What is a koan? I’m not an expert on the subject, but my understanding is that koans come from Zen Buddhism, the ancient philosophy of the East. A koan is a paradoxical, or even contradictory, statement that stimulates the mind that contemplates it to unveil a certain secret wisdom. That is, every koan contains a nugget of information for the mind willing to unravel its riddle. The key, though, that makes it a koan is that this information is supposed to be incommunicable. Only the individual who “cracks” the koan will have access to the information. To all others, it will remain a mystery.
Once upon a time, when I was a bit more contradiction-averse (as koans are often expressed as contradictions), I thought that the contradiction in a koan wasn’t really a contradiction. I believed that the contradiction was a way of conveying information in a roundabout, backward sort of way, that really didn’t violate the Law of Non-contradiction. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. I still believe in the Law of Non-contradiction, but I also think Zen koans are pretty cool.
Currently, I’m kind of of the mind that when the original koans were written, the information they encoded was beyond the scope of expressive language. Now, so many centuries later, it may be the case that language has evolved enough that it can capture the sense of what some of the koans mean. At least, that’s what I think. I could be totally wrong.
With that preamble, I offer these two koans with my own interpretation of each. First, I give you one I heard from a friend of mine: “Return to the uncut wood.” I take that to mean, reorient your perspective to that of an unjaded youth. I think I made that more complicated than I intended to. Think of the Christian emphasis on being child-like and approach life that way. That’s what I think this koan is encouraging us to do. Next, is a koan that I’m not sure where I stumbled across it: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” This means, be your own master, make your own decisions, etc…. Anyway, those are the two koans I remember and the interpretations I’ve given them—both of which could be totally wrong, but I don’t think so. I’d like to find a book of koans to look at and study, but I’m always forgetting about it.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on koans.