Koans come down from immemorial time. Their known history begins in China in the 8th century, when students would go to great teachers with questions, and the teachers began to answer them as if the student could reach an awakening in just one sudden jump. Koans were designed to correct the flaws that accumulate in consciousness, so they were always a way of finding a fresh start, transforming the mind to be in accord with reality. In the next few centuries these dialogues were recorded and collected into koan books that are still used today. The term koan means “public case,” just like a common law case. The primary school for teaching koans was the Linji school (Rinzai in Japanese).
Koan work travelled to Japan and Korea in the 13th century. In Japan Zen divided into koan and non-koan schools. The non-koan schools taught silent, formless meditation and emphasized ceremony. The koan schools emphasized the transformation of consciousness and the possibilities of imagination; we descend from them. At this time koans were used both by monastics and laypeople. They were thought to be especially useful for people immersed in the world, a way of finding peace and awakening in the midst of life.
A particular koan tradition that developed in China was amplified in Japan. This tradition was to pass down responses offered by great teachers to the koans. These weren’t the only possible response but were interesting and provided a kind of measuring stick for a student. One great figure in Japanese Zen was Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769), and most of the koan schools in Japan today descend from him. He taught Zen to all types of people and he and his circle collected koans and made them into a curriculum. In this way you could have the experience of working with many koans and opening different aspects of your understanding of reality.
As Japan shifted culturally in the 19th and 20th centuries ago there were many efforts to transform Zen. One of these was an attempt to revive the tradition of awakening inside non-koan Zen, by merging the teachings of the two schools. This attempt led to the establishment of the Three Treasures school, which straddles both Rinzai and Soto traditions and was influential in establishing koan Zen in the west.
Pacific Zen originally came out of the Three Treasures school, but we have continued evolving and are probably best understood now as leaning towards the old Chinese Linji style. This is because we teach that koans can have a direct impact on your life in all circumstances. We emphasize koans as a way of completely transforming your life, a way of beauty and creativity, and of uncovering the secret kindness in the world.
Today the Pacific Zen School includes both the Pacific Zen Institute and The Open Source Project.
For John Tarrant’s introduction to the Pacific Zen koan curriculum, click here.
If you are interested in working with koans and mediation as an individual or in a group, you can explore our Short Courses in Koans page.