Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Six Facts About Kong-ans

OH, KONG-ANS! (If you prefer Japanese: Oh, koans!) Those pesky little riddles that don’t make sense. Those stories about old guys in ancient China that have nothing to do with modern anything. Those things Zen teachers make inscrutable comments about or use to torture you. That stuff where this way won’t do and that way won’t do and no way will do—you’re like a rat in a trap, a fish in the net, a roach in the roach motel. How are you going to get out of this mess?

Kong-an means “public case,” most often a record of something that happened. Here’s an example:

Long ago on Grdharakuta Mountain, Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower before the assembly. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa smiled. Shakyamuni Buddha said, “I have the all-pervading true dharma, incomparable nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. Not dependent on words, a special transmission outside the sutras, I give to Mahakasyapa.”

Buddha holds up a flower and Mahakasyapa, alone of all the tens of thousands of beings present, instantly gets it—he smiles! That’s the public case. That’s the kong-an.

Let’s talk about Mahakasyapa for a minute. You might know that he practiced strict austerities, that he pulled the sangha together after Buddha’s death, that and is promised eventual buddhahood.

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STEPHEN BATCHELOR began his Buddhist studies in 1972 in India, received full ordination as a bhikkhu in 1979, and disrobed in 1985, following three years of training in Korean Seon. The author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and cofounder of Bodhi Colleg