Mumonkan Koans - Introduction
48 Koan Questions - 48 Koan Answers
Koan: Who are you?
The Wumen Guang (jap. Mumonkan) is a text-book of Buddhism with 48 stories about the world-view of Chan (jap. Zen) in 13th century China.
Master Wumen HuiKai's (jap. Mumon) stories are some kind of riddles, most Zen students have to solve until today.
Unlike the short,
undated, ancient Koans,
Wumen's stories, the Guang, are about Chinese Master who lived between 5th and 12th century in different parts of China.
You find a list of these stories, called "Koans" in Japan, at the right hand side further down the page. Just click on some of them to see some Koans and their answers! Strange aren't they?
Wumen's text-book of Chan Buddhism was hardly used in China although it had the approval of the emperor. When the book came to Japan in 13th century it was called "Mumonkan" but again only valued for some decades. As late as in early 18th century the Mumonkan became an important text in Japanese Zen education.
Box one: Guang - the World-View of Chinese Chan Buddhism
The world-view of Chinese Buddhism is simple and uncomplicated to learn by answering Wumen's Guang-riddles.
Second Koan answer
Although, on first glace they are not at all simple but sound rather complicated. They refer to old Chinese folk stories, to Buddhist theory and the meaning of rituals, etc. They sometimes contradict each other, sometimes they are mysterious or lack common sense.
But read Wumen's riddles like a child and react on them in this way. A child takes the world for granted. Every"thing" is simple, and if it's not, it's made simple. Every"thing" has a name. That's it.
A child won't understand most of Wumen's complicated stories. But very often there's a detail, a child would like to keep in mind, a plant, an animal, something to cry or something to laugh.
The Buddhist mind in Chinese Chan expresses itself in a playful simplicity.
The teachings of the Buddha, scientific knowledge, history and culture are not essential.
Explore the simple Chan-Buddhist world-view. It's the medieval Chinese way to enlightenment!
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The 48 Koans of Master Wumen HuiKai (jap. "Mumon")
Click on the title to see question and answer.
Click on the number to see the full Koan-page.
1 Joshu's Dog
Has a dog Buddhanature or not? Joshu shout's MU!
2 Hyakujo's Fox
Does an enlightened person fall under the law of causation or not?
3 Gutei's Finger
Hyakujo said: "The enlightened person is one with the law of causation."
Howl like a little fox: juiiii juiii !
Master Gutei cut off a boy's finger.
Why was the boy enlightend, when Gutei called him and raised his finger?
4 Beardless Bodhidharma
"Ow, ow, my finger! Ow, ow, ow."
Why has Bodhidharma no beard?
5 Kyogen's Man in a Tree
Stroke your beard.
A man clinging on a tree branch with his teeth is asked:
Why did Bodhidharma from India to China?"
6 Buddha Twirls a Flower
Acting: Swinging like hanging from the tree. Falling down, dying.
Buddha twirled a flower. Only MahaKashyapa smiled. Why made him Buddha his successor?
7 Joshu's Wash your Bowl
Hold up a flower.
Monk: Please teach me! Joshu: Have you had your porridge? Monk: Yes master. Joshu: Wash your bowl!
8 Keichu's Wheel
Wash a dirty dish.
Keichu made a cart. Each wheel had 50 spokes. If you remove the wheels and every thing else. What does it tell about Keichu?
9 A Buddha before History
Drive a car. Toot, toot!
Asked, why Daitsu, a Buddha before history, didn't realize the truth, Seijo said: "Because he did not."
10 Seizei Alone and Poor
Get up, do something, work, dress.
Seizei said, I'm alone and poor. Master Sozan, please give me a donation!
Sozan shouted: Seizei! Seizei said: Yes, sir? "You drank lots of wine", Sozan said, "and pretend you had none!"
11 Joshu Examines two Hermits
"Hallo, where are you?"
Johu asked a hermit: What's up? The hermit raised his fist. Joshu said: "Schallow water!" and went to see a second hermit. What's up? The hermit raised his fist. "Fully enlightened!", Joshu said.
12 Zuigan Calls Himself Master
Raise your fist.
Zuigan called himself daily: "Master!" and answered himself: "Yes, Sir!" And added: "Awake, awake!" and answered: "Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!" Said:
"Don't be decieved by others!" "Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!"
13 Tokusan Holds His Bowl
Shout: "Master! Master!" and answer "Yes!"
Tokusan with his bowl went to dinner too early. A monk told Ganto about it and said: "Old Tokusan doesn't know the last word yet." What is the last word?
14 Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two
Nansen hold up a cat. "If anybody can say a word of Zen, you save the cat." Silence. Nansen cut the cat in two. Why placed Obaku his sandles on his head when he later heard about the cat?
15 Tozan's Three Blows
Crying out like a dying cat. Place your shoes on your head and go.
Ummon said to Tozan : "You should get three beatings, but I spare you." Next day Tozan asked: "Why did you spare me three beatings"? Ummon scolded him.
Why was Tozan suddenly enlightened?
16 Bells and Robes
Walk around, crying out: "Ow, ow, ow".
Unmon said, "The world is vast and wide.
Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?"
17 The Three Calls Of The Emperor's Teacher
Put on a shirt.
Kokushi, called his attendant, Oshin, three times and three times Oshin answered, "Yes!" Kokushi said, "I thought I had deserted you, but in reality, you deserted me."
18 Tozan's Three Pounds of Flax
Shout and call yourself. Answering yourself: Yes, Sir!
A monk asked Tozan, "What is the Buddha?"
Tozan answered, "Masagin!" (Three pounds of flax) What does it mean?
19 Everyday Life Is The Path
Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the Way?" Nansen answered, "Your ordinary mind--that is the Way."
Today I went the road from [name of a town] to [name of another town].
20 The Enlightened Man
Shogen said,"Why is it that a man of strength cannot lift up his own legs?" He added: "It is not with our tongue that we speak."
Go around and talk a bit.
21 Dried Dung
A monk asked Ummon: "What is Buddha?"
Ummon answered him: "Dried dung."
22 Kashyapa's Preaching Sign
Ananda asked Kashyapa, "The Buddha gave you the golden robe; did he give you anything else?"
"Ananda!" cried Kashyapa. "Yes , Sir!" answered Ananda.
"Knock down the flagpole at the Gate," Kashyapa said.
23 Do Not Think Good, Do Not Think Not-Good
Call your self! Say: "Yes, Sir!"
Eno was pursued by Monk Emyo. Eno laid robe and bowl on a rock. Eno said: "Take it". But Emyo couldn't lift it.
Eno asked: What is the original face of monk Emyo?
24 Without Words, Without Silence
Run and sweat.
A monk asked Fuketsu: "Without speaking, without silence, how can you express the truth?"
Fuketsu said: "I always remember spring-time and birds in southern China."
25 Kyozan Preaching in a Dream
Sing a little, like a bird.
In a dream Kyozan went to Maitreya's and was asked to preach. Kyozan hit the gavel and said: "The truth of Mahayana is above words and thought! Listen, listen!"
26 Two Monks Roll Up The Blinds
Hit with a hammer.
Hogen came and pointed to the blinds. Two monks rolled them up.
Why did Hogen say: "One has it, the other not."
27 It Is Not Mind, It Is Not Buddha, It Is Not Things
Just roll up a blind.
"Is there any teaching no master has ever preached before?" Nansen replied, "Yes, there is."
"What is it?" Nansen said, "It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not things."
28 Blow Out The Candle
Push against: "this wall". Point to "that mountain", to "those trees".
Tokusan said:"it's dark".
Ryotan lit a candle and gave it to Toksan.
Why was Tokusan enlightened when Ryotan blew out the candle?
29 Not The Wind, Not The Flag
Blow out the candle.
"The wind is moving the temple flag", one monk said. The other said: "Just the flag is moving". Eno said: "Neither moves. Your mind is moving."
30 This Mind Is Buddha
Move like a flapping flag.
Daibai asked Baso: "What is Buddha?"
Baso said: "This mind is Buddha."
31 Joshu Investigates an Old Woman
Today I feel tired.
Asked for the way to Taizan an old woman always said, "Go straight ahead."
Joshu, investigating her, got the same answered.
Coming back, Joshu said: "I've investigated the woman for you."
32 A Philosopher Asks Buddha
A philosopher said to the Buddha:“I do not ask for words, I
do not ask for no-words.”
The Buddha just sat in silence. The phillosopher praised him, and left.
33 Baso's Not Mind, Not Buddha
Just sit in silence.
A monk asked Baso, "What is Buddha?"
Baso answered, "No mind, no Buddha."
34 Nansen's Knowledge is not The Way
I'm tired this morning.
Nansen said: "Mind is not Buddha. Knowledge is not the way."
35 Two Souls
I know it was raining yesterday.
Goso asked his monks, "Seijo's higher soul separated from her being. Which was the real Seijo?"
36 Meeting A Master On The Road
Hallo, nice to meet you.
Goso said, "When you meet a master, do not meet him with words or in silence. Tell me, how will you meet him?"
37 The Oak Tree In The Garden
Going and say: "good morning!"
A monk asked Joshu: What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming to China?"
Joshu said, "The oak tree in the front garden."
38 A Buffalo Passes Through The Window
Stand up and move like a tree.
Goso said, "A water buffalo passes through the window lattice; the head, horns, and four hoofs go past. Why can't the tail pass too?"
39 Ummon's Trapped in Words.
Wag your little finger like a tail.
"The brilliant light silently illuminates the whole univers and.."
Unmon interupted, "Aren't those the words of Choetsu the Genius?"
"Yes, they are", the monk answered.
Ummon said, "You are trapped in words!"
40 Tipping Over A Water Jug
Good morning, master!
Hyakujo put water jar on the floor and said, "You cannot call it a water jar. Then, what will you call it?" The chief monk said, "One cannot call it a wooden stump." Master Hyakujo turned to Isan, Isan kicked the jar over and walked away.
41 Bodhidharma Pacifies The Mind
kick over a jug.
Eka, the Second Patriarch, asked Bodhidharma:"Please, pacify my mind." Dharma said, "Bring your mind and I will pacify it."
Eka: "I searched everywhere, but I can't get hold of it."
Dharma: "Now your mind is pacified."
42 The Girl Comes Out From Meditation
Searching, searching. ("Where is the mind?")
A woman sits in meditation close to the Buddha. The sage Manjusri, walks around her three times and snips his finger to wake her up. He can't.
Why is Mo-myo, who comes from the sands of the ganges, wakes her up by snipping his finger?
43 Shuzan's Short Staff
Momyo lives a normal life and can do normal things. Don't live as a sage!
Master Shuzan held up his short staff. "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Tell me immediately, what is it?
44 Basho's Staff
The short staff.
Basho taught his disciples, "If you have a staff, I will give it to you. If you have no staff, I will take it from you!"
45 Who Is He?
Throw something away.
Hoen said, "Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya are his servants.
Who is he?"
46 Step Forward from fhe Top of the Pole
Call yourself by your name and answer: "Yes, Sir!"
"How do you step forward from the top of a one hundred meter pole?"
47 First Gate Of Tosotsu
Pushing aside the grass and explore Zen is simply a way to see your true nature. Now quickly, where is your nature?
47 Second Gate Of Tosotsu
With your hands push the long grass out of your way.
If you realize your true nature, you are free from life and death. How can you free yourself from life and death?
47 Third Gate Of Tosotsu
Fall to the ground, dying in pain.
Free from birth and death your body separates into the four elements. Where will you go now?
48 Kembo's One Road To Nirvana
I think I'll have a cup of coffee.
Kembo was asked "There is only one road to Nirvana. Where is this road?"
Kembo with his staff drew a line. "Here it is!"
Mit dem Finger einen Strich ziehen.
Box two: In Japan playful Chinese Chan became mystical Zen
In 13th century the Japanese Master Dogen studied with Wumen in China and brought with him a copy of the Wumen's Guang book. It became known in Japan as "Mumonkan". Dogen worked with them the Chinese way.
Third Koan answer
Later Dogens approach was ignored. Japanese Master mystified the world-view of Chan. "Enlightenment"
became a spiritual experience, a religious revelation only achievable for Buddhists priests.
In 18th century Hakuin revived the Koan practice. By hiding the punch-line of the riddles, their mystification was increased and a "solution" (answer) has to be found.
Todays Zen made the process of answering Koans a ritual. The mystical Koan answer has to be "seen through", its a "spiritual experience" when approved by a master.
The Chinese purpose of Wumen's collection to train a simple and undisturbed mind-set is gone. To clear the mind from all unnecessary worldly theories and complications etc. is still appreciated but only as it's explained your teacher.
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Box three: Find a Koan solution by yourself!
For each Koan riddle you find an answer on the right hand side. If that's all you're looking for, you're done.
It's quite another story, if you are with a Zen-teacher who want's you to "work" on Koans.
If you use one of the answers of this site, it may not work.
Fourth Koan answer
But there are many answers for a Koan question not only one.
But how to find another Koan answer?
Just a short guide.
All of Wumen's riddles basically ask the same question: Who are you?
That's neither a philosophical nor a every-day-life question. That made it so difficult in mediavial times.
Today we know everybody is the result of evolution and her genetic code.
Everybody's code is unique, inherited from parents and grandparents, grand-grandparents and further down in history and evolution.
Your code even shares some genes with animals, with plants and other forms of live.
Genes are made from non-living material, that connects us to this planet, to the universe.
Fifth Koan answer
Sometimes "you" are an animal, a cow, jumping through window, a crazy fox, a dog barking MUUU or a cat, cut in two.
Sometimes "you" are changed into a tree, a wooden stick or a flower.
These "things" represent "you" in the Koan-story. Do what's told about "you" in the story. That's it.
Zen teacher traditionally reject any Koan-answer you give.
Don't bother about that.
This changes only after you're "exhausted" by your "desparate" efforts.
It needs a bit of "training" to show a convincing mindset of "desparation". Do it emotionally! Crying is helpful.
Play the encounter as slapstick. Be creative, alive.
Be careful. Don't forget, Zen-teacher need to stay on top of the food-chain, poor guys.
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Box four: The presentation of the Koans cases
The number and the headline of each case comes first.
The Koan-question is the core of every Koan. It's on top of the Koan picture.
The pictures caption is the Koan answer.
Last Koan answer
Each Koan is presented in five parts.
The first part is a short explanation of the Koan answer.
The second part is the background story. Sometimes the background is part of the Koan itself. Sometimes the background story comes from other sources.
The third part is a different, more literal translation of the Koan, closer to the original with Chinese names for places and people.
This translation is often helpful to better understand the meaning and the social context of a Koanstory.
The fourth part provides Wumens commentary to the Koan, again in two English translations.
One from the Japanese translation, the other closer to the Chinese original.
Each Koan has a Poem (Gata) which are in the fifth part, a gata in Japanese translation and a gata closer to the original Chinese text.
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Box five: How to find a Koan of Mumonkan?
Go to List of all Mumonkan Cases
Go to Ancient Zen Koans
Go to Zen Riddles
Return to Home Page from Mumonkan
There're several ways to find a Koan you're interested in.
The easiest is, to go down the list of Koan headlines on the right hand side.
If you find an interesting one. Just click on it and the Koan question as well as its answer is available for you.
If you want more information click the number of a Koans and you'll see the full Koan-page.
Koan: Who are you?
If you want to find a specific Koan and you know it's number, just go there.
All Koans are in their traditional numerical order.
For all Koans is more information available.
Click the number of a Koans and you'll see the full Koan-page.
Today's Zen is Japanese Zen. Chinese Chan Buddhism isn't alive any more.
Therefore Japanes Names of Masters and places are used in the list of Koans.
The Chinese names and an English translations of the full Koan-text can be found at the extended versions of each of Mumons Koans.
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