Ancient Zen Koans from China - with Answers



Most Zen Koans were written or collected in 13th century China. 500 years later they were copied and adapted in other countries. (The Koan answers were traditionally hidden.)
But there are much earlier Koans. They teach Zen-newbies that everybody is a "Person" as well as an "I".

Sounds strange for normally people don't make this distinction. But to deal with Koans means essentialy to know about oneself. If you want to find out more about the Person that calls itself 'I' look it up!

There are six types of Zen Koans to learn the differences between you as "Person" and you as "I".
To make this insight easier, I always give the answer. That's against the tradition, but avoids useless thinking in circles.

Buddha history

1. Body and actions of Person "I"

2. Things used by Person "I"

3. Roads and mountains where Person "I" lives

4. Water challenges for Person "I"

5. Animals and plants Person "I" deals with

6. The universe and theories Person "I" knows


Learning Zen with Koans is quite simple.

A Koan question sounds pretty normal, sometimes a bit challenging perhaps. But despite all efforts "I" can't solve it.
Zen Koan answers can only be found by the non-thinking, naive and childlike "Person".
The answer shouldn't be explained but expressed by a sign, an action, a little charade. It's quite easy! Just try.

How to use this page?
If you can't believe the answer for a Koan is correct, click the "???" button to get a short explanation.
"???" brings you to a Koan box on another page. Click the "show/hide" button, to see it.
The Koan box has a "back" button on the bottom.
If a Koan has no "???" button, download the free e-book "Miscellaneous Koans Part 2"
to find it.

1. Body and actions of Person "I"


Body parts or actions are often used to illustrate philosophical and religious teachings. E.g. "speaking in tongues" means, influenced by the holy spirit somebody cries out holy words in a language he or she doesn't know. (Second Koan)
The Koan answer brings the religious symbol "tongue" down to earth.
Just (use your tongue and) say something.
"I" knows about religious thinking and pondering. The "Person" acts without thinking.

Why do crimson lines never cease to flow?
...the answer is... weep and blow your nose ... ???

Why is it not our tongue that we speak with?
...the answer is... say something ... ???

A man of great strength will not lift his leg. Why?
...the answer is... Lift a leg then walk normally ... ???

What is my hand compared with the Buddha's hand?
...the answer is... show your hand ... ???

What is my leg compared with a donkey's leg?
...the answer is... walk on hand and knees ... ???

How do you free yourself from life and death?
...the answer is... oh, I'm dying, dying, oh, oh. ... ???

Where do you go after death?
...the answer is... At seven sharp I'll have breakfast ... ???

Enlightenment only means putting your head through the gate of nirvana. Explain.
...the answer is... Put your head through the door. ...

What does non-thinking really mean for you?
...the answer is... Resting your chin on your hand. ...

You attain enlightenment through intense practice but it doesn't change, it remains.
...the answer is... Stand up, run around ...

What is it that even an explorer or scientist cannot evade?
...the answer is... Raise one finger, say: No, no, no! ...

How can you follow a Buddha who can't be heard through voices and sounds or seen in colours?
...the answer is... What a wonderful song and all these pretty red roses. Great. ...

How do you hear the Diamond Sutra?
...the answer is... Put your hand to your ear: listen to the birds, the winds, the sounds ...

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2. Things, used by Person "I"


This type of Zen Koans challenge our common sense. They are about dealing with normal "things". Everybody knows what "I" can do with them and what "I" can't.
"How to put out a far away fire?"
You can't do it, "I" can't do it. (Remote control was unknown in 13th century China.)
But an answering Person doesn't know anything about common sense. Only "fire" is real and the Koan is a trigger that makes the (childlike) Person dance and act like fire.

Take hold of a plough with empty hands . How?
...the answer is... take the plough with both hands ... ???

Why is a true Buddha sitting in the house?
...the answer is... Just sit on the ground. ...

Does the treasure room open by itself and let you use it at will?
...the answer is... There are trees and mountains and (slap the ground) this is the ground. ...

Why is philosophy like heaping up snow in a silver bowl?
...the answer is... rub your cold hands. ...

A Buddha made of wood why can't he pass through fire?
...the answer is... fire, fire, fire. Dying ...

How to put out a far away fire?
...the answer is... move like a fire ... ???

How do you stop a temple bell 100 miles away?
...the answer is... Ding-dong, ding-dong.... ???

Why is a Buddha of metal melting when he passes through a furnace?
...the answer is...... fall to the ground and die ....

What is the sharpest sword?
...the answer is...... Hit with a sword ....

Why do great Buddhist teachers always sit on top of a needle?
...the answer is...... just sit somewhere ....


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Zen koans Koan: Who am I?



3. Roads and mountains, where Person "I" lives


Chinese Zen monks walked long distances between monasteries, which were built on top of mountains. This practice was called "the way". Like on a western pilgrimage after some time the landscape melts. Only a walking Person is left.
Zen Koans frame these experiences with Buddhist beliefes.
"What is today's way of Zen Buddhism?"
The "I" is tempted to show its knowledge in Buddhism. But the answer can only be found by going back to the walking Person: "standing up, walking, working".

Why are low and high absolutely equal in the Dharma?
...the answer is... Show with your hand: this table is 3 feet, I'm five feet ...

Where does the mind comes from when its dwelling nowhere?
...the answer is... After breakfast, going into the garden, cleaning my room, cutting a flower etc.. n. ...

What is today's way of Zen Buddhism?
...the answer is... Standing up, walking, working, etc. ...

Why does a clearly enlightened monk fall into a well.
...the answer is... It's really dark down here. You can't see anything. ...

Why is only one peak not white in winter?
...the answer is... Get up, say: It's me. ...

How does the Buddha's dharma arise from the supreme way?
...the answer is... sit down. ... ???

How does a cloud on Mt. Godai cook rice?
...the answer is... taste it. Ah, a very good rice. ... ???

How do you walk up a mountain road with 99 curves?
...the answer is... walk very slowly ... ???

Make mount Fuji take three steps. How?
...the answer is... walk three steps ... ???

Why are the thousand mountains covered with snow?
...the answer is... brush the snow from your sleeves ... ???

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4. Water challenges Person "I"


"I" knows water can be dangerous, useful, pleasant, friendly, like a living being. Human imagination uses water as religious symbol (baptism) or as a philosophical example.
Zen Koans refer to these human water-fantasies.
"Looking in a well a man without shadow is drawing water."
Water is water. A Person's body has to deal with it. Not thinking.
"Draw some water with your hands" is a good body action to answer the Koan.

Pick up a stone from 10000m deep in the ocean with dry hands.
...the answer is... dive into the water and get it ... ???

The bridge flows, the water is motionless. Why?
...the answer is... lean over the railing of a bridge. ... ???

It cannot get dry.
...the answer is... cry ...

It cannot get wet. It cannot get dry. What is it?
...the answer is... show the palm of your hand, then turn it ... ???

What's written on the stone 10000 meter deep in the ocean?
...the answer is... say your name ... ???

Slowly wade in the creek. What's its sound?
...the answer is... walk in water ... ???

Looking in a well a man without shadow is drawing water. Why?
...the answer is... Draw some water with your hands ... ???

How do you stop a sailing boat?
...the answer is... move your body like a sailing boat ... ???

It cannot get wet.
...the answer is... shake your head ...

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Zen koans Koan: Who are you?





5. Animals and Plants, Person "I" deals with


Humans like all animals and plants are living beings. There's no superiority.
There are lots of rules how Buddhists should treat animals and plants. Buddhists have to know what beings may be eaten, which ones to protect.
The Koan "While walking you're riding a buffalo" seems to refer to one of these rules.
To find a Koan answer, have a look what a Person dealing with a buffalo does.
"Hitting with a stick" to keep the buffalo going. That's it.

While walking you're riding a buffalo. How?
...the answer is... Hit the buffalo with a stick. ... ???

Freely watch birds and sketch their many tracks.
...the answer is... zig-zag with your finger in the air ... ???

Does a dog in heaven piss in front of a Buddha shrine?
...the answer is... Go down on hands and knees, lift one leg like a pissing dog. ... ???

Why is the edge of a water chestnut sharp, sharper than an awl?
...the answer is... No, no, no, NO ... ???

Why is the lotus leaf round, round like a mirror?
...the answer is... Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES. ... ???

What's the final purpose of your way through grass?
...the answer is... Beat a path through high grass. ... ???

Is it the moon the coral branches reflect?
...the answer is... Sing like a bird sitting in wonderful sunshine ...

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Zen koans Buddha makes a Koan

6. The universe and theories Person "I" knows


Most cultures are interested in the universe and theories of all kind. Zen is not.
How the stars in heaven are moving or where thunder comes from, priests and scientists try to find out.
Zen Koan "How do you put on a shirt of empty sky?" raises deep metaphysical questions, for a long time "I" could try to ponder for.
A Zen Person answers these questions randomly or understands them literally, like a child.
The Person just puts on a shirt. Done.

Count the stars in Heaven. Tell me their number!
...the answer is... point upwards and count one, two, three ... ???

Put out the stars in the sky.
...the answer is... switch off a lamp ... ???

How do you put on a shirt of empty sky?
...the answer is... put on a shirt ... ???

Does a hairsbreath difference equals the distance between heaven and earth
...the answer is... hearing the bird, the voice etc. ...

How do you save a ghost?
...the answer is... care for the baby on your arm ... ???

The principle of Zen is complete freedom. Why?
...the answer is... walk around, sing ... ???

All is under the law of change. Why?
...the answer is... in the morning it was raining now the sun's bright. ... ???

What's your place in karma?
...the answer is... cry like a newborn baby. ... ???

What is the true name of the Diamond Sutra?
...the answer is... Hit your body with your fist: this is it! ...

Why is the way intrinsically already accomplished?
...the answer is... There, see, those mountains, these trees, this ground, that wall ...


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