Home > Koans


June 1st, 2009 at 01:08 pm

There is an interesting eastern parable I've read once that, despite its arcane nature, has always stuck with me. As far as I know, it's based on a true story that's been passed down in oral tradition.

But before I start, perhaps I should explain what a koan is. A koan is a question, riddle, or parable with a moral lesson or answer of sorts. However, unlike western parables, it doesn't tell you what the lesson is. You are suppose to figure it out on their own, but by doing so, it helps to guide you closer and closer towards enlightenment.

A famous example of a (beginner) koan is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" For fun, would anyone like to take a stab at it?

So, as you can imagine, koans can be quite challenging. Some monks will meditate on it for years before they realize what the "answer" is suppose to be. As such, it also takes masters decades to craft one to pass on to future generations....

And that's why, in the days of ancient Japan, a remarkable rumor started to spread throughout the countryside. A young, traveling writer of sorts has been been dazzling people, and stumping monks, with his own koans! Many respectable monks have heard his koans only to excuse themselves without a further single word.

An eccentric monk by the name of

Text is Shosan and Link is
Shosan heard about this, and urged by his fellow monks, they decided to go visit him.

He asked the writer to recite one of his koans. Happy to oblige, he does so. As he is doing so, Shosan pushes the writer. The writer is confused by this action. Shosan then calmly states, "Please continue." Perplexed, the writer continues to recite his koan, and Shosan pushes him again. The writer yells, "Why did you do that?" "Your koan?", Shosan replies. Cautiously, the writer attempts to finish his koan. But as he tries to do so, Shosan jumps him and starts thrashing him. His fellow monks jumps in to restrain Shosan.

As Shosan is dragged away, he yells, "Beginners should not write their own koans!"

Get it? Yes, Shosan was one crazy monk. But besides that, the real reason why other monks couldn't seem to grasp his koans, and the real reason why they ultimately had to excuse themselves was because there was nothing there to get. The writer was a fraud who was self-deluded into thinking that he was on to something, and therefore, he was better than everybody else.

And in his self-aggrandized ignorance, he also failed to realize that he managed to insult and belittle a very sacred institution in Zen Buddhism. To monks, koans aren't stuff we read and giggle about in a fortune cookie. Rather, it's more like me coming along and claiming that I have written my own Bible, Torah, or the Qu'ran.

Throughout my life, that story has always stuck with me. It has kept me humble (believe it or not Big Grin), and made me question everything in my life... but in a good way! Whenever I start to get too smug and think that I've got something all figured out, I would stop and ask myself, "Am I writing my own koan?" Do I really have it all figured out, or have I only deluded myself into thinking that?

Although I learned of this story through martial arts training, as you can tell, this parable applies to everything else in life as well, including personal finance. Is there a reason why I am bringing this up? Maybe. Big Grin But first, what IS the sound of one hand clapping?

9 Responses to “Koans”

  1. princessperky Says:

    The sound of a proud mother as one hand holds a young baby, the other tries to clap for older kids Smile.

    Or a polite gesture, when the performance wasn't worth putting the kid down.....

  2. Broken Arrow Says:

    Heheh, I like that answer.

  3. Thrifty Ray Says:

    the same sound as a smile or a wave? Silence....

  4. Apprentice Bliss Hunter Says:

    Silence ?

    I'm guessing its about seeking success for oneself while ignoring those around you so that only you are clapping ?

    If you brought good things to others around you, then there would be many hands clapping ?


  5. Broken Arrow Says:

    I'm not Zen Buddhist, but I'll give you guys a hint. Koans don't necessarily have a right or wrong answer. However, it is capable of having many answers that reflects YOU.

    If you look the few response so far, it's obvious that there isn't a simple, definitive answer here. And yet, even if the responses are different, none of them are necessarily wrong. Rather, the question is like a mirror in that it reflects your personal experiences. It helps you reveal a piece of yourself, even if you already know what it is.

    Now, with that said, there IS a "right answer" of sorts in that it's the one YOU ARE LOOKING FOR but may or may not have found it yet. The one that helps you transcend beyond your own answers and to see above not just the answer but the question in itself.

    And when a monk is able to produce that answer, that's when a master pats him or her on the back, and gives out the next koan. Big Grin

    Here's another hint: Koans are designed to help guide you towards the path of enlightenment (or greater understanding if you want to be secular). So then, you'll have to ask yourself, has your answer brought a better understanding for you yet? If not, what kind of answer would do so?

  6. Joan.of.the.Arch Says:

    I never even wanted to attempt to answer the one hand clapping question. It seemed kind of annoying. Yet today this answer pops up: The sound of one hand clapping is the same as that of the other hand clapping. That is a truism, though so not very satisfying to me.

  7. scfr Says:

    By definition one hand cannot clap.

    I'm sure the monks would throw my literal-minded self out on my backside.

  8. Broken Arrow Says:

    Not at all, scfr! If anything, I should think the monks would pat you on your back! Because you are taking a significant step closer to unraveling the truth about this koan!

    Because, yes, it IS a fallacy by definition! And this part is so very important, something that has been brought up by the Stanley Milgram's experiment in obedience. "Is the question itself even valid?" So yes, learning to question the validity of a question to begin with is very important....

    Ah, but as one can imagine, student monks have brought up these points before, only to be proven false by a master clapping with one hand. It is technically possible.

    So, it can and does exist, even if it does not conform to the original definition. But it exists nonetheless. Now what? Smile

  9. Luís Ferreira Says:

    If there was an answer, what would be nobody's understanding of it?

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