top of page
Logo for the Qwiz5 series by Qwiz Quizbowl Camp, written to help quiz bowl teams power more tossups!

Want the newest Qwiz5 sent to your inbox each week?

Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism traces its roots to India, but it may be most closely associated with Japan, where it was introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries. Meditation is a key aspect of Zen philosophy; in fact, zen translates to “meditation.” Zen Buddhists seek to realize their true, enlightened nature through intense meditative practice. This realization cannot be arrived at logically, and Zen Buddhism seeks to liberate the mind from the constraints imposed by rationality. One way this liberation is achieved is through paradoxes designed to “shock” the mind to a deeper realization of itself. Confused yet? If you are, you’re getting the hang of it!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Zen Buddhism. KOANS

Koans are words or phrases that serve as objects of meditation for Zen Buddhists. Koans are characterized by their use of ambiguity and paradox to render logical analysis impossible. Koans are collected in different anthologies, including Collection of Stone and Sand, and others which will be discussed further below. Some of the most famous koans are a single word long. In one notable example a student of the Zen master Joshu asked him if a dog had Buddha nature, to which the master replied with the word “Mu!” meaning “emptiness.”


A foundational sutra, or scripture, of Zen Buddhism is the Flower Sermon. The Flower Sermon is used to illustrate the inability of words alone to achieve enlightenment. According to the sutra, the Buddha assembled his followers around a pond. Instead of speaking to them, the Buddha wordlessly held a lotus flower in front of each of them. One disciple, Mahakashyapa, smiled. This smile indicated that he had achieved new wisdom without words.


The Sōtō School is the largest of the three branches of Zen Buddhism. The other two branches are known as the Rinzai School and the Ōbaku School. The Sōto School was founded by Dōgen, and it uses a practice known as “just sitting” (shikan taza) in order to achieve enlightenment. As the name suggests, this practice emphasizes meditation without any external interventions such as desire or logic.

THE GATELESS GATE One of the most famous collections of koans is The Gateless Gate. Compiled in the 13th century by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Huikai (known as Mumon in Japan), The Gateless Gate consists of 48 koans. These koans are some of the best known in Zen Buddhism, and include such enigmatic question and answers as: What is the mind? The mind is not Buddha. In another koan the monk Nansen cuts a cat in two pieces when two monks fighting over the cat are unable to “say a good word” to save it.


The Blue Cliff Record is another key Zen Buddhist scripture. This scripture consists of 100 koans. The Blue Cliff Record contains many famous koans as well, including one which answers the question “What is the Buddha?” with “Three pounds of hemp.”


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:


Want to learn a ton more quizbowl information, compete on thousands of questions and generally have a blast this summer? Come Qwiz with us!

Questions? Have a great idea for a future Qwiz5? We'd love to hear from you! Email us at

Love this Qwiz5? Don’t forget to subscribe for updates and share this with your friends through the links below!


bottom of page