The Koan

1 of 7

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: "If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat."

No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.

Nansen said: "If you had been there, you could have saved the cat."

Mumon's Comment: Why did Joshu put his sandals on his head? If anyone answers this question, he will understand exactly how Nansen enforced the edict. If not, he should watch his own head.

Had Joshu been there,
He would have enforced the edict oppositely.
Joshua snatches the sword
And Nansen begs for his life.

The koan (Chinese: kungan) is perhaps the most discussed and least understood teaching concept of Zen. In simple terms the koan is merely a brief story, and all the encounters between two monks related in this course could be koans. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) these stories were organized into collections, commented upon, and structured into a system of study which involved meditating on a koan and arriving at an intuitive "answer" acceptable to a Zen master. Faced with the threatening intellectualism of the Sung scholars, Chanists created the koan out of the experience of the older masters, much the way a life raft might be constructed from the timbers of a storm-torn ship. But before we examine this raft, it would be well to look again at the ship.