What is a koan?

A koan is an idea borrowed from Zen Buddhism. It refers to a philosophical question or statement that appears simple, but whose answer can be deep and meaningful.

There is usually no ‘correct’ answer to a koan. Almost every answer is equally valid.

How to make a koan

To make a koan, one has to think of a simple question, example, or story in which a deeper meaning can be found.

It can be difficult to make a koan that isn’t ‘codphilosophy’ (i.e. pseudophilosophy that is more about trying to appear deep and meaningful).

Dave said that a fox in the snow was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Anna said that true beauty must exist from within. It is therefore Dave who is beautiful, and neither the fox nor the snow.
Where does time go?
God created Man. And Man created God.

Famous examples

What is the meaning of life?’Does a tree make a sound if it falls in a forest and nobody hears it?
What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Other examples

What did your face look like before you were born?Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.
One said, “The flag moves.”
The other said, “The wind moves.”
They could not agree.
Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.”
Zen Master Unmon said: “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”

A translation of book of koan parables (originally written in Japanese in the 13th century) can be found here