If we do one period of meditation, life becomes more transparent and less tangled. When we turn toward the Way, it becomes a practice. Then it stains us all the way through: fear falls away, the images and koans of the old teachers carry us, our minds roam free. It changes your life. The stories and images of the koans come to us and inhabit us, and we walk inside them as if they were cathedrals carrying the wonder of the old masters. Which they are.

—John Tarrant Roshi

What Is Koan Zen?

Since all of the stories you tell about life, even ones about enlightenment, are just stories, there is no doctrine, just method, which is judged by effectiveness and, perhaps, by beauty. The method trusts the basic, loving possibility in humans as well as the uncertainty that everything rests on.

Somebody could ask, “What is Koan Zen?” and you could say, “The apple tree out front,” or “The eyes of the homeless.” That’s a good way to touch the need behind the question, yet it’s hard to grasp straight away.

The Work of Koans: John Tarrant with Byron Katie & Stephen Mitchell

This 2-hour workshop at the Byron Katie Center begins with Stephen Mitchell, a dharma buddy of John Tarrant’s for some forty years, reading excerpts from John’s books, The Light Inside the Dark and Bring Me the Rhinoceros, as an introduction for the workshop participants.

John and Katie each explore similarities and differences in their work, and what it is to work with a koan. John’s talk begins at timecode 1:13:28. Video, recorded in 2017.

Beauty, Intimacy, and Uncertainty

The basic assumption in Koan Zen is that everybody has a light inside them, even before they try to improve themselves. Working with koans is a way to open a gate to our consciousness so we can experience that light, so we can touch what is beautiful and hear the voices that always accompany us.

At the same time, everything rests on uncertainty, and Koan Zen trusts that uncertainty. Uncertainty allows us to enter life more fully, and the koans are allies in this.

Having a Koan Practice

There’s a certain sort of discipline about koan practice, but it’s the kind of discipline that allows you to be free.

A koan practice is something where you’re in a relationship with a koan—which doesn’t mean you’re trying to throw it to the ground and trying to torture it until it tells you what it means.

The notion of practice is something you embody and you walk through and you are—rather than something you add, like something added to gasoline. There’s a sense of moving in the dark in some way that’s positive. So that in a practice, not-knowing is on your side.

In Zen, awakening comes of letting go of things. All rests on uncertainty.  

—John Tarrant, Gates & Obstacles, February 28, 2021

Try It Out Now: Koan Meditations with PZI Teachers


Audio: Yunmen’s Light

Yunmen taught, “Everybody has a light inside. When you’re looking for it, you can’t see; it’s dark, dark, hidden. What is this light that everybody has?”

He himself answered, “The kitchen pantry, the entrance gate.” 

Then he said, “It’s better to have nothing than something good.”

—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 86


Audio: A Spell for Passing Through Danger & Demons

Someone asked Dongshan, “When the cold visits us, how can we avoid it?” 

Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is no cold?”

“Where is the place without cold?”

And Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.”

—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 43

This Moment

Koan: Purpose of Your Life

The whole purpose of your life rests in the current matter. —Mazu Daoyi

Audio: Markers of the Way: Curiosity, Epiphany, Intimacy, Kindness

Curiosity is part of awakening. Whose life is it? Discovery must be lived through your own deep work. 

Touching What Is Beautiful

There’s a spaciousness inside all situations, is what I’m saying. We’re walking through them and underneath our feet there’s space and light around us. We’re walking through space and light knowing that is the source of empathy and love, and we accompany each other.

And we don’t have to take ourselves or each other so seriously! We don’t have to advocate for the direness of the human condition: “Yes, but all these terrible things happen.” Nonetheless, you can enjoy the moment.

In a way we might say that it’s the Bodhisattva’s obligation to enjoy the moment and have the delight of now, and then that delight might touch other people.  —John Tarrant Roshi

Getting Started

Every day, sit down and be quiet and feel your life. Try to keep company with a koan. Check whether your heart is open when you’re practicing. That’s important. Try noticing things in the mind.

Try not believing your thoughts—that might be liberating.

That’s one of the profound aspects of meditation, that we start out reaching for something and we end up realizing that we have it already.

That the problem we’re trying to solve wasn’t really a problem in the first place, and that somehow if we stop believing our prejudices, our beliefs, then life simplifies itself for us.

And we don’t have to have a belief about simplifying our beliefs—which is just another belief. So it does it for us.

Koans in Your Life: 2013 Sesshin Dharma Talk

A Path of Awakening

Awakening can come gradually, almost imperceptibly, or in a sudden life-altering flash. But, however it happens, what’s important is that awakening is real and possible.

Like life itself, Zen’s enigmatic koans offer us a path to surprising, unpredictable transformation. When will it happen to you—and what donkey, broom, or morning star will trigger it? 

Not knowing is most intimate!

Read the full koan & related dharma talks

Chan and Koan Zen

Twelve hundred years ago, a few Chan innovators had a fierce desire to leap out of the usual ways of doing things and into new territory—not to escape the catastrophe looming around them, but to more fully meet it. If they were going to be helpful they had to develop, and quickly, flexibility of mind, an easy relationship with the unknown, and a robust willingness to engage with life as they found it. Perhaps most importantly, they needed a really big view.

—Joan Sutherland Roshi

What Is a Koan?

A koan is a piece of old wisdom in a very concise form. I think of it 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.

an alembic, the alchemist’s vessel of transformation

So if you can get the vial open, what will pour out is your inheritance. This inheritance will be a perspective—the way an old master saw and experienced the world. Once you’ve learned how to open that vial, you might find it handy to have with you on your travels.

—John Tarrant Roshi

Who Were the Tea Ladies?

Thousands of years of enlightened women: some of them were awakened innkeepers who answered the questions that came to them from traveling seekers on pilgrimage.

Ask the Tea Lady!