'Those who speak don't know, those who know don't speak.' (Zen aphorism)

Lots of posts on SE Buddhism seem to hover around the question 'what is your original face', or 'what is Buddha' etc. It shouldn't be so difficult to answer these questions straightforwardly with a sentence or two, so why is it that teachers (who supposedly know) tend not to?

  • 1
    There's a joke, where a computer is built to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. After millions of years, the computer finally finds the answer: 42. Unfortunately, no one knows what the 'ultimate question' actually is, so the answer is useless. – DaaaahWhoosh Apr 25 '17 at 14:33
  • Actually, the question is finally revealed in the 4th book of the book trilogy that contains that joke. "What is 9x6?" IIRC. – Jeff Wright Apr 25 '17 at 14:58
  • 1
    That's a koan-puter for you. – user2341 Apr 29 '17 at 19:25
  • 1
    @Jeff 7x6!?!?!?! – kame May 7 '17 at 17:38
  • @kame - exactly so, grasshopper. Exactly so. :-) – Jeff Wright May 8 '17 at 18:40

Because the question is supposed to "point directly at your mind" like the finger pointing at the moon. The answer could not do better. In fact, you learn more from trying to solve an apparent contradiction. If anything, you learn at least that you are frustrated over not getting it. What matters most is not the object (a koan, a hua tou) but how you hold it in mind, what it does to your mind, how you try to make sense of it, etc.

The funny thing is that we are so habituated to run after external objects and dive into them that it is difficult to look inward. A proof is that we are more concerned with the object (the koan) than we are with our mind. We forget to pay attention to what our experience tells us, not of the object we experience, but our mind that experiences. Because of this, we know little of the mind, including our own. It is easy to recognize a tree when we see one; it is way more difficult to recognize attachment, anger, belligerence, spite, etc. when they arise in our continuum because we seldom look inward, we are not familiarized with it.

As far I understand, the point with Hua tou and Koan is rather to stay with it and learn from how you relate to it. For instance, why is it that contradictions make you unsettled? How do you relate to frustration? Does frustration even arise when you try to solve a case? What makes you think it has to be solved? How do you try to make sense of things?

In Vipassana, some do what they call "meditation with an anchor" (the anchor often being the breath). Here, it is quiet similar. You learn a great deal by trying to stay with an object such as a Hua Tou. You learn why it is difficult to stay with it, why you lose it over and over again, etc. So it is not the answer that matter much.

Kazuaki Tanahashi 's introduction to Dogen's Shobogenzo is quiet informative and very enjoyable. But then, I am not that qualified when it comes to anything different from Tibetan Buddhism.

  • This is similar to other explanations I've heard, although the texts have a somewhat different account of the way koans operate (I wouldn't really know, as my tradition is Soto Zen, and we don't use koans in the strict way that Rinzai does). – user10515 Apr 25 '17 at 18:34

Answers are written in plain language in plain sight in books you can buy anywhere and may already own. Sometimes we miss the underlying sense of a sentence because the subtlety is hard to grasp. But no one is hiding anything from you.

What began to make me personally understand a lot more was thinking about the five skandhas after reading D.T. Suzuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism.

And funnily enough, the first time I experienced an 'aha!' moment was looking at a tree outside while listening to the Gospel of John. Notice how both Jesus and Buddha talk about seeds?

  • I don't recall what Jesus said about seeds, although I like the gospels very much. – user10515 Apr 25 '17 at 14:01
  • 1
    "By their fruits ye shall know them." – user2341 Apr 29 '17 at 20:07

Now a good report of Master Gotama has been spread to this effect: 'That Blessed One is such since he is arahant and fully self enlightened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparable teacher of men to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened, blessed. He describes this world with its gods, its Maras, and its (Brahma) Divinities, this generation with its monks and brahmans, with its kings and its people, which he has himself realized through direct knowledge. He teaches a Dhamma that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end with (the right) meaning and phrasing, he affirms a holy life that is utterly perfect and pure.

Is the stock description of 'the' Buddha. It has terms that likely need to be further defined - fully self enlightened, Dhamma - that will likely have even more terms that need to be defined, but overall the above should do the trick. 'What is Buddha' asks a question looking for something closer to Essence imo, and that's not really within the Dhamma.

"What is your original face" I am not sure about! Reading about it a little, if it hints towards dependent origination, then it's an insight into the fact that 'I hit you with a stick' is mirrored by 'You are hit with a stick, by me'. Subject depends on object and object depends on subject - there is no event that can be described within the world that is not subject to this. If it is to do with some notion of an eternal self when the mind is fully stilled, it is again not part of the Dhamma, as it is wrong view, Brahmajala Sutta for 'eternal', Mulapariyaya Sutta for 'Self'. The experience of Nibbana - the end of mental fabrications - is unconditioned, so 'original', 'eternal' or even 'self' would not be accurate.

  • It's from Zen, so it's pointing at the actual fact (yourself, what is), rather than asking a question about doctrine. We say you should 'kill the Buddha' (if you meet him on the road) to stop yourself mistaking words for truth :) – user10515 Apr 27 '17 at 7:51
  • 2
    Thanks.. I prefer to say language is limited if discussing the limited nature of language - then a rational debate can start with those who don't accept such a statement. Wrong livelihood in MN117 includes the act of hinting, which esoteric concepts like koan tend to employ - they may work for those who know, but for those who don't, they are mere words. Surely, if you wish to make a point, to the broadest audience possible, in the most convincing way possible - you speak with clear meaning. – Ilya Grushevskiy Apr 27 '17 at 8:12
  • Pointing to the ineffable, using conceptual constructs like language can also be done clearly: "Whatever is dependently arisen is unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, not permanent, not coming, not going, without distinction, without identity, and free from conceptual construction." is a good one. – Ilya Grushevskiy Apr 27 '17 at 8:20
  • 1
    I take your point, but I prefer imagery. – user10515 Apr 27 '17 at 8:53
  • 1
    Someone said that the only qualities of God that can be spoken are negative qualities (what God is not), and your list is a good illustration of this kind of explanation. Sometimes the 'not' list is a lot shorter, like saying that a prime number has no divisors. – user2341 Apr 29 '17 at 20:13

Because the mind is like the stream, the width of it dictated the water capacity. Normal mind runs on intellect, a PhD, or common genius mind like certain mathematician scoring IQ 200 is just that the current of the stream is swifer, not the capacity enhanced. With Koan the Huatou the mind is stuck for the questions are crazy, nonsensical. Working on it rigoriously but trapped, forced the mind evetually breaks through the intellect confinement thus really "upgraded", realized the beyond the frontier veiled by the five senses and intellect-Mind. Like the water breaks up the bank and flooding. Hence when the great master of ancient enlightened, none of them wrote down a correct answer to any Huatou, instead, most wrote poems (and a true teacher was able to see if the student really arrived by reading the poem) which are none to do with the question. So don't be fooled by the questions ;) thinking they must be so sophisticated, no. But yes, also, they have the power to trap/engulf a brilliant mind.

These have a lot to do with the "magic" the Chinese this unique language. I really doubt the same favour could be preserved when working with other language. Japanese is kind of exceptional because in ancient time until Song Dynasty of China, Japan, Korea was adopting Chinese. Thus their tradition of Ch'an Koan was a Chinese language version. Language, an accomplished teacher who knew where the student reached, is the key. I doubt nowadays where these could be found.


The best way to answer the specific question would be to not answer it at all, but since this site is about instant information, I will go on.

If you get the information from someone or something outside of yourself, you only get the data, if you ponder it in your own mind, you gain insight and the answer is truly yours.

Koans are specific instruments to help you learn, not just receive information.

  • Ha ha, maybe we should just post Questions on this site and not Answers? (that's a question) (let's see if he answers it or not) (Zen teacher would slap him if he did) (or didn't) – user2341 Apr 29 '17 at 20:05

Actually the teacher has already told us the answer, but due delusions and obscurations, we cannot see the answer. Just like if there are clouds, one can never see the sky.


Because it is so difficult to answer these questions in a straightforward manner with only a sentence or two.

  • Or even 100,000 sentences, in some cases. – user2341 Apr 29 '17 at 20:14

Because, human can only gain WISDOM by tackling problems, having experience and getting answers afterwards.

Getting answers is useless for many questions without having experience.

Tell me a single teacher who is teaching without being a student.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy