Zen Koans: 5 Profound Paradoxical Riddles To Expand Your Mind

zen koans profound paradoxical riddles to expand your mind

2. Muddy road

Tanzan and Ekido, two monks, were once traveling together down a muddy road. 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?”

Zen Koans: 5 Profound Paradoxical Riddles To Expand Your Mind

This koan teaches us what we perceive as right and wrong are based on our perception of the world and solely exist 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 right doings. 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 teacup 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.

Related: Emotional Muscle Memory: How To Release Painful Emotions Trapped In Your Body

4. A parable

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Scroll to Top