A Koan Recipe Book

10 Bulls

Summary: Provoking the Greatest Doubt

So I just finished the Hekigan, also known as the “Blue Cliff Record” about a month ago. Originally I was going to do a review/post on it right away, but after I finished I was left with my mind blown. So… I just thought I would give it some time to sink in and simmer a bit.

In the most simplest of terms I a “Koan” is a zen riddle, given to the zen student by the zen master in order to further the students progress as well as to test the students progress. I am by no means in any way a buddhist, zen or otherwise. But, over the last 2-3 decades it is the closest thing spiritually that I come close to identifying myself as. I once belonged to a dharma but to my own stupidity, and pride. I walked away from that completely, but over the past 3 years or so the idea has kept repeating within that maybe I should one day return.

Most of the Koans when you just “read” them, are basically like wtf, or completely don’t make sense to the “day-in/day-out” mind or mindset. You have to probe them, obsess over them, and internal them. Until you feel the metaphysical bile burning in your throat to re-articulate them. Possibly, even then you still, won’t know WTF you are talking about.

This is really all I know at this point.

So the “Record” or “Hekiganroku” is in a nutshell a collection of one hundred buddhist koans. These koans were written down and originated in Chan Buddhism in China during the Song dynasty in 1125, the 10th century.

I guess the only thing I can share with you is the specific koans that I really liked and struck a chord with me, not necessarily intellectually or emotionally (I think). But I sincerely believe this is the type of text or book, that has immense spiritual power to transform human beings for the better. Maybe I am full of shit, deluded or need to run, not walk back to my Sangha.

So here goes. All together, after reading through the “Record” and seriously paying attention. I have 13 Koans that really struck a chord within. I mean, honestly the whole text in it’s entirety was awesome and I feel very blessed to have read it. But these 13 koans have more to them than meets the eye for me, it’s these koans that can help me open up the 3rd eye.

Case 46 Kyosho and the Raindrops


One strike of the gavel and Buddhahood is achieved, transcending the ordinary and overreaching the holy.

With half a phrase a settlement is made, undoing fetters and loosening attachments.

Like walking across icy peaks, or running over knife edges.

Though he sits with a heap of sounds and colours, he passes over the top of sounds and colours.

Putting aside for the moment the wondrous and completely free activity, what about the time when one fully realizes in an instant.

To test I bring this forth, look!



Kyosei asked a monk. “What is that sound outside?”

The monk said, “That is the sound of raindrops.”

Kyosei said, “People live in a topsy-turvy world. They lose themselves in delusion about themselves and only pursue [outside] objects.”

The monk said, “What about you, Master?”

Kyosei said, “I was on the brink of losing myself in delusions about myself?” Kyosei said, “To break through [into the world of Essence] may be easy. But to express it in total gone-ness is difficult.”


The empty hall; the sound of raindrops.

Even a great master finds it difficult to respond.

If you say that you already turned the great stream within.

You still do not understand.

Understanding, not understanding.

South Mountain, North Mountain - a general downpour.

My thoughts:

They say that for many zen students enlightenment does not come in an instant, although… there are indeed some people who achieve enlightenment in an instant or specific moment in space and time. I think these moments are magical sounds, images, etc, that occur within mainly natural or organic phenomenon. Kyosei was stating people create or fall victim to delusions about themselves and that they pursue things or stuff, be it material or immaterial. Sense pleasures and addictions, “people” means every single one of us in the universe.

Even though Kyosei is a Zen Master, he explains to the monk that he himself was on the “brink” of delusion. So we all have the potential to be deluded quite easily whether free from all attachments or not. It’s that simple. It’s easy on many levels maybe to be on the road or path to enlightenment and more so to make concrete progress, but to express it, or articulate it is of monumental difficulty.

Case 47: Unmon’s “Six ”


What does Heaven say? [Yet] the four seasons run their course.

What does Earth say? [Yet] the ten-thousand creatures are born.

Facing the direction in which the four seasons run their course, you must see the reality. At the place where the ten-thousand creatures are born, you must see the function.

Just say now. Facing toward what place can you apprehend a patch-robed monk?

Having turned away from speaking, acting, moving, sitting and lying down; having closed up your mouth and lips; can you still speak about it?



A monk asked Unmon, “What is the Dharma-body?” Unmon said, “The six can’t contain it.”


One, two, three, four, five, six.

Even the blue-eyed barbarian monk cannot count it completely.

The hermit of Shôrin deceptively says that he transmitted it to Shinkô. Rolling up his robe, he also says that he is returning to India.

India is endlessly distant; there is no way to find it.

As of last night, he is facing the Milk Peak and pitching his tent.

My Thoughts: Unmon is talking about Buddhahood, and how all sentient beings possess the Dharma and the absolute “oneness” of the universe… of everything. The “Six” refers to the 6 senses… eyes, ears, nose, mouth, the body, and consciousness. Basically Unmon is saying that the six senses still cannot completely perceive the “Dharma body”.

In the Verse it seems as if Unmon is basically trying to tell us that no one can tell you what is the meaning of the “Dharma Body”, and at the same time, we are all part of the “Dharma Body” and we all have a “Dharma Body”.

Case 49: Sanshô’s “Net”


Having penetrated and undermined the fortifications, he steals the drum and captures the flag. Fortifying himself on all sides many times around, he surveys the front and observes the rear.

Even one who rides on the head of the tiger, and pulls the tiger’s tail, is not an accomplished Zen person.

The ox’s head disappears, and the horse’s head returns.

But this is also not considered strange or special.

Tell me, how is it when one who surpasses this level arrives?

To test, I bring this up, look!



Sanshô asked Seppô, “When a fish with golden scales has passed through the net, what should it get for food?”

Seppô said, “I will tell you when you have passed through the net.”

Sanshô said, “A great Zen master with 1500 disciples doesn’t know how to speak.”

Seppô said, “The old monk is just too busy with temple affairs.”


The golden scales have passed through the net.

Don’t say you’re still in the water.

He shakes the heavens, and sweeps the earth.

Wiggling his fins, and wriggling his tail.

A thousand-foot whale sends up a spout, and a great downpour occurs. A peal of thunder and a fresh wind arises.

A fresh wind arises.

Of heavenly and earthly beings, how many are they that know?

My Thoughts: Seppô sounds like he is telling us that a person can be of supreme intelligence and spiritual insight, and still not be well on his or her way to enlightenment. What does he mean by “Passing through the net”, is it enlightenment, or would it be a trap to say this? Seppô say to Sanshô that he will tell him when he has passed through the net, and that he was just too tired from dealing with temple affairs? Perhaps, this is his way of showing the “tough love”, in response to Sanshô’s arrogance? I am not too sure, only I can guess and surmise. A million light years away from what it means, most likely.

Case 56: Kinzan and the “Arrow”


The myriad Buddhas have never come into the world;

There is no Dharma to be given to the people.

The patriarch has never come from the West;

There has never been a transmission of Mind.

As a matter of course, the people of this time do not understand;

They continue to run toward the outside looking for it.

They do not know that the single great matter lying beneath their feet

Has never been found by the thousand sages.

Right at this very moment: Seeing and not seeing, hearing and not hearing,

Speaking and not speaking, knowing and not knowing.

Where do they come from?

If you have not perceived, then go into the cave of entanglements and understand. To test, I cite this case, look!



A Zen devotee named Ryô asked Kinzan, “What is it when one single arrow breaks through three barriers?”

Kinzan said, “Drive out the master from behind the barriers, so that I may see him.”

Ryô said, “If so, I will acknowledge my failure and correct it.”

Kinzan said, “Till when do you want to wait?”

Ryô said, “I made a nice shot, but no one could see the arrow,” and he went out.

Kinzan said, “Wait, sir.”

Ryô turned his head.

Kinzan grasped him and said, “Let’s put aside the story of the arrow which breaks through three barriers. Just shoot an arrow for me, so that I may see it.”

Ryô hesitated.

Kinzan hit him seven times with a stick and said, “I will allow this fellow to keep puzzling for thirty years.”


I have brought him out for you, the master of the barrier.

Those who let loose arrows, don’t be careless.

If you take this eye, the ears will surely become deaf;

If you take this ear, both eyes will go blind.

It is greatly to be admired, breaking through three barriers with a single arrow. Distinct and clear, the path of the arrow.

Don’t you see? Gensha had something to say:

“The outstanding student precedes heaven in becoming the mind’s patriarch.”

My Thoughts: In the instruction to this Koan, when it says that “The myriad Buddhas have never come into the world; There is no Dharma to be given to the people. The patriarch has never come from the West; There has never been a transmission of Mind.” It is because these things have already come to pass and they do not need to.

When searching for happiness and enlightenment people are always looking for external phenomenon to achieve it, but they should be looking internally in a reflective and introspective manner with the total force of the of all Time and Space’s passion. Christ said to seek the Kingdom of Heaven is to seek it within yourself.

In the exchange between Ryô and Kinzan, to me it seems like Ryô is striving so hard for perfection and that other see his actions and passion to get and achieve perfection that he is missing the actual enjoyment of the learning and the journey he has set himself upon. Ryô is too concerned with everything being perfect and if he has to he will wait to all the conditions are right that his shot goes through the three barriers and then he can expose the master.

Kinzan is basically telling Ryô to put the “perfect shot” aside and to just “go for it” and to shoot the arrow. But Ryô stopped and hesitated. Kinzan strikes him with the stick and gives him the “tough love”, and the master lets him know that he is not “getting it”.

In the Verse: It is like we are being told to not to lead with the chin, but on the opposite end of the spectrum don’t overthink or over-analyze our thoughts that well up in our minds. Of equal importance we have to understand that we DO NOT use our senses in singular capacity, this is a grave mistake. But we all think in this manner. Our senses act in alliance with one another to serve both our hearts and minds together.

Before we can reach heaven we have to become the master or own hearts and mind.

This is a very good Koan, the best of the best in my humble opinion.

Case 59: Jôshû’s “Supreme Way”


Heaven and earth are narrow; the sun, moon, and stars are suddenly dark.

Were blows of the staff to fall like raindrops, and shouts to peal like thunder, still you would not touch the point of the supreme teaching.

Even the Buddhas of the three worlds can know it only by themselves; even the patriarchs of the successive generations cannot present it fully.

Neither can the great treasury of all the sutras expound it adequately.

Even the clearly enlightened monk is helpless.

When you are at this stage, what other instruction could you expect?

To say the word “Buddha” is to pour muddy water over yourself; to say the word “Zen” is to shame your face.

For advanced students who have been practicing for a long time, it is unnecessary to say anything more. Recent beginners should investigate and apprehend it right away.

supreme way


Jôshû, instructing the assembly, said, “‘The supreme way is not difficult: It simply dislikes choosing’. If even a word is uttered, it is already [an action of] choosing or [of] ‘clarity’. This old monk does not dwell in clarity. Do you monks want to keep a firm hold on it or not?”

At that time there was a monk attending who asked, “You say that you do not dwell in clarity. If so, what is there to keep a firm hold on?”

Jôshû said, “I do not know, either.”

The monk said, “If you say you do not know, why do you say that you do not dwell in clarity?”

Jôshû said, “You have already asked fully. Bow and withdraw.”


The supreme way is not difficult.

A little speech - that’s it; a little word - that’s it. In one there are many kinds;

In two there are not two.

My Thoughts: It appears to me that in this Koan Jôshû may be talking about zen monks/students and how easy it is be led off the path to enlightenment by makyo. Basically it’s a form of self-delusion. Which unless your arrogance and self-pride is very well entrenched, I think we can all admit to some degree in different times in our lives, we have all done this to ourselves. Again, it comes down to the fact that you are cognizant of it, and are humble enough to admit such things to yourself. In this Koan as well, I think Jôshû is emphasizing just how important it is for all us to stop our incessant clinging to dualistic patterns of thinking. Which can be a great source of suffering for human beings in and of itself. It is all crystal clear and yet muddied water, yet in reality there is no difference between the two.

Case 60: Unmon’s Staff


The myriad Buddhas and sentient beings are intrinsically not different;

How could there be any difference between mountains-and-rivers and myself? Why is it, then, that everything goes and forms two?

Even if you can skillfully unwrap the koan and thereby block up the main harbor, if you leave it as is, that will not do.

If you do not leave it as is, it will be nothing at all to pick up the entire universe between your fingers.

Where is the place where you can do this unwrapping?

To test, I’m citing this case, look!



Unmon showed his staff to the assembly and said, “This staff has changed into a dragon and has swallowed up the heaven and the earth. Where do mountains, rivers and the great earth come from?”


A staff swallows up the universe.

In vain one tells about peach blossoms whirling on the waves. Those who have their tails burned off do not [always] grasp clouds and take hold of mist;

Those that lie spreading their gills should not necessarily lose guts and lack inner spunk. I have finished grasping it.

Are you listening or not?

You must be smooth and flowing.

Moreover, you must stop scrupling over details.

The seventy-two blows are too little for you; It would be difficult to spare you one-hundred and fifty.

The master suddenly picks up his staff and descends from the rostrum. The multitudes scatter at once.

My Thoughts: This Koan speaks to me directly about “obsession”, “thinking”, “clinging” and most importantly again “dualistic” thinking more than anything else. To really be happy in life and not fall into depression we should let go of “expectations”, and “Be” - “Smooth and flowing”. Relaxed… We don’t do this because it fly’s directly into the face of our 21st century notion of what it means to be “Productive” and “Industrious”. Why?

Forget “We”, I… must stop my “obsessing” over the “details”. Because it can ultimately kill me, or imprison me in my own living hell.

Unmon at the end, states that there literally isn’t enough blows for us, that we would stop this dualistic thinking, because that’s how hard it can be for us sometimes.

Case 61: Fuketsu’s “House and Nation”


To raise the Dharma flag and establish the sect essentials should be left to those who are skilled at it.


To distinguish between dragons and snakes and to separate black and white must be the ability of an accomplished Zen person.

To speak about killing and giving life on the edge of a sword, to judge the activity with a staff - these I will leave aside for the time being.

Just tell me, how will you speak a word about being alone within the imperial precincts? To test, I cite this case. Look!


Fuketsu, giving instruction, said, “If one raises a speck of dust, the house and the nation prosper. If one does not raise a speck of dust, they perish.”

(Setchô held up his staff and said, “Is there anyone who lives and dies with this?”)


The old ones out in the field might raise their eyebrows;

For the time being one wishes to establish a firm foundation for the nation. Bright ministers and brave generals, where are they now?

The pure wind of ten thousand miles, I alone know.

My Thoughts: In the “Case” when Fuketsu says If one does not raise a speck of dust, they perish.“, he is telling the people that if they are "apathetic” and “do nothing” as far as their national affairs go then they will “perish” Their culture, their society and the populace itself will eventually die out. As in all things in our lives, we have to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty sooner or later. Life is messy. For those of us that love order and cleanliness, this can be very upsetting at times, this is no lie, but we have to understand that this is the nature of reality, and many times as mere stupid “Human beings” we have no control over the way things are, or how they turn out to be.

Case 63: Nansen Kills a Cat


The roads of thought go no further - here is truly good teaching.

Words and letters do not reach it - you should quickly fasten your eye upon it. If lighting should dart and stars fly by, you will overturn the ocean and knock down the mountains. Is there anyone in the assembly who can say it?

To test, I cite this, look!


Once the monks of the eastern and western Zen halls in Nansen’s temple were quarreling about a cat. As he saw this, Nansen held up the cat and said, “You monks! If one of you can say a word, I will not slay the cat.” No one could answer. Nansen cut the cat in two.


The monks of both halls are careless good-for-nothings. Stirring up smoke and dust - to what avail? Fortunately Nansen was able to carry out the order. With one sword stroke, he cut it in two,

Leaving narrow-minded critics to say what they will.

My Thoughts: This is a very dramatic depiction of what needs to be done, when urgency and quick thinking is warranted. When horrible decisions must be made in order to maintain the peace and discipline. The monks were so caught-up in over trivialization of there day to day living, and the cat. But then when the master gave them all a chance to speak out none of them spoke a word, they could not must a single syllable as to why they were fighting or what the source of their fighting actually was. Nansen took action and had no worries about what others would say as to his actions whatsoever. Leadership…

Case 64: Jôshû and the Sandals


(No Instruction)


Nansen told Jôshû what had happened, and asked him for his view. Jôshû thereupon took his sandals, put them upon his head and went away.

Nansen said, “If you had been there, I could have spared the cat.”


The koan reaches completion upon his asking Jôshû.

Within the city of Chôan, one is free to wander at leisure. Putting the sandals on his head - no one understands.

Returning he reaches his home and rests there.

My Thoughts: This Koan is difficult for me, but I found it amusing just for the mere fact of Jôshû putting his sandals on his head and walking away from Nansen, after Nansen had asked him for his point of view. I find it strange because in the previous related Koan regarding the cat, Nansen did not care at all about what others would say or had said. Yet, now he sincerely wants to know Jôshû’s view, but Jôshû just puts his sandals on his head and walks away.

Perhaps, Nansen finds Jôshû’s reaction to his question somehow change’s his mind, emotions or line of thought and this is why if Jôshû had been there, he would not have killed the cat.

Interesting indeed… Leaders…. Discussing Leadership…

Case 65: A Non-Buddhist Questions Buddha


While having no form it forms itself;

It is complete emptiness which stretches out in all directions. While having no mind it responds;

It spreads out through the universe with no difficulty.

In holding up one, he clarifies three;

His eye immediately discerns pennyweights and ounces.

Even if the blows of your stick fall like rain and your shout is like rolling thunder, You have yet to gain the behavior of the truly outstanding person.

Just tell me, what is the affair of the truly outstanding person?

To test, I cite this case, look!


A non-Buddhist asked Buddha, “I do not ask about words, I do not ask about no-words.”

Buddha remained still. The non-Buddhist praised him and said, “The great benevolence and great mercy of the World-Honored One have opened the clouds of my delusion and enabled me to enter the Way.”


After the non-Buddhist took his leave, Ananda asked Buddha, “What did the non- Buddhist realize so that he said you had enabled him to enter the Way?” Buddha said, “He is like a fine horse that runs even at the shadow of a whip.”


The wheel of activity has never yet turned;

If it were to turn it would definitely run into two.

A bright mirror is suddenly put on the stand;

It instantaneously discerns the beautiful and the ugly.

When the beautiful and ugly are discerned, the clouds of delusion open; Where is there any place for dust to appear on the gate of compassion?

Therefore I think of the good horse discerning the shadow of the whip. The “Wind” that runs a thousand li [a day] is called and turned back;

My Thoughts: In my mind, this Koan is all about your practice, or the “practice” of Zazen. In the Verse of the Koan it talks about a “bright mirror”, this bright mirror without dust upon it, enables the elimination of dualistic thinking. A good horse discerning the shadow of the whip, your mind completely focused without thought or “distractions**.

Case 66: Gantô and the "Sword”


When facing the student in a win-or-lose situation, he sets a tiger trap.

He attacks from the front and from the side, spreading a scheme to catch the bandit; Responding to the bright, responding to the dark, releasing both and gathering both in.

Knowing how to play with a dead snake is a matter for an outstanding master.


Gantô asked a monk, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Saikyô.”

Gantô said, “After Kôsô was gone, did you get his sword?”

The monk said, “Yes, I got it.”

Gantô stuck out his neck, approached the monk, and said, “Ka!”

The monk said, “The Master’s head has already fallen.”

Gantô laughed loudly.

Later, the monk came to Seppô.

Seppô asked, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Gantô.”

Seppô asked, “What did he say?”

The monk told him what had happened.

Seppô gave him thirty blows with his stick and drove him away.


After Kôsô passed away he picked up the sword.

Great laughter! - a great Zen person should appreciate it.

Thirty blows with a mountain staff, but this was still a mild show of anger. Making a profit is losing the profit.

My Thoughts: This Koan I cannot really wrap my head around in many ways. But the saying Making a profit is losing the profit just destroys. This is going to be a saying for me always, and now it has stuck in my head. Which maybe from a Zen and Spiritual standpoint is a very good thing.

Case 68: Kyôzan and “Your Name”


In overturning the North Star, upsetting the axis of the earth, Catching tigers and rhinos, or distinguishing between snakes and dragons:

There must be an extremely sharp fellow for each phrase to match and for each activity to correspond with one another.

But has there been anyone up to now who was truly like this?

I ask to bring this up, look!


Kyôzan asked Sanshô, “What’s your name?”

Sanshô said, “Ejaku.”

Kyôzan said, “Ejaku - that’s me.”

Sanshô said, “My name is Enen.”

Kyôzan laughed loudly.


Gathering in both and letting go of both - what is the principle?

Riding a tiger has always required supreme skill.

Having stopped laughing, you don’t know where the laughter has gone to.

Yet it should stir the sad wind a thousand years old.

My Thoughts: This Koan is talking about non-duality, and the oneness of the Universe. The verse is so beautiful, some of the lines in it, stick in my mind. “Gathering in both and letting go both. The last two lines are haunting me, indeed where does the laughter go after we have laughed? Somewhere it is stirring the ancient sad winds. Why?

Case 75: Ukyû’s Blind Stick


The jeweled sword with the subtle tip is constantly revealed before us.

It can kill and it can give life;

It is there and it is here.

Both gaining and both losing.

If you want to hold it tight, I allow you to hold it tight;

If you want to loosen it, I allow you to loosen it.

Just tell me:

How is it when one does not fall into guest or master

And does not get caught up when mutually interacting?

To test, I am citing this, look!


A monk came from Master Jôshû to Ukyû.

Ukyû asked, "What is the difference between Jôshû’s Dharma-way and the Dharma-way here?”

The monk said, “There is no difference.”

Ukyû said, “If there isn’t any difference, return to him again,” and hit him.

The monk said, ‘Your stick should have an eye. You should not hit a person so recklessly.“

Ukyû said, "Today I hit a right man,” and he hit him three more times.

The monk went out immediately.

Ukyû said, “There is a fellow who well deserves a blind stick.”

The monk turned and said, “What shall I do, as the stick is in your hand?”

Ukyû said, “If you need it, I will give it to you.”

The monk approached him, snatched the stick from his hand and hit him three times.

Ukyû said, “Blind stick, blind stick!”

The monk said, “There is a fellow who well deserves it.”

Ukyû said, “I have hit a real man quite wantonly.”

Then the monk promptly made a bow.

Ukyû said, “Master, is that the way you want to finish it?”

The monk laughed loudly and went away.

Ukyû said, “You got it, you got it.”


To call [the snakes] is easy but to send [them] away is difficult.

Observe carefully how they mutually exchange the tips of their activity.

The kalpa rock is hard, but it, too, will be pulverized;

Even in the deepest place in the ocean, it will quickly dry up.

Old Ukyû, old Ukyû! How many maneuvers did you have at all?

There was indeed no need to give him the stick.

My Thoughts: Writing my comments at this point I must have read the “Blind Stick” Koan about 5 times. In some way I think that this Koan speaks about the Law of Cause and Effect. Ukyû did not have to give the monk the stick, but what he did helped the monk in his quest for enlightenment.

Conclusion: I am at a crossroads, I have been strongly attracted to the spiritual path of Zen ever since reading Philip Kapleau’s “Three Pillars of Zen back in 1991. I have sat in Zazen on good number of times attending two different Sangha. I have also participated in "Dokusan”“ as well. I have also at different times in my life, sat in Zazen alone, and I have very diligently read a number of the important and core Buddhist texts. But I have never consistently committed to joining a Sangha and integrating Zen into my life 100 percent.

I have let trivialities block my path to continuing along that path. I also have a very strong distrust and maybe "Hatred” is too strong of a word. But as Marx stated in the “Manifesto” that “Religion is the Opiate of the masses”, I do not like Organized religion in any way, shape, or form regardless of the God, Deity or belief system involved. Zen is the closest I am ever going to come to a somewhat coherent and organized spiritual path.

As a final caveat, I BY NO MEANS EVEN BELIEVE REMOTELY THAT I HAVE EVEN A ANGSTROM OF INSIGHT INTO ANY OF THESE KOANS, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have read them. For they are a gift to the universe.

With much respect and love back to the universe.

Reaching for Zen.

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