What Is a Zen Koan?

Koans are an ancient tradition of stories, phrases, poems or statements that were identified, though the years, for their transformational ability.

Sometimes a koan is a recounting of circumstances that lead to the awakening of a particular student. Sometimes they shock. Sometimes they confuse, but always, the koan interacts with something deeper than the mind.

A koan may appear nonsensical, but a koan is not a riddle or a puzzle. It cannot be solved by understanding it. Only when it opens you up to something new about your true nature, when something in you shifts in response, will you become intimate with the koan.

A koan is about you. You have everything you need and everything you are doing is working with the koan.

By keeping company with a koan, you are open to your mind being transformed. You will never be the same.

“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.

“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.”

“The surprise they offer is the one that art offers: inside unpredictability you will find not chaos, but beauty.”

—John Tarrant, from his book, Bring Me the Rhinoceros

A koan is a story that heals

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.

Koans spring up like wildflowers and a simple phrase or word might become for us, a koan.

Koan practice at RMC

Koan practice at Pacific Zen Institute and Rockridge Meditation Community is the most innovative and groundbreaking approach for the stimulation of awakening available in America today.

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.

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.

Some Zen 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 by coming to sit with us.

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Check our RMC mainpage for upcoming sessions and events. All are welcome.

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