Zen Koan 8: “Great Waves”


Zen Koans seem like paradoxes at first. The reason is that Koans are not meant to be understood by the intellect, but by intuition. Pondering over these riddles can help us unravel greater truths about our world and ourselves. This breakdown isn’t meant to substitute the insight the Koans are meant to invoke, but merely aid in getting there.

From “101 Zen Stories”:

“” In the early days of the Meiji era there lived a well-known wrestler called O-nami, Great Waves.

O-nami was immensely strong and knew the art of wrestling. In his private bouts he defeated even his teacher, but in public he was so bashful that his own pupils threw him.

O-nami felt he should go to a Zen master for help. Hakuju, a wandering teacher, was stopping in a little temple nearby, so O-nami went to see him and told him of his trouble.

“Great Waves is your name,” the teacher advised, “so stay in this temple tonight. Imagine that you are those billows. You are no longer a wrestler who is afraid. You are those huge waves sweeping everything before them, swallowing all in their path. Do this and you will be the greatest wrestler in the land.”

The teacher retired. O-nami sat in meditation trying to imagine himself as waves. He thought of many different things. Then gradually he turned more and more to the feeling of the waves. As the night advanced the waves became larger and larger. They swept away the flowers in their vases. Even the Buddha in the shrine was inundated. Before dawn the temple was nothing but the ebb and flow of an immense sea.

In the morning the teacher found O-nami meditating, a faint smile on his face. He patted the wrestler’s shoulder. “Now nothing can disturb you,” he said. “You are those waves. You will sweep everything before you.”

The same day O-nami entered the wrestling contests and won. After that, no one in Japan was able to defeat him. “”

The Breakdown

O-nami was able to defeat his own master in private, however in public he lost consistently. This shows that as skilled as O-nami was, he couldn’t apply his true abilities when he was being observed. Regardless of whether it was performance anxiety, social anxiety or fear of making a mistake, in essence it was O-nami’s own fear-driven thoughts getting in his way. This explains why meditation served him so well.

The waves sweeping everything in their path symbolizes O-nami (Great Waves) himself overcoming his own obstacles, primarily fear. After overcoming the mental obstacles in his path, he was then ready to deal with the physical obstacles before him (like other wrestlers). Our brains are where things begin or end for us. Believing in ourself has immense benefits, overcoming fear is a major step in unlocking our potential.

Do you struggle with weaknessess that seem to be out of your control? If so, confronting it inwardly, like through meditation, can pay off in ways you probably never thought were possible. If you’re interested, make sure to check out Why You Need To Meditate for a more detailed explanation.


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