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

A pithy (公案) 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. Koans technically have their origins in Taoism although the term is from Zen Buddhism which they are most commonly associated with. 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 an Ice-Cream Koan. Has nothing to do with the Sailor Moon character of the same name. For a smart/wise/enlightened character who speaks entirely in those, see Proverbial Wisdom.

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 are free, then no escape is necessary.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
  • 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.
  • If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.note 
  • 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?note 
  • A student asked the master, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?" The master replied, "Wu."note 
  • 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."
  • 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."
    note note 
    • Jesus did this often to the Pharisees, usually in response to their own attempted verbal traps. For example, they once 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.note 
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • The opening argument of Dao De Jing, written by Lao Tzu, goes:
    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.
    • 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.
  • Randomly presented: "The more shallow a person's life is, the deeper it turns out to be."
  • 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."
  • Quite a few quotes from and attributed to Yogi Berra become more and more kōan-like as you think about them. As the years went by, he embraced both his philosophical side and his reputation for oddly thought-provoking statements. Thus, its hard to tell which are intentional Koans, which are accidental, and which he only said after they were attributed to him, but many are worth pondering regardless:
    "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be."
    "It ain't over till it's over."
    "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."
  • Even some some scientists have tried to get into the act, as seen with one of physicist Neils Bohr's epigrams: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
    • Another scientist, Wolfgang Pauli, is said to have looked at the paper of a young physicist and proclaimed "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong."note 
  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?note 

Examples of kōans in media

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the Magical Girl Lyrical 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.
  • Psycho-Pass: "The law doesn't protect people. People protect the law."
  • Kino's Journey: "The world is not beautiful, therefore it is."
  • Haibane Renmei: "To recognize one's own sin, is to have no sin". This riddle, called the Circle of Sin, is presented to Rakka by the Haibane Communicator, and ruminating on it is what helps her free herself from her inner darkness.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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

  • 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.
  • Night World has "The Night has a thousand eyes and the Day only one."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Satirized brilliantly in 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.
    • This is also spoofed in Lu-Tze's Way of Mrs. Cosmopilite. After seeing so many city slickers come to visit his mountain monastery in search of ancient wisdom, Lu-Tze decided to reverse their thinking and see what could be learned from the great city of Ankh-Morpork. While there he rented a room from a middle-aged housewife and picked up simple sayings like "it never rains but it pours," which tend to confuse the other monks ("A jug!"). On the other hand, some of these inane statements - "I wasn't born yesterday," "there's no time like the present" - are identical to the sayings of the aforementioned Wen the Eternally Surprised, so who knows.
  • In The Fall of Hyperion, that's what humans hear when attempting to communicate with the Technocore Starfish AI's
  • In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, kōans are used several times as a metaphor for the central idea of the book: Kurt Godel's famous Incompleteness Theorem, which says that any sufficiently powerful theory of mathematical logic can be used to prove that mathematical logic is incomplete - that there will always be true statements that can't be proven true but are true nonetheless. In one such case, 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. The Tortoise promptly uses those rules to create a string that is analogous to Godel's Theorem - by the rules it has Buddha-nature, but its "translation" says it does not have Buddha-nature. Of course, this confuses the hell out of Achilles.
  • Old Kingdom: Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness includes this syllogism:
    The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.
    The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
  • Rohan Candappa's The Little Book of Wrong Shui contains various parody koans amongst other "wisdom".
  • In a few of his works, Spider Robinson has cited the Niels Bohr "the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth" koan above, giving as an example "Yes: sometimes Life sucks—that's a profound truth. The flip side is: sometimes it sucks rather well ..."

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • In Stargate SG-1 Oma's planet has a monk who speaks entirely in koans.
    • One of the famous ones is "If you immediately know that the candlelight is fire, then 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.
  • The Doctor has a kōan-off with a Roman soothsayer in the Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Pompeii". In a much earlier story, K'anpo, The Mentor of the Doctor, has a few of these. Given that he's the abbott of a Buddhist monastery, this is far from surprising.
    “We can but point a finger along the way. A man must go inside and face his fears and hopes, his hates and his loves, and watch them wither away. Then he will find his true self, which is no self. He will see his true mind, which is no mind. The old man must die and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.”
  • 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.
  • Angel: "If nothing that we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."
  • Kamen Rider Decade, in which the titular character is a reluctant Multiversal Conqueror who wanders the multiverse looking for his home world, has the main character include one in his "No More Holding Back" 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.
    • Later, in the finale movie, Tsukasa finally concludes that he must stay with his friends and keep wandering the multiverse. "The journey itself is my world.".
  • Many characters in Daredevil (2015) have flowery and/or metaphoric expressions sprinkled in their dialogue. A few, such as Stick and Madame Gao, drop these in every conversation.
  • Many of these appear in Kung Fu (1972) such as "know when to let go of those things that do not serve you but force you to serve them."
  • The Office (US): Robert California's bizarre, rambling Halloween story is similar to a koan, particularly the pithy denouement.

  • Apollo 440 used a kōan in their song “Fuzzy Logic”, taken from an audio clip of Robert Anton Wilson’s lecture "Techniques of Consciousness Change."
    There's an exercise I learned from a Buddhist monk in Ceylon. It's a simulation of enlightenment.
    You sit down, as long as you can, and think of as many aspects of the answer to the question, "why am I sitting here doing this exercise?"
    I'm sitting here doing this exercise because I read about it in a book by Aleister Crowley, and he heard about it from a Buddhist monk in Ceylon.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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 Dissidia Final Fantasy, the item needed to make each character's final weapon contains a kōan about that character in the description.
  • 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?"
  • Sten in Dragon Age: Origins occasionally drops these into conversation, as the Qunari believe in a philosophy of self-enlightenment, rather than religion.
  • There is an audiolog in The Witness that describes koans.

    Web Comics 
  • Koan of the Day does this every day.
  • 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?"
  • Subverted in 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."
  • 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.
  • Kill Six Billion Demons: The Rant at the bottom of every page has an extract from various historical books of battle and philosophy, which often include simple koans that demonstrate the strange morality of the multiverse.

     Web Original 
  • 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.
      • Another programming one:

      In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
      "What are you doing?" asked Minsky.
      "I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-Tac-Toe," Sussman replied.
      "Why is the net wired randomly?" asked Minsky.
      "I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play," Sussman said.
      Minsky then shut his eyes.
      "Why do you close your eyes?" Sussman asked his teacher.
      "So that the room will be empty."
      At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

  • The Other Wiki has a page of these, adapted to its own problems: The Zen of Wikipedia.
  • Double Subverted by Broken Koans. It turns out that trying to make parody Koans still makes for some rather thought-provoking Koans.
  • 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?

     Western Animation 
  • M.A.S.K.: Bruce Sato frequently utters these whenever the team stumbles on a mystery. A running gag is that whenever he does so, one of the other MASK agents will express confusion, followed by Matt or Alex immediately figuring out what Bruce means.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • In Jonny Quest: The Real Adventures, spouting out kōans is practically Hadji's main function in the team. He does this all the time.
  • 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, causing half of his brain to spontaneously collapse.
  • 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".
  • Adventure Time often includes these at the climax of its more existential episodes. Forums often spend a great deal of time analyzing them.
    Lemongrab: If you are the head that floats atop the ziggurat, then the stairs that lead to you must be infinite. Infinite stairs are UNACCEPTABLE! note 
    Voice of Princess Bubblegum: Hurry Finn. At the Seashell's center lies the Cornucopia's smallest door. note 
  • Blinky Bill: Ling-Ling the panda has a few of these:
    • "Master says, 'Even the mightiest wind must bow to the smile of the sparrow.'"
    • "Master always say, 'It is only when you are most lost that you truly find yourself.'"
    • "Master always say, 'It is a foolish fly who enters the spider's web thinking he is a bee.'"


Video Example(s):


Rioichi Cooper

Being an experienced ninja master and spiritualist, Rioichi Cooper likes dishing out koans at the drop of a hat, mainly to annoy Bentley.

How well does it match the trope?

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