Zen Koans: 5 Profound Paradoxical Riddles To Expand Your Mind

Zen Koans: 5 Profound Paradoxical Riddles To Expand Your Mind

Zen Koans, stories and phrases have been used by Zen masters for ages to teach & test their students and help them understand the true nature of life.

The paradoxical riddles and stories are usually rather puzzling & may appear ambiguous and silly at first, but once you think about these Koans and try to decipher their hidden meanings, you will emerge as a more self-aware and wiser person.

What are Zen Koans?

Zen Buddhist Koans are paradoxical riddles and puzzles primarily used in Zen Buddhism as a meditation training. These are small stories, phrases, conversations and statements that challenges and transforms conventional thinking and changes how you live in the world by provoking an insight. Zen Buddhists use Koans during meditation to exhaust the egoic and analytic mind and uncover the intuitive ‘no-mind’, which is a state of pure consciousness & bliss.

Koans are not about finding answers, but about unraveling the greater truths about ourselves and the world. It allows us to realize that our intellections, beliefs and impressions can never offer us a fully satisfying answer. Zen Koans are a tool that delves into the mind of a meditator to challenge and break their rigid thinking. 

Utilized by Zen masters for centuries, these Koans can help students learn a lot about Zen Buddhism once they figure out their interpretations and meanings. However, it may often be mentally and intellectually exhausting for a student to decipher the true meaning of a Koan and understand it the way it is meant to be, realized through the spirit. 

Koans are not meant to provide any explanations or answers. They simply show you the way.

Want to practice Zen Buddhism? Read 100 Best Zen Sayings And Proverbs That Will Make You Feel Peaceful

5 Zen Koans to challenge your mind

Here are 5 Zen Buddhist Koans that can help you unravel your own mind and help you progress in your spiritual journey.

Without further ado, experience the mind-altering effect of koans yourself.

1. Teaching the ultimate

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside. A blind man, visiting a friend one night, was offered a lantern to carry home with him. “I do not need a lantern,” he said. “Darkness or light is all the same to me.”

“I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,” his friend replied, “but if you don’t have one, someone else may run into you. So you must take it.”

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. “Look out where you are going!” he exclaimed to the stranger. “Can’t you see this lantern?”

“Your candle has burned out, brother,” replied the stranger.

Futility and absurdity are ingrained into the very essence of life. In life, we will face several moments where we will be judged, criticized, blamed and accused whether we do something or not. Often opportunity is disguised as challenges and struggles, good luck is disguised by bad luck. And sometimes it’s quite the opposite. However, sometimes bad luck is just that, bad luck. Sometimes we fall and learn to stand back up again, while other times we fall and just get injured. 

Such is life and the human experience. It can be profoundly meaningful and completely meaningless at the same time. Life is imperfect and not everything has to make sense all the time. Sometimes, we laugh. Sometimes, we cry. But that is the beauty of life.

Between developing an impressive sense of humor through life’s struggles and the pain of learning valuable life lessons, life shows us how absurd and futile it can often be. And tears and laughter can be the perfect tools that allow us to navigate through this absurdity. The objective is to experience life without allowing all the struggles and challenges to prevent us from living our best life.

2. Muddy road

Tanzan and Ekido, two monks,  were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

This koan teaches us what we perceive as right and wrong is based on our perception of the world and solely exists inside our minds. As Ekido is busy judging the actions Tanzan and determining whether what he did is right or wrong, Ekido becomes trapped in the static past. Being a victim of his past, Ekido is unable to enjoy the beauty of the dynamic and fleeting present moment.

The human condition is not definite or decided and life is unreasonably situational. We follow certain rules and laws in life which we believe can help us live better and allow us to segregate wrongdoings from rightdoings. Sometimes we can do wrong by doing the right thing, while at other times we can do right by doing what is conventionally wrong. Morality is a muddy path just like the one these two monks were walking on.

3.  A cup of tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. 

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

This is a popular Koan that focuses on the value of learning, unlearning, and relearning. It challenges us to be sharp and free ourselves from our rigid thinking. The idea of the tea cup being overflowing is a strong reference that reminds us to let go of things so that we can make space for new things and experiences to flow into our lives.

However, the reality is that it is nearly impossible to forget what you have learned. And that is where the paradox lies. What we learn will always be retained in some capacity, like in your subconscious mind and our muscle memory. When you pour out what you have learned from the ‘cup of your mind’, you are actually letting go of the attachment of your ego to your learning and memory. This challenges you to release rigid views, opinions and expectations.

Is your muscle memory trying to tell you something? Read Emotional Muscle Memory: How To Release Painful Emotions Trapped In Your Body

Share on

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top