Koans are a subject I waver on. I frequently reference the koans in Thich Nhat Han's classic Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice. I think they can go a long way in getting us to realize the way of zen, but are they more of a crutch than a solution? I find my "self "thinking that I get "it" when I know darn well that I don't.
Whether they will bring enlightenment, satori, or simply satisfy my ego's constant craving for mind candy, I enjoy them all the same.
For Americans studying Koans, there can be an extra piece to the puzzle - cultural background. Below are a two of my favorites with some cultural background for clarity.
Wash Your BowlA monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, "Have you eaten your meal?"
The monk replied, "Yes, I have."
"Then go wash your bowl", said Zhaozhou.
Now one of the problems being an American studying zen is that I do not have the cultural background that an Asian person has to fully understand this koan in context. For years I did not know that it was customary for monks to maintain samadhi ( perfect concentration ) while eating this meal.Zhaozhou is not asking whether the monk has eaten: he asks instead whether the monk was able to remain in samadhi during the meal. When the monk replies yes, Zhaozhou tells him that he has already received his teaching - continue practice
Wu is sweeping the ground and Yunyan says, “Too busy!”
Wu replies, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.”
Yunyan says, “Oh, so there are two moons.”
Wu holds up the broom and says, “Which moon is this?”
Once again it helps to know that in Buddhist traditions the moon stands for reality. When our sight is clouded we see two moons, even though there is only one real moon. Two moons is also used to symbolize a lack of focus; thinking of one thing while doing another. So Yunyan is saying that Wu is not focused. Wu replies that he can practice while working. Yunyan then implies that Wu is distracted in duality. Looking at Wu's final response the question arises who is exposing who?
Below are some excellent links if you would like to explore koans a little further.
101 Zen Stories
The Gateless Gate
The Ten Very Best Zen Stories