The Zen Koan and Enlightenment

The Zen Koan and Enlightenment

Aug 20, 2022

Hogen Datsu, the 14th century Korean monk who translated many Buddhist texts into Chinese, wrote about Zen enlightenment in his translation of the Buddhist text Mulian Gongbi. His work explained that to achieve Zen enlightenment, you must attain complete understanding of a koan, or a paradoxical question and answer. A person who has achieved this state of mind becomes enlightened and understands the truth of his or her true nature as a human being.


 The koan teaches the student to let go of habitual thinking to achieve enlightenment. It presents a contradiction in which two options disagree fundamentally without solution. For example, “A piece of silk is as thin as a hair, yet it binds the strongest horse.” A second student would then give an opposing answer. The successor to the first student would respond by making suggestions on how to interpret the metaphor. Eventually, all three students would fail to reach an answer without realizing it. Afterward, however, each would have a new perspective and understandings on the matter that he or she never could have previously conceived. Thus, through years of study, confrontation and contemplation — whatever name you give this process — you overcome your habitual thought processes and reach an understanding of your true nature as a human being.


All religions teach the same truths about your nature as a human being. Your nature is to be free from attachments and to seek no-self or freedom. All holy books explain that all living beings have potential for Buddhahood; they are all capable of enlightenment if they believe in their true natures and follow their hearts instead of their minds. In this way, understanding your nature correlates with maintaining a positive outlook on life. This can help you avoid working toward negative outcomes such as greed or pride. Maintaining this belief will also help you channel your thoughts into positive actions— such as helping others, praying or meditating — which will help you achieve your spiritual goals.


Praying, chanting or meditating daily provides mental and physical focus for enlightenment; these activities cleanse your mind so you can achieve an enlightened state of mind without hindrance. To do this, focus on something that gives you peace: God, karma consciousness or the Taoism concept of wu wei (effortless action). You can also visualize yourself achieving enlightenment through either discipline or wisdom depending on whether you practice self-cultivation or compassionately accept yourself just as you are.


 The koans used by many Buddhists resemble popular sayings such as “life is short” or “there is no FIXED point of view” since they communicate profound truths about one’s place in the universe. To gain that place of freedom from attachments is to understand your true nature as a living being. Once attained, that place of peace allows for any course of action— including acting out in greed or hatred — since there is no one entity with which you can become attached and lose yourself in freedom again.

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