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Zen Koan: Booby Trap of The Mind

By Conscious Owl | Inner Peace

Oct 05
zen koan mind trap

Riko, a prominent general, once asked the Zen Master, Nansen, to explain to him the koan of the goose in the bottle.

If a man puts a gosling into a bottle,” said Riko, ”and feeds him until he is full-grown, how can the man get the goose out without killing it or breaking the bottle?”

Nansen ignored this question and engaged Riko in other, more practical concerns. Suddenly, before Riko walked out the door, Nansen gave a great clap with his hands and shouted, “Riko!”

“Yes, Master,” said the general with a start.

“See,” said Nansen, “the goose is out.”

How I Discovered Koans

When I did Werner Erhard’s est training years and years ago, I was very much into the East. I was attracted to its elegant, Zen-like approach and was eagerly looking forward to my own experience of Satori, or “getting it,” as it was recommended to me by a credible yoga teacher who had actually been to India.

The training lasted two grueling weekends with a couple of additional evenings, all building up to the final day when I had the chance to watch my own mind run rampant just like a machine.

Eventually, it popped! I found that I had to accept that what is, IS, and what isn’t, ISN’T. Finally, I could just let things BE, rather than messing with them.​

To test out the participants in preparation for their “graduation,” our trainer, who had, himself, spent time in India, gave us a couple of koans to us which were then wildly popular.

What is the sound of one hand clapping?” asked the trainer? To make things even more interesting, he further asked, “What is the sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one around?” He then gave the participants a chance to hazard a guess.​

Our trainer then taught us how to cheat: “The sound of one hand clapping is the sound of one hand clapping…. The sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one around is the sound of a tree falling in the forest with no one around.”​

He was suggesting that these koans were false problems playfully set up to ensnare the mind. He then put us to the real test. He asked participants to come up to the front and sit down on a chair.

“You have two ice cream cones in front of you, chocolate or vanilla,” said the trainer. “Which do you choose?” “Chocolate.” “Why do you choose chocolate?” Then the participant proceeded with a rational explanation until the trainer would interrupt.​

The trainer must have gone through a dozen participants until one moment, a resourceful participant had a flash of insight: “I choose chocolate, because I choose chocolate.”

That flash of insight was Satori. Everyone laughed now that they could see things just as they are.

What Is a Zen Koan?

Zen koans came out of the classic Chinese tradition started by Bodhidharma well over a thousand years ago, a scraggy looking Indian missionary who, when asked by the emperor what sacred karma he had earned for patronizing the dharma, Bodhidharma, respond, “Nothing.” When then asked what is was all about, he said, “Vast emptiness, and nothing holy.”

This missionary proceeded to climb up a mountain and stair at a wall for days on end. The Chinese quickly figured out that Bodhidharma had a very advanced state of enlightenment. When the youth flocked to him, he refused them all.

zen master koan teachings

After many months, Hui-Ko came to him in desperation. Bodhidharma totally ignored him no matter what he did. In desperation, Hui-Ko chopped off his left arm and handed it to Bodhidharma. “This is proof of my sincerity in wanting instruction from you!”

Bodhidharma asked him, “What is your problem?” Hui-Ko responded, “I have no peace of mind.” The great sage then demanded, “Show me your mind, and I will pacify it!”

Hui-Ko paused for a very long time. “When I search for it, I can’t find it.” “There,” the sage responded, “It’s pacified!” Hui-Ko became the second Zen Patriarch of China.

Centuries later, students in Japanese monasteries would sit for hours and hours facing a wall, just like Bodhidharma. Every day, they were asked to meet with the Zen Roshi, or master. Each was given a koan, or case study, which required they answer it.

Rather than use a mantra or count breaths, the disciples were encouraged to sit as long as it took to figure out the koan. After countless sessions, the monks finally realized that they were barking up the wrong tree.

How Can a Simple Koan Create Ones Awakening?

A koan is like a time bomb that goes off in one’s head to bring instant Satori. For hundreds of years in the Buddhist traditions, it was supposed that enlightenment required many different lives.

The Zen tradition opened up the possibility of true awakening in one’s own lifetime. Experienced masters have suggested it could happen in 30 years or three minutes. There is just no way to tell.

To maximize the impact of the Koan as a device, the Japanese set up austere circumstances that ensured that all who studied in a monestary were totally motivated. Not only would they be charged tuition, but also they were initially refused.

They had to beg, by sitting outside in the snow for days. The authorities claimed that they had no more room for another student.​

Finally, the Roshi would come and interview the prospective monk. He would discount the training. “I have nothing to teach.” “What about all these students?” “They don’t really know anything.” As the tradition grew, the students came to realize that the “nothing” that the Roshi had to give was the Fertile Void that contained everything.​

The novice monk was then put through a series of koans each one harder, which might last for years. It was not enough to know the “right” answer. The Roshi was closely watching to see how ready the monk was to give up all logical processes.

In one case, the student desperately grabbed a frog in the pond and hid it in his kimono when approaching the master for his daily check up. When the Roshi demanded an answer, the student let the frog jump out.” The Roshi smiled and responded, “Too intellectual!” Meaning too studied, or contrived.

You had to come to the point where you spontaneously got it without knowing why. Life doesn’t mean anything. IT JUST IS.

Related article:  Your Preconceptions Mask Enlightenment

Finally, the monk comes to realize that this was all a playful setup to help him get it down to his bones. He then experiences the most profound love for the very same Roshi he once feared.​

koan examples

We need only think of the ending of An Officer and a Gentleman, where Richard Gere thanks his drill sergeant, Louis Gossett, Jr. He had finally grown up!

What Can a Koan Show Us Today?

While in recent years, Zen Buddhism has been upstaged by Tibetan Buddhism, thanks to the every increasing celebrity of the Dalai Lama, and then been further sidelined by Vipassana meditation from the Southern, Theravada school of Buddhism, it is still appeals to a wide variety of people today.

Buddhism has become American, not just Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or Burmese. It offers a unique sense of playfulness to life.

While romantics love drama and exaggerate its significance, the wise have learned to take delight in whatever their destiny brings to them, even pain and discomfort.

It is not all about being serious!

You can go out and do something fun tonight! It doesn’t need to be important or impress other people. You can go see a movie, eat a chocolate fudge sundae, or go for a moonlit walk on the beach with your lover.

Life is a celebration!  Let that boggle your mind!

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About the Author

One conscious owl to another... sharing what we learned over the years, and from many wise owls before us.