Sep 06 2017

Koan: Tipping Over a Vase

Published by at 8:03 am under Stories

I thought I’d feature a koan, rather than a poem, today. This is something I posted on the blog a about five years back, and it’s been in my mind this morning. A koan today, poetry later in the 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.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Koan: Tipping Over a Vase”

  1. Annaon 06 Sep 2017 at 9:51 am

    Wow, Ivan, you just read my mind.

    The word ‘koan’ is the whole day in my mind…:)

    But let explain how it came in…

    The whole story began, when I wrote a comment about your
    previous thought of the day ‘love mountain’.

    I have read it, like it and haven’t any intent to write a comment.

    But latter, may be a day or two, a word ‘Darkness’ and with a period in the end
    appeared in my mind as a word and as image.

    And I thought what is this ‘Darkness’ and then went with everyday tasks.

    Later of the day the word appeared again…and again, 2 times, like insisting.

    Then I started to pay attention and to listen.

    It was perceived like a packet of information, I have felt it the same many times before.

    It is like expanded nonlinear consciousness and I knew I have to download it.

    So, after the word ‘Darkness’ came the phrase ‘Pathless path’.

    And I though what pathless path in the mountain and this smell a bit like of the Krishnamurti’s Patheless land bla bla…:)

    But then heard, yes, it is the same…and felt a warm smile…

    Then I asked as to where this pathless path lead and got the answer ‘to nowhere’…

    Then the other part of the comment came as a whole part.

    I wrote down everything I heard and the a pause happened,

    and I was sitting and listening and then came the question

    “what happen with the mountaineers” and

    I smiled and I thought,

    but it sound exactly like a koan, like the famous one

    ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’.

    ‘Yes’, I heard the voice, but you don’t need to write that it is a koan, let everybody gets its own interpretation, like all koans are .

    End of this so long story.:)

    I didn’t intended to write,
    but because your koan remained me about my koan,
    so let we all see how everything is connected and
    how when we are open, everything flows easily
    and with joy, harmony. peace and undestanding…

    Thank you!:)

  2. Olga T.on 06 Sep 2017 at 5:29 pm

    Stories like this actually make me quite depressed. We see the same scenario in Western Fairy Tales where it is the Fool / the Youngest / The Least Educated who usually “gets it”.
    I think these stories belong to a bygone era where the learned could reach such high standards of mental dexterity that they sometimes “tipped over” and went to the dark side, becoming too cunnning for their own good. With learning and rational thinking standards being in an all-time low, we surely do not run such a high risk from the truly learned nowadays, as there are very few and far between. I think we need to share more stories where the experienced, learned and educated are rewarded. Otherwise, everyone will end up wanting to the Fool / the least educated, the butler or the cook (not that there is anything wrong with these professions per se), thinking they will have the key to the most intricate puzzles in life, like knowing how Truth reveals itself, because of their relative underdog position.

  3. Bharation 07 Sep 2017 at 12:27 am

    Loved Ivan ‘s explanation. Loved Olga’s take too. Life needs a balance of breathing in and exhaling for health. We need both intellectual stimulus and intuitive insights to keep balance; like a bird’s two wings, to be able to fly. The stronger we make both our wings, the higher we may soar…

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