer got the abbott of a Sǒn temple to let monks and nuns pose nude (at times together!). One can only marvel at the openness of this abbot: few abbots are ready to use opportunities as they arise, without wish or aversion for particular forms. The ‘clinging’ to rules, status, formalism and respectability is a famous impediment to the Liberation of the monastic community. Not so much in that monastery, it would seem.
Buddhism has no specific guideline on supporting teachers, it simply asks for you to consider causality: if you want this living tradition to survive, how are you participating, in practical terms, to make this happen? Nice words, exposure or social media ‘+1’ might feel good, but they do not actually help with the basic necessities:
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