As most of you may know, in Zen literature, a koan is a short statement, question or pithy phrase which is useful to contemplate and in doing so a student of Buddhism might achieve some breakthrough in their insight into the nature of things. These phrases can sound paradoxical, metaphorical and play with language in unusual or unexpected and sometimes poetic ways.
While the form is clearly influenced by Chinese literature and culture, I was thinking that EBTs also have short, pithy statements which, if one stretches the meaning of the term, could also be termed “koans” - in that, they were short statements by the Buddha or his immediate disciples which were meditated on by those who heard them and also led the listeners towards breakthroughs in insight.
Some examples which pop into my head is the famous ye dharma hetu saying by venerable Assaji which was said to be the statement which led to the awakening of Sariputta and Moggallana:
Of those phenomena which arise from causes:
Those causes have been taught by the Tathāgata,
And their cessation too - thus proclaims the Great Ascetic
Then there is also the famous Bahiya instructions given by the Buddha which goes “in the seen there is just the seen, in the heard…” from the Udana.
Anyways, I was just thinking if anyone knows of any more short statements like these from the EBTs which could serve as sort of “EBT koans”. Any ideas?
@Javier Do you count this one as a koan? It is Dhammapada 348:
"Let go what came before!
Let go what comes next!
Let go what’s in-between!
Crossing over existence,
with heart freed from every state,
you won’t continue to be reborn and grow old."
Translation by Venerable Sujato.
I mean, its possible, I guess a lot of pithy sayings could be koans, but I guess I am looking for specifically for phrases which are said to have led those who heard them to some kind of insight.
Since you mentioned Venerable Bahiya, how about MN 143? I think this discourse is very similar to Venerable Bahiya’s story in the Udana.
The instructions are taught by Venerable Sariputta to Anathapindika when he was sick. One of them is: “I shall not grasp this world, and there shall be no consciousness of mine dependent on this world.” That’s how you should train.
The Buddha’s encounter with Angulimala has a couple of koan-like characteristics- the one-on-one confrontation, the Buddha’s contradictory ‘turning words’ (‘I have stopped’), Angulimala’s sudden realization.
@Javier There’s another discourse that I can think of (though I’m not sure if the instructions in there can be considered koans since I’m not entirely sure what a koan is). It’s MN 74.
In MN 74, when the Buddha instructed Dighanakha to contemplate on feelings, Venerable Sariputta was fanning the Buddha. After the instructions ended, Venerable Sariputta became a perfected one, while Dighanakha became a stream enterer.
One of the instructions goes like this: “At a time when you feel a pleasant feeling, you don’t feel a painful or neutral feeling; you only feel a pleasant feeling.”
'It might not be, and it might not be mine. It will not be; it will not be mine. I am abandoning what exists, what has come to be.'
AN 7.55 et al.
I’ve been studying Zen and Thai Forest pretty heavily, in Zen I’ve read through 3 translations of the Mumonkan and working through The Blue Cliff Record, and listened to countless teishos by Zen priests discussing the same.
Only to say my understanding is that a) not all koans led to immediate enlightenment in the unilliminated participant, and b) most koans are not just simply pithy sayings, but are short exchanges between student and master designed to snap the former out of his/her delusion. To that end, they are often seemingly paradoxical or illogical.
Given those qualities, I’m not 100% sure some of the Sutta quotes mentioned would qualify in the true Zen meaning of koan. That said, we do encounter our own personal koans every day
I would agree but any teaching can lead a mind that has faith, energy, mindfulness, unification and wisdom ready into attainment according to the Shakyamuni Buddha. However I can’t see how even after reading hundred of koans there can be any certainty in attaining.
Well of course not - simply reading any text isn’t going to lead to awakening. Zen itself is clear that it in particular is a “transmission not dependent on words and letters.” The koan is meant to spark the contemplation and insight that leads to the realization of sunyata as a step on the path to liberation. In that regard, I find the koans to be as useful as any sutta (and in addition to the koans I’ve read all of the Digha and Majjhima and part of the Samyutta…not to brag but to provide context of course :))