The term “koan” derives from the Chinese ko (public) an (case), hence, literally, “public case.” A public case implies a standard of judgment. In the case of Zen, the judgment refers to the depth of the student’s intuitive understanding. Each koan takes the form of a story, anecdote, or dialog, typically entailing an incident, situation, or conversation between an historical Zen figure and a student. The use of the koan exercise as a tool for spiritual practice developed in tenth- and eleventh-century China. Koan practice instilled new life into a Zen system that had become codified, calcified, dogmatic, and caught up in sectarian disputes.
Koan study developed through a long history of spontaneous question and answer dialogs, in which the question is typically turned back on the student or is given a seemingly illogical response. As teaching stories were collected, formalized, and compiled into anthologies and structured, formal courses of study developed that were...
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