As human beings, part of our nature is to be the best in whatever it is we do. Our constantly questioning mind is what has helped us evolve through the centuries and is responsible for placing us at the top of the food chain. Since our deepest emotions are buried within the fabric of our constant fluctuating minds, we need a bone to gnaw on to break ourselves from all the chaos, and a Koan which is used in Zen Buddhism does exactly that.
A Koan is referred to as a paradoxical statement that is used by students of Zen Buddhism to meditate or gain spiritual awakening. The Koan system includes many different kinds of Koans with each serving a purpose. While some are meant to point out multiplicity within oneness, others are meant to reveal the oneness of reality.
In a nutshell, the Koan serves as a surgical tool that is used by the practitioner of Zen Buddhism to meditate and delve deeper into their subconscious mind. In the past, both monks and lay practitioners have used Koans to contemplate the meaning of life and its existence. The idea of using a Koan is to unravel the openness of the Zen philosophy, which in other words means, once a problem within the Koan is experienced, the mind becomes free of constraints that hinder spiritual awakening.
Each exercise in Zen Buddhism consists of a Koan which acts both as communication in attaining the Zen experience and as a test of the level of competence in a novice Zen Buddhist practitioner. A classic example of this style is a well-known Koan “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced, listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Sometimes the Koan is set in question-and-answer form, for example, it may be used as a question “What is Buddha?” and the answer, “Three pounds of flax”.
While Zen is not a doctrine that can be grasped easily, that being said, according to the masters of Zen Buddhism teachings, one can reach the state of enlightenment if they try, which is the central teaching of Zen Buddhism. And according to some masters, that can only be achieved by using Koans while meditating. For instance, “Do not mistake the pointing finger for the moon.” This implies that our concepts of life are similar to pointing fingers and are dualistic in nature mainly because they point at some things while leaving out others.
This distinction implies a difference in our thought patterns, which according to the Zen Buddhist teachings, comes from within each and every one of us. In other words, it is something that is self-imposed and keeps us from attaining the peace which comes from freeing one’s self to gain supreme knowledge or Nirvana. In the end, enlightenment is basically, gaining the knowledge that we, in reality, didn’t know what we were talking or thinking about in the first place.