Buddhism A–Z
What is a Koan in Buddhism?

A koan is a seemingly paradoxical or enigmatic statement, question, or story used as a tool for meditation and contemplation in Chan and Zen Buddhism. Repeated contemplation of a koan pushes the meditator past the limitations of conceptual mind to a direct, complete experience of reality. 

Among the best-known koans are: “What is the sound of one hand?” and “Does a dog have buddhanature?” to which the teacher replies, “Mu [not nothing].” This is often given to students as the first koan on their path of koan study.

Koan practice is found in traditions descending from Chan Buddhism, including Japanese Zen and Korean Seon Buddhism. While koans are practiced in a number of schools, they are the speciality of the Rinzai school of Zen. 

Many koans are brief anecdotes, questions, or exchanges in which renowned Zen masters are directly pointing out the nature of reality to their students. Working with these koans is not a matter of finding logical answers or solutions. In fact, the very purpose is to help the student move beyond ordinary conceptual thought, which is a barrier to the full experience of reality.

Students of Zen can engage in intensive meditation and contemplation on a specific koan given to them by their teacher, repeatedly examining it from various angles in order to break through to direct experience. When their realization is confirmed by the teacher, they may be given a new koan to work on.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.