Koans (chinese: kung-an, korean: Kong-an, means “public case”) have their origin in the records of encounters between Zen practitioners in ancient China. Koans are probably best known for the unusual, seemingly non-rational quality of their questions, language and dialogues, and are not meant to be studied, analyzed or approached conceptually. The koan is a tool that helps us to return to our don’t-know-mind so that we can only clearly perceive and function. It is an essential part of Zen practice.
Joju once asked Master Nam Cheon, “What is the true way?”
Nam Cheon replied, “Everyday mind is the true way.”
“Then should I try to keep it or not?”
Nam Cheon said, “If you try to keep it, you are already mistaken.”
“If I do not try to keep it, how can I understand the true way?”
Nam Cheon replied, “The true way is not dependent on understanding or not understanding. Understanding is illusion; not understanding is blankness. If you completely attain the true way of not thinking, it is like space, clear and void. So why do you make right and wrong?”
Joju heard that, and got enlightenment. What did Joju attain?
Often, Zen students want to “keep it”. That is a big mistake. Zen means when you are doing something, just do it. You already know that understanding is illusion. Don’t be attached to your understanding! Correct practice means “How does your understanding get digested and become wisdom?” That is true everyday mind.
So why make kong-ans? Since everybody understands too much, we must use understanding medicine. What did Joju attain? If you open your mouth, it’s already a mistake. But if you are not thinking, the answer is pure and clear, always in front of you.
Zen master Seung Sahn