Koan and Case Law


The Zen koan comes from the Chinese kung-an, meaning a “public case,” as in a legal matter brought before a judge. There are numerous ways in which these koan could be related to law cases. Very straightforwardly, these are public records, the recorded sayings of the early Chan masters that have been passed down and commented upon, just as there may be public legal cases that have authority as precedent and have been commented upon. The koan encounter could be understood as a judgement by a master upon a student based upon the student’s understanding of the “case.” A third way in which the connection could be understood is that the koan tests the student’s understanding of the Dharma. Dharma has many meanings in Buddhism, but one of those meanings is “law.”

Having gone to law school in the U.S. myself, I was very intrigued by the relationship between koan study and legal cases as well as the structure of law school and Zen school. In law school there are a number of cases that one must learn and then apply. There are exams and levels that one has to pass before one is conferred the approval to “practice” law. Similarly, in Zen there are various cases (koan) that one contemplates and numerous examinations of one’s understanding. But in Zen, the koan and zazen are the practice. Law/Dharma is not a set of rules to be studied. Rather, it is the fundamental fabric in which we have our existence.

Now go sit.