I have a copy of The Iron Flute that I use to study individual kōans, and read the analysis provided. I feel like this provides me with some good insight, but it also feels... backwards.

How are kōans used in modern Buddhism?

Are they intended as teaching aids, where the explanation illustrates one or more principals, or are they intended as puzzles that only sufficiently advanced students should be able to figure out? Or can either strategy (or altogether different strategies) be employed to gainful effect?

2 Answers 2


The way my Zen Master used them (as much as I can pretend to have understood my Zen Master at all!) is to essentially give the person a hint about a particular pathological pattern the person was stuck on. So the koan would always match the elephant in the room that the student was working hard to ignore. The student could then resort to analysis, or simply mull over the koan while going along with the daily activities. In any case, solving the koan required getting an insight into oneself and one's fundamental relationship to the world, as opposed to figuring out some new external fact or gaining an analytical understanding.


I think they are intended to be quite exactly the opposite of the way you are using them. How does one study "one hand clapping"? The concept, I believe, is to get past conceptual thought and lack of conceptual thought. How do you use the mind to get past the mind, since it is part of the problem? The koans are avenues to trick the mind (or perhaps a more useful term is the "Gross Mind") into getting the heck out of the way. Something that is NOT the Gross Mind might then be experienced. That experience might be hard to hold so one may lose the experience. If so, one then uses the meditations (and koans) one has learned to learn how to stabilize that experience. (The more I type, the less this answer makes sense. Sounds like a koan, huh?) Hope this helps.

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