Apr 16 2009

Story / Koan: Tipping Over a Vase

Published by at 9:34 am under Stories

Koans are riddle-like sayings or short tales used in Zen practice to startle the listener out of the linear mind and into open awareness…

Two of the most famous collections of Zen koans are The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records. Here’s a koan I like from The Gateless Gate:

/ Photo by BotheredByBees /

Tipping Over a Vase

Master Hyakujo decided to found a new monastery, but he had the difficult task of selecting from among his disciples the right person to be the new monastery’s abbot. Then he came upon a solution.

Hyakujo called all his disciples together and told them that the person who best answered his question would be named the new abbot. Hyakujo filled a vase with water and set it on the ground before the assembled monks. “Who can tell me what this is without naming it?” he challenged.

The senior disciple stepped forward and answered accurately, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

Then Isan, the lowly cook, stepped forward and knocked the vase over with his foot, and walked out of the room.

Master Hyakujo smiled and declared, “My senior disciple has been bested.” Isan the cook was named the new abbot.


What just happened in this story?

One way to understand the meaning of this story is that the water represents Truth or the Dharma. The vase is the vessel that holds that truth, it is the teaching, it is the tradition.

That truth cannot be told, however. Sure, you can use simple words like “Truth” or “Reality,” or you can fill books with complex philosophical explanations. But ultimately those are all words and don’t truly convey what the Truth is. The “water” cannot be named. That is why Master Hyakujo gave this challenge to his disciples.

The lead disciple, clearly a cunning man, sees this as a test of his mental dexterity. If he cannot name the water-filled vessel, he will say what it is not, thus suggesting it by negation. But he has only negated one object in a world of infinite objects. A person can spend a lifetime listing all the things something is not, and never come to the point where only the unnamed thing remains. The lead disciple is trapped on the endless road of the intellect.

But the cook, Isan, understood the situation simply and clearly. He tipped the vase over, emptying the vessel and revealing the water. The truth cannot be told, it can only be shown.

What’s more, the truth cannot be held, it cannot be contained, it can only be poured out. The vase itself, the spiritual tradition, is empty and only has meaning as a vessel to transport the truth. By tipping over the vessel, he is suggesting that we must not worship the tradition itself. Religion, philosophy, spiritual tradition — these are not an end to themselves; they should be respected for their function as a delivery vehicle, but nothing more.

These are the insights that mark one for spiritual authority.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Story / Koan: Tipping Over a Vase”

  1. […] Story / Koan: Tipping Over a Vase […]

  2. akeem akinniyion 20 Apr 2009 at 12:50 am

    The sincerity of actions over words.

  3. Mauraon 20 Apr 2009 at 10:20 am

    I like this one–a classic “case” to mull over, with a classic Zen resolution. I like your interpretation. The interesting thing about koans is that they function as provocations: you can continue seeing their implications and ramifications forever, and they will change over time; some or perhaps one of these readings will have particular resonance for you individually. Thus no reading is “right,” and none is ever “wrong,” either, but each one does reflect your being. In some Buddhist traditions, a student is assigned a koan and meets regularly with her or his teacher to discuss it..

  4. Beryl Singleton Bissellon 22 Apr 2009 at 6:55 am

    What a perfect story! Your explanation taps into an understanding that I’ve been struggling with. How does one speak about truth without confining it to concepts? How does one speak about God without creating an image?

  5. skritchon 02 Jun 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Best way to show the nature of an object is to reverse its function. The nature of a car is revealed when it breaks. The nature of a container is revealed when it loses its load. Stop talking and find out real fast what words can’t do for you.

  6. […] Story / Koan: Tipping Over a Vase […]

  7. Xiaoon 14 Aug 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Dear Ivan,

    Firstly, thank you for making this comment which helped me understand this koan all in a sudden.

    Just out of curiosity, how much did you study in Eastern Religions to make you such an insightful person? I read that you revealed yourself as a computer programmer. So I wonder when did you learn all these.


  8. Ivan M. Grangeron 16 Aug 2011 at 11:17 am

    Xiao, I do work part-time as a computer programmer, it is true. My study of Eastern Religions has been intense but also erratic. I have explored the deep practices of several traditions, both Eastern and Western, though I do not follow a single path or teacher. I spent much of my 20s in meditation and fasting, and living in semi-retreat. Several people and sources of wisdom have inspired me, but I always try to write from my heart and my own insight, rather than repeat the ideas of others.
    Deep regards,

  9. From Poetry Chaikhana - marina-kim.comon 02 Feb 2012 at 11:59 am

    […] Story / Koan: Tipping Over a Vase […]

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