KOAN #3: Why KOAN?

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

The student of Zen is supposed to meditate on this riddle until some degree of insight or enlightenment occurs. The tricky part is that there is no right answer. What you are, or what you know, or what you believe, is what you get.

The koan “is an artificial problem given by a teacher to a student with the aim of precipitation a genuine religious crisis that involves all the human faculties- intellect, emotion, and will. “(Hori 2003,6).

I wanted to find a way to use texts as abstractions and sounds, -removing the semantical meaning of the words, rather than narrative stories with a whole lot of emotional content. At the same time, I was doing a lot of meditation practice with voice included. Therefore, the choice of Koans as the material felt natural and obvious.

Most of all I want to highlight that Koan practice is first and foremost religious practice – not “free verse” per se. Koans are not meant for literal poetry, but religious texts. Koans are not based on any literary rules like for example haikus that follow the 5-7-5 syllables. To be able to deal with the rhythm and analyze the texts in Koan from the technical point of view, I was treating the koans as free verse and borrowing tools from the world of poetry and analyses of prosody. It is not to say that I presume the koans to be poetry per se.


Koans worked for me as an indetermined element in the process. Letting the music compose itself by chance. Indeterminacy in music was first introduced by John Cage. Cage is often considered as the big genius and a liberator of the “sound” and his attempt to overcome the power of “ego” in his work.

His futuristic statements and indeterminacy were for sure revolutionary and have their influence on everybody after him. His close relationship to Buddhism was also something that I find interesting in regards to my own interest in Zen Koans. But his big invention of “giving up control” to remove the ego of the composer and the performer, is also controversial and has been interpreted in various ways. The fact that he wanted to overcome the mind and the ego by creating something that would break it implies that the ego actually exists. In Buddhist teaching, it’s anyhow not possible to talk with the terms of ego- no ego, because this is already a dualistic division. Also, by aiming to give the decision making of his music to “something bigger” to decide he already implies a theistic worldview that “something bigger” exists.

Anyhow, what I do think brought me into new areas in my music, was to borrow the idea of chance operations and use the koans in that way, that the koans would purely control the direction and insight of the piece. In this way, I would actually get something else to my music than my emotions I thought, though not claiming to truly remove my ego from my work, though still giving up a lot of control over it.