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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 6.1 (2023): 111–144;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhist Narrative Literature)

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Understanding Chan Kōan As a Literary Genre

Duke Kunshan University

Abstract: Though we understand well the historical contexts in which kōan originated and to what rhetorical purposes they were put, relatively little attention has been paid to kōan as a literary genre. In this paper, I propose that our understanding of the rhetorical operation of kōan benefits from a genre studies approach. Specifically, after disambiguating the terms cases, kōan, and encounter dialogue, I will argue that this genre is best understood as a type of riddle, namely the neck riddle. Neck riddles create a hierarchical situation, suggest esoteric knowledge, create a contest of life and death, and bring the miraculous back to the everyday. To show that kōan were already understood to have such functions during the high point of Zen, namely the Song dynasty, I will close read commentaries from two of the most influential kōan collections: the Wumen guan and the Biyan lu. I will then compare these readings with contemporary interpretations in memoirs of American Zen practitioners to show that kōan are still understood to function as neck riddles today.

Keywords: Chan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, kōan, comparative literature, American Buddhism, genre studies


About the Author: Ben Van Overmeire is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Duke Kunshan University. A comparatist, he examines how premodern Zen Buddhist genres, ideas and practices are understood today, particularly in popular literature. He has just finished a book manuscript on American Zen autobiography, describing how and why such narratives incorporate kōan, Zen riddles revolving around seemingly unsolvable questions such as ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’. His next project examines Buddhism and outer space. His work has appeared in Religions, Contemporary Buddhism, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Buddhist-Christian Studies, among other journals. Van Overmeire has presented his work at the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Modern Languages Association (MLA), and the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA). He is a steering member of the Buddhist Pedagogy seminar at AAR, blogs on, and tweets @Zenmirrors.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.