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You’ve probably heard the term “Zen koan,” perhaps used in the sense of a riddle or something confusing or paradoxical. Perhaps you didn’t know that they’re also a practice, a kind of meditation. Some are like poems, some are like little stories or conversations, some are like jokes, and they all are a kind of can-opener for the mind, a way to get free of the conventional tangle of thoughts and feelings, and into a world that’s more free. In this world things, including joy, seem more possible and closer than you expected.
Zen koans are a key part of what we do in PZI, although there is no requirement that anyone work with koans to practice with us. Koans hold an ancient wisdom that anyone can use, and for a long time PZI has been exploring different ways of working with them. This exploration, and its embodiment in practice, is our gift.
If a koan has grabbed your attention, or you’ve received one from a teacher, let yourself be open to it at first. Maybe you understand it immediately. Good. What else is there for you? How does it enter your life? Maybe you want to take it deeper. Sit with a koan in your meditation and also let it accompany you wherever you go and whatever you do.
Here are some ways to keep company with a koan:
- Let the koan come to you. Reaching for it too much can push it away. Have you noticed that when you let a sound–the sound of rain, the sound of a siren, the sound of conversation in the grocery store line–come to you, the world comes alive. In the same way when a koan comes to you it can make the world sparkle and seem more interesting.
- Think of the koan as a loyal, friendly pet. Let it curl up on the sofa next to you. Take it for a walk.
- Enjoy the connection with the koan. Is your heart open when you meditate with the koan? Is it agitated? Let the koan into your body and keep company with your breathing. Let it get into your toes. You can become one with it, and then you might say that the koan walks about and goes to work and lies down to sleep at night.
- If new or unexpected states of mind appear, or even if you are bored, think of these responses as belonging to the world of the koan, not necessarily to you. Notice when you are judging yourself. Notice how that feels. A koan will never judge you, but it can show you how much you judge yourself. It can show what you care about, too.
- Notice the images and sensations that the koan brings up for you. If your koan is about a stone at the bottom of the sea, there may be weight, cold, water, depth, light far above you. If your koan is about peach blossoms, what is blossoming for you? Koan practice differs from mindfulness practice in its open embrace of the rich possibilities of our minds. The emphasis is not on cutting out, an austerity regime for your attention, but on opening, simultaneity, creativity.
- Take the koan to bed at night. See what happens in your dreams. See if you can be curious about whatever shows up.
- Whatever situation confronts you, let the koan interact with it. So if your koan is Peach Blossoms, what’s happening will be Peach Blossoms. If the koan is Original Face, then what’s happening will be Original Face. If you’re stuck in an airplane, there is the koan. If you’re sick in bed, there is the koan. If you’re ranting on Facebook, or someone is ranting at you, there is the koan. With the koan by your side, you might notice that your thoughts don’t close up around a situation so swiftly. The koan might offer an alternative, or a way through.
- Be patient with the koan, the way you would be with a friend or a trusted guide, and find out what the koan has to teach. Be patient with yourself, too. You will find your way.
A koan may take many of your thoughts and assumptions away. It may show you that you stand on an emptiness, a mystery. And you may find this freeing. When you witness things as they emerge from emptiness you may find that you too are just emerging, and are essentially unknown. You are a something, vast and infinite, not limited by having a self. When you do not hold onto a set belief about who you are, many things are open and possible. You may also find that kindness just arrives by itself without effort.
Lastly, here are just a few pieces by John Tarrant on the wonder of working with koans:
“How to Practice Zen Koans” (Lion’s Roar, September 2016)
“Working with Koans” (a dharma talk offered in 2004)
“The Power of Koan Practice” (Shambhala Sun, May 2003)