Doctor Lao: Do you know what wisdom is?
Mike: No, sir.
Doctor Lao: Wise answer.

A pithy saying used as a type of verbal Logic Bomb meant to short-circuit logical thinking and force the listener into deep contemplation outside of the framework of words. While the term is from Zen Buddhism, similar logic-breaking aphorisms exist in other mystical and non-mystical traditions as well.

A superficial or poorly considered epigram of this type runs the risk of becoming Meaningless Meaningful Words. If this is done intentionally it's Ice-Cream Koan. Has nothing to do with the Sailor Moon character of the same name.

Not to be confused with a kaon or K-meson, a subatomic particle.

Contrast Puff of Logic. See also Meditation Powerup.

Examples of kōans

  • If you think you're free, there's no escape possible.
    • If you think you're free, no escape is necessary.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
    • The student is ready when the teacher thinks he's ready and not before! Only then will the teacher willingly appear before you rather than the other way round(you appearing before the teacher unannounced).
  • Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.
  • Before enlightenment - chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment - chop wood, carry water.
    • Do you mean before complete enlightenment(becoming a Buddha) or ordinary enlightenment(becoming a Bodhisattva)? If the former then chop wood, carry water is impossible since in all likelyhood your not the Adi-Buddha AKA the Almighty and are either dead or a Living Buddha and thus incapable of preforming the task unlike the Adi-Buddha(who the Koan wouldn't be addressed to in the first place due to having always been enlightened).
  • If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
  • The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?
    • Find feral children.
    • Or you can make new words from your larynx once you need to use them again, just as one makes a a new fish trap or rabbit snare when one needs to use them again.
      • This koan is based in the Buddhist principle that a true understanding of something goes beyond what words are capable of expressing. If you have memorized words, you have a rabbit snare. If you understand what the words refer to, you know how to make more rabbit snares.
  • A student asked the master, "What is Buddha?" The master said;
    • "Three pounds of flax."
    • "The cypress tree in the courtyard."
    • Nothing, instead, he slapped the student.
    • Boot to the head.
      • You missed.
    • A completely enlightened corpse(normal Buddha), mummy(Living Buddha) or the Almighty himself(Adi-Buddha).
  • A student asked the master, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?" The master replied, "Mu."
    • The most common interpretation is that "mu," meaning "nothing," is to be interpreted as "not applicable", aka the question is ill-formed. It's also a pun on the onomatopoeia of a dog's bark.
    • This would be a perfect opportunity to kōan right back at them by giving the Mathematician's Answer of "Yes".
    • It can also mean "Unask the question", saying the question is meaningless.
    • If you're a computer programmer, "NULL" would be a good translation.
      • The use of kōans relating to programming is a LISP tradition. It would eval to NIL
      • And if you're Joey Tribbiani, it's a moo pointnote ... which is null/worthless, just like a cow's opinion.
    • The original version had the the student say "Above to all the Buddhas, below to the crawling bugs, all have Buddha-nature. Why is it that the dog has not?" with the master answering: "Because he has the nature of karmic delusions." so the translation of "Mu" is "not".
  • How long has it been since someone touched part of you other than your body?
  • A student confronted the master in his study and asked him "How can you teach people to speak spiritual freedom when you keep your pet bird in a cage?" The master opened the cage door and the bird flew out the window, never to be seen again. The master said "That bird is now free. You owe me a bird."
    • The master is a hypocrite.
  • Matthew 8:21-22 contains an example of a Christian kōan, "A disciple said to Jesus [before they embark], "Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' Jesus said, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.' "
    • This may be a case of using multiple meanings of the same word: the unsaved are spiritually dead, as the disciple's father was physically dead. The dead guy was probably also spiritually dead, hence the "their own."
    • Additionally, "Bury my father" almost certainly meant "wait for him to die, bury him, get the inheritance settled, and then maybe follow you a few years from now." This is because Jews buried their dead on the day they died; if his father were dead, the man would have been burying him instead of with Jesus.
    • Jesus loved doing this to the Pharisees, often in response to their own attempted verbal traps. For example, in the next chapter, they asked him why he, a supposedly holy man, spent all his time hanging out with sinners. Jesus answered that it's not the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. He was pointing out that the Pharisees were blinded by their own self-righteousness and didn't know that they needed help. Likewise, when they asked him about paying taxes, he pointed out that Caesar's face was on the coin, and thus "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". The Pharisees, who were well versed in the Scriptures, would no doubt have picked up on the reference to Genesis in which man was created in God's image.
  • The (in)famous Principia Discordia employs kōans and kōan-like passages to deliver lessons about the Discordian belief system, frequently directly riffing on Zen. For example, the Principia states, "Among Zen Buddhists it is said that, 'When you meet another bodhisattva on the road, greet him with neither words nor silence.' This leaves you with a vast selection of barnyard noises from which to choose."
    • Alternatively, a simple handshake will do.
    • As one of the above Koans stated: Kill him.
  • While a lot longer than most kōans, The Essential Chuang Tzu definitely qualifies with its collections of stories that seem tailored to frustrate the reader by delivering messages in any select chapter that often have little to no connection with each other. Some of them are even unclear on just what message they're intended to convey or go out of their way to subvert or jump up and down on the aesops they appear to be building up to.
  • Chuang Tzu learned from the best. I present to you the opening argument of Dao De Jing, written by his mentor Lao Tzu (a Taoist, but Zen was heavily inspired by Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu):
    The Tao (Way) that can be spoken of is not the everlasting (some translations use "true") Tao.
    The Ming (Name) that can be named is not the everlasting Ming.
    • The legend of how this book came to be was that Lao Tzu was leaving on a journey (that he ultimately didn't return from) when a fan of his stopped him at the gate and asked him to leave some words for prosperity. Given that context, it's easy to wonder if Lao Tzu was humoring the man or just trolling him. (Then again, Zen Masters aren't above trolling if that's what it takes to reach Enlightenment.)
    • It's probably riffing on the idea that no true philosophy can be described in one word, and if one word can be used to encapsulate it, then that word must be a false representation. The word itself can convey no meaning for the philosophy behind it unless that philosophy is known, and if the philosophy is known, then the word itself is redundant. Surprisingly, this has been a popular idea for centuries, and even Charles Baudelaire tried to deconstruct it (that said, between the alcohol, drugs and sex, he wasn't really that successful at deep philosophical truths that weren't mired in deep revelations about the base horror of humanity).
  • Randomly presented: "The more shallow a person's life is, the deeper it turns out to be."
    • Hence why Paris Hilton has so many fans hanging on her every word.
      • One interpretation is that, by being shallow (e.g. unconcerned with large issues), one has fewer attachments holding them down.
  • Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
  • There are mild trance-inducing phrases that will turn someone to inner contemplation to figure out what you're talking about while you slip away unnoticed. For example:
    Do you believe that you knew what you thought?
    Why would you believe something that's not true?
    Are you unaware of what you forgot?
  • Some take the form of an answered riddle that leaves the mystery of how the answer is supposed to make sense, such as:
    Which is more dangerous, a snake or a spider? A spider, because if a snake comes at you you can hit it with a stick.
    • The people of those times didn't have flyswatters and a stick was almost useless against a spider unlike a snake.
  • Quite a few quotes from and attributed to Yogi Berra become more and more kōan-like as you think about them:
    "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be."
    "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
    "You can observe a lot by watching."
    "I really didn't say everything I said."
    "If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there."

Examples of kōans in media

  • Subverted in The Simpsons; when Lisa repeats the famous 'what is the sound of one hand clapping?' kōan, Bart answers by slapping his fingers against his palm.
    • Then played straight afterward, with the equally famous 'if a tree falls in the woods, and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?' – although Lisa has to shoot down Bart's obvious answer with 'how can sound exist if no one's there to hear it?', practically another koan in itself.
      • As sound is perception of vibrations in the brain then no the tree does not make a sound it makes a vibration!
    • According to the Discworld novels, the answer is "cl" because the other hand makes the "ap".
    • Continuing the above, the end-all is probably the Armor-Piercing Question clapping against what?
      • In the case of one Discworld guru who had just had a near- Death experience, clapping against the side of The Student's head.
      • "Clap" is onomatopoeia, therefore the sound of one hand clapping, is "clap". Whether or not it is physically possible is irrelevant; if that is what is occurring, hypothetically, then the answer can be just as hypothetical and still be correct.
      • Put out your hand. Eventually, someone will offer a handshake.
      • Trying to find a "clever" answer just means you don't understand it. It is about cooperation, and needing other people.
      • Or you can just slap someone.
      • One might say that the sound of one hand clapping is weaker than the sound of two, as an endeavor undertaken by one person, though competent, is usually harder than the same endeavor undertaken by two competent people.
  • Koan Of The Day does this every day, though the koans are of dubious Buddhistry.
  • The Tao of Programming (not to be confused with The Tao of Computing, a book by Henry M. Walker) has been circulating the Internet for years, and recasts many of the better known kōans and parables within the context of late 20th-century computing culture:
    • A master programmer passed a novice programmer one day. The master noted the novice's preoccupation with a hand-held computer game. "Excuse me," he said, "may I examine it?"

      The novice bolted to attention and handed the device to the master. "I see that the device claims to have three levels of play: Easy, Medium, and Hard," said the master. "Yet every such device has another level of play, where the device seeks not to conquer the human, nor to be conquered by the human."

      "Pray, great master," implored the novice, "how does one find this mysterious setting?"

      The master dropped the device to the ground and crushed it underfoot. And suddenly the novice was enlightened.
    • Also Rootless Root
  • From The Jargon File, Tom Knight and the Lisp Machine:
    • A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.
      Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: "You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."
      Knight turned the machine off and on.
      The machine worked.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Female Changeling describes the Great Link to Odo using koan-like language.
    Odo: When you return to The Link, what will become of the entity I'm talking to right now?
    Female Changeling: The drop becomes the ocean.
    Odo: And if you choose to take solid form again?
    Female Changeling: The ocean becomes a drop.
  • Neuromancer is famous for its use of a large number of kōans (including some from the Gateless Gate) by a philosophical AI. Some, but not all, are plot-related.
  • In Stargate SG-1 Oma's planet has a monk who speaks entirely in koans.
    • One of the famous ones is "If you know immediately that candlelight is fire, the meal was cooked a long time ago."
      • It isn't actually the full kōan though, it is prefaced with "Because it is so clear, it takes a longer time to realize it," followed by the otherwise meaningless if statement.
    • Oma herself isn't much better. One of them, in fact, becomes a bit of a Running Gag, where someone pretending to be Oma Desala tries to offer an answer...and in so doing, reveals herself as not being Oma.
      • The real Oma shows up again in a Diner in the very next episode:
        Daniel: How do I know it's really you?
        Oma: How deep is the river if you cannot see the bottom?
        Jim: Deeper than the coffee in my cup, I'll tell you that.
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • Huu has said that even when we think people are gone, we're still connected to them: "Time is an illusion, and so is death". However, he seems to think that pants are also an illusion.
    • Pants are an illusion. We use them to disguise our legs.
    • Iroh is also quite fond of these, as is Guru Pathik.
      • Lampshaded by Zuko who tries to think what Iroh would say in a situation and comes up with an Ice-Cream Koan
  • Project Mayhem in Fight Club started based off one simple saying early in the book; "The things you own end up owning you."
    • There's also this haiku:
      Worker bees can leave
      Even drones can fly away
      The queen is their slave
  • A guest artist filler arc on Sluggy Freelance was titled "The Sluggite Koan." Said kōan was actually the title of the first Sluggy Freelance book: "Is It Not Nifty?"
  • The Doctor has a kōan-off with a Roman soothsayer in the Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Pompeii".
  • The Vorlons in Babylon 5 seem to be extremely fond of kōans. Indeed, Ambassador Kosh seems incapable of speaking in anything else. Some times they have meaning, some times they don't, and it's not usually clear which is which until a later episode. Possibly justified since being too open and direct could be considered a violation of the terms of engagement between the Vorlons and the Shadows. Indeed, the moment Kosh does stop being so cryptic and actually helps, the Shadows kill him for it.
  • The Other Wiki has a page of these, adapted to its own problems: The Zen of Wikipedia.
  • Beyond Good & Evil uses "Safe and sound in its shell, the precious pearl is the slave of the currents" as the "secret handshake" of the rebel movement.
  • In a similar vein, Night World has "The Night has a thousand eyes and the Day only one."
  • Speaking of Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for writing a great deal of what amount to kōans; his book Twilight of the Idols is composed of almost nothing but pithy one-line aphorisms such as "'All truth is simple.' Is that not doubly a lie?" This is likely intentional; Nietzsche regarded Buddhism as the supreme form of Eastern nihilism, and the problem of Western nihilism was his area of interest.
  • Subverted in the webcomic No Need for Bushido. Blind taoist monk Cho often presents pearls of wisdom such as "Remember that haste makes waste, for the quickest path between two lines is a straight point, but don't leave your keys on the table because dinner will be ready in five minutes."
  • There's one in Ishmael when the narrator first enters the 'classroom': with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?
    • With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?
    • Given that the book is about a talk between a man and a telepathic gorilla, not as random as it may actually seem
  • In Dissidia: Final Fantasy, the item needed to make each character's final weapon contains a kōan about that character in the description.
  • Mage: The Awakening has a spell called "The Inescapable Question" (overlapping with Armor-Piercing Question) that forces anything the caster says (as long as it is phrased as a question) to force the listener to stop and contemplate its meaning.
  • The original US release of Final Fantasy IV (as Final Fantasy II) offered one: "Justice is not the only right in this world." Later releases simply had the character in question rhetorically ask, "Some fight for law... some fight for justice. What will you fight for?"
  • Subverted by Broken Koans.
  • In Exalted, the sutras and scriptures associated with the Sidereals always take the form of brief kōans involving the Maidens, their patron deities. For example:
    The Scripture of Lover and Maiden:
    Once, there was a maiden...
    ...who met a thing outside the world, and there was a beauty to it.
    It burned with an unholy wrath that could destroy Creation.
    It hated her as much as it loved her.
    Its kiss was blood and perfection, for its teeth were sharp.
    It offered her power, and with it, hooks to tear her soul.
    With care not to burn her fingers, she took it into her life.
    "Love is what you make of it," she said.
    • In a similar vein to the Mage example above, there's a spell called Paralyzing Contradiction. It creates a glyph of one of the Ineffable Kōans, which makes people stop what they're doing until they find their own answer. Stupid people don't realise there's a puzzle, and are unaffected.
  • In Jonny Quest The Real Adventures, spouting out kōans is practically Hadji's main function in the team. He does this all the time.
  • Satirized brilliantly in the Discworld book Thief of Time:
    In the second scroll of Wen the Eternally Surprised. a story is written concerning one day when the apprentice Clodpool, in a rebellious mood, approached Wen and spake thusly: "Master, what is the difference between a humanistic, monastic system of belief in which wisdom is sought by means of an apparently nonsensical system of questions and answers, and a lot of mystic gibberish made up on the spur of the moment?" Wen considered this for some time, and at last said: "A fish!"
    And Clodpool went away, satisfied.
  • In the Nanoha StrikerS manga, Nanoha gives her student Subaru following quote to ponder (which she apparently heard from her own Old Master in her trainee days): "To win against an opponent stronger than yourself, you must not be weaker than that opponent." After thinking about it for a while, Subaru arrives to the conclusion that it means the necessity to play your own strengths against the opponent's weaknesses, so if they have just one weakness and many strengths, exploiting the former will still bring you victory. In the end, however, Nanoha never divulges the correct answer... provided, of course, she even knows one herself.
  • In The Fall of Hyperion, that's what humans hear when attempting to communicate with the Technocore Starfish AI's
  • In Gödel, Escher, Bach, Achilles explains how kōans can be transcribed and translated into strings, from which it is possible to determine if they have Buddha-nature or not.
  • In Homestuck, Heroes of Void are supposed to make something out of the concept of nothingness. The easy answer is the obfuscation and destruction of information such as when Gamzee uses Heir of Void Equius's blood to censor information pertaining to his actions in the book Kanaya and Rose are writing about their adventures, though there are much deeper layers to this that some Void players are unable to fully realize. Roxy eventually discovers one such layer: As a Rogue of Void, she can steal a hypothetical object's nothingness, and thus, literally make something out of nothing.
  • Angel: "If nothing that we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."
  • Old Kingdom: Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?
  • Psycho-Pass: "The law doesn't protect people. People protect the law."
  • Sten in Dragon Age: Origins occasionally drops these into conversation, as the Qunari believe in a philosophy of self-enlightenment, rather than religion.
  • A Fairly OddParents episode has Mr. Crocker dishing out various punishments to the class on account of a bad day. A.J., the Child Prodigy of the class, has koans recited to him.
  • Kamen Rider Decade has the main character include one in his "World of Cardboard" Speech during All Riders VS Daishocker.
    Tsukasa: I am rejected by all worlds. No world is my world. In other words, any world can be my world.
  • The Nostalgia Critic compares the Pop-Tarts tagline ("So hot it's cool. So cool it's hot.") to one of these.
    Monk: What is so hot that it's cool but so cool that is hot?
    Tourist: Pop-Tarts?
  • Donkey Kong Country has DK ask the tiki god Inka Dinka Doo to tell him all the secrets of the Crystal Coconut and his Koan reply: "To know everything, you must give up everything".