I was reading Steven Heine’s Opening A Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters. I really like him. He is a first rate scholar who at the same time loves koan literature and appears to be profoundly disinterested in koans as they are used within formal Zen training. What I really like is how this allows him to approach koans from left field, often offering something of genuine value to all of us, including those who do use koans as a central part of our spiritual discipline.
Anyway, early on in the book while reflecting on the origins of koans, Heine writes, “Furthermore, there is a medieval genre of detective story literature based on tales of intricate, suspenseful legal investigations that is also known by the term ‘kung-an.’ Most people in modern China who are aware of the term recognize it as referring to this literary genre, and the significance of kung-an/koan for Zen is less well known.”
I was quite taken with this, particularly as a fan of the mystery genre. While it is true that koans emerge within medieval China inspired by numerous sources, it’s unlikely the mystery genre was a major current. Still, tantalizingly, the term koan (gongan or kung-an depending on one’s preferred transliteration of the Chinese) is the same word used for Chinese medieval mysteries. But they probably both derive from the fact the term is a term of law; a koan is a “public case” as in a court case.
Nonetheless, it was tantalizing. And so I sent a note off to various friends asking what they knew about this. Michael Gold came up with some lovely links about those traditional mystery stories. A Dutch diplomat by the name of Robert Van Gulik took an interest in the subject and translated one of the stories, the Dee Goong An (still in print as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee based upon an historical Judge Dee. Van Gulik then went on to write a number of his own, most still in print from the University of Chicago Press.