Zen Koh-ans

Tadao Ogura, M.D.

 A Zen Koh-an is a theme or a challenge given to a Zen student by the Mater (Rohshi) to facilitate the student to reach an enlightenment.  The student must work on it day and night until he or she "gets it."  Since Zen abhors intellectual or superficial  "understanding," many Koh-ans do not seem to make any sense to common intellectual reasoning or understanding.  However, when your mind opens, the "meaning" of a Koh-an becomes transparent and self-evident.



Koh-an  #1

 A monk asked Joshu, "I am a novice in this monastery. I beg of you, Master, your kind guidance (for enlightenment)." Joshu asked the monk, "Did you have your meal?" The monk replied, "Yes, Master, I did." Joshu said to the monk, "Then, go wash your bowls." At this remark, the monk was enlightened. (Zen Challenge No. 7, Gateless Gate)


 Dr. Ogura’s Comment

This “Koh-an” is not intended to teach the novice monk to do what he has to do first before he wonders about his enlightenment.  Rather, it reveals the secret of life on its most profound level. Our life exists moment to moment. Each moment is too valuable to waste. In order to truly and fully “live” each moment, we must do everything with our heart and soul moment to moment.


Once we let our minds slip away from what we are supposed to be doing for the moment to something else, we are no longer truly and fully living but start wastefully existing. “Man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” may start carrying different meanings!



Koh-an # 2  

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon replied, "Dried dung on a toilet stick." (Zen Challenge No. 21, Gateless Gate)


Note: "Gateless Gate" is one of the most widely read Zen challenge collections. It was compiled in the early 13th century in China. A toilet stick is made of bamboo and was used in place of toilet paper since paper was very precious and expensive in those days.


Dr. Ogura’s Comment

This Koh-an is challenging our innate, "normal" judgments and perceptions. Our judgments and perceptions are based on what we have been taught or conditioned on, such as “right-wrong,” “good-bad,” “beautiful-ugly,” “black-white,” etc. Our minds are bound up and rigidly restricted by these learned or conditioned judgments and perceptions and are not free at all. It is like having been seeing people, places and things through a pair of colored glasses all your life. Everything we see is stained by the color of the glasses but we have no way to know what we are seeing are not true colors.


Therefore, we must be helped to free ourselves from any discriminating judgments and perceptions. Once truly freed from all the binding, discriminating judgments and perceptions, a piece of “dried dung on a toilet stick” shines as brightly and brilliantly as a piece of diamond. This "state of mind" must be “experiential” and cannot be intellectual “understanding.”



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