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A Song Dynasty painting of a fat man lying down

Song Dynasty painting (now in Kyoto Museum)

In the 1200s AD, under the Song Dynasty, the Chinese Buddhist monk Wumen collected a bunch of Zen koans, or stories, in a book we call The Gateless Gate. These are a few of those stories:

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Blow Out the Candle

Ryutan was Tokusan’s Zen teacher. One night Tokusan kept asking Ryutan more and more questions, tons of questions. Finally Ryutan said, “It’s getting late. Why don’t you go home to bed?” So Tukusan bowed and opened the screen to leave. He remarked, “It’s very dark out there.”
Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way home. But just as Tokusan reached out to take the candle, Ryutan blew it out. Now Tokusan saw the point. “What have you learned?” asked Ryutan. “From now on,” said Tokusan, “I won’t doubt the teacher’s words.”

Wash the Bowl

A new monk showed up and asked Joshu, “I just entered the monastery. Please teach me about Zen.” Joshu asked him,”Have you eaten your porridge?” “Yes,” answered the monk, “I’ve eaten.” So Joshu said, “Then you’d better wash your bowl.” So the monk was enlightened.

Everyday Life

Chinese landscape painting with three men representing Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism - the Chinese philosophers

“Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one” (Song Dynasty)

Everyday Life is the Path: Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the path to understanding?” and his teacher Nansen answered him, “Everyday life is the path.” “How can you study that?” asked Joshu. Nansen said: `Oh, if you try to study, you’ll just go farther off the path.” Joshu had more questions: “But if I don’t study, how can I know I’m on the right path?” So Nansen explained, “The path is not in the world you see and hear. But it’s not in the world of thought either. Knowing is a delusion and not knowing is senseless. If you want to be sure of reaching the true path, you must be free like the sky. You must be free from good and from bad.” Then Joshu understood.

One more story

Here’s another of the Zen koans, that’s not in Wumen’s collection:

A woman climbed up the mountain to a cave where a wise Buddhist teacher sat. She asked, “What is the meaning of life?” and he took his wooden stick and hit her on the head. “Ouch!” she said, and she went away. But she came back every day. Every morning she climbed the mountain and asked her question. Every day he hit her on the head.

One day, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She grabbed the stick and said “Cut that out! Stop hitting me!”. She was beginning to understand.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Zen koans? Let us know in the comments!

Bibliography and further reading about Zen Buddhism:

Zen Buddhism
Main Chinese literature page
Main China page