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Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887.

Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887 via Wikipedia

What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the color of the wind?

These apparently nonsensical questions exemplify the Zen Buddhist koan. Designed to tease the brain, koans push the disciple to reply to a questioning master through intuition instead of conventional logic or accumulated experience.

If the disciple doesn’t get the ‘right’ answer (according to the master’s alleged wisdom) in some Buddhist schools they may be struck by a bamboo rod.

A Freudian thinker might view this as an institutionalized form of sadism and/or masochism that activates a complex which stems from an abusive scene (from childhood or otherwise). Spiritually-minded believers, however, would see that as a simplistic and culturally biased interpretation.

For believers, the koan comes from a legitimate historical and legendary tradition, traceable to the sage Bodhidharma. And its use (and perhaps physical scolding for ‘wrong’ answers) apparently helps the aspirant to achieve satori, which believers say is an ultimate experience that’s difficult to describe.

¹ “Kōans originate in the sayings and events in the lives of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th–6th century) as its ancestor. Kōans reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons and sometimes confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dan)

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