Just from this answer - is it a good idea to provide koan answers or not? Or should we provide them with a health warning? Do koans even really have answers? I'm not a Zen practitioner so a don't personally have an issue with these questions but should we just be closing them down since we don't want to spoil them in some sense?

9 Answers 9


From a purely academic point of view (not mine!), koans are an interesting subject; just google around and you'll find plenty examples of people explaining various koans. When I was in university I remember attending a guest lecture on this very topic; whether "mu" really did just mean "no" (spoiler: it did).

Again, on this site, we have to be able to take off our Buddhist hats and put on our Internet beanies; the information is out there, it is up to us to provide the best version of it. If that equates to an explanation that Zen koans are not meant to be examined, then so be it, but I strongly disagree that a question should be closed simply because that is the correct answer; it is only an invalid question from a sectarian point of view, not from an objective, academic point of view.

It would be similar to asking "What did the Buddha say about the beginning of samsara?" The fact that the answer is "he didn't" doesn't invalidate the question.


I agree with the answer of yuttadhammo. Answers to koans are already available on the internet, why don't we try to give the best possible explanation.

I would like to add that it is possible to give an answer to a koan, but make it invisible for people who don't want to see it. This can be done with the special 'spoiler quote' >! It will make the quoted text invisible unless you hover on it with your mouse pointer. I'd suggest we use this when providing koan answers and answer explanations, for example:

Spoiler alert! Koan answer below is visible if you hover on it with your mouse!

This is the spoiler text.

  • 3
    Excellent idea. I think that might address everyone's issues. I had no idea you could do that Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 9:08
  • you should leave the answer is implicit as possible. That is, no alert.
    – Ooker
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 7:18

This a pretty tricky issue. By not discussing them, there is the danger of undermining their importance. If we are to talk about them, there is also the risk of really messing up someone's practice. How to reconcile the two!

Some koans can be accessed at multiple levels. I think so as long as the answers address these koans intellectually, there's no foul. For instance, when asking about the 'meaning' of the mu koan, an acceptable answer might mention something about the koan's use in providing a first glimpse into the nature of emptiness. A safe discussion on 'Ummon's Dried Shit Stick' might mention something about not becoming attached to form. On the other hand, other koans simply defy intellectual exegesis. As an example - it would be very difficult, and not even particularly worthwhile, to discuss 'Echu's three calls' at a superficial level. There's no good way of talking about those sorts of koans without bringing personal experience into the conversation.

So my opinion - as long as meditative experience isn't being brought up, discussing koans is fine.


Is it a good idea to provide koan answers or not?

Voting will decide.

Or should we provide them with a health warning?

Nah. No more than any other advice on the internet.

Do koans even really have answers?

I'm pretty sure the point is to keep thinking and looking for the answer but to never find it. The role of the teacher is not to ever tell you, "You figured it out!" Their role is to eternally say, "Nope, you still haven't figured it out". (This may be a DT Suzukism, now that I'm reading some of the literature about Chan, the Koans seem to be puzzles with a solution, "Who am I?" would be fundamental question and that has a Buddhist answer that isn't "Dunno" and isn't "Well logical thought and reasoning is so useless!")

This also happens to square with that Stephen Batchelor seems to have gotten out of his time doing Zen, working on the koan "What is this?"

I'm not a Zen practitioner so a don't personally have an issue with these questions but should we just be closing them down since we don't want to spoil them in some sense?

I do get the impression that in Zen people care about "quality control"-- that teaching come from someone with suitable lineage and transmission. But I don't see so much about secrecy, or hints of danger, like you see in Vajrayana, where learning something without abhisekha and without being reading for it is reputed to be dangerous. I would say in the Zen world, teaching from somewhat without lineage and transmission are somehow less authentic and useful.


This seems to be a heated debate as if there is a right way to deal with koans and a wrong way. Reading Dogen's book of koans, there are often multiple avenues in different directions. It is never one answer, it is usually a question by Dogen! The koan does not have an answer that will give you the aha, otherwise it would not be a koan. The aha must come from practice within. The koan is a tool to practice. If we think we can get the answers to the koan "test" or spoil someone's experience, are we not overestimating our own self importance?

Please let us not take stands "over my corpse" or with over confidence in any one position. How can we say we are compassionate when we dig in our heels demanding the rightness of one way or another? If we take a position against one another, all is lost.


Koan commentaries have a long tradition, they have existed for many hundreds of years and haven't been seen as something that has negative impact on the practice . I don't see any reason to close such questions.


On a practical level, I think it makes sense to treat them as puzzles or spoilers (though they are not essentially these things). How do other SE sites deal with such issues?

It would also be advisable to reinforce what is lost to those new to the study.


Ha, for a second there I thought you meant koan-like answers!

"Are all Buddhists vegetarian?"

"...Are all vegetables Buddhist?"

To answer your question, though I have little experience with the use of koans in my practice, I believe we shouldn't, and should warn them off looking for explanations in other parts of the internet: is not the whole point of koans that they can't be answered? I'd imagine that providing some sort of analysis is just going to strongly bias people's meditations on them, and possibly discourage certain people from using them in the first place, thinking that they already "understand" them.

Perhaps if the asker clearly states that they desire an academic understanding in this area, but for regular practitioners looking to progress in their practice, I cannot see the benefit.


Buddha-Nature smells of oil.

No koan answers, please! No analysis of Zen poetry or jokes. It defeats the purpose and robs the students of their own independent realization.

  • So should they be closed? and if we disallow can we document that in FAQ. Assuming this develops into the majority or accepted opinion Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 20:38
  • Just like on English SE you can ask for an explanation of an English joke that might not be understandable to a non-native speaker, here it should be possible to ask for an explanation of a Buddhist joke or a koan that might not be understandable to a non-Buddhist.
    – kami
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 21:35
  • No. If you want explanations, go to Theravada, go to Vajrayana, but explaining Zen is only over my corpse :)
    – Andriy Volkov Mod
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 23:03
  • @crab bucket, yes that would be ideal imo
    – Andriy Volkov Mod
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 23:06
  • Again we come back to the same issue as this post, and the consensus seems to be that this is a Buddhism site, not a Buddhist site; we have to stick to the principle of providing information about Buddhism, rather than worrying about spoiling things for Buddhists. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 5:19
  • 2
    @AndreiVolkov from a meta perspective, I don't see how these questions could deserve to be closed; we can't pander to the views of practitioners about proper questions, unless I'm missing something... Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 5:33
  • 1
    @yuttadhammo I believe that the purpose of 'meta' is to let each site's "community" decide for/among themselves what questions shall be on- and off-topic. So, if "the community" here wants koan-answers to be off-topic, I suspect they're allowed to make that decision, that StackExchange wouldn't object to that decision, and that moderators could enforce it (e.g. by closing such questions).
    – ChrisW Mod
    Commented Sep 15, 2014 at 19:39

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .