Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



An aphoristic brain teaser unique to Zen Buddhism, the koan is a form of religious teaching formalized in southern India during the Gupta Empire by the monk Bodhidharma in A.D. 520. The Chinese refined koans as kung an (public standards); the Japanese revered koans alongside Taoist mysticism. The liberalization of thought from rote study of scripture coincided with a period of expansion in eastern China, when challenges and perplexities assailed all levels of society. In 920, in the second decade of the Khitan Empire in northern China, the Zen master Nanyuan Huiyung recorded the first written koan, an enigma used to shake trainee monks from complacency. By exploratory rumination, like that triggered by AESOP’S FABLES (ca. 550 B.C.), the ANALECTS of Confucius (ca. 210 B.C.), and MARCUS AURELIUS’S Meditations (ca. A.D. 180), the novice philosopher could stretch his mind with glimpses of a higher perception. Nanyuan proposed to augment the routine of simple piety with insights that produced deeper awareness through abstruse questions. Bypassing scripture, ritual, and everyday logic, the koan produced what the Japanese called satori—an epiphany or awakening experience that startled the mind into new realms of understanding.

A unique addition to world WISDOM LITERATURE and wry wit, koans took a self-deprecating look at the thought processes of the serious holy man. A famous version describes a man clutching a rope dangling from a precipice while a tiger lurks above and mice chew at the cords. In a life-or-death predicament, the man notices the beauty of a wild strawberry. The koan emphasizes the importance of nature amid human struggle. The anthology of 1,700 koans amassed by the Chinese priest Yuanwu Keqin (Yuan-wu K’o-ch’in, 1063-1135) appeared as the Pi-yen lu (Blue Cliff Record, 1125), which the Japanese translator Setcho Zenji published as Hekigan-roku. By 1130, the Chinese teacher Dahui Zonggao (Ta-hui Tsung-kao, 1089-1163) of Anhwei Province was using collections of koans as a systematic verse curriculum that taught students to think independently and to rely on intuition. In a radical shift from simple engagement in silent Buddhist meditation, he added active intellectual discussion among some 2,000 disciples of realistic subjects extending from theology and philosophy to war and empire. He exhorted young philosophers to concentrate on word puzzles in anticipation of a flash of illumination. These transcendent moments transformed habitual thought patterns to insights into the self and to a spontaneous understanding of serenity in a troubled world.

In 1191, during the Kamakura empire, the Buddhist priest Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) imported Chinese Zen philosophy to Kyoto, Japan. At the Hoonji Temple in Kyushu, Japan's first Zen training center, he chose koans as a text for educating samurai warriors and intellectual Buddhists. Five levels of koans awakened the individual to sanctity, a true sense of being, and the steps to wisdom. In the late Song dynasty (960-1279), Wumen Huikai (Wu-men Hui-k'ai, 1183-1260), a Chinese priest from Hangchou, selected 48 of the original posers for the Wumenguan, or Wumen Kuan (The Gateless Gate or The Gateless Barrier, 1228), a classic collection that encourages the Buddhist neophyte to understand pure abstraction. In the preface, Wumen describes fools as people who depend on words for understanding. He exalts koans as “brickbats to batter at the gate, guiding monks in accord with their various capacities” (Wumen 1990, 3). The Chinese Zen master Hongzhi Zhengjue (Hung- chih Cheng-chueh, 1091-1157) made his own selection, the Tsung-jung lu (Book of Equanimity, ca. 1240), which Japanese Buddhists published as the Shoyoroku (Book of Serenity). From 1336 to 1573, the Ashikaga clan of shoguns applied the koan to literature, art, and noh theatre.

In China's most famous novel, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1791), by the Beijing-born novelist Cao Xueqin, the text concludes with the elevation of Jia Baoyu, the spoiled protagonist, to Daoist monk. To questions about his mentor, he replies with a koan: “The place where he lives is far if you think it is far and near if you think it is near” (Cao 1958, 323). The statement reveals the young prince's intent to retreat from the Qing Empire to seek wisdom as a monk.


Cao Xueqin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Translated by

Chi-Chen Wang. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1958.

Heine, Steven, and Dale S. Wright. The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wumen Huikai. The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan (Mumonkan). Translated by Robert Aitken. New York: Macmillan, 1990.