ko·​an ˈkō-ˌän How to pronounce koan (audio)
: a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment

Example Sentences

Recent Examples on the Web Most of those vibes emanate from the company’s affable, Zen-minded CEO, Phil Knight, a wearer of track suits and spouter of Buddhist koans played by Affleck himself as the risk-averse yin to Sonny’s reckless yang. Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times, 5 Apr. 2023 The morbidly funny moment suggests that the assassin doesn’t believe a single koan he’s been dropping and actually takes immense pleasure in his work. Shirley Li, The Atlantic, 11 Aug. 2022 Is this a Zen koan? Anna Pulley, chicagotribune.com, 8 Mar. 2022 The whole essay reads like a Zen koan to me. Keith Kloor, Discover Magazine, 4 Mar. 2011 Paula has this great exercise that’s almost like a Zen koan: write a play that’s impossible to stage. Helen Shaw, The New Yorker, 18 Dec. 2022 No, that’s not a Zen Buddhist koan designed to perplex music fans and philosophers alike. George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10 July 2022 To me, Ritual’s products sounded like one hand clapping: a cocktail koan. John Seabrook, The New Yorker, 20 Sep. 2021 The answer is a Zen koan: wide enough to accommodate all the passengers that flow through at peak times. Justin Davidson, Curbed, 5 May 2021 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'koan.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Japanese kōan, from public + an proposition

First Known Use

1945, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of koan was in 1945

Dictionary Entries Near koan

Cite this Entry

“Koan.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/koan. Accessed 1 Jun. 2023.

More from Merriam-Webster on koan

Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!