December 7, 2019
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Zen kōans: unsolvable enigmas designed to break your brain – Puqun Li


How do we explain the unexplainable? This question has inspired numerous myths, religious practices, and scientific inquiries. But Zen Buddhists practicing throughout
China from the 9th to 13th century asked a different question – why do we need an explanation? For these monks, blindly seeking answers
was a vice to overcome, and learning to accept
the mysteries of existence was the true path to enlightenment. But fighting the urge to explain
the unexplainable can be difficult. So to help practice living
with these mysteries, the meditating monks used a collection
of roughly 1,700 bewildering and ambiguous philosophical
thought experiments called kōans. The name, originally gong-an in Chinese,
translates to “public record or case.” But unlike real-world court cases,
kōans were intentionally incomprehensible. They were surprising, surreal,
and frequently contradicted themselves. On the surface, they contained a proverb
about the Zen Buddhist monastic code – such as living without physical
or mental attachments, avoiding binary thinking, and realizing one’s true “Buddha-nature.” But by framing those lessons
as illogical anecdotes, they became tests to help practicing monks
learn to live with ambiguity and paradox. By puzzling through
these confusing “cases,” meditating monks could both internalize
and practice Buddhist teachings. Hopefully, they would let go
of the search for one true answer and trigger a spiritual breakthrough. Since these are intentionally
unexplainable, it would be misguided to try
and decipher these stories ourselves. But like the monks before us, we can puzzle over them together, and investigate just how resistant
they are to simple explanations. Consider this kōan illustrating the
practice of no-attachment. Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido,
are traveling together down a muddy road. Ahead they see an attractive traveler,
unable to cross the muddy path. Tanzan politely offers his help, carrying the traveler
on his back across the street, and placing her down without a word. Ekido was shocked. According to monastic law,
monks were not supposed to go near women, let alone touch a beautiful stranger. After miles of walking,
Ekido could no longer restrain himself. “How could you carry that woman?” Tanzan smiled, “I left the traveler there.
Are you still carrying her?” Like all kōans,
this story has numerous interpretations. But one popular reading suggests that despite never having
physically carried the traveler, Ekido broke monastic law
by mentally “clinging to” the woman. This type of conflict – examining the grey area between the letter
of the law and the spirit of the law – was common in kōans. In addition to exploring ambiguity, kōans often ridiculed characters claiming total understanding
of the world around them. One such example finds three monks debating a temple flag
rippling in the wind. The first monk refers to
the flag as a moving banner, while the second monk insists
that they are not seeing the flag move, but rather the wind blowing. They argue back and forth,
until finally, a third monk intervenes, “It is not the flag moving,
nor the wind blowing, but rather the movement of your minds!” One interpretation of this kōan plays on
the supposed wisdom of the arguing monks – the first asserting the importance
of the observable world, the second favoring deeper knowledge
we can infer from that world. But each monk’s commitment
to his own “answer” blinds him to the other’s insight,
and in doing so, defies an essential Buddhist ideal:
abolishing binary thinking. The third monk identifies
their conflict as a perceptual one – both arguing monks
fail to see the larger picture. Of course, all these interpretations only
hint at how to wrestle with these kōans. Neither the wisdom
from practicing monks before us, nor the supposedly wise characters
in these stories can resolve them for you. That’s because the purpose of these kōans
isn’t reaching a simple solution. It’s the very act of struggling
with these paradoxical puzzles which challenge our desire for resolution, and our understanding
of understanding itself.

Otis Rodgers

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100 COMMENTS

  1. Steve Timmons Posted on May 31, 2019 at 6:50 pm

    My question is who in the world thinks this is sophisticated? If we all stuck to this Mystic philosophy science would never happened and we'd all still be living in the Dark Ages full of death and disease and dying in poverty with no knowledge and without happiness. There is a reason that the Asian said life is suffering

    Reply
  2. Genisay Posted on June 2, 2019 at 6:36 pm

    Because, of course, both Monks are right. There can be more than one answer to something, and to really understand you have to look at the different things together.

    Reply
  3. Jassi gill Posted on June 8, 2019 at 5:41 am

    whaaat? 0:16

    Reply
  4. H Xen Posted on June 11, 2019 at 4:10 am

    If why we seek why we seek then why is it that we seek the seeking of that why to only ask yet another why?

    Reply
  5. john rey cardente Posted on June 12, 2019 at 7:16 am

    The animation was very nice .

    Reply
  6. mr won Posted on June 15, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    I like the message.

    Reply
  7. Memelord Posted on June 19, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    They trick me
    I thought this is about a video game
    Dang it!

    Reply
  8. Forrest Patterson Posted on July 2, 2019 at 1:12 am

    Calling these unsolvable puzzles is just giving up on solving them

    Reply
  9. Montecristo Posted on July 3, 2019 at 1:36 am

    What is the benefit of solving a Koán?
    Spiritual enlightenment.
    And what is the benefit of spiritual enlightenment?

    Reply
  10. Norman Leach Posted on July 4, 2019 at 10:50 am

    To the writers of this narrative: You'll need a Part II if your to cover this topic in a more comprehensive manner. Actual koans are manipulative imps. The 'breakthrough' or kensho of immediate awareness is a shift caused by relinquishing shopworn habits for a reliance on Nothing, but all This. Koans pump the handle. What a silly way to quench one's thirst.

    Reply
  11. R D Posted on July 7, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    Animated by the guys who made Ren & Stimpy?

    Reply
  12. jerardhanz Fernandez Posted on July 12, 2019 at 2:37 am

    One hand sound is what my mom hear from me on the toilet.

    Reply
  13. Carl Llor Bayona Posted on July 12, 2019 at 7:14 am

    Me: watches one Ted-ed video on philosophy.
    Me: Best philosopher since Plato

    Reply
  14. Hello. My mind is filled with spiders Posted on July 13, 2019 at 6:37 am

    Have you ever been looking for something and then realized it was in your hand the whole time? That is enlightenment.

    Reply
  15. Ace88 Posted on July 13, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    No, in the first one the monk is actually asking him why he’s living in the past, and not in the now.
    Why are you still carrying her?

    Reply
  16. Djoric VB Posted on July 15, 2019 at 12:01 am

    can't watch this while sober, i'll come back after i get high.

    Reply
  17. Harvey Tinseltin Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:20 pm

    Your supposed to figure out my code. It helps make your dreams.

    Reply
  18. Harvey Tinseltin Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:21 pm

    Let's Go Fish. Got any 2s

    Reply
  19. Harvey Tinseltin Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    3 card Montey.

    Reply
  20. Harvey Tinseltin Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    You play this game with 3 cards right here. I'm going to go here and look for something.

    Reply
  21. Harvey Tinseltin Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    See we paid for it.

    Reply
  22. Trenzie Da Pug Posted on July 16, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    3:20 why can't it be both?

    Reply
  23. Arcel Glenn Mayrena Posted on July 16, 2019 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks for this TEDed. Enlightenment in a bite size package 🙂

    Reply
  24. drmnys Posted on July 17, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    Totally pointless.

    Reply
  25. Bokkejal Posted on July 17, 2019 at 8:51 pm

    Im watching this high asf…. Good lord bruh….

    Reply
  26. sailor soul Posted on July 18, 2019 at 3:31 am

    pray for rohignya

    Reply
  27. Sani Posted on July 18, 2019 at 10:43 am

    21st century koan- “Is water wet?” 🤔

    Reply
  28. Anurag Chandrakar Posted on July 22, 2019 at 3:20 am

    Cute monks💛💛💛

    Reply
  29. RedShadow Posted on July 22, 2019 at 5:12 am

    Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

    A snap.
    2 snaps make a clap

    Reply
  30. Najzkdk Nwkzjdjd Posted on July 22, 2019 at 6:40 am

    I’m a Christian but even tho I am, it’s always good to know the wisdom God gave the world. this was a good vid

    Reply
  31. GeezzZZ Z Posted on July 22, 2019 at 7:28 am

    Trolling in a nutshell.

    Reply
  32. K. Ad Posted on July 22, 2019 at 7:36 am

    i don't find these puzzles challenging, maybe for prehistoric people they were as such, but i believe if u take the halo of divinity away from these puzzles, anyone in our current time could present a logical satisfying simple answer.

    Reply
  33. Aaron L Posted on July 22, 2019 at 8:55 am

    There is an obvious answer to the second one. Both the wind and the flag is moving. The net force applied by the moving wind imparts kinetic energy to the flag causing it to move as well.

    Reply
  34. ramon girotto Posted on July 22, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    this sounds more like stoner's phylosophy

    Reply
  35. Mc Shane Mathurin Posted on July 23, 2019 at 2:18 am

    Lol. To explain unexplainable is easy. To be unexplained is the explanation of being explained. How else can you understand 'unexplained'?

    Reply
  36. Chimpscoma Posted on July 23, 2019 at 5:22 am

    avoiding the question? no wonder science is not their stuff

    Reply
  37. alonso stange Posted on July 23, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    What great insight these videos bring to the modern days. Great format for easy digestion of deep concepts about us. We could use some of these in todays culture.

    Reply
  38. İzzettin Serkan Morca Posted on July 24, 2019 at 7:53 am

    "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? " it is a Turkish adage.

    Reply
  39. Jad Jad Posted on July 24, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    Put subtitles in your videos we are not all native english speakers

    Reply
  40. Jamil Rahman Posted on July 25, 2019 at 2:36 am

    Lol next time i push someone, I'll say that it is your mind that perceived the movement of your body, not me pushing you 😂😂😂😂

    Reply
  41. Ryan Depp Posted on July 26, 2019 at 2:16 am

    Trying to simply “live with mystery” is not a good idea. Only by seeking out what is unknown do we expand our knowledge. Being content with ignorance is not how progress is made.

    Reply
  42. hi, i am Mr.nobody Posted on July 26, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    Joke on you, my brain has already broke after some few previous video 😀

    Reply
  43. Davina Mpofu Posted on July 26, 2019 at 7:05 pm

    Ted Ed: enigma's designed to break your brain

    Me: Oo let me click on this because breaking my brain sound very intriguing

    4mintues 57seconds later

    brain bead in hospital

    Reply
  44. Jennifer Girard Posted on July 27, 2019 at 5:22 am

    So we're not going to talk about how the animation looks like a Ren & Stimpy episode. Just me? Okay.

    Reply
  45. Akshay Lakhe Posted on July 27, 2019 at 9:32 am

    You all are already calm and satisfied just your mind hasn't accepted it yet

    Reply
  46. small talks Posted on July 29, 2019 at 5:19 pm

    I was taught Gautam Budh(avatar of Lord Vishnu) started Buddhism did these guys just get it wrong and confused themselves ?

    Reply
  47. Peter Gaal Posted on July 30, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    These are not koans but stories.

    Reply
  48. prateek kumar Posted on July 31, 2019 at 5:08 am

    Wasnt life already confusing

    Reply
  49. Hiero protoganist Posted on August 1, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    Just ad hominem the accuser and distract him from the fact that you broke a rule.
    Nice Strategy.

    Reply
  50. Lafaroius Samtenito Posted on August 1, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    I like how they depicted the monks as hideous creatures.

    Reply
  51. Mirrored {} Chaos Posted on August 2, 2019 at 1:48 am

    they made these to be unsolvable

    I say there are multiple answers, and to each their own explanation.

    Reply
  52. John Jk Posted on August 2, 2019 at 2:44 pm

    Here's a Koan for anyone who wants to start an argument.

    'Why do we need money?'

    Reply
  53. HappyGoLucky Posted on August 8, 2019 at 4:14 am

    Is no one gonna acknowledge that guys morning wood?

    Reply
  54. Charlie Angkor Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:53 am

    it will definitely not break your brain

    Reply
  55. Charlie Angkor Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:56 am

    "what is the sound of one hand”? I just listened to one hand. It produces no sound – silence. The sound of one hand is silence. Do Zen masters have any other questions?

    Reply
  56. Charlie Angkor Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:57 am

    “how do we explain the unexplainable”? this is a rude loaded question. it implicitly lies that unexplainable can be explained. Lying is rude.

    Reply
  57. :Amadeus :Țurcanu-Moisl. Posted on August 8, 2019 at 9:12 am

    [ real world court cases… :)) real world: do as your "chosen-ones"-over-lords tell you to do. You shot yourself in the foot.]

    Reply
  58. Eleni Triantafillopoulou Posted on August 9, 2019 at 5:10 am

    I didn't know exam questions had a name

    Reply
  59. Active English Le Creusot Posted on August 9, 2019 at 10:44 am

    Lets make things really f*cking complicated.

    Reply
  60. Mango Tree Posted on August 9, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    It's all bs. You can't solve nothing with it.

    Reply
  61. Bilal moh Posted on August 10, 2019 at 2:51 am

    Could i found this type of stories in a book?

    Reply
  62. The World of Chachundar Posted on August 10, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Jai Ganesha!

    Reply
  63. chinchin 1 Posted on August 11, 2019 at 4:37 am

    "you only lose what you clings to"- Not me

    Reply
  64. Over-Active Mind Meditation Posted on August 20, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    My Zen Koan called, Soundless Fire:

    Karma Yoga is the path of yoga that essentially means you have tried to show your grasp on the world through sheer will of work, (to outwork the universes workload); come to find that the universe does not "work", it simply is. It does not need anything from you.
    Gnana Yoga is the path of yoga that essentially means you have tried to grasp the world with your intelligence (to claim something fundamental about the world and your place in it); come to realize that there is no knowledge which grasps reality; reality itself is unbound and your mind is bounded – knowledge and meaning cannot exist, existentially.
    Bhakti Yoga is the path of yoga that essentially means that, for your own salvation, you give your entire self to something (you offer a supreme gift of selfless devotion, void of "you"); only to realize there is no gift which out gives the Universe.
    Kriya Yoga is the path of yoga that essentially means you have tried to grasp the world by mastering the creation of your life through your life energies (to have supreme control over your moment to moment experience) – only to realize that there is no experience you can have/create that grasps the immensity that life is.
    … … … …
    All paths taken to their maximum intensity lead to the same natural ending: extinguishment – silence. To touch even for a moment immensity that life is, silences a soul.
    To be silenced, truly silenced, is to be enlightened. This divine silence comes only at the mercy of our own intensity and commitment to our path.
    Like the Buddha has said, "three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth" – the truth will anyways be seen, just as it is the fate of sun to one day burn out and become nothing, it is your fate to burn brightly and dissolve into the universe. Burn karma, burn gnana, burn bhakti, and burn kriya – we are all a combination of all four paths of inevitability.
    Burn, burn anyway.
    – OAM Meditation

    Reply
  65. Blake Benson Posted on August 21, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    I have a single answer for all of them. You get your opinions beliefs and ideas based on how the world relates to you personally and you will always act accordingly with your genetics and prior experiences.

    Reply
  66. internet user Posted on August 23, 2019 at 3:32 am

    Stimpy n ren.

    Reply
  67. Plubus Domis Posted on August 25, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    This video is pure brainwashing… holy smokes people that was breathing with subliminal/suggestive messaging
    Edit: this video makes me want to vomit.

    Reply
  68. UmamaGoblin Posted on August 28, 2019 at 5:50 am

    Those enigmas seems simply enough, but what does that say about me?

    Reply
  69. Nicholas Blakiston Posted on August 28, 2019 at 5:56 am

    I'd say "I helped her across the street because her joy is my joy and monastic laws are misguided."

    Reply
  70. Nicholas Blakiston Posted on August 28, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Second scenario, the flag is moving because the wind is blowing it. The mind isn't doing anything.

    Reply
  71. Kimisbrat Posted on August 29, 2019 at 3:20 am

    They’re either geniuses or incredibly lazy….or incredibly lazy geniuses… 🤔

    Reply
  72. MrFirecasters Posted on August 29, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    The animation is just horrible. The content is most interesting though. A bit of a koan itself. Thanks!

    Reply
  73. ahmed mostafa Posted on August 31, 2019 at 12:26 am

    0:10
    by saying it is unexplainable.

    Reply
  74. Kairikey Posted on September 6, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Intentionally surreal and paradoxical? It sounds didactic to me the whole way tho.

    Reply
  75. lurkerbishop35 Posted on September 17, 2019 at 11:24 pm

    Is this video purposely animated like this to makes us comfortable with uncomfortable

    Reply
  76. el giee deee Posted on September 23, 2019 at 12:24 pm

    Learning this will turn you to philosophical assholes

    Reply
  77. aini shahreen Posted on September 24, 2019 at 11:47 am

    teacher: ok make sure you remember this chapter this is going to be in the exam
    exam: everything else but the chapter
    students: 2:22

    Reply
  78. Kin Hamid Posted on September 30, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    "The universe is complicated, and is under no obligation to make herself understandable to you"

    Reply
  79. 506 independent VIDEO Posted on September 30, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    0:16 nice touch XD

    Reply
  80. Lily Jay Posted on October 7, 2019 at 4:27 am

    Title: Zen Kōan: unsolvable enigmas designed to break your brain
    Inception : hold my beer

    Reply
  81. J Lupus Posted on October 11, 2019 at 3:23 am

    Just because life is absurd doesn’t mean the world can’t be understood

    Reply
  82. Binay Adhikari Posted on October 11, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    I died laughing when Buddha emerged out of a poppy
    Om Mani Pad Me HuM

    Reply
  83. nowonmetube Posted on October 11, 2019 at 6:51 pm

    Well I had an answer to the second puzzle long time ago… (and today is my first time of even hearing the puzzle 😂)

    Reply
  84. Aamir Afzal Posted on October 17, 2019 at 1:52 pm

    Wow im baffled… this is so interesting and engaging and equally creatively curated content.

    Reply
  85. rick hale Posted on October 21, 2019 at 5:31 pm

    A GREAT DEAL OF CIRCULAR PHILOSOPHY AND REASON, NEVER ARRIVING AT ANY CONCLUSION AND AN IRRITATINGLY EXERCISE OF CYNICAL REBUTTALS. NOT ALWAYS BUT TO OFTEN. THERE IS SOME ENJOYMENT IN HUMOROUS DISCUSSIONS.

    Reply
  86. rishab basera Posted on October 29, 2019 at 12:39 am

    Thanks 🙂

    Reply
  87. Dalton Thompson Posted on October 29, 2019 at 5:46 am

    Does anyone know where the video they made on Shiva, Brahman, and Vishnu with the candles went? I can't find it!

    Reply
  88. Youganon Saikia Posted on November 1, 2019 at 10:54 am

    The video is so hilarious. oh my Buddha 😂😂😂

    Reply
  89. GrayPsyche Posted on November 6, 2019 at 6:44 am

    The only true answer to any Koan is "yes".
    Example:
    = "Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?"
    – Yes.

    Reply
  90. Spicy Anon Posted on November 7, 2019 at 6:06 am

    Completely unrelated, but when I read the intro quote, I thought 💭 ‘a slap across my face’

    Reply
  91. Valerie Mercenier Posted on November 11, 2019 at 10:09 am

    living in modernity, this seems like an entirely useless pursuit….searching for an absolute truth by rewiring your brain is to pursue constant ambiguity and the lack of absolute truth….WHAT?! WHY?!

    Reply
  92. Niverian 77 Posted on November 16, 2019 at 12:50 am

    This animation looks like John K's work.

    Reply
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