"Pai-chang wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water jug on the ground, he asked, "Who can say what this is without calling its name?" The head Monk said, "No one can call it a wooden sandal." Kuei-shan, the cooking monk, tipped over the jug with his foot and went out. Pai-chang laughed and said: "The head monk loses." And Kuei-shan became the head Master of the new monastery." - quoted from knowplace.org
The koan of the water jug is, in my opinion, an entry-level koan. It is special to me, probably because it is so easy to see the answer and thereby "become enlightened". Now, the conventional wisdom is that the head monk is sort of a dumbass, a literalist, an ISTJ who can’t see past the end of his nose. So, he says "No one can call it a wooden sandal." And (we can infer) he then goes on to exhaustively list all of the things it is not “no one can call it a fish, and no one can call it a Porsche”, and so on, until he lists every single thing in the universe that is not a water jug. Sort of an inductive proof that it is a water jug, but without ever calling it by name.
Me, I just think the head monk has a pretty good deal already. He doesn’t want to take a three week donkey ride into the mountains, just to open some stupid (I mean Stupa) new monastery, when the living is easy right where he is. So, he takes a dive: he loses the contest on purpose. No, it is the cook monk that’s the dumbass. First, he’s the cook monk, which tells you he’s probably already on the head monk’s shit list, anyway, for always being down by the river fishing and then showing up late for meditation, and the fellow obviously hasn’t figured out that it’s going to be a long-ass donkey ride between here and the next water jug and plate of beans, and that it is going to be cold and wet in the mountains, and the head monk is probably going to send the rest of his most troublesome monks with the cook monk, and it’s going to be a lot of damned work building a brand new monastery, especially in the cold, and at altitude.
And the cook monk probably isn’t much of a mathematician either, and doesn’t have even a clue about mathematical induction, in the first place. But he is a bit of a showoff, and he suddenly has a moment of brilliance: the problem is how do we explain, without using human language, what a water jug is? Answer: we demonstrate the purpose of a water jug, by tipping it over and letting all of the precious water run out on the ground. A water jug is what keeps us from having to walk all the way down into the gorge to get a drink of water every couple of hours, and make that long hike back up to the monastery in time for meditation. The cooking monk has filled that water jug a thousand times. He knows exactly what a water jug is. He doesn’t need any words to explain it. A water jug is, first, an invention of the human mind: plain old every day clay, rotated by an artisan on a wheel and then fired in a kiln until it becomes hard as glass, and made to stand up so that it can hold more water than one person can drink at a sitting, and to hold it for as long as necessary. But you have to think that the cook monk also knows if he tips over the jug, chances are the head monk is going to send him down into the gorge to refill it, and he knows that while he’s down there he can see whether the catfish are biting, and maybe even miss evening meditation, so maybe he isn’t a complete dumbass after all.
Well, anyway, no more catfishing for him; he solved the riddle and gets the long donkey ride up into the mountains. But the point is, there may be ways to escape the shackles of language in order to gain additional, non-verbal insight and understanding of the universe. This koan is a simple demonstration of that principle.
So, here's my koan:
A cook monk rode his donkey high into the mountains. His traveling companions had long since abandoned him, and he had somehow managed to spill the last water jug days before. Thirsty and alone, he reached a high peak. Far, far down in a distant gorge, he could see a river running, and knew there were big, hungry catfish sleeping there. He had forgotten why he had traveled so far, on the back of another sentient being, a donkey, to reach this high, lonesome place. At the top of the mountain, and having reached the end of his journey and the end of his strength, he found a rock. He took the rock and stood it on its side. He took some clay and used it to hold the rock steady. He found another rock, and placed it by the first. Then, he untethered his donkey and allowed it to wander away. He laid down, with head propped up by his two rocks, and turned his gaze toward the sky. A wind began to blow. A cold rain turned to sleet, and then snow. Soon, too weak to move, he was covered in a powdery layer of white. Cold, and with his strength nearly spent, he suddenly understood the purpose of his journey and became enlightened.