Or must we just count our breaths and repeat the phrase?

I was asked I think "what is your original face" - and I think it's the way / tao, but that's just something that occurred to me, I wrote down on a computer and it seemed alright.

It's not that I want to be a part of some tradition or church, really. But all I got out of counting breaths was a lot of leg pain, somewhat (but not completely) offset with some nice feelings and lots of stuff like this /<<<^^^^^

3 Answers 3


That type of koan is called a breakthrough koan. It is meant to lead to a sudden, initial insight that is direct awareness.

I have heard practice of breakthrough koans described as, "becoming one with the koan", which implies concentrating on it like a mantra.

The insight it leads to is beyond concepts. So by becoming one with the koan, in a flash, you will actually experience "Mu"/tao/the way. As opposed to just conceptualizing it.

Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”

The ox, being conceptual thought, has been transcended; "Mu"

I think it's the way

Don't think. Transcend thinking. That is the way.

edit: Venerable Chong An Sunim explains there are different ways to approach koans. His suggestion is to do regular meditation (e.g., mindfulness of breathing). Sometime later, either while meditating, or just in everyday life, you will have an epiphany in regards to the true meaning of the koan.

  • If the ox is conceptual thought and Zen is the passing beyond it, why can't the tail get through? ;-)
    – user698
    Apr 27, 2015 at 17:35
  • I don't teach koans nor do I work with a koan teacher. With that said, the ox is not real. It represents illusion. The lattice window represents insight. When enough insight happens, illusion is destroyed and the ox transcended. Similar to when people say, "meditate enough and meditation starts to do you." If you visit the link in my comment, Chong An Sunim has a video series explaining the Ox Herding Pictures.
    – user70
    Apr 27, 2015 at 22:07

Say you're learning some complex kind of science, maths, or something, and at the end of the chapter there are some questions. In something like history there might be an essay or something. There's no test, or anything, the problems aren't very realistic. Actually, the causes of World War Two are pretty well known and Pythagoras' theorem well and truly proved for some Millennia, not only is an eighth-grader from rural Colorado unlikely to add anything to that body of knowledge, it's unlikely to be of any use to the eighth-grader in later life, either.

But the authors always tell you how really important it is to do them, and not to cheat, and the students never believe them. The teachers, they say that there's something which isn't the direct object of the exercise which happens if you do them. Not only can you recite bits of important texts for the test, but you really get the idea. You can tell the difference between a kid who's memorised a textbook and one who just gets it, right?

Don't treat them like an Agatha Christie novel, though, nor something with a one sentence answer, or a single number. Don't break them into parts or analyse them: just constantly bear the problem in mind -- sleep on them.


I apologize: I'm gong to try to answer this even though I have not been taught zen.

I read a collection of zen koans a long time ago and I thought that they were cool (i.e. like an attractive puzzle) but kind of slippery (difficult to grasp or solve, difficult to get inside a koan and understand it).

In summary my answer is going to be that, maybe koans are good but they're not enough?

I say that because, since the time when I read those koans, I had more experience of life, and I learned (read, thought about, tried to learn some basic vocabulary of) a bit more Buddhist dharma. So now perhaps there's a bit of Buddhist dharma in me (or "in my understanding / vocabulary / mind").

Now when I read a koan, instead of trying to get into it, instead of finding myself being able to get into it, my experience is that it gets into me. When I attempting to parse (make sense of) the koan's words, they connect with bits of dharma that are already in me. One koan is like a ball with several spikes, that sticks inside me, and each spike connects to or activates a different bit of dharma, and joins them together or, I don't know what (because I'm not practising that).

If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

For example, "what is your original face" makes me think of what I've learned about what Buddhist dharma says about "self", gets me thinking about that, and wondering "if I understood this koan (and understood Buddhist dharma about 'self') then how would that affect 'me', would it change my behaviour or outlook or the way people see me, etc."

So again, in summary: maybe they (koans) are good but not enough.

If you're learning (or being taught) Zen, I've no idea what other Buddhist Dharma (sources of dharma, suttas, teachers, lectures maybe, vocabulary) you're exposed to; perhaps the koan combines with these somehow?

You must log in to answer this question.