A koan is a kind of parable, anecdote, riddle or puzzle that doesn't need to be solved. It must be pondered on and applied to your life.
(from Zen Buddhism, 1959)
Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were walking down a muddy street in the city. They came on a lovely young girl dressed in fine silks, who was afraid to cross because of all the mud.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan. And he picked her up in his arms and carried her across.
The two monks did not speak again till nightfall. Then, when they had returned to the monastery, Ekido couldn't keep quiet any longer.
“Monks shouldn't go near girls,” he said – “certainly not beautiful ones like that one!”
“My dear fellow,” said Tanzan, “I put that girl down, way back in the city. It is you who are still carrying her!”
- - -
A student came before the master Bankei and asked to be helped in getting rid of his bad temper.
“Show me this temper,” said Bankei. “It sounds very fascinating.”
“I haven't got it right now, so I can't show it to you,” said the student.
“Well then,” said Bankei, “bring it to me when you have it.”
“But I can't bring it just when I happen to have it,” protested the student. “I'd surely lose it again before it got to you.”
“In such a case,” said Bankei, “it seems to me that this temper is not part of your true nature. If it is not part of you, it must comes from the outside. I suggest that whenever it gets into you, you beat yourself with a stick until the temper can't stand it and runs away.”
- - -
Bodhidharma left his robe and bowl to his chosen successor; and each patriarch thereafter handed it down to the monk that, in his wisdom, he had chosen as the next successor. Gunin was the first such Zen patriarch. One day he announced that his successor would be the who wrote the best verse expressing the truth of their sect. The learned chief monk Gunin's monastery thereupon took brush and ink, and wrote in elegant characters:
The body is a Bodhi-tree*
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.
No other monk dared to compete with the chief monk. But at twilight Yeno, a lowly disciple who had been working in the kitchen, passed through the hadd where the poem was hanging. Having read it, he picked up a brush that was lying nearby, and below the other poem he wrote in his crude hand:
Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since all begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?
Later that night Gunin, the fifth patriarch, called Yeno to his room. “I have read your poem,” said he, “and have chosen you as my successor. Here: take my robe and my bowl. But our chief monk and the others will be jealous of you and may do you harm. Therefore I want you to leave the monastery tonight, while the others sleep.”
In the morning the chief monk learned the news, and immediately rushed out, following the path Yeno had taken. At midday he overtook him, and without a word tried to pull the robe and bowl out of Yeno's hands.
Yeno put down the robe and the bowl on a rock by the path. “These are only things which are symbols. If you want the things so much, please take them.”
The monk eagerly reached down and seized the objects. But he could not budge them. They had become heavy as a mountain.
“Forgive me,” he said at last, “I really want the teaching, not the things. Will you teach me?”
Yeno replied, “Stop thinking this is mine and stop thinking this is not mine. Then tell me, where are you? Tell me also: what did your face look like, before you were born?”
(*Bodhi means enlightenment. Though for me, both poems are true.)