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A Template:Nihongo (Template:IPAc-en; Template:Zh, Template:IPAc-cmn; Template:Lang-ko kong'an; Template:Lang-vi) 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.


The Japanese term kōan is the Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese word gong'an (Template:Zh). The term is a compound word, consisting of the characters Template:Lang "public; official; governmental; common; collective; fair; equitable" and Template:Lang "table; desk; (law) case; record; file; plan; proposal."

According to the Yuan Dynasty Zen master Zhongfeng Mingben (Template:Lang 1263–1323), gōng'àn originated as an abbreviation of gōngfǔ zhī àndú (Template:Lang, Japanese kōfu no antoku—literally the andu "official correspondence; documents; files" of a gongfu "government post"), which referred to a "public record" or the "case records of a public law court" in Tang-dynasty China.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Refn Kōan/gong'an thus serves as a metaphor for principles of reality beyond the private opinion of one person, and a teacher may test the student's ability to recognize and understand that principle.

Commentaries in kōan collections bear some similarity to judicial decisions that cite and sometimes modify precedents. An article by T. Griffith Foulk claims Template:Quote

Gong'an was itself originally a metaphor—an article of furniture that came to denote legal precedents. For example, Di Gong'an (Template:Lang) is the original title of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, the famous Chinese detective novel based on a historical Tang dynasty judge. Similarly, Zen kōan collections are public records of the notable sayings and actions of Zen disciples and masters attempting to pass on their teachings.

Origins and development


Commenting on old cases

Gong'ans developed during the Tang dynasty (618–907)Template:Sfn from the recorded sayings collections of Chán-masters, which quoted many stories of "a famous past Chán figure's encounter with disciples or other interlocutors and then offering his own comment on it".Template:Sfn Those stories and the accompanying comments were used to educate students, and broaden their insight into the Buddhist teachings.

Those stories came to be known as gongan, "public cases".Template:Sfn Such a story was only considered a gongan when it was commented upon by another Chán-master.Template:Sfn This practice of commenting on the words and deeds of past masters confirmed the master's position as an awakened master in a lineage of awakened masters of the past.Template:Sfn

Literary practice

Koan practice developed from a literary practice, styling snippets of encounter-dialogue into well-edited stories. It arose in interaction with "educated literati".Template:Sfn There were dangers involved in such a literary approach, such as ascribing specific meanings to the cases.Template:Sfn Dahui Zonggao is even said to have burned the woodblocks of the Blue Cliff Record, for the hindrance it had become to study of Chán by his students.Template:Sfn Kōan literature was also influenced by the pre-Zen Chinese tradition of the "literary game"—a competition involving improvised poetry.Template:Sfn

The style of writing of Zen texts has been influenced by "a variety of east Asian literary games":Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Observing the phrase

During the Song dynasty (960–1297) the use of gongans took a decisive turn. Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163)Template:Refn introduced the use of kanhua, "observing the phrase". In this practice students were to observe (kan) or concentrate on a single word or phrase (huatou), such as the famous mu of the mu-koan.Template:Sfn

In the eleventh century this practice had become common.Template:Sfn A new literary genre developed from this tradition as well. Collections of such commented cases were compiled which consisted of the case itself, accompanied by verse or prose commentary.Template:Sfn

Dahui's invention was aimed at balancing the insight developed by reflection on the teachings with developing samatha, calmness of mind.Template:Sfn Ironically, this development became in effect silent illumination,Template:Sfn a "[re-absorbing] of koan-study into the "silence" of meditation (ch'an)".Template:Sfn It led to a rejection of Buddhist learning: Template:Quote

This development left Chinese Chan vulnerable to criticisms by neo-Confucianism, which developed after the Sung Dynasty. Its anti-intellectual rhetoric was no match for the intellectual discourse of the neo-Confucianists.Template:Sfn


The recorded encounter dialogues, and the koan collections which derived from this genre, mark a shift from solitary practice to interaction between master and student: Template:Quote

This mutual enquiry of the meaning of the encounters of masters and students of the past gave students a role model: Template:Quote

Kōan training requires a qualified teacher who has the ability to judge a disciple's depth of attainment. In the Rinzai Zen school, which uses kōans extensively, the teacher certification process includes an appraisal of proficiency in using that school's extensive kōan curriculum.

Contemporary koan-use

In China and Korea, "observing the phrase" is still the sole form of koan-practice, though Seung Sahn used the Rinzai-style of koan-practice in his Kwan Um School of Zen.Template:Sfn


Japanese Zen, both Rinzai and Soto, took over the use of koan-study and -commenting. In Soto-Zen, koan commentary was not linked to seated meditation.Template:Sfn

Koan manuals

When the Chán-tradition was introduced in Japan, Japanese monks had to master the Chinese language and specific expressions used in the koan-training. The desired "spontaneity" expressed by enlightened masters required a thorough study of Chinese language and poetry.Template:Sfn Japanese Zen imitated the Chinese "syntax and stereotyped norms".Template:Sfn

In the officially recognized monasteries belonging to the Gozan (Five Mountain System) the Chinese system was fully continued. Senior monks were supposed to compose Chinese verse in a complex style of matched counterpoints known as bienli wen. It took a lot of literary and intellectual skills for a monk to succeed in this system.Template:Sfn

The Rinka-monasteries, the provincial temples with less control of the state, laid less stress on the correct command of the Chinese cultural idiom. These monasteries developed "more accessible methods of koan instruction".Template:Sfn It had three features:Template:Sfn

  1. A standardized koan-curriculum;
  2. A standardized set of answers based on stereotypes Chinese sayings;
  3. A standardized method of secretly guiding students through the curriculum of koan and answers.

By standardizing the koan-curriculum every generation of students proceeded to the same series of koans.Template:Sfn Students had to memorize a set number of stereotyped sayings, agyō, "appended words".Template:Sfn The proper series of responses for each koan were taught by the master in private instruction-sessions to selected individual students who would inherit the dharma lineage.Template:Sfn

Missanroku and missanchō, "Records of secret instruction" have been preserved for various Rinzai-lineages. They contain both the koan-curricula and the standardized answers.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn In Soto-Zen they are called monsan, an abbreviation of monto hissan, "secret instructions of the lineage".Template:Sfn The monsan follow a standard question-and-answer format. A series of questions is given, to be asked by the master. The answers are also given by the master, to be memorized by the student.Template:Sfn

Contemporary koan curricula

In the eighteenth century the Rinzai school became dominated by the legacy of Hakuin, who laid a strong emphasis on koan study as a means to gain kensho and develop insight.Template:Sfn There are two curricula used in Rinzai, both derived from the principal heirs of Rinzai: the Takuju curriculum, and the Inzan curriculum.Template:Sfn According to AMA Samy, "the koans and their standard answers are fixed."Template:Sfn

Suppression in the Soto-school

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century the tradition of koan-commentary became suppressed in the Soto-school, due to a reform movement that sought to standardise the procedures for dharma transmission.Template:Sfn One reason for suppressing the koan-tradition in the Soto-school may have been to highlight the differences with the Rinzai-school, and create a clear identity.Template:Sfn This movement also started to venerate Dogen as the founding teacher of the Soto-school. His teachings became the standard for the Soto-teachings, neglecting the fact that Dogen himself made extensive use of koan-commentary.Template:Sfn

Doctrinal background

The popular western understanding sees kōan as referring to an unanswerable question or a meaningless statement. However, in Zen practice, a kōan is not meaningless, and not a riddle or a puzzle. Teachers do expect students to present an appropriate response when asked about a kōan.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Template:Sfn

Koans are also understood as pointers to an unmediated "Pure Consciousness", devoid of cognitive activity.Template:Sfn Victor Hori criticizes this understanding: Template:Quote

According to Hori, a central theme of many koans is the 'identity of opposites':Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Template:Quote

Comparable statements are: "Look at the flower and the flower also looks"; "Guest and host interchange".Template:Sfn


Study of kōan literature is common to all schools of Zen, though with varying emphases and curricula.Template:Sfn The Rinzai-school uses extensive koan-curricula, checking questions, and jakogo ("capping phrases", quotations from Chinese poetry) in its use of koans.Template:Sfn The Sanbo Kyodan, and its western derivates of Taizan Maezumi and the White Plum Asanga, also use koan-curricula, but have omitted the use of capping phrases.Template:Sfn In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, the emphasis is on Hua Tou, the study of one koan throughout one's lifetime.Template:Sfn In Japanese Soto-Zen, the use of koans has been abandoned since the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.Template:Sfn

Hua-tou or breakthrough-koan

In the Rinzai-school, the Sanbo Kyodan, and the White Plum Asanga, koan practice starts with the assignment of a hosshi or "break-through koan", usually the mu-koan or "the sound of one hand clapping".Template:Sfn In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, various koan can be used for the hua-tou practice.

Students are instructed to concentrate on the "word-head", like the phrase "mu". In the Wumenguan (Mumonkan), public case #1 ("Zhaozhou's Dog"), Wumen (Mumon) wrote: Template:Quote

Arousing this great inquiry or "Great Doubt" is an essential element of kōan practice. It builds up "strong internal pressure (gidan), never stopping knocking from within at the door of [the] mind, demanding to be resolved".Template:Sfn To illustrate the enormous concentration required in kōan meditation, Zen Master Wumen commented, Template:Quote

Analysing the koan for its literal meaning won't lead to insight, though understanding the context from which koans emerged can make them more intelligible. For example, when a monk asked Zhaozhou (Joshu) "does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?", the monk was referring to the understanding of the teachings on Buddha-nature, which were understood in the Chinese context of absolute and relative reality.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Refn


The continuous pondering of the break-through koan (shokanTemplate:Sfn) or Hua Tou, "word head",Template:Sfn leads to kensho, an initial insight into "seeing the (Buddha-)nature.Template:Sfn

The aim of the break-through koan is to see the "nonduality of subject and object":Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Template:Quote

Various accounts can be found which describe this "becoming one" and the resulting breakthrough: Template:Quote

But the use of the mu-koan has also been criticised. According to AMA Samy, the main aim is merely to "'become one' with the koan".Template:Sfn Showing to have 'become one' with the first koan is enough to pass the first koan.Template:Sfn According to Samy, this is not equal to prajna: Template:Quote

Testing insight - or learning responses

Sassho – Checking questions

Teachers may probe students about their kōan practice using sassho, "checking questions" to validate their satori (understanding) or kensho (seeing the nature).Template:Sfn For the mu-koan and the clapping hand-koan there are twenty to a hundred checking questions, depending on the teaching lineage.Template:Sfn The checking questions serve to deepen the insight of the student, but also to test his or her understanding.Template:Sfn

Those checking questions, and their answers, are part of a standardised set of questions and answers.Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn Students are learning a "ritual performance",Template:Sfn learning how to behave and response in specific ways,Template:SfnTemplate:SfnTemplate:Sfn learning "clever repartees, ritualized language and gestures and be submissive to the master’s diktat and arbitration."Template:Sfn

Jakugo – Capping phrases

In the Rinzai-school, passing a koan and the checking questions has to be supplemented by jakugo, "capping phrases", citations of Chinese poetry to demonstrate the insight.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn Students can use collections of those citations, instead of composing poetry themselves.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

Post-satori practice

After the initial insight further practice is necessary, to deepen the insight and learn to express it in daily life.Template:Sfn In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, this further practice consists of further pondering of the same Hua Tou.[web 1] In Rinzai-Zen, this further practice is undertaken by further koan-study, for which elaborate curriculae exist.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn In Soto-Zen, Shikantaza is the main practice for deepening insight.

Varieties in koan-practice

Chinese Chán and Korean Seon

In Chinese Chán and Korean Seon, the primary form of Koan-study is kanhua, "reflection on the koan",Template:Sfn also called Hua Tou, "word head".Template:Sfn In this practice, a fragment of the koan, such as "mu", or a "what is"-question is used by focusing on this fragment and repeating it over and over again:[web 2]Template:Sfn Template:Quote

The student is assigned only one hua-tou for a lifetime.Template:Sfn In contrast to the similar-sounding "who am I?" question of Ramana Maharshi, hua-tou involves raising "great doubt":[web 1] Template:Quote

Japanese Rinzai

Kōan practice is particularly important among Japanese practitioners of the Rinzai sect.

Importance of koan-study

This importance is reflected in writings in the Rinzai-school on the koan-genre. Zhongfeng MingbenTemplate:Efn (1263–1323),Template:Sfn a Chinese Chán-master who lived at the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty, revitalized the Rinzai-tradition,Template:Sfn and put a strong emphasis on the use of koans. He saw the kung-ans as "work of literature [that] should be used as objective, universal standards to test the insight of monks who aspired to be recognized as Ch'an masters":Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Musō Soseki (1275–1351), a Japanese contemporary of Zhongfeng Mingben, relativized the use of koans.Template:Sfn The study of koans had become popular in Japan, due to the influence of Chinese masters such as Zhongfeng Mingben. Despite belonging to the Rinzai-school, Musō Soseki also made extensive use of richi (teaching), explaining the sutras, instead of kikan (koan). According to Musō Soseki, both are upaya, "skillful means" meant to educate students.Template:Sfn Musō Soseki called both shōkogyu, "little jewels", tools to help the student to attain satori.Template:SfnTemplate:Refn

Koan curricula

In Rinzai a gradual succession of koans is studied.Template:Sfn There are two general branches of curricula used within Rinzai, derived from the principal heirs of Rinzai: the Takuju curriculum, and the Inzan curriculum. However, there are a number of sub-branches of these, and additional variations of curriculum often exist between individual teaching lines which can reflect the recorded experiences of a particular lineage's members. Koan curricula are, in fact, subject to continued accretion and evolution over time, and thus are best considered living traditions of practice rather than set programs of study.

Koan practice starts with the shokan, or "first barrier", usually the mu-koan or the koan "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"Template:Sfn After having attained kensho, students continue their practice investigating subsequent koans.Template:Sfn In the Takuju-school, after breakthrough students work through the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), the Blue Cliff Record (Hekigan-roku), the Entangling Vines (Shumon Kattoshu), and the Collection of Wings of the Blackbird (Template:Lang, Chin'u shū).Template:Sfn The Inzan-school uses its own internally generated list of koans.Template:Sfn

Hakuin's descendants developed a fivefold classification system:Template:Sfn

  1. Hosshin, dharma-body koans, are used to awaken the first insight into sunyata.Template:Sfn They reveal the dharmakaya, or Fundamental.Template:Sfn They introduce "the undifferentitated and the unconditional".Template:Sfn
  2. Kikan, dynamic action koans, help to understand the phenomenal world as seen from the awakened point of view;Template:Sfn Where hosshin koans represent tai, substance, kikan koans represent yu, function.Template:Sfn
  3. Gonsen, explication of word koans, aid to the understanding of the recorded sayings of the old masters.Template:Sfn They show how the Fundamental, though not depending on words, is nevertheless expressed in words, without getting stuck to words.Template:Sfn
  4. Hachi Nanto, eight "difficult to pass" koans.Template:Sfn There are various explanations for this category, one being that these koans cut off clinging to the previous attainment. They create another Great Doubt, which shatters the self attained through satori.Template:Sfn It is uncertain which are exactly those eight koans.Template:Sfn Hori gives various sources, which altogether give ten hachi nanto koans:Template:Sfn
    • Miura and Sasaki:
      • Nansen's Flower (Hekigan-roku Case 40)
      • A Buffalo Passes the Window (Mumonkan Case 38)
      • Sōzan's Memorial Tower (Kattō-shō Case 140)
      • Suigan's Eyebrows (Hekigan-roku Case 8)
      • Enkan's Rhinoceros Fan (Hekigan-roku Case 91)
    • Shimano:
      • The Old Woman Burns the Hut (Kattō-shō Case 162)
    • Asahina Sōgen:
      • Goso Hōen's "Hakuun Said 'Not Yet'" (Kattō-shō Case 269)
      • Shuzan's Main Cable (Kattō-shō Case 280).
    • Akizuki:
      • Nansen Has Died (Kattō-shō Case 282)
      • Kenpō’s Three Illnesses (Kattō-shō Case 17).
  5. Goi jujukin koans, the Five Ranks of Tozan and the Ten Grave Precepts.Template:SfnTemplate:Sfn

According to Akizuki there was an older classification-system, in which the fifth category was Kojo, "Directed upwards". This category too was meant to rid the monk of any "stink of Zen".Template:Sfn The very advanced practitioner may also receive the Matsugo no rokan, "The last barrier, and Saigo no ikketsu, "The final confirmation".Template:Sfn "The last barrier" when one left the training hall, for example "Sum up all of the records of Rinzai in one word!"Template:Sfn It is not meant to be solved immediately, but to be carried around in order to keep practising.Template:Sfn "the final confirmation" may be another word for the same kind of koan.Template:Sfn

Post-satori practice

Completing the koan-curriculum in the Rinzai-schools traditionally also led to a mastery of Chinese poetry and literary skills: Template:Quote

After completing the koan-training, Gogo no shugyo, post-satori training is necessary:Template:Sfn Template:Quote

Breathing practices

Hakuin Ekaku, the 17th century revitalizer of the Rinzai school, taught several practices which serve to correct physical and mental imbalances arising from, among other things, incorrect or excessive koan practice. The "soft-butter" method (nanso no ho) and "introspection method" (naikan no ho) involve cultivation of ki centered on the tanden (Chinese:dantian). These practices are described in Hakuin's works Orategama and Yasen Kanna, and are still taught in some Rinzai lineages today.

Japanese Soto

Though few Soto practitioners concentrate on kōans during meditation, the Soto sect has a strong historical connection with kōans, since many kōan collections were compiled by Soto priests.

During the 13th century, Dōgen, founder of the Soto sect in Japan, quoted 580 kōans in his teachings.Template:Sfn He compiled some 300 kōans in the volumes known as the Greater Shōbōgenzō. Dōgen wrote of Genjokōan, which points out that everyday life experience is the fundamental kōan.

However, according to Michel Mohr, Template:Quote

Sanbo Kyodan and White Plum Asanga

The Sanbo Kyodan school and the White Plum Asanga, which originated with the Soto-priest Hakuun Yasutani, incorporates koan-study. The Sanbo kyodan places great emphasis on kensho, initial insight into one's true nature,Template:Sfn as a start of real practice. It follows the so-called Harada-Yasutani koan-curriculum, which is derived from Hakuin's student Takuju. It is a shortened koan-curriculum, in which the socalled "capping phrases" are removed. The curriculum takes considerably less time to study than the Takuju-curriculum of Rinzai.Template:Sfn

To attain kensho, most students are assigned the mu-koan. After breaking through, the student first studies twenty-two "in-house"Template:Sfn koans, which are "unpublished and not for the general public",Template:Sfn but are nevertheless published and commented upon.Template:Sfn[web 3] There-after, the students goes through the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan), the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Equanimity, and the Record of Transmitting the Light.Template:Sfn The koan-curriculum is completed by the Five ranks of Tozan and the precepts.Template:Sfn

Classical kōan collections

Kōans collectively form a substantial body of literature studied by Zen practitioners and scholars worldwide. Kōan collections commonly referenced in English include:

  • The Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku), 12th century;
  • The Book of Equanimity (also known as the Book of Serenity; Chinese: Cóngróng Lù; Japanese: Shoyoroku), 12th century;
  • The Gateless Gate (also known as The Gateless Barrier; Chinese: Wúménguān; Japanese: Mumonkan) collected during the 13th century).

In these and subsequent collections, a terse "main case" of a kōan often accompanies prefatory remarks, poems, proverbs and other phrases, and further commentary about prior emendations.

The Blue Cliff Record

The Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Template:Lang Bìyán Lù; Japanese: Hekiganroku) is a collection of 100 kōans compiled in 1125 by Yuanwu Keqin (Template:Lang 1063–1135).

The Book of Equanimity

The Book of Equanimity or Book of Serenity (Chinese: Template:Lang Cóngróng lù; Japanese: Template:Lang Shōyōroku) is a collection of 100 Kōans by Hongzhi Zhengjue (Chinese: Template:Lang; Japanese: Wanshi Shōgaku) (1091–1157), compiled with commentaries by Wansong Xingxiu (1166–1246). The full title is The Record of the Temple of Equanimity With the Classic Odes of Venerable Tiantong Jue and the Responsive Commentary of Old Man Wansong Template:Lang (Wansong Laoren Pingchang Tiantong Jue Heshang Songgu Congrong An Lu) (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 48, No. 2004)

The Gateless Gate

The Gateless Gate (Chinese: Template:Lang Wumenguan; Japanese: Mumonkan) is a collection of 48 kōans and commentaries published in 1228 by Chinese monk Wumen (Template:Lang) (1183–1260). The title may be more accurately rendered as Gateless Barrier or Gateless Checkpoint).

Five kōans in the collection derive from the sayings and doings of Zhaozhou Congshen, (transliterated as Chao-chou in Wade-Giles and pronounced Jōshū in Japanese).

The True Dharma Eye

The True Dharma Eye 300 (Shōbōgenzō Sanbyakusoku) is a collection of 300 kōans compiled by Eihei Dōgen.

Other kōan collections compiled and annotated by Soto priests include:

  • The Iron Flute (Japanese: Tetteki Tosui, compiled by Genro in 1783)
  • Verses and Commentaries on One Hundred Old Cases of Tenchian (Japanese: Tenchian hyakusoku hyoju, compiled by Tetsumon in 1771.)

Examples of traditional kōans

Does a dog have Buddha-nature


("Zhaozhou" is rendered as "Chao-chou" in Wade-Giles, and pronounced "Joshu" in Japanese. "Wu" appears as "mu" in Japanese, meaning "no", "not", "nonbeing", or "without" in English. This is a fragment of Case #1 of the Wúménguān. However, another koan presents a longer version, in which Zhaozhou answered "yes" in response to the same question asked by a different monk: see Case #18 of the Book of Serenity.)

The sound of one hand


Victor Hori comments: Template:Quote

Original Face

Huìnéng asked Hui Ming, "Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born." (This is a fragment of case #23 of the Wumenguan.)

Killing the Buddha


Thinking about the Buddha as an entity or deity is delusion, not awakening. One must destroy the preconception of the Buddha as separate and external before one can become internally as their own Buddha. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind during an introduction to Zazen, Template:Quote

One is only able to see a Buddha as he exists in separation from Buddha; the mind of the practitioner is thus still holding onto apparent duality.

Other koans

  • A student asked Master Yun-Men (A.D. 949) "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?" Master replied, "Mount Sumeru!"
  • A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, "What is Buddha?" Dongshan said, "Three pounds of flax." (This is a fragment of case #18 of the Wumenguan as well as case #12 of the Blue Cliff Record.)
  • A monk asked Zhaozhou, "What is the meaning of the ancestral teacher's (i.e., Bodhidharma's) coming from the west?" Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in front of the hall." (This is a fragment of case #37 of the Wumenguan as well as case #47 of the Book of Serenity.)

See also




Book references

Web references




Further reading

  • Loori, John Daido. Sitting with Koans: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Koan Study. Wisdom Publications, 2005. Template:ISBN
  • Steven Heine, and Dale S. Wright, eds. The Kōan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Template:ISBN
  • Hoffmann, Yoel.tr. The Sound of the One Hand. Basic Books, 1975. Template:ISBN This book contains examples of how some Zen practitioners answer the koans "correctly". Originally published in Japan almost a century ago as a critique of fossilization of Zen, that is formalization of koan practice.
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External links

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Page is sourced from

www.encyclopediaofbuddhism.org Kōan