What is a Koan?

Koan (kong’an in Korean) is a Sino-Japanese word.  That is to say, it originated in the Chinese language and is now used in Japan.   The word is made up of two characters: 公案.  The first character, 公 (Ko) means “public” and the second character, 案 (An) means, “case”.  So together, the characters translate as “public case”.

Koans can be traced back to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  Originally, they were stories/saying, with commentaries, of famous Chan Buddhist Masters, which were used to educate Buddhist students and specifically offer them a glimpse into the higher levels of Buddhist teachings. In the Song Dynasty, they evolved into short phrases or even individual words that the students would meditate on.  This practice was believed to “awaken” the students and give them insight into the higher teaching of Buddhism (Buddha Nature).

Years past and eventually the Japanese schools of Zen Buddhism adopted (took over) koan practice from the Chinese schools. At this point in their history, koans started to take on their current form, as stories, dialogues, statements and/or riddles (unanswerable questions) that masters could use not only as pointers to guide students to gain deeper insight but also as a way of testing a student’s progress.

This process typically started with a student being assigned a koan to study/meditate on. After some time had passed, he/she would appear before his/her master and “answer” the koan.  Depending on the answer, the master would either send the student back to work on the koan some more or assign a new koan.  Over time, the Japanese Zen Masters formed a standardized koan curriculum, with a set of acceptable answers and even a standardized method of guiding students that have not successfully “answered” a koan.  In a lot of ways this process was (and still is) very similar to a martial art promotion exam, except it was done privately.

As with so many other Zen practices, koans eventually started being used within martial art schools (around the twelfth century).  Some of the traditional Zen koans were used (with a few changes) but for the most part, the martial art masters used koans they had developed specifically for their students, that were lacking most, if not all, the “Zen” overtones.  These new martial art koans tended to be used as pointers to guide students to self-education.  They, like their Zen counterparts, were also used to force students to gain deeper insight, but in this case into the more subtle mental aspects of the martial arts and not Buddhism.

Today, for the most part, only very traditional martial art schools still use koans.  You will be hard-pressed to find them contained in the curriculum of any school that frequents tournaments (schools focused on the sporting aspect of the art they teach) or has neon signs (franchise schools).  In addition, the schools that do use them as part of a student’s mental education tend to only assign one or two over the student’s entire life, as opposed to 20 or more that a Zen student might study.

Back in the early ’90s, I was running a Taekwondo school for Grandmaster Kyongwon Ahn in Cincinnati, Ohio.  One day, as I was sitting at my desk a teenage girl walked in and wanted information about classes.  At that point, I immediately started providing her with my classic new student recruitment talk.  She patiently listened and after I was done, asked about black belt classes.  It turns out that she was already a black belt in Taekwondo and was looking for a new school.  After a lengthy discussion as to why she wanted to switch schools, I agreed to let her join on a probationary trial.  She easily made it through the trial and became an active student of both the school I was running and Grandmaster Ahn’s main school.  Over time she became fascinated with the stories I would tell in class.  She constantly would ask questions about them.  At that point in my teaching, I had never assigned a koan but I thought it might be a good time to start and I assigned her one.  Immediately, as so many students I have come to find out do, she had an answer.  Guess what?  The answer was wrong.  It was wrong because the answer came from her conscious mind, her thinking mind. I told her that she would never get the correct answer by thinking about it.  I reminded her that her koan was a pointer toward a place where she would profoundly gain a deeper insight into a truth about some mental aspect of Taekwondo.

She said that she understood and would work on the koan for a longer period of time.  A few days went by and once again she approached me with an answer.  Again she was wrong.  I told her not to think about it.  “Just be patient and the answer will come,” I said.  Time went by.  She never again approached me concerning the koan.  I ended up moving away from Cincinnati and she got married and moved to California.  She opened a very successful Taekwondo school with her husband but because he was from a different association, and higher-ranking that she was, she ended up switching to his association and I never heard from her again.  Well, until over tens years later.  At that point, I was running a full-time school in Pittsford, New York.  My school’s phone rang and on the other end was a very excited woman screaming, “I figured it out.  I know the answer.”  At first, I had no idea who it was.  However, as soon as she started giving me the answer I knew immediately.  My response to her, after ten years, was, “You are correct.”

It is my hope to do a series of articles on martial art koans, with commentaries, over the coming summer.  In closing, let me leave you with my favorite koan.  It happens to be from a collection of 48 Zen koans called the Mumonkan, which was compiled in the 13th century.  Below is the koan, in both its original version and its martial art spun version:

Original Version (translated by Eiichi Shimomissé)

Goso said, “When you meet a Man of the Way on the road, greet him not with words, nor with silence. Tell me, how will you greet him?”

Martial Art Version

“If you meet a master of the way on the way, greet him by neither bowing nor not bowing.  How will you greet him?”


Something to think about (well, in this case, thinking about it won’t help)…..

Grandmaster Sean Pearson