The Sound of One Hand Clapping and other koans

Note: the following are examples of zen koans – taken from the Japanese “ko” (public) and “an” (proposition). Koans may take the form of a question, a verse or a short anecdote or teaching. It is designed to bring the student towards a direct realization of the ultimate reality. Koans are often very puzzling and incomprehensible and it may take months or even years for one to fully understand one.

The great Japanese master, Hakuin, wrote: “If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die and your will will be destroyed. It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay before you, with no place to set your hands and feet. You face death and your bosom feels as though it were on fire. Then suddenly, you are one with the koan, and body and mind are cast off. This is known as seeing into one’s nature.”

Now, on to the koans:

  1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  2. A monk asked master Haryo, “What is the way?” Haryo replied, “An open-eyed man falling into a well.”
  3. When the many are reduced to one, to what is the one reduced?
  4. The roof was leaking so the master asked two disciples to bring something to catch the water. The first one brought a pail while the second brought a basket. The first was severely reprimanded, the second was highly praised.
  5. What is your original face, before your father and mother were born?
  6. One day, master Chao Chou stumbled and fell. He cried out, “Help me, help me!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao Chou got up and walked away.
  7. When you can do nothing, what can you do?
  8. (a modern koan) Where is the hole when the entire donut is eaten?
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