It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Find your own koan.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in Zen koans (rhymes with Ken Cohens). In Buddhist tradition, a koan is a question or a statement that can’t be understood logically. Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment.

The most famous koan is probably: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” Here are a few of my favorites:

— Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.” The other said, “The wind is moving.” The sixth patriarch happened to pass by. He said, “Not the wind, not the flag, mind is moving.”

— If you meet the Buddha, kill him.

A koan can’t be grasped by logic, or explained in words.

My interest in koans rose dramatically when I realized that for many years, I’ve collected lines that work like koans for me, I just hadn’t thought of them as koans.

Robert Frost: “The best way out is always through.”

Francis Bacon/Heraclitus: “Dry light is ever the best.”

Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

T. S. Eliot: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”

Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

Diana Vreeland: “The eye must travel.”

Each of these perplexing lines has haunted me. They float through my mind at odd times, they seem strangely relevant to widely diverse situations.

For years, I puzzled over the odd power of a line from Gertrude Stein’s brilliant The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: “I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.” Not until I wrote my book Profane Waste did I feel that I’d begun to grasp it. The fact that I’d spent so much time thinking about that passage probably helped me grapple with the very opaque subject of that book.

The modern koan I reflect on most often, however, is a Spanish proverb quoted by Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson: “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.”

In his Journal, Henry David Thoreau echoed Johnson: “It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves…I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”

This observation has profound implications for a Happiness Project. What does it mean to say, “He who would find the happiness of the Indies must carry the happiness of the Indies with him”?

Ruminating on my koans hasn’t bring me any closer to satori (at least, not as far as I can tell), but they have a strange calming effect. If I invoke one in a moment of impatience or annoyance, it helps restore my composure.

They also spark my creativity — talk about “thinking outside the box.” Koans force me to challenge conventional lines of thought and push me into original territory.

Even the process of identifying my personal koans has enlivened my imagination. When I come to a passage that doesn’t seem to make sense in the usual way, instead of stopping in frustration or passing over it, I think, “Oh, look, another koan, this one by G. K. Chesterton. ‘It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.’”

[Two hours later]
Writing this post about koans has gotten me so worked up that I’ve started a new hobby book – which I’ve already titled! Through the Gateless Checkpoint: Koans and Paradoxes, Ancient and Modern.

The Big Girl is very interested in paradoxes, so I’ve been looking for good examples, and I’ve been interested in koans for a long time. Now I’m going to collect examples—new and old—and put them into book form. I can self-publish it for my own gratification on the fabulous, or maybe I can even get a publisher interested.

Before the Happiness Project, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to “waste” time doing this. But now, I have my resolutions to “Make time for projects,” “Force myself to wander,” “Follow my interests,” “Take notes without a purpose,” and “Make books.” I’m NOT wasting my time.

If you know any great examples of koans or paradoxes, send them my way!

Wikipedia has an entry on hacker koans — hilarious.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sharyn

    One of my favorites has always been “Only that day dawns to which we are awake” (again with Thoreau) and also “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
    The koan/paradox theme reminds be of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sound of Silence”.

  • A Zen Teacher saw five of his students return from the market, riding their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the teacher asked the students, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”
    The first student replied, “The bicycle is carrying this sack of potatoes. I am glad that I do not have to carry them on my back!” The teacher praised the student, saying, “You are a smart boy. When you grow old, you will not walk hunched over, as I do.”
    The second student replied, “I love to watch the trees and fields pass by as I roll down the path.” The teacher commended the student, “Your eyes are open and you see the world.”
    The third student replied, “When I ride my bicycle, I am content to chant, nam myoho renge kyo.” The teacher gave praise to the third student, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly trued wheel.”
    The fourth student answered, “Riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all beings.” The teacher was pleased and said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”
    The fifth student replied, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.” The teacher went and sat at the feet of the fifth student, and said, “I am your disciple.”

  • Liz

    One of my favourites is a sign on French railway crossings. It says “Un train peut en cacher un autre” One train could be hiding another. I have always found it sage advice, and there lurks an undertone that maybe … just maybe… trains do it on purpose. It’s a bit like the elephant in the room, I guess.

  • It’s great that your blogging inspired you to write.
    I’ve come up with various koans or mantras over time…but for the life of me I can’t remember any of them right now. I’ll think about it. 🙂

  • I was so happy to see the quote from T.S. Eliot! That’s my favorite poem.

  • Flavia

    Found in wikipedia a while ago:
    Why is water cheaper than diamonds, when humans need water to survive, not diamonds?
    Can an omnipotent being create a rock too heavy to lift?
    “All cretans are liars.” If a Cretan tells you that, would you believe?
    Paradox of hedonism: When one pursues happiness itself, one is miserable; but, when one pursues something else, one achieves happiness.

  • adora

    I read one of my grandma’s koan book called “doorless gate”(gateless passage?) in Chinese when I was about 8 years old. I thought it was jokes or stories, but the author didn’t tell it right. lol
    I read this from the bible, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It got me thinking for over 20 years.

  • Erika

    Love the post.
    And not to be a wet blanket on the camel thing, apparently the (Aramaic?) word for camel and rope are the same word (gemal? gamel? something like that). Ever since learning that, I have thought that particular turn of phrase was due to the poorer knowledge of the language in early translations.

  • iamthezenmaster

    I read this book back in college many years ago and every so often pick up my personal copy and read it again. The stories really make you think, let alone the koans. Definitely worth a read. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings (ISBN 0804831866)

  • beth_nc

    “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” the Beatles.

  • KCCC

    I’m not sure this (mis)quote exactly fits, but it’s really affected my thinking.
    “There are two kinds of truth, Great Truths and little truths. And here’s how you tell the difference: The opposite of a little truth is a lie. The opposite of a Great Truth is another Great Truth.”
    Niels Bohr said something LIKE this… this is how I remembered it. When I searched for the quote later, I found several variants that were close, but not this exact one. (I like to think there are multiple variants because it was a common theme for him…)
    At any rate, this idea was electrifying when I first heard it – so many of the Big Debates in our society can be described as Opposing Great Truths.
    Because of this insight, I now think in terms of “balance points” instead of in terms of “either/or.”

  • D.L. Wood

    Don’t worry about nothing, because nothing going to be ok.

  • My favorite quote is from Karin Cotterman and reads, “Water doesnt’ wash. It remembers.”

  • I find the words of Yoda “Do or do not. There is no try.” more and more insightful for each day.
    It’s simple, really – if you try you don’t put all your heart and effort into whatever you are doing. So do. Or do not.
    Maybe not a koan, but still words to make you think.

  • Theresa

    Hobby book! I love that term. I’ve started a couple books this Jan and you’ve given me the perfect thing to call them 🙂
    This is my own, made up koan–though I’m sure the form isn’t right, but I use it often to think more deeply about what is really important–to do, to say:
    What was the first thing the man said after he came out of the cave, after 10 years of silence and solitude?

  • Funny that you mention the ‘What’s the sound of one hand’ because the first time I heard about this koan, I immediately discovered that I could actually make a klapping noise with one hand fairly easily.
    I thought that I was supposed to pounder on it for hours.
    Maybe I had an instant ‘Satori Rush’ 🙂
    Or maybe that I simply haven’t ever lost a simple and childish way of thinking.
    The idea that I have to pounder for hours on something doesn’t have a calming effect on me, although I do like the ‘Thinking outside of the Box’ idea, and I do like unconventional lines of thought, infact I think that it comes so natural to me.
    Some time ago I also wrote a post about ‘unconvential thinking’ exploring the benefits of ‘non-rational’ thinking in an article about ‘Logic being overrated’.
    It probably isn’t wise to totally ignor rational thinking only the observation that it sometimes can have it’s benefits. You can read about it in my blogpost at:
    and I also – in a way – I have written about it in my tiny little ebook you can find on ‘’ at:
    All the Best,
    P.S. I will be on the look out for your book at also.
    P.S.S. and people reading this post please leave your comments at my blog so that it can possibly inspire me to write an improved version of my ebook.

  • Gretchen, if you’re interested in paradox, I highly recommend the chapters on it in Douglas Hofstadter’s “Metamagical Themas.” I think you will appreciate his point of view and insights on the subject.

  • Yoko Ono often writes in paradoxes. Here are two of my faves:
    Make a key.
    Find a lock that fits.
    If you find it, burn the house
    that is attached to it.
    –Yoko Ono, “Travel Piece”
    Draw a map to get lost.
    –Yoko Ono, “Map Piece”

  • Laserlight

    “There is no archer, there is no arrow. There is only the target.”

  • I am “in tune” to your post and i look forward to hearing more on your Happiness Project. Here’s one from Fr. Anthony De Mello “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

  • Ann

    The one I like best is any version of the following (it’s more a Zen story):
    A new disciple came to meet Zen master Joshu.
    “I’m a day old here and would like to learn the first Zen lesson,” said he to the master.
    “Did you have your meal?” asked Joshu.
    “Yes master,” replied the disciple.
    “Now go and wash your bowl,” said Joshu.

  • Anna in Atlanta

    “Wherever you go, there you are.”

    • Brian J.

      That one is best for mindfulness. I believe it comes from the movie Buckaroo Banzai.

  • TJ

    I like “the more you know, the less you know.”

  • amy

    Did you ever see the children’s book “Zen Ghosts” by Jon J. Muth? My kids love all his zen books but that is where I first learned about koans. I am a pretty logical, rational type and so I’m kind of surprised at how much I love koans! I think of that book a lot — is she one or is she two?

    • gretchenrubin

      No – I’ll check it out!

  • Wandering is good.
    Recent research in neuroscience suggests that mental wandering is protective against depression and other mental health problems.
    A non wandering mind tends to ruminate which is not healthy.
    The more wandering second order thinking we can manage the better.