Koans are Catalysts

Koans (KO-ahns) are paradoxical questions and stories that defy our usual, heavily conditioned approach to answering questions using thought and words.

The answer gained through the understanding of the koan is not expressed in thought or words, but there is an answer.

Koans are used in both the Soto and Rinzai branches of Zen Buddhism, with each taking a different approach to koan engagement:

  • In the Rinzai school, koans are used directly in study and introspection during Zazen (sitting). What is realized is not knowledge, but insight – insight into the nature of reality.
  • In the Soto school, students generally do not engage in koan introspection during zazen, as their focus is on shikantaza.

Teachers in both schools often present koans in formal talks to students.  Here is one that ties directly to experiencing and understanding “Right here, right now”:

Ordinary Mind is The Way

Main Case

The Student asks the Master, “What is the Way?”

Master: “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

Student: “Shall I try to direct myself toward it?”

Master: “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you will move away from it.”

Student: “If I don’t try, how will I know it’s the Way?”

Master: “The Way is not concerned with knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion; not knowing is blank consciousness. If you truly arrive at the Great Way of no trying, it will be like great emptiness, vast and clear. How can we speak of it in terms of affirming or negating?”

The Student immediately realized the profound teaching.


Ordinary mind is perfect and complete. It is self-contained and self-fulfilling and is its own accomplishment. Since it existed before the kalpa of emptiness, it cannot be attained.

Since it transcends time and space, it is always in the eternal present. This ordinary mind is the dharma of each moment of existence—it has no before or after.

Capping Verse

The enlightened and the deluded all live in its presence.
Move toward it, and the sickness is increased.
Describe it,
and you miss its reality.

Podcast by Jeffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi