Kõ-an – a paradox anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logic and provoke a more direct perception of reality called enlightenment.
Kõ-ans have always exercised an intellectual fascination over those who have come in contact with them. Some have found Kõ-ans profound and intellectually challenging while others have dismissed them as meaningless and absurd. But especially for those living in societies built on Enlightenment principles, the anti-rationalism of Kõ-ans has been a large part of their appeal.
Although Reason is useful to conceptualize and categorize, it can also trap us in a limited and arbitrary view of the world. Once Reason gets tangled up with our socially conditioned biases, then rather like blinkers on a horse it can do no more than channel us down a predetermined path.
The practical purpose of Kõ-ans is not to rid us of our intellectual capacity but instead to allow it to function in a dispassionate way. This involves breaking down the everyday tyranny of our conditioned intellect by demonstrating the contradictions and absurdities to which it would otherwise necessarily lead.
Unlike puzzles and riddles, Kõ-ans do not have pat answers. Indeed, many Kõ-ans are not even in the form of a question. When used properly, Kõ-ans set trains of thought in motion and then derail them. With the continuity of our internal dialogue broken, we are no longer able to maintain our (false) sense of reality.
A properly constructed Kõ-an should contain many layers of personal meaning. It is most certainly not a case of ‘one size fits all’. According to Buddhist teaching, Truth can only be experienced by those who seek Truth for its own sake. It can never be denied to those who are worthy as equally it can never be imparted to those who are not.