A koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves.
Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries. Many koans can be traced back to the collections of sayings amassed by Chinese priests in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Koans may seem like paradoxes at first glance. It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning. Often, after a prolonged and exhausting intellectual struggle, the student realizes that the koan is actually meant to be understood by the spirit and by intuition.
Don Dianda, author of "See for Your Self: Zen Mindfulness for the Next Generation," put it this way in a blog for Elephant Journal:
The koan serves as a surgical tool used to cut into and then break through the mind of the practitioner... Koans aren’t just puzzles that your mind figures out suddenly and proclaims, “Aha! the answer is three!” They wait for you to open enough to allow the space necessary for them to enter into your depths—the inner regions beyond knowing.
We asked a few of Zen Buddhists to share with us some koans that have been particularly useful in their practice. We hope their reflections will help you on your own spiritual journey.
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