Jan 11 2013

Koan: Tipping Over a Vase

Published by at 7:50 am under Stories

The Poetry Chaikhana is back. I had planned to resume these posts earlier in the month, but life had other plans. My advice in those circumstances: Go with life’s plans.

I hope everyone had a blessed beginning to the new year!

Now, back to the poetry… Actually, I thought I’d resume the posts with a koan, rather than a poem, today. This is something I posted on the blog a few years back, and it’s been in my mind this morning. A koan today, poetry next week.

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.

19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Koan: Tipping Over a Vase”

  1. Ashique Alion 11 Jan 2013 at 10:04 am

    simply great, and really a startler for sleping mind. Thanks Ivan !!!

  2. Bruce Tayloron 11 Jan 2013 at 10:13 am

    Vase is Context. Water is Content.

    Vase gives shape to Water that allows for human, conscious meaning. Tradition, history provide a Structural Context for the Truth. The Truth may exist without the Context, but the Context provides for a rich experience.

  3. Sharon Blessumon 11 Jan 2013 at 10:38 am

    Very grateful to have you back, Ivan. I love your devotion to this work and salute your listening to Inner Guidance about its content–as well as when to take breaks and when to return!

  4. Edon 11 Jan 2013 at 1:07 pm

    the vase broke
    yet, you keep naming the vase
    just walk away

  5. Judith Fine-Sarchiellion 11 Jan 2013 at 1:13 pm

    My vessel is filled with gratitude and I just kicked it over so the Happy New Year could spill out to you and your readers! Blessings, Judith

  6. Joson 11 Jan 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Thank you Evn,for seniding me such nice thoughts,
    It keeps me away from my sorrow

  7. Judyon 11 Jan 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Christ’s cup overflows to us. And through Him even our cup will overflow. this is what came to my mind:)

  8. Judyon 11 Jan 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Water is the truth, the way..

  9. Susan Kaufmanon 11 Jan 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Thank you, Ivan! This is so simply clever it made me laugh. You’re a dear for this!

  10. Jennyon 11 Jan 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Love it. Sometimes even our every-day minds get in the way.

  11. Valerie Derryon 11 Jan 2013 at 6:21 pm

    I love these Zen insights, and have a book called the Iron Cow of Zen that also uses the koan. If only we could simplify our own existence in the same way. Thank you, Ivan.

  12. Aravindaon 12 Jan 2013 at 5:28 am

    Thank you, Ivan. Have a blessed New Year. Aravinda

  13. Beckyon 12 Jan 2013 at 9:09 am

    Beautiful. What a wonderful way to start my day. Thank you

  14. Pegon 12 Jan 2013 at 9:27 am

    In one of my out- of- body travels, I found myself within a room lined with huge marble columns. A large pedestal held the magenta/violet flame. The flame was beautiful. I watched it flicker and dance for a moment. then, before I could comprehend what I was doing, I knocked over the marble pedestal. Immediately, I felt contrite, like I did something wrong. It was magnificent though, the flames spilling everywhere across the marble floor. I walked around, filling myself with light.

    For several years now, I have been asking why. The answer I kept getting was it had to be done. The answer is more complete today. The only reason I did not reach the deeper understanding is because I held on to the feeling that I did something wrong. I locked myself in a structure preventing me from reaching the greater wisdom.
    Wisdom, truth is never manifested by a single artist. Whitman, Frost, Michelangelo or everyone…never creates alone. Consciousness has no boundaries. Within our earth system, their is a field that every single word that is spoken can be heard. It is referred to as the H band. We are always interacting with this field. Everything we say, all our foul language and our kind words, is there always. To me, this is amazing once I healed my shame and guilt of my contributions to the foul language category and those times I spoke behind someone’s back. As we create, we talk to ourselves,but that voice is the one voice that is all of us. How many of us can push over the vases that keep us stuck and alone?

    Thanks Ivan

  15. Thankfullmanon 13 Jan 2013 at 1:01 am

    A wonderful piece to sit back and contemplate, I have missed your posts , your site is beautiful inspiration . A heart felt thank you.

  16. Carol Burnson 13 Jan 2013 at 5:10 am

    Good morning, Ivan

    So thankful for your return. I love your blessed mystical thoughts. Koans,
    poems, thoughts for the day, pictures – all are pathways and I love walking there.

    Christmas is always a time of excess and while I am a follower of Jesus, he
    would not require this of us. I am working on downsizing – smile.

    I am so thankful for this post-Christmas koan. Indeed it gives us a place to begin.
    Thank you!

  17. John Haverstockon 13 Jan 2013 at 8:07 am

    Thank you, I needed that. My truth is spilling and I am trying to name it.

  18. jim carlinon 14 Jan 2013 at 12:25 pm

    “i have no words-that is why i dance”
    quote from a russian ballet master
    after defecting with his company to usa

  19. ebrahimon 17 Jan 2013 at 1:44 am

    koan, commentary and responses from all are truly heartfelt.

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