The Koans of Jesus

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" "What moves, the flag or the wind?"


These are koans, which are nonsensical Buddhist riddles, the very contemplation of which exhausts the rational mind so that a deeper wisdom emerges. When one of these riddles does its job, how we perceive reality changes. We no longer connect the dots of our lives in the same way.

What if the teachings of Jesus also function as koans? What if his parables were really wisdom tales intended to dislodge us from our comfortable, but limited, way of viewing reality? In fact, what if Jesus was really a Wisdom Teacher concerned more with our awakening than with our orthodoxy?

This is the notion promoted by Christian writer Cynthia Bourgeault and other progressive theologians. Of Jesus she writes:

"His parables are much closer to what in the Zen tradition would be koans - profound paradoxes (riddles, if you like) that are intended to turn the egoic mind upside down and push us into new ways of seeing...He is very deliberately trying to short-circuit the grasping, acquiring, clinging, comparing linear brain and to open up within us a whole new mode of perception (now what we see, but how we see, how the mind makes its connections.) This is a classic strategy of a master of wisdom." Wisdom Jesus, pp. 47, 50, 51

I love this approach to the teachings and life of Jesus. Most of us only hear the Bible through layers of church-speak that obscure and deflate its transformational power.

How can we hear sacred texts anew so that they turn our assumptions inside out? How can they mirror back to us our unconscious patterns of thinking and doing? How can they come alive and speak directly to our lived experience here and now? How do we recover the original punch these stories had? For unless scriptures create a visceral reaction and jar us into a new level of awakening, we have not really heard them.

Try this:

  • Read a story from the Bible (or any sacred scripture) aloud. Better yet listen to it read to you. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and Jesus' other parables are excellent passages to use for this practice.
  • Notice what your first gut reaction is to the story. Before the mind has a chance to tame the story, start writing the next chapter, that is, what you imagine might happen next. Let it be pure, spontaneous and uncensored.
  • Then look at what you wrote in response to the passage:
    • What do you notice?
    • What is the dominant emotion you feel as you read what you wrote? Do you feel angry, sad, hopeful, confused, open like a breath of fresh air, deflated? What do you feel in your body?
    • What does your writing reveal about how you relate to life? How is it mirroring back to you habitual patterns of thinking, feeling or acting?
    • Particularly lean into any parts of what you wrote that are uncomfortable. What is being reflected back to you? How is this passage turning you upside down and inside out? 
    • What new way of relating to life, to yourself, to others, to the divine is possible?

When we treat the teachings of Jesus as koans, they regain their wild, untamed potential to surprise and transform. When we hold them as universal tools intended to enlighten rather than indoctrinate, they begin to shift consciousness and take us into the felt wisdom of our bodies. They attune our hearts to the frequency of compassion. They empty the inner clutter and create spaciousness. They jolt us into alignment with the flow of Life.

What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is the sound of wisdom awakened.