Mumonkan Koans - Introduction

48 Koan Questions - 48 Koan Answers

the person
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.

first snippet
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

2 Hyakujo's Fox

3 Gutei's Finger

4 Beardless Bodhidharma

5 Kyogen's Man in a Tree

6 Buddha Twirls a Flower

7 Joshu's Wash your Bowl

8 Keichu's Wheel

9 A Buddha before History

10 Seizei Alone and Poor

11 Joshu Examines two Hermits

12 Zuigan Calls Himself Master

13 Tokusan Holds His Bowl

14 Nansen Cuts the Cat in Two

15 Tozan's Three Blows

16 Bells and Robes

17 The Three Calls Of The Emperor's Teacher

18 Tozan's Three Pounds of Flax

19 Everyday Life Is The Path

20 The Enlightened Man

21 Dried Dung

22 Kashyapa's Preaching Sign

23 Do Not Think Good, Do Not Think Not-Good

24 Without Words, Without Silence

25 Kyozan Preaching in a Dream

26 Two Monks Roll Up The Blinds

27 It Is Not Mind, It Is Not Buddha, It Is Not Things

28 Blow Out The Candle

29 Not The Wind, Not The Flag

30 This Mind Is Buddha

31 Joshu Investigates an Old Woman

32 A Philosopher Asks Buddha

33 Baso's Not Mind, Not Buddha

34 Nansen's Knowledge is not The Way

35 Two Souls

36 Meeting A Master On The Road

37 The Oak Tree In The Garden

38 A Buffalo Passes Through The Window

39 Ummon's Trapped in Words.

40 Tipping Over A Water Jug

41 Bodhidharma Pacifies The Mind

42 The Girl Comes Out From Meditation

43 Shuzan's Short Staff

44 Basho's Staff

45 Who Is He?

46 Step Forward from fhe Top of the Pole

47 First Gate Of Tosotsu

47 Second Gate Of Tosotsu

47 Third Gate Of Tosotsu

48 Kembo's One Road To Nirvana

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.

Person I - child
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.

Person I - child
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.

Person I
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.

Person I - finish
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?

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.

the person
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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Go to List of all Mumonkan Cases

Go to Ancient Zen Koans

Go to Zen Riddles

Return to Home Page from Mumonkan