What is a Koan?

A koan can be thought of as a riddle. Unlike a riddle, a koan does not necessarily have a logical or inferential answer. In fact, it may have no answer at all. The effect of a koan can be to break the student out of his “thinking” mind.

Some koans can be obscure and impenetrable. Often, they are paradoxical and seem nonsensical. They may require long study and deep contemplation. Yet, some koans can trigger a very sudden and profoundly clear insight, knocking us backwards as if struck by a blow to the head.

In the end, a koan is not an end unto itself, but the means to an end. They are tools for achieving insight on a level not encountered in everyday life.
Masonic Koans

Masonic symbols similarly transcend the intellect. Through symbols, Freemasonry tries to get its members to move beyond the intellectual, beyond the literal and even the abstract. Masonic symbols could, therefore, be viewed as pictorial koans. Masonic ritual could be viewed as koans in action.

If the enigmas of the symbols and rituals of the various degrees are studied as koans are studied, they may very well provide insights not otherwise available to the Masonic student.

Working with Koans

Just as koans are like riddles, they are also like fables. The difference is that a koan typically doesn’t tell you the moral to the story. Your task is to use whatever means you can to bridge the gap between the words and whatever meaning the koan may hold for you.

For instance, a challenging koan included on this site is entitled “A Master Mason in the Quarry”, which goes as follows:

Peter Gower used to tell his craftsmen: “If you meet a Master Mason in the quarry, kill him.”

This koan is an adaptation of a traditional Zen koan that goes as follows:

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

The first step is to cast off the literal translation. This koan is not suggesting that if you are walking down the road and Siddhartha Gautama himself appears before you that you are to take out a weapon and slay him.

Your analysis might begin by asking yourself questions about each of the elements:

What is “the Buddha”? What is the “road”? Where is the “road”? What would it mean to “kill”?

Let’s start with the “road”. Don’t think about this as a physical roadway; koans are rarely to be taken literally. Perhaps the road is the path we are following in life or perhaps it is our contemplative practice.

What would it mean to meet the Buddha while on the contemplative path? Perhaps this refers to thinking that you can clearly imagine what a Buddha is, that you can define the Buddha, or even the notion that you are the Buddha that you imagine or have defined.

We have described a situation where, within your contemplative practice, you think that you have a perfect image or definition of enlightenment. If this occurs, this koan has some instructions for you: “Kill him.” In this case, the “him” is not a person, but instead it is the image or thought of the Buddha or enlightenment.

Our koan can therefore be thought to mean the following:

If, during your contemplative practice, thoughts arise that tell you that you have arrived at a final definition or image of enlightenment, set those thoughts aside and get back to your practice.

Let’s return to the ZenMasonry koan and run this exercise again.

The koan states:

Peter Gower used to tell his craftsmen: “If you meet a Master Mason in the quarry, kill him.”

Let us set aside who Peter Gower is, for now. You can search for that answer elsewhere. Let’s focus instead on what he taught:

“If you meet a Master Mason in the quarry, kill him.”

What is a Master Mason? In a literal sense, it is someone who has finally mastered all of the teachings of Freemasonry. Can you really imagine or define such person?

What is the quarry? Where is it? A quarry is a place where the hewers of stone work (i.e. the Entered Apprentices). In Speculative Masonry, it is not a physical place but can be interpreted as your own mind, where the real work of making good men better occurs.

So, in this case the ZenMasonry koan is saying that, in your efforts to improve yourself in Masonry, if you think you have reached the perfect concept of mastery in all of its teachings, or even that you are that ideal Master Mason that you imagine, then set that thought aside. Pick up the working tools of Freemasonry and get back to work.

So far, this has been a fairly analytical approach to an understanding of this koan. Yet the intellect is only one part of a more complete approach. The concrete intellect would remain at the literal level: “The one called ‘the Buddha’, born as Siddhartha Gautama, lived in the 5th century BC in India and is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating underneath a bodhi tree. If we see him now, we should kill that man.” How do we make the leap from the literal answer – the Buddha is Siddhartha – to some other answer that leads to further understanding?