This year's top Zen koans

The following koans were selected by a group of awakened Japanese roshis specialized in the koan technique.

Koans are short poems designed to entirely rupture one's sense of logic, reason, and sense of reality, eventually culminating in insight. This year provided limitless such material to the roshis, who were scribbling down koans as fast as their little brushes could be dipped.

They then diligently pared down a long list of about a thousand koans to the most essential few, which I have presented to the reader below.

NOTE: I was personally entrusted with doing the English translation and I hope I have rendered them comprehensible. As aids to the reader I have added my own interpretations (when necessary) as "notes" below each koan.


Nansen told Jōshū, "I am going to travel."
Jōshū said, "There is nowhere you can go."
Nansen said, "I will travel in my imagination then."
Jōshū said, "You are just as trapped there."
Nansen said, "I shall go to sleep now."
Jōshū said, "You will not go to sleep."

NOTE: Jōshū has explained Nansen's insomnia.


Nansen asked Jōshū, "In this world, how can I stay free of harm?"
"Stay back!" said Jōshū, "Cover your face!"
Nansen then washes his hands many times.
Jōshū said, "Go outside!"
Nansen said, "What if I ingest this poison?"
Jōshū said, "Go outside, quickly!"
Jōshū then goes about his business, covering his face.

NOTE: Jōshū is trying to say that neither hand washing nor disinfecting are going to save Nansen.


Nansen entered the hall with his hands wide to either side of him.
Jōshū said, "Show me where the center is."
Nansen took three steps to the right.

NOTE: Jōshū wants to know: is Jordan Peterson really considered centrist?


Nansen began telling the news to Jōshū. Jōshū promptly covered his ears and said, "If you keep talking, I am going to die." Then Nansen stopped talking. Jōshū then put his sandal on his head and walked out of the room barefoot.

NOTE: Jōshū's putting a sandal on his own head is more useful and makes just as much sense.


Nansen said to Jōshū, "It is too dangerous to vote in person, too risky to vote by mail."
Jōshū said, "You must vote."


Nansen entered the room with a question in mind.

Nansen: "Who was elected?"
Jōshū: "The one who was not electable."
Nansen: "Who is electable?"
Jōshū: "The one who was not elected."

NOTE: Jōshū omitted saying whether the electable person would be elected in the end.


Nansen asked Jōshū, "How do I know who to vote for?"

Jōshū begins screaming, spitting, and kicking at Nansen's shins. "Now listen here you horse-headed bastard!" Jōshū said.

Nansen said "I must vote for you then."
Jōshū replied, "Then you are a blind idiot."
Nansen said, "I will vote for someone else, then."
Jōshū responded, "Then you are worse than I thought!"

NOTE: You can vote for Jōshū, or you can choose not to, but you'd be a real fool not to.


Nansen says to Jōshū, "My mother would like me to visit."
Jōshū responds, "Maybe you should call her first."
Nansen laughs, "She doesn't like to talk on the phone."

NOTE: Jōshū would have a much easier time calling Nansen's mother if he tried her work phone.


A monk said to Jōshū, "What happened yesterday?"
Jōshū said, "It depends who you ask. Why do you ask me?"
The monk said, "Because you are wise."
Jōshū said, "You wouldn't believe me."
The monk said, "I would believe you."
Jōshū said, "I don't even believe it myself."

NOTE: Jōshū lives in a post-truth world where facts are irrelevant and no one can be convinced of anything they do not already believe, and perhaps not even of what they do believe.


Nansen: "Why do you laugh?"
Jōshū starts weeping.
Nansen: "Why are you crying?"
Jōshū laughs hysterically.

NOTE: If Jōshū is laughing, he should be crying. If Jōshū is crying, he might as well be laughing.


Jōshū warned Nansen: "There is a snake behind you."
Nansen: "But I am not afraid of snakes."
Jōshū: "Did you try telling the snake?"
Nansen: "There is no snake behind me."
Jōshū: "Now there are two snakes, are you afraid now?"
Nansen: "How could I be afraid of what cannot bite me?"

Not knowing what Nansen thought, the snake bit Nansen. Not knowing of Jōshū's warning, the other snake then bit Jōshū.

NOTE: "If 1% of snakebites are lethal," Jōshū asks, "is bravery just a lack of fear, or something else?"


Nansen: "Having a job is unsafe."
Jōshū: "Not having a job is unsafe."
Nansen: "What is best?"
Jōshū snatches a meditation pillow and screams into it.

NOTE: Jōshū is showing the simple escape from the dilemma.


Nansen: "Do not wear a mask. Save them for the hospital workers."
Jōshū: "If we wear masks, why will they need them at the hospital?"
Nansen: "Masks don't work."
Jōshū: "Then why wear them at the hospital?"
Nansen thought for a moment and said, "Please wear a mask now."

NOTE: Jōshū did reluctantly wear a mask after this dialogue, but he will never trust the CDC like he did before.

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