Think of a koan as a vial of ancient light that has been passed down to us. 

It’s the same light that was in the heart of the teacher who invented the koan.

What makes the great koan “NO” so significant?

Among the couple of thousand koans in the curriculum, the koan Mu (as it’s known in Japanese), or Wu (Chinese), or NO (English), has been used for about twelve hundred years. It is popular as a first koan—the koan that stands for all koans, the exemplar and representative—confusing, irritating, mysterious, beautiful, and freeing: a gateway into the isness of life, where things are exactly what they are and have not yet become problems.

It begins by looking at the question of whether or not we are alienated, or whether we are participating fully in life.

It comes out of a long dialogue with an ancient, twinkly, Chinese grandmaster called Zhaozhou. Here is the full version of the koan about No and the dog—from The Book of Serenity, as translated by Joan Sutherland and me:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“Yes,” replied Zhaozhou.
“Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?”
“It knew what it was doing, and that’s why it dogged.”
Another time a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“All beings have Buddha nature. Why doesn’t a dog have it?”
“Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”

Teachers usually offer a student the one word NO, or Mu.

There is a long history to this tactic and it was how I first encountered the koan, reading about it in books. It offered a completely different way of approaching the world, something that, given the confused state of my mind at that time, seemed worth trying.

I took the koan up by myself, without a teacher, and made all the beginner’s errors: treating the koan more or less as a gadget. I tried to discover the use of it, the way a hunter-gatherer would deal with a toaster found by the trail—pulling on the cord, banging it on the ground, using it as a mirror. “This gadget doesn’t seem to be working,” I said to myself, scheming and plotting. The other error I made was to treat myself as a gadget that had to be tuned to receive the koan—more scheming and plotting.

I like the koan being about a dog. It addresses the question of whether we can actually change, whether we defeat ourselves, and the way we often rule ourselves out.

—John Tarrant

Video: John Tarrant Introduces the Koan NO in a PZI Sesshin

A Basic List of Zen Koans

Full table of contents is in our KALPA Library

Linji’s True Person of No Rank

Linji said, “There is a true person with no rank, who is always coming and going through the portals of your face.”
– PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 38b (Record of Linji) & Book of Serenity, Case 38

Abiding Nowhere the Heart-Mind Comes Forth

The Diamond Sutra says,“Out of nowhere, the heart-mind comes forth.”
—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 65b

Peach Blossoms

Lingyun was wandering in the mountains and became lost in his walking. He rounded a bend and saw peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. This sight awakened him and he wrote this poem:
For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman,
how many times did the leaves fall,
and the branches burst into bud?
But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,
I’ve had no doubts.
—Transmission of Light, Case 12, Entangling Vines, Case 8

Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness

Emperor Wu asked the great teacher Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
“Who are you, standing here in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma.
The emperor didn’t understand.
—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1, & Book of Serenity, Case 2

Blue Dragon’s Cave

For twenty years I have struggled fiercely—
How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s Cave for you?
From his commentary on Master Ma Is Unwell, The Blue Cliff Record, Case 3

The Sieve

A teacher said, “It’s like filling a sieve with water.”
The student thought about this for some time, but didn’t understand. The teacher took a sieve and they went to the sea.
The student poured water into the sieve and it poured out again.
“How do you do it?” she asked.
The teacher threw the sieve out into the ocean, where it floated for a moment and then sank.
– PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 58

How Is my Hand like the Buddha’s Hand

KOAN: From Huanglong Huinan’s Three Turning Words

How is my hand like the Buddha’s hand? —Playing guitar in the moonlight.

—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 16

Whatever Confronts You, Don’t Believe It

Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it.
When something appears shine your light on it.
Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you.

Doushuai’s Wild Places

People go to wild places to search for their true nature. When you do this, where is your true nature?
—Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans, Case 73a (1st of Doushuai’s Three Barriers)

Freely I Watch the Tracks of the Flying Birds

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds.
(My lazy gaze follows the tracks of the flying birds.)
—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 23b
(from Xuedou’s verse following Yunmen’s Good Day koan, Blue Cliff Record Case 6)

The Journey Itself Is Home

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
—poet Basho

Pang Family’s Helping

Layman Pang and his daughter Lingzhao were selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself on the ground.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw Daddy fall down, so I’m helping,“ replied Lingzhao.
“Luckily no one was looking,“ remarked the Layman.
– PZI Miscellanous Koans, Case 40

This Very Heart-Mind Is Buddha

What is Buddha?
This very heart-mind.
—Gateless Gate, Case 30 (Mazu)

Koans for Times of Great Change

Meeting loss, death, disaster, demons, and extremes


Too Soon to Despair

In the face of unfathomable loss, John Tarrant writes, “It’s too early to despair, it’s always too early to despair.