EVERY THOUGHT AND SENSORY experience is a koan [J.]/kong-an [K.]/gongan or kung-an [C.]/cong-an [V.].
In Zen practice, koans-as-every-experience becomes a more formal, intentional method to confront the experience of separation.
They often reference commonplace phenomena such as a finger or a hand, a turd, flax, a flower, a stick, a tree, a dog, or a bowl. And despite the familiarity of such phenomena, the solution to the statement that contains the term such as flower is trans-logical.
Koans challenge the popular sense of a separable landscape of objects and events and oneself in relationship to each other as reality. While these dimensions are expressions of authentic reality, our experience tends to be conceptions of reality. Koans are useful because they produce a sense of doubt that we have true a grasp on reality.
Koans are found in all Zen practice, including Soto Zen Buddhism that tends to downplay their use. Generally referenced as the founder of Soto Zen (although not himself making that claim or association), Dogen’s writings such as his collection of essays entitled Shobogenzo contain intense koans [e.g., “Time-Being (Uji),” “Painting of a Rice-cake (Gabyo),” “Mountains and Waters Sutra (Sansui-kyo)”], as well as repeatedly reference Chinese gongan from his training experiences in China.
Descriptions of awakening experiences—often short verse—can be koans. Koans can focus on specific issues such as absolute reality or causality, and offer insight and refinement. There is a longstanding history of passing through layers of checking gates that attend, for example, to the relationship of awakening to phenomena [e.g., Kikan, J.] or clinging to awakening [e.g., Hachi Nanto, J.] There is a stench of mentality and regulation to this checking or staging of realization. Ultimately, Zen awakening is totally personal, not verbal, and finally, not Buddhism or Zen at all.
No-Koan: Considering the awakening of Hui-neng and others in Zen Buddhism as well as awakening experiences that occur outside Zen practice, a phrase from a Buddhist sutra (for Hui-neng, as well as for others such as Pojo Chinul [K.]) or the cracking sound of a pebble, the turn of a head might offer that which Thomas Cleary, in No Barrier (p.xi), terms the “Border Pass” through the wide open Gateless Gate, awakening to “true nature” or “true home.”
And likely the most crucial koan/no-koan might be the first one in that which was to become Buddhism—the mythical account of Siddhartha awakening when viewing the morning star. What did Siddhartha see? The nature of reality is either seen or not.