What are Koans?
Earlier this year, I wrote a post called “Introducing Students to Meditation.” One reader included a link to a Wikipedia article with her comment that describes the Japanese discipline of meditation called Zazen.
One distinguishing feature of Zazen is its use of "koans" (pronounced ko’ an). Koans are paradoxical statements, dialogues, parables, and questions. Clicking on this term, I learned that koans are used “to provoke ‘great doubt’ and to practice or test a student’s progress in Zen.” I began to wonder if koans could be used in the ESL classroom.
While researching the concept of koans, I came across one particular koan again and again:
When both hands are clapped, a sound is produced. Now listen to the sound of one hand clapping. What do you hear?
At first glance, the obvious answer is “silence.” But is it really so obvious? Upon analysis, the answers turns out not to be so black and white after all. By definition, clapping requires striking two objects together. Can one hand even be said to clap, much less make a noise (or lack thereof) when it does, or rather doesn’t?
By exposing students to koans, we encourage them to embrace the “grayness” of life. Using koans in class may help students realize that most situations can be approached from many perspectives. And perhaps they will dig deep within themselves to come up with the language needed to express their own unique take on a given koan.
I suggest using koans in the following way:
- Dictate the koan to the class.
- Have pairs compare their dictations.
- Put students in small groups and have them discuss the meaning of the koan.
- Have students write a one-paragraph response to the koan.
Here are a few koans to get your students thinking:
What can you do when you can do nothing?
Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.
One day, two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were walking down a muddy road during a heavy rainfall when they came upon a beautiful young girl. The young girl was in distress because a big mud puddle was preventing her from crossing an intersection.
“Don’t worry, girl!” Tanzan called out. Then he lifted her in his arms and carried her across the puddle.
Ekido was troubled by what he saw. He didn’t say anything until later that night when the two monks arrived at a lodging temple. Finally, he couldn’t be quiet any longer.
“You know it is against the rules for us monks to talk to young girls, much less touch them. What were you thinking?”
“I left the girl there,” Tanzan replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
Two monks were arguing about the temple flag. One monk said, “The wind is moving.” The other monk said, “No, the flag is moving.”
A wise man came along and said, “Do not argue, my friends. It is not the wind that moves or the flag that moves. It is your mind that moves.”