I'm having a hard time trying to understand a koan from the Introduction of Mathematics Made Difficult, by Carl E. Linderholm

"One of the great Zen masters had an eager disciple who never lost an opportunity to catch whatever pearls of wisdom might drop from the master’s lips, and who followed him about constantly. One day, deferentially opening an iron gate for the old man, the disciple asked, How may I attain enlightenment?” The ancient sage, though withered and feeble, could be quick, and he deftly caused the heavy gate to shut on the pupil’s leg, breaking it.

When the reader has understood this little story, then he will understand the purpose of this book. It would seem to the unenlightened that as though the master, far from teaching his disciple, had left him more perplexed than ever by his cruel trick. To the enlightened, the anecdote expresses a deep truth. It is impossible to spell out for the reader what this truth is; he can only be referred to the anecdote."

I know, I know, koan's experts would say we are not supposed to understand them with a logical mind. But anyway, is this a common koan in Buddhist philosophy? Are there other similar well-known stories? Is it common to receive a corporal punishment from a master? ARe there other examples of this?

  • 1
    I took it as enlightenment can only be attained through suffering.
    – user9029
    Sep 6, 2014 at 18:41
  • It would not be that we cannot understand with the logical mind but that the necessary realisation must come from somewhere else and will transcend our ordinary use of logic. That realisation would be 'computable' as it were, and would be understandable to the logical mind. Koans are interesting to discuss but really they are best tackled in private for any value. Chris Sunami's answer seem good to me.
    – user20253
    May 1, 2018 at 12:11
  • @user9029 That is exactly the opposite of Buddhist thought.
    – CriglCragl
    May 1, 2018 at 12:30
  • There is the story of how when the Buddha spoke to the Arahants (the most accomplished long term followers) about Shunyata, the shock of the teaching was so overwhelming that some of them had heart attacks and died.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 4, 2022 at 11:54

8 Answers 8


Indeed, I cannot find a source for this concrete story, other than the non-Buddhist source you provided, but stories of the enlightened hitting the non-enlightened followers, who were curious about enlightenment, are not uncommon.

Take for example http://www.101zenstories.com/index.php?story=92:

"Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who had a teashop, praising her understanding of Zen. The pupils refused to believe what he told them and would go to the teashop to find out for themselves.

Whenever the woman saw them coming she could tell at once whether they had come for tea or to look into her grasp of Zen. In the former case, she would serve them graciously. In the latter, she would beckon the pupils to come behind her screen. The instant they obeyed, she would strike them with a fire-poker.

Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating."

However, even if the story is typical, I wouldn't call it a koan. Not every teaching in Buddhism is a koan.


This does not appear to be a kōan at all, but merely a story.

The moral of the story is clear, but if you would like it spelled out, the master is saying (through his actions) that it is time for the disciple to stop following the master around, but to go off and learn on his own.


I see it as someone who has been a casual student of Zen Buddhism for most of my life, hence:

The way to be enlightened / to wake up from a zombie-like state -- is to pay attention to your own situation and not allow yourself to become distracted / to become obsessed with unimportant things.

Enlightenment isn't something that can be learned by interviewing / questioning / following -- an enlightened master. The only way to enlighten yourself, is to be enlightened -- to be your own master.

You have to take the helm of your own ship. Had the disciple been his own master rather than submissively following another man around, he wouldn't have allowed himself to become so easily tangled up in a simple gate.


Its adapted from records in 1100 CE of Yunmen (雲門文偃) who was seeking his true nature by visiting Muzhou Daoming (睦州道明), known for "sudden illumination". Yunmen repeatedly visited Muzhou, knocking on his door. The latter opened slightly on the third time. Muzhou grabbed Yunmen by his collar and asked his name. Before Yunmen could reply, he was shoved out with the door closed upon him.

As Yunmen's leg got caught in the door, he open his mouth to scream in pain. He then realized that all obstructions to true nature are due to delusional thoughts (desires for progress etc), and that the true nature has always been there.

Koans (話頭, or beginning of talk) investigates the mind before any thought arises for the reply, by frustrating or forcing the mind to give up rational thinking. Similarly, the pain/ shock dropped Yunmen out of the thinking mind, thereby creating a fleeting pause to observe. There have been other cases such as drop/breaking of cup (Hsu Yun), ring of bell (Taizu) etc. Ling-ji school (Rinzai) uses shouting. Yunmen himself set up 1 of 5 prominent zen schools in China and focuses on beating and koans.

As to your question on why the author said what he said. I guess he meant that its hard to see clearly if one glances over the obvious/ uses formulaic workings or easy ways to solve.


I'm far from being a Zen Buddhist myself, but I've read a number of collections of authentic koans, and I would classify this one as fairly typical. Not all of them are like that, but a common thread in many is a shockingly unexpected action by the master that jars the student out of his normal mode of thought.

Trying to explain a koan is like trying to explain a joke --it strips the enlightenment right out of it --but in this case I think part of what's going on in this story is the sudden undeniable reality of the overwhelming pain. It's not what the student was looking for, but it is what he was asking for.


Maybe it came from something like this:

Yes and No 
According to The Platform Sutra, Shen Hui asked the Sixth Patriarch:
"When you sit in meditation, High Master, do you see or not?" 
The Master hit him three times with his stick and asked:
"When I hit you, does it hurt or not?" 
"It both does and does not hurt." 
"I both see and do not see." 
"How can you both see and not see?" 
The Master said: "What I see are the waverings and wanderings of my own mind.
What I do not see is the right and wrong and good and bad of other people.
This my seeing and not seeing."

source: http://spiritual-minds.com/stories/zen.htm


it is like the gateless gate, you must go trough, nobody else can .. but you..

in the golden time of Zen, the masters used every way to make the pupils spark enlightment ..some seems rather hard and mean in our western way of thinking

  • .. the time came to go
    – Rafael
    May 1, 2018 at 7:13
  • 3
    Could you provide a reference to the "geatless gate" to give the answer more substance. I like the idea that you must go through, no one else can. I would be interested in reading a reference about that as well. May 1, 2018 at 12:32
  • mumonkan (geatless gate) translated by katsuki sekida
    – Rafael
    May 3, 2018 at 9:22
  • I upvoted. That is an interesting reference I would not be aware of without your answer. I edited your answer to correct a spelling issue and to add a link to the translated text you referred to in your comment. May 3, 2018 at 13:16

I am pretty suspicious about this story, and I don't like it. It's not a good example and it does not clearly demonstrate 'skillful means', the defining quality of Zen aimed at bringing students to direct insight with unconventional methods. It seems more like an excuse for bullying.

Maybe there is more to the story, a transgression by the student, or a turning away from their 'wall' of lack of realisation for the distraction of 'pearls of wisdom' justifying an extreme method, but to me it sounds like bad Zen, a misconstrual or minterpretation of the method. The implication to a student of the story is only, stop following.

One of the most controversial Zen stories about the posing of a koan, for the Zen community, is the story of Nansen and the cat. One of the five precepts taken to become a Buddhist is to abstain from violence. And the Buddha said in the parable of the saw "Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching." Nansen is said to have cut a cat in two with a sword. Good arguments have been made that the students were involved in a common argument for Buddhists, is it ethical to keep a cat that kills mice? Nansen goes directly to ending the interminable discussion. If you don't want the cat, do you want the mice? If you want the cat can you say a good word for it? Dogen, the great(est?) Japanese Zen master says Nansen did teach with this, but could have been more skillful, and gives an alternate way he would have taught without the cat dying. Similarly, breaking a students leg is not skilful, even if it 'works' and teaches the student a profound lesson. As last resort to avoid a wasted life not awakening, maybe. Does the story make it clear this is a last resort? No.

It is a common perspective in the West that Zen stories and koans are interchangeable, and that any student can learn by contemplating any of them. Which makes a muddle of the whole thing. So some context. Koans and koan practice come out of the 'Transmission Of The Lamp' genre of writing, descriptions of the moment a master was recognised (and elements of their biography), that record the 'direct transmission from mind to mind' which creates the Zen lineage. They are directed at people knowledgable of the Buddhist Tripitakas and Zen literature, and often feature encounters with other spiritual practices like Daoism, or sophisticated reaction to and refinement of Zen doctrines - like Caodong's question about how insentient beings can preach the dharma or Dogen's question why Buddha came from the West. Koan practice is not about turning away from questioning, or abandoning the idea of answers, but in contemplating the defining moments of realisation of great masters a deep challanve is being undertaken. It is directed toward "A special transmission outside the scriptures; No dependence on words and letters; Direct pointing to the mind of man; Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood." (attributed to Boddhidharma, 1st patriarch of Zen)

"For there is suffering, but none who suffers; Doing exists although there is no doer. Extinction is but no extinguished person; Although there is a path, there is no goer." - Visuddhimagga XVI 90. Not even a hobbling goer


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