Koan

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Doctor Lao: Do you know what wisdom is?
Mike: No, sir.

Doctor Lao: Wise answer.

A pithy saying used as a type of verbal Logic Bomb meant to short-circuit logical thinking and force the listener into deep contemplation outside of the framework of words. While the term is from Zen Buddhism, similar logic-breaking aphorisms exist in other mystical and non-mystical traditions as well.

A superficial or poorly considered epigram of this type runs the risk of becoming an Ice Cream Koan. Has nothing to do with the Sailor Moon character of the same name.

Not to be confused with a kaon or K-meson, a subatomic particle.

Contrast Puff of Logic. See also Meditation Powerup.

Examples of koans


  • If you think you're free, there's no escape possible.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
  • Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.
  • Before enlightenment - chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment - chop wood, carry water.
  • If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
  • The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?
    • The Temple of the Ancients.
    • Or you can make new words from your larynx once you need to use them again, just as one makes a a new fish trap or rabbit snare when one needs to use them again.
  • A student asked the master, "What is Buddha?" The master said;
    • "Three pounds of flax."
    • "The cypress tree in the courtyard."
    • Nothing, instead, he slapped the student.
    • Boot to the head.
  • A student asked the master, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?" The master replied, "Mu."
    • "Mu", as in: neither yes or no. In common parlance: "Meh."
      • It also may be a pun in the original Chinese, where it's pronounced "Wu", which could be interpreted as "Woof".
    • This would be a perfect opportunity to koan right back at them by giving the Mathematician's Answer of "Yes".
    • It can also mean "Unask the question", saying the question is meaningless.
    • If you're a computer programmer, "NULL" would be a good translation.
      • The use of koans relating to programming is a LISP tradition. It would eval to NIL
      • And if you're Joey Tribiani, it's a cow's opinion.
  • How long has it been since someone touched part of you other than your body?
  • A student confronted the master in his study and asked him "How can you teach people to speak spiritual freedom when you keep your pet bird in a cage?" The master opened the cage door and the bird flew out the window, never to be seen again. The master said "That bird is now free. You owe me a bird."
  • Matthew 8:21-22 contains an example of a Christian koan, "A disciple said to Jesus [before they embark], "Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' Jesus said, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.' "
    • This may be a case of using multiple meanings of the same word: the unsaved are spiritually dead, as the disciple's father was physically dead. The dead guy was probably also spiritually dead, hence the "their own."
    • Additionally, "Bury my father" almost certainly meant "wait for him to die, bury him, get the inheritance settled, and then maybe follow you a few years from now." This is because Jews buried their dead on the day they died; if his father were dead, the man would have been burying him instead of with Jesus.
  • The (in)famous Principia Discordia employs koans and koan-like passages to deliver lessons about the Discordian belief system, frequently directly riffing on Zen. For example, the Principia states, "Among Zen Buddhists it is said that, 'When you meet another bodhisattva on the road, greet him with neither words nor silence.' This leaves you with a vast selection of barnyard noises from which to choose."
    • Muuuuuuu.
    • Alternatively, a simple handshake will do.
  • While a lot longer than most koans, The Essential Chuang Tzu definitely qualifies with its collections of stories that seem tailored to frustrate the reader by delivering messages in any select chapter that often have little to no connection with each other. Some of them are even unclear on just what message they're intended to convey or go out of their way to subvert or jump up and down on the aesops they appear to be building up to.
  • Chuang Tzu learned from the best. I present to you the opening argument of Dao De Jing, written by his mentor Lao Tzu (a Taoist, but Zen was heavily inspired by Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu):

The Tao (Way) that can be spoken of is not the everlasting (some translations use "true") Tao.
The Ming (Name) that can be named is not the everlasting Ming.

    • The legend of how this book came to be was that Lao Tzu was leaving on a journey (that he ultimately didn't return from) when a fan of his stopped him at the gate and asked him to leave some words for prosperity. Given that context, it's easy to wonder if Lao Tzu was humoring the man or just trolling him. (Then again, Zen Masters aren't above trolling if that's what it takes to reach Enlightenment.)
    • It's probably riffing on the idea that no true philosophy can be described in one word, and if one word can be used to encapsulate it, then that word must be a false representation. The word itself can convey no meaning for the philosophy behind it unless that philosophy is known, and if the philosophy is known, then the word itself is redundant. Surprisingly, this has been a popular idea for centuries, and even Charles Baudelaire tried to deconstruct it (that said, between the alcohol, drugs and sex, he wasn't really that successful at deep philosophical truths that weren't mired in deep revelations about the base horror of humanity).
  • Randomly presented: "The more shallow a person's life is, the deeper it turns out to be."
    • Hence why Paris Hilton has so many fans hanging on her every word.
  • Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
  • There are mild trance-inducing phrases that will turn someone to inner contemplation to figure out what you're talking about while you slip away unnoticed. For example:

Do you believe that you knew what you thought?
Why would you believe something that's not true?
Are you unaware of what you forgot?

Examples of koans in media[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Subverted in The Simpsons; when Lisa repeats the famous 'what is the sound of one hand clapping?' koan, Bart answers by slapping his fingers against his palm.
    • Then played straight afterward, with the equally famous 'if a tree falls in the woods, and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?' – although Lisa has to shoot down Bart's obvious answer with 'how can sound exist if no one's there to hear it?', practically another koan in itself.
    • According to the Discworld novels, the answer is "cl" because the other hand makes the "ap".
    • Continuing the above, the end-all is probably the Armor-Piercing Question clapping against what?
      • In the case of one Discworld guru who had just had a near- Death experience, clapping against the side of The Student's head.
      • "Clap" is onomatopoeia, therefore the sound of one hand clapping, is "clap". Whether or not it is physically possible is irrelevant; if that is what is occurring, hypothetically, then the answer can be just as hypothetical and still be correct.
      • Put out your hand. Eventually, someone will offer a handshake.
  • The Tao of Programming (not to be confused with The Tao of Computing, a book by Henry M. Walker) has been circulating the Internet for years, and recasts many of the better known koans and parables within the context of late 20th-century computing culture:
    • A master programmer passed a novice programmer one day. The master noted the novice's preoccupation with a hand-held computer game. "Excuse me," he said, "may I examine it?"

The novice bolted to attention and handed the device to the master. "I see that the device claims to have three levels of play: Easy, Medium, and Hard," said the master. "Yet every such device has another level of play, where the device seeks not to conquer the human, nor to be conquered by the human."

"Pray, great master," implored the novice, "how does one find this mysterious setting?"

The master dropped the device to the ground and crushed it underfoot. And suddenly the novice was enlightened.

  • From The Jargon File, Tom Knight and the Lisp Machine:
    • A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on. Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: "You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong." Knight turned the machine off and on. The machine worked.
  • Neuromancer is famous for its use of a large number of koans (including some from the Gateless Gate) by a philosophical AI. Some, but not all, are plot-related.
  • In Stargate SG-1 Oma's planet has a monk who speaks entirely in koans.
    • One of the famous ones is "If you know immediately that candlelight is fire, the meal was cooked a long time ago."
      • It isn't actually the full Koan though, it is prefaced with "Because it is so clear, it takes a longer time to realize it," followed by the otherwise meaningless if statement.
    • Oma herself isn't much better. One of them, in fact, becomes a bit of a Running Gag, where someone pretending to be Oma Desala tries to offer an answer...and in so doing, reveals herself as not being Oma.
      • The real Oma shows up again in a Diner in the very next episode:

Daniel: How do I know it's really you?
Oma: How deep is the river if you cannot see the bottom?
Jim: Deeper than the coffee in my cup, I'll tell you that.

  • Hue of Avatar: The Last Airbender said that even when we think people are gone, we're still connected to them: "Time is an illusion, and so is death". However, he seems to think that pants are also an illusion.
    • Iroh is also quite fond of these, as is Guru Pathik.
  • Project Mayhem in Fight Club started based off one simple saying early in the book; "The things you own end up owning you."
    • There's also this haiku:

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave

  • A guest artist filler arc on Sluggy Freelance was titled "The Sluggite Koan." Said koan was actually the title of the first Sluggy Freelance book: "Is It Not Nifty?"
  • The Doctor has a koan-off with a Roman soothsayer in the Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Pompeii".
  • The Vorlons in Babylon 5 seem to be extremely fond of koans. Indeed, Ambassador Kosh seems incapable of speaking in anything else.
    • Are you listening to the music?.
      • The above quote references the episode Deathwalker. To be fair, though, while that time Kosh was probably being meaningless as part of his misdirection (in contrast to the usual, where there is meaning in his crypticism - often lots of it), a few of his lines are worth paying attention to. Certainly his final words to Talia, where he actually comes close to telling her straight what just happened (as straight as a Vorlon will, anyway...). Also, "a stroke of the brush does not guarantee art from the bristles" is very interesting given later revelations about Vorlon philosophy and Kosh's individualism.
  • The Other Wiki has a page of these, adapted to its own problems: The Zen of Wikipedia.
  • Beyond Good and Evil uses "Safe and sound in its shell, the precious pearl is the slave of the currents" as the "secret handshake" of the rebel movement.
  • In a similar vein, Night World has "The Night has a thousand eyes and the Day only one."
  • Speaking of Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for writing a great deal of what amount to koans; his book Twilight of the Idols is composed of almost nothing but pithy one-line aphorisms such as "'All truth is simple.' Is that not doubly a lie?" This is likely intentional; Nietzsche regarded Buddhism as the supreme form of Eastern nihilism, and the problem of Western nihilism was his area of interest.
  • Subverted in the webcomic No Need for Bushido. Blind taoist monk Cho often presents pearls of wisdom such as "Remember that haste makes waste, for the quickest path between two lines is a straight point, but don't leave your keys on the table because dinner will be ready in five minutes."
  • There's one in Ishmael when the narrator first enters the 'classroom': with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?
    • With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?
  • In Final Fantasy Dissidia, the item needed to make each character's final weapon contains a Koan about that character in the description.
  • Mage: The Awakening has a spell called "The Inescapable Question" (overlapping with Armor-Piercing Question) that forces anything the caster says (as long as it is phrased as a question) to force the listener to stop and contemplate its meaning.
  • The original US release of [Final Fantasy IV (as Final Fantasy II) offered one: "Justice is not the only right in this world." Later releases simply had the character in question rhetorically ask, "Some fight for law...some fight for justice. What will you fight for?"
  • Subverted by Broken Koans.
  • In Exalted, the sutras and scriptures associated with the Sidereals always take the form of brief koans involving the Maidens, their patron deities. For example:

The Scripture of Lover and Maiden:
Once, there was a maiden...
...who met a thing outside the world, and there was a beauty to it.
It burned with an unholy wrath that could destroy Creation.
It hated her as much as it loved her.
Its kiss was blood and perfection, for its teeth were sharp.
It offered her power, and with it, hooks to tear her soul.
With care not to burn her fingers, she took it into her life.
"Love is what you make of it," she said.

    • In a similar vein to the Mage example above, there's a spell called Paralyzing Contradiction. It creates a glyph of one of the Ineffable Koans, which makes people stop what they're doing until they find their own answer. Stupid people don't realise there's a puzzle, and are unaffected.
  • In The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, spouting out Koans is practically Hadji's main function in the team. He does this all the time.
  • Satirized brilliantly in the Discworld book Thief of Time:

In the second scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised. a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly: "Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?" Wen considered this for some time, and at last said: "A fish!"
And Clodpool went away, satisfied.

  • In the Nanoha Striker S manga, Nanoha gives her student Subaru following quote to ponder (which she apparently heard from her own Old Master in her trainee days): "To win against an opponent stronger than yourself, you must not be weaker than that opponent." After thinking about it for a while, Subaru arrives to the conclusion that it means the necessity to play your own strengths against the opponent's weaknesses, so if they have just one weakness and many strengths, exploiting the former will still bring you victory. In the end, however, Nanoha never divulges the correct answer... provided, of course, she even knows one herself.
  • in The Fall of Hyperion, that's what humans hear when attempting to communicate with the Technocore Starfish AI's