What are koans and how do I work with them?
Koans are an ancient tradition of using stories, phrases, poems and bits of popular songs, to train the mind to be able to identify the transformational potential associated with ‘traditional koans’ in whatever is arising in our lives. Sometimes a koan is a recounting of the circumstances that lead to the awakening of a particular student. Sometimes they shock. Sometimes they confuse, but always, the koan is a mirror reflecting ourselves back to ourselves and interacting with something deeper than the mind.
A koan may appear non-nonsensical, but a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle to be solved. The inclination to see them as such betrays one of the strategies of the mind, which is to make what it encounters a problem, because it is good at solving problems. Koan practice is relational. It is about cultivating a relationship with the koan of who we are. We don’t ‘work with’ koans, or ‘work on’ koans, or ‘answer’ koans, we spend time with them as our companions and over time an intimacy with them and ourselves develops.
“Koans are not intended to prescribe a particular kind of happiness or right way to live. They don’t teach you to assemble or make something that didn’t exist before. Many psychological and spiritual approaches rely on an engineering metaphor and hope to make your mind more predictable and controllable. Koans go the other way. They encourage you to make an ally of the unpredictability of the mind and to approach your life more as a work of art. The surprise they offer is the one that art offers: inside unpredictability you will find not chaos, but beauty. Koans light up a life that may have been dormant in you; they hold out the possibility of transformation even if you are trying to address unclear or apparently insoluble problems” John Tarrant, Bring Me The Rhinoceros.
Koan practice cultivates a faith in our having creative responses,
Koan practice encourages doubt and curiosity,
Koan practice cultivates an ability to rely on uncertainty as a path to happiness,
Koan practice will undermine your reasons and your explanations,
Koan practice will change your idea of who you are, which requires courage,
Koan practice uncovers a hidden kindness in life.
While one dimension of koan practice is an individual, private conversation between a teacher and a student, at PZI we also hold koan discussions as part of our regular gatherings. Those discussions allow the koan to be shared by the room and to work with a koan in a group, sharing insights with each other. We also have small, peer led, discussion groups about koan practice.
Koans spring up like wildflowers and a simple phrase or word might become for us, a koan.
How to Work with a Koan
You will work with koans the way you work with life. For some that means that you will seek out the koan. Others will let the koan come to them. If you are a thinker, you are going to start off by thinking about the koan. If you are in tune with your emotions, you will feel something about the koan. You might see things. You might notice that the koan lies dormant for days or months. The koan might visit your dreams. You might see the koan in a glass of water. You may be bored, irritated. You might find the koan is a companion that carries you. Most likely, the koan will be all of these things and yet you will find yourself saying “this can’t be it, can it?” It can. It is.
Examples of Koans
Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.
Put out that fire across the river.
Extinguish that star.
Hush the baby.
Stop the jet.
Taking the form of Guanyin, find shelter for the homeless person.
Hide in a pillar.
Make the mountains dance.
More about Koans
Do you want to know more about koans, or dip your toes in the water? We recommend you start by reading
John Tarrant’s book, Bring me the Rhinoceros and/or by coming to sit with us.
David teaches an Introduction to Koan Meditation Class every month, check the schedule for the next date.