This question of enlightenment…For one human being to expect to attain enlightenment from another is like a grain of sand on the beach expecting to attain enlightenment from another grain of sand on the beach. Don’t you get it? You’re all grains of sand.
—  Terence McKenna, Sacred Plants as Guides- New Dimensions of the Soul
Zen Koan: Nothing Exists

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no relaization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

Zen Koan - The Nature of Things

Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung. The other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know it’s nature is to sting?”

“Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”

One day, some people came to the master and asked: ‘How can you be so happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?’ The master held up a glass and said: ‘Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’
—  Zen Koan
Zen Koan: The Thief Who Became A Disciple

One evening as Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding wither his money or his life.

Shichiri told him: “Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer.” Then he resumed his recitation.

A little while afterwards he stopped and called: “Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow.”

The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. “Thank a person when you receive a gift,” Shichiri added. The man thanked him and made off.

A few days afterwards the fellow was caught and confessed, among others, the offense against Shichiri. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: “This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him the money and he thanked me for it.”

After he had finished his prison term, the man went to Shichiri and became his disciple.

Source; What is a Koan? Some Music for your zazen (meditation), Tips on meditation

Subhuti was Buddha’s disciple. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness, the viewpoint that nothing exists except in its relationship of subjectivity and objectivity.

One day Subhuti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.

“We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him.

“But I have not spoken of emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is the true emptiness.” And blossoms showered upon Subhuti as rain.

– Zen koan “Flower Shower,” via http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/zenindex.html

[Art by Odilon Redon. Buddha in His Youth, 1904. Distemper on canvas, 63.58 x 48.23 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.]

FX Fargo's episodes titles explained

All the episodes of Fargo (FX) refer to paradoxeszen kōans or otherwise parables. As you can see several times throughout the series, Fargo makes great use of these riddles, and they often provide the key to interpret the whole sense of the episode. I here have gathered and explained the meaning of each one of them, hoping this would help other curious viewers - as I am.

I mostly used Wikipedia and other useful websites for my purposes - they’re linked under every entry.

01x01: The Crocodile’s Dilemma

From the crocodile’s paradox:

The crocodile paradox is a paradox in logic in the same family of paradoxes as the liar paradox. The premise states that a crocodile, who has stolen a child, promises the father that his son will be returned if and only if he can correctly predict whether or not the crocodile will return the child.

The transaction is logically smooth but unpredictable if the father guesses that the child will be returned, but a dilemma arises for the crocodile if he guesses that the child will not be returned. In the case that the crocodile decides to keep the child, he violates his terms: the father’s prediction has been validated, and the child should be returned. However, in the case that the crocodile decides to give back the child, he still violates his terms, even if this decision is based on the previous result: the father’s prediction has been falsified, and the child should not be returned. The question of what the crocodile should do is therefore paradoxical, and there is no justifiable solution.


01x02: The Rooster Prince

From a Jewish mashal:

In this story, a prince goes insane and believes that he is a rooster (or turkey.) He takes off his clothes, sits naked under the table, and pecks at his food on the floor. The king and queen are horrified that the heir to the throne is acting this way. They call in various sages and healers to try and convince the prince to act human again, but to no avail. Then a new wise man comes to the palace and claims he can cure the prince. He takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with him, claiming to be a rooster, too. Gradually the prince comes to accept him as a friend. The sage then tells the prince that a rooster can wear clothes, eat at the table, etc. The Rooster Prince accepts this idea and, step-by-step, begins to act normally, until he is completely cured.


01x03: A Muddy Road

From a zen kōan:

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”


01x04: Eating the Blame

From a zen kōan:

Circumstances arose one day which delayed preparation of the dinner of a Soto Zen master, Fugai, and his followers. In haste the cook went to the garden with his curved knife and cut off the tops of green vegetables, chopped them together and made soup, unaware that in his haste he had included a part of a snake in the vegetables.

The followers of Fukai thought they never tasted such good soup. But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook. “What is this?” he demanded, holding the head of the snake.

“Oh, thank you, master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.


01x05: The Six Ungraspables

From a zen kōan by Yunmen Wenyan:

A monk once asked Ummon, “What is the Dharma Kaya?”. Ummon answered: “The Six Ungraspables.”

(The Graspables are the five senses and the mind).


01x06: Buridan’s ass

From Buridan’s ass – an illustration of a paradox in philosophy in the conception of free will.

It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other. The paradox is named after the 14th century French philosopher Jean Buridan, whose philosophy of moral determinism it satirizes. A common variant of the paradox substitutes two identical piles of hay for the hay and water; the ass, unable to choose between the two, dies of hunger.


01x07: Who Shaves the Barber?

From the barber paradox – a puzzle derived from Russell’s paradox:

It was used by Bertrand Russell himself as an illustration of the paradox, though he attributes it to an unnamed person who suggested it to him. It shows that an apparently plausible scenario is logically impossible.

Suppose there is a town with just one barber, who is male. In this town, every man keeps himself clean-shaven, and he does so by doing exactly one of two things:

  1. shaving himself; or
  2. being shaved by the barber.

Also, “The barber is a man in town who shaves all those, and only those, men in town who do not shave themselves.”

From this, asking the question “Who shaves the barber?” results in a paradox because according to the statement above, he can either shave himself, or go to the barber (which happens to be himself). However, neither of these possibilities are valid: they both result in the barber shaving himself, but he cannot do this because he shaves only those men “who do not shave themselves”.


01x08: The Heap

From the sōritēs paradox:

Sometimes translated as the “paradox of the heap” (in Ancient Greek: σωρίτης – sōritēs – means “heap”) is a paradox that arises from vague predicates. A typical formulation involves a heap of sand, from which grains are individually removed. Under the assumption that removing a single grain does not turn a heap into a non-heap, the paradox is to consider what happens when the process is repeated enough times: is a single remaining grain still a heap? (Or are even no grains at all a heap?) If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap?


01x09: The Fox, the Rabbit, and the Cabbage

From a variation of the fox, goose and a bag of beans puzzle:

Once upon a time a farmer went to market and purchased a fox, a rabbit, and a cabbage. On his way home, the farmer came to the bank of a river and rented a boat. But in crossing the river by boat, the farmer could carry only himself and a single one of his purchases - the fox, the rabbit, or the cabbage.

If left together, the fox would eat the rabbit, or the rabbit would eat the cabbage.

The farmer’s challenge was to carry himself and his purchases to the far bank of the river, leaving each purchase intact. How did he do it?


01x10: Morton’s Fork

From the Morton’s fork – a specious piece of reasoning in which contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion:

It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes byJohn Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century, who held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.



A kōan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the “great doubt” and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.

A Mashal is a short parable with a moral lesson or religious allegory.

Hope you found this interesting!

Zen Koans? What Are Those?

A Koan (Japanese: ko-an, Chinese: go-ng-àn) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement in the history and lore of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, generally containing aspects that are inaccessible to rational understanding, yet that may be accessible to intuition. A famous koan is, “Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?” (oral tradition, attributed to Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1769, considered a reviver of the koan tradition in Japan).

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  Koans originate in the sayings and doings of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th-6th century) as its ancestor. Koans are said to reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons, and sometimes said to confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness. Zen teachers often recite and comment on koans, and some Zen practitioners concentrate on koans during meditation. Teachers may probe such students about their koan practice using “checking questions” to validate an experience of insight (kensho) or awakening. Responses by students have included actions or gestures, “capping phrases”, and verses inspired by the koan.

      As used by teachers, monks, and students in training, koan can refer to a story selected from sutras and historical records, a perplexing element of the story, a concise but critical word or phrase extracted from the story, or to the story appended by poetry and commentary authored by later Zen teachers, sometimes layering commentary upon commentary. Less formally, the term koan sometimes refers to any experience that accompanies awakening or spiritual insight.

     English-speaking non-Zen practitioners sometimes use koan to refer to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a koan is not meaningless, and teachers often do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a koan. Even so, a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle. Appropriate responses to a koan may vary according to circumstances; different teachers may demand different responses to a given koan, and a fixed answer cannot be correct in every circumstance. One of the most common recorded comments by a teacher on a disciple’s answer is, “Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good.” The master is looking, not for an answer in a specific form, but for evidence that the disciple has grasped the practical use of the koan in daily life, or in other words, has actually given up some previous attachment.

     In the Rinzai Zen tradition the final set of koans is the ten precepts of Buddhism (Do not kill, and so on) which must be understood outside the dualism of right and wrong, but not in a monist or nihilist manner either. The Soto Zen tradition begins training with Dogen Zenji’s koan-style description of this deeper meaning of the Precepts.

     The word koan corresponds to the Chinese characters ?? which can be rendered in various ways: go-ng’àn (Chinese pinyin); kung-an (Chinese Wade-Giles); gong’an (Korean); công-án (Vietnamese); ko-an (Japanese Hepburn); often transliterated koan). Of these, “koan” is the most common in English. Just as Japanese Zen, Chinese Ch’an, Korean Son, and Vietnamese Thien, and Western Zen all share many features in common, likewise koans play similar roles in each, although significant cultural differences exist.

Here’s some Zen Koans, meditation music, and some info on how to zazen (meditate).


"Is That So?"

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him.  Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry.  She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master.  “Is that so?” was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin.  By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child.  He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer.  She told her parents the truth–that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing.  In yielding the child, all he said was: “Is that so?”