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The Lighter Side

The Zen Koan

By Christopher Caile

Quite a number of students in our karate organization have also studied Zen. A good friend of mine and a very senior instructor in New Zealand is quite serious about his study. Over many years he has visited a local Zen monastery regularly.

As part of this study in addition to his normal meditation, the Zen Master (Roshi) would give his students a Koan to contemplate. Koans are short, perplexing, nonsensical statements on which students meditate and try to decipher. They are not something understood by the logical mind or reason. Instead they require a leap to another level of comprehension, the realm of insight and intuition. Perhaps the best known example of a Koan is the statement: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The goal of Koan study is to force students to break through to enlightened vision. Overall there are hundreds of Koans that are in standard use. After much contemplation, each student is challenged to demonstrate his own solution to the Koan to his master in a private one-on-one session. If solved, often a new Koan is given to the student for contemplation.

My friend in New Zealand told me that he had been contemplating a particular Koan for months. It was incomprehensive. It didn’t make sense and trying to come to some answer drove him crazy. What answer to the Koan would he give his Roshi? He had no idea. So, he redoubled his contemplation.

Finally it was time to meet with his teacher – to go to the monastery and enter into his private interview. These short sessions can be very intense, intimate and hugely difficult, for the student’s level of comprehension, and the progress of his or her study, is revealed by the response.

The student was with his teacher, face to face. The Roshi asked the inevitable question about the meaning of the Koan. The student struggled. He wasn’t coherent. He desperately tried to say something, but the Roshi cut in and said, “Don’t tell me, show me!”

From somewhere deep inside, the student responded. He let out a huge kiah (shout) while he executed a fast punch which stopped only a fraction of an inch from the nose of the Roshi. The Roshi didn’t even blink or flinch. He just sat there looking at the punch. Then after a few seconds the Roshi’s only response was: “Right answer, wrong Koan.”

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Christopher Caile is the founder and Editor of

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