What is Buddha?: The Koans and stories of Zen Buddhism — profound riddles that “break” the mind

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    A koan is a paradoxical riddle or statement used in Zen Buddhism in order to shake-up conventional thinking and to provoke an insight.

    Why do koans remain so intriguing and popular today? Perhaps, since koans are about insight, there are no right or wrong interpretations — which is one reason they are so effective. It is also the reason that people — such as, myself — are so drawn to them. In this feature, I will highlight some of the more interesting I’ve contemplated, with, both the generally accepted interpretation — bearing in mind there are no wrong interpretations — and my own.

    By contributing writer Lee Clarke

    Lee Clark 400
    Contributing writer Lee Clarke: “I’m a Buddhist, Quaker, Humanist, existentialist and pacifist. Budding professor of religion. Love many subjects, bilingual third year uni student.” On Twitter>>

    A pair of mind-twisting koans


    ‘The Mind is Buddha’

    Daibai asked Baso: ‘What is Buddha?’

    Baso said: ‘This mind is Buddha’[1]

    ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ – Linji Yixuan


    These two Koans I pair together, since they both tend to point to the same thing: recognition of our inherent Buddha-Nature from the Zen perspective. Buddha-Nature is seen as both the potential to become enlightened — to become Buddha —  and/or the intrinsic Buddhahood of every sentient being, depending on the school that you follow.

    Zen takes a similar view to both of these but says that we are already Buddha (i.e. Buddha Nature) but that we just have to realize it. Zen teaches that we have an innate “Buddha-Mind” which is hidden by the superficial mind that we are given at birth, and which is influenced by the society etc we grow up in. It is our small everyday mind that deludes us into thinking that we are separate from others and leads us into egotistical thinking.

    Thus Baso’s answer “This mind is Buddha” is talking about both the previous points. We are already Buddhas and need to uncover our Buddha-Mind which is hidden but innate within us. So therefore, the mind is already Buddha – Our Buddha-Mind.[2]

    If you meet the Buddha, kill him?

    The next Koan in my pairing may seem quite shocking upon first glance (which it is meant to be), even heretical. How can we, as Buddhists kill the Buddha? Of course, it isn’t meant to be taken literally. Linji was one of the greatest Zen Masters after all. The main accepted interpretation as said by Barbara O’Brien is much the same as the previous Koan. If we saw the Buddha on a road, the Buddha would be a separate person to ourselves and as Zen teaches, we are Buddha. Thus we must stop thinking of ourselves and the Buddha as different and “kill” that notion – think of ourselves and the Buddha as one.[3]


    Video with 101 Zen Koans:

    When looked at in this way, realising the nature of the Koans is in fact, incredibly liberating. To think that we are actually already enlightened and are in possession of a Buddha-Mind is an incredibly profound and inspiring. As Mumon’s commentary on the first Koan says ‘If anyone wholy understands this, he is wearing Buddha’s clothing, he is eating Buddha’s food, he is speaking Buddha’s words, he is behaving as Buddha, he is Buddha.’

    Everyday life is the path

    Joshu asked Nansen: ‘What is the path?’

    Nansen said: ‘Everyday life is the path’.

    Joshu asked: ‘Can it be studied?’

    Nansen said: ‘If you try to study, you will be far away from it’.


    This is one of the Koans that has helped me a lot — so what follows is my own interpretation. For many of practitioners and adherents, Zen permeates many aspects of everyday life. For example, many try to make activities that would normally seem quite mundane become  practice — methods to realizations — so things like cooking and cleaning can be a form of meditation.

    This koan is, I think alluding to that notion of practising Zen in everyday life. A mindful life, with every activity as “mindful” meditation. When Nansen says that “everyday life is the path” he could be saying that everyday life is in fact a way to realizations also. Joshu then asks if it can be studied. Nansen responds by saying he will be far away from it if you attempt to study it.

    For a lot of time in our lives everyday, we are doing mundane, boring but necessary things. We all have to wash dishes, and go to work, and stand up in the subway or drive through rush hour. Isn’t it liberating to think that these activities could be valuable pracitce?

    Of course, if we focus on how boring it is, then our unhappiness will only be increased. This is one of the things I think Nansen means by saying that we will be “far away” from everyday life if we attempt to study it as a path. It is a path but we need to just get on with it and try to make life our practice.

    Thinking of this koan has helped me get through many day-to-day situations. This koan also reinforces the Mahayana position that anyone we all have Buddha Nature, that we can all attain satori (realizations), including laypeople. Everyday life can be a path to enlightenment and one that we can use to our advantage.

    Buddha’s Zen

    Buddha said:

    “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”

    Whilst not exactly a koan, Buddha’s words here are koan-like. I think the best interpretation came from Gary Z McGee who indicated that the story represents the Buddhist doctrine of Anicca or impermanence. The Buddha describes all the finest things in the world and then through his use of language, destroys their grandeur, telling us that even the best things eventually come to an end, no matter what they are or how splendid they might be. Everything has to come to an end and, our refusal and reluctance to accept this harsh truth, leads us to suffering.[4]

    When I was a child, at one point I was petrified of dying, and often wondered what happened, after death. I remember my child-like mind: I was sat in a school assembly and I thought “I wish I was something else and not human, then I wouldn’t have to die.” I thought this whilst looking at floorboards that were leaning up against the wall and wishing I could be one of them, then I could live forever. Though it was a child’s innocence, I remember I had a flash of insight: I realised that even if I were a floorboard, the wood would eventually decay and rot. Even as a child, I understood there isn’t a single thing doesn’t eventually die. When I look back now, I can see how it was a flash of realisation of anicca, something I’d only discover years later. This might why this particular Zen story spoke to me.


    Muddy Road


    Tanzan and Ekido 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 story is one of those precious stories that is a useful lesson in everyday life. Tanzan had clearly treated the incident with the girl as something of not much importance. He had helped the girl, then forgot about it and moved on.

    Ekido however had become angry by what his friend had done and had carried the anger with him all the way to the temple before he eventually burst into an angry retort of disapproval.  Tanzan asks if Ekido was “still carrying her.”

    This is one of the “easier” koans to interpret, but it can be understood in many ways. Ekido was still carrying the girl — a metaphor for carrying his anger, unable to let go.

    The “girl” can substitute for anything: an argument with a close friend or family member you can’t let go of,  or any situation where you can’t move on — you dwell on it, even though it causes you unhappiness. This story shows us to live in the present moment, to move on; grudges serve no useful purpose.

    Many koans, many insights

    These are only a few my favorite Zen Koans and stories — with only a few of many interpretations of them. Experiencing koans is a wonderful practice, and I feel that a Koan not only provides us with a moment of insight (or Satori) in Japanese — but can also teach us a lot about daily living. After all, in Zen, daily living is practice.

    By reading and trying to solve the Koan’s “puzzles” we can break down our rational thinking and — layer by layer — try to reveal our inherent Buddha-Nature. Koans are a wonderful addition to the Buddhist cannon and have become popular the world over for their “brain-breaking” puzzles. They evoke the true essence of Zen.

    When Boddhidharma was asked what Zen was, he replied “Vast Emptiness, nothing holy.”


    [1]Paul Reps (editor) ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings’ (Penguin Books: England, 1971) – All Koans and stories taken from this book unless stated otherwise PP. 118, 109, 86, 28
    [2]Shulamit Ambalu et al ‘The Religions Book’ (Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, UK 2013). Pp.160-163
    [3]Barbara O’Brien ‘Kill the Buddha? What does that mean?: A closer look at a confusing koan’ at https://www.thoughtco.com/kill-the-buddha-449940 [Accessed 14th August 2014]
    [4]Gary Z McGee ‘5 Zen Koans That Will Open Your Mind’ at https://fractalenlightenment.com/37292/spirituality/5-zen-koans-that-will-open-your-mind [Accessed 14th August 2018]

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    What is Buddha?: The Koans and stories of Zen Buddhism — profound riddles that “break” the mind

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    Lee Clarke | Contributing Author

    Author | Buddha Weekly

    “I’m a Buddhist, Quaker, Humanist, existentialist and pacifist. Budding professor of religion. Love many subjects, bilingual third year uni student.”

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