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    Questions on Zen

    What is Zen?

    Zen is a transformative path that originated by way of Buddhism finding a home in the Chinese psyche long ago.

    Zen became a way of turning toward the great questions of human life and suffering during deeply troubled times, and evolved as a practice emphasizing how to be free regardless of circumstances. The teachings traveled and settled throughout Asia, and eventually migrated here to our own lands and language where we continue to uncover their wisdom and relevance to our times.

    Read more on our Koan Zen History and PZI lineage page.

    Zen is also a lineage woven together through the discoveries of countless masters and adepts both known and unknown. Their paths have become our paths now, and, with any luck, we come to uncover their wisdom in our own hearts.  

    It’s often been said that Zen is like a finger pointing at the moon. The moon is something you must discover for yourself, but the glimpses of those who have wandered ahead can help point the way.

    Koans are full of these glimpses and the images that arise in their midst. They help illuminate the territory of awakening, by helping us imagine our way into what it might be like. 

    Here is a koan from one of our Zen ancestors, Baling, from Tang dynasty Chan:

    What is Zen? Snow in a silver bowl.

    How can Zen help me in my life?

    The old masters discovered that awakening must be found here, in the very life and world we already have. Practice becomes a way of discovering that awakening, and our own part in the awakening of all beings. 

    It is natural to look for the things you want outside of where you are now. That is the whole point of a journey. Yet this moment is all anyone has. So if freedom, love, beauty, grace, and whatever else is desirable are to appear, they must appear in a now. 

    You here, now, this very heart-mind.

    Meditation helps soften our certainty about our situation so more of now can reach us. Koans help open new doors of imagination and meaning. 

    See what our members have to say about practice and their own lives, here.

    Is Zen holy?

    In an exchange between Zen’s first patriarch, the traveling sage Bodhidharma, and Emperor Wu of ancient China, the emperor asks the sage:

    “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” You can tell here that the emperor has plenty of ideas about what is and isn’t holy.

    “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” responds Bodhidharma, confounding the emperor by so plainly stating a core understanding in Zen. 
     
    John Tarrant’s comment on this exchange:

    “Zen is as unholy as the Ark of the Covenant, and as holy as dog poop on a hot day. Zen is a practice that opens us to experience the holiness that’s in everything—not a holiness that’s bestowed by some divine presence, but the simple holiness of just being. Now take every time I wrote ‘holiness’ and just replace it with ‘beauty.'”

    Who is Bodhidharma?

    Zen claims red-headed and blue-eyed barbarian Bodhidharma as its very first ancestor, relishing the myth of him crossing the great sea from India to China in around the 5th century CE. (Bodhidharma shows up on our Koan Zen History page)

    You are crossing the sea of this moment into the next.

    A necessary ingredient for any good party.

    When was Buddha born? What is their story?

    While there is plenty of history detailing the life of the Buddha, their mythical life journey evokes the path of awakening for all of us. Our founder, John Tarrant, has created his own version of Buddha’s life story over the years, which you can listen to here: The Story of Buddha’s Life as told by John Tarrant.

    The Buddha was born, strangely enough, on the very same day you were born—and at the same time and in the same place. He/She/They were also born while you are reading these words, as well as while I am writing them.

    What is Buddha nature? Do I have it?

    Each of us, each part of being, carries a little portion of the original light of the universe, or as we call it in Zen, Buddha nature.

    We discover this light through meditation, but our task in life is not just to go back home to where the light came from; our task is to struggle here, with consciousness and for consciousness. That’s what we do for eternity. As the eyes and ears of eternity, we have to give something back. We’re the only eyes and ears the Buddha has.

    Were there always women teachers in Zen?

    Well, yes, actually.

    Many historians have come to believe that Bodhidharma’s teacher—Zen and Chan’s “First Patriarch”—was a woman. It seems that far more women were holding and carrying the Dharma than is evident in the official books. There’s no side-stepping Zen’s historically unfavorable attitude toward women. However, the practice itself and the Chinese Daoist culture that birthed and nurtured it are strikingly feminine in the reverence for the dark and the earth, and the emphasis on relationship.   

    Read more on our Women in Zen page here, a sampling of awakened women’s lives and dharma in PZI’s Chan and Zen lineage.

    What is Zen’s take on love and relationships?

    One word for awakening is intimacy. Here we find not a hair’s breadth of distance between me and you and the world.

    One word for love is attention. The Zen path turns our attention to the mysterious and deep connection we already have with the cacophony of life, and opens our eyes to ways we may be holding it off with ideas about how things are or ought to be. Many koans are themselves radical invitations into empathy and learning to see and feel ourselves in everything, and likewise seeing and feeling everything in our own being. 

    The late poet and koan student Tony Hoagland dedicated his poem, “Entangle,” to Roshi John Tarrant.
    We like Tony’s take on the matter:

    Sometimes I prefer not to untangle it.
    I prefer it to remain disorganized,

    because it is richer that way
    like a certain shrubbery I pass each day on Reba Street

    in an unimpressive yard, in front of a house that seems unoccupied:
    a chest-high, spreading shrub with large white waxy blossoms—

    whose stalks are climbed and woven through simultaneously
    by a different kind of vine with small magenta flowers

    that appear and disappear inside the maze of leaves
    like tiny purple stitches.

    The white and purple combination of these species,
    one seeming to possibly strangle the other,

    one possibly lifting the other up — it would take both
    a botanist and a psychologist to figure it all out,

    —but I prefer not to disentangle it,
    because it is more accurate.


    Read the whole poem here and in Tony Hoagland’s book, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God

    What is Zen’s relationship to climate change? to social justice? 

    Our tradition began in deeply difficult and destructive times in China, and has endured countless upheavals. Chan (Zen)—and its commitment to the great matter in each moment—was a response to those times.

    Zen recognizes that however dire or grand our personal or collective circumstances seem to be at any given juncture, we simply don’t and can’t know how things will go. We can only open ourselves more fully to the lives we have now and trust what arises in us in response.

    At the end of each gathering, we sing together the Four Boundless Vows as a reminder of the Bodhisattva path that is so deeply part of our practice:
     
    I vow to wake all the beings of the world.
    I vow to set endless heartache to rest. 
    I vow to walk through every wisdom gate. 
    I vow to live the great Buddha way. 

     
    Different Zen communities have different ways of embodying and acting on these vows. At PZI, we focus on the inner life as the ground for a freedom and compassion that can go anywhere like the cosmic Guanyin (Bodhisattva of Great Compassion).

    Our members who are involved in cause-based organizations and communities turn toward practice as a way of nourishing their efforts. 

    What is a wisdom gate in Zen?

    In the Great Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita), it says, Without walls in the mind, there is no fear.

    No wall, no fear, nothing to walk through. No gate.

    That’s the gate. 

    Zen also often uses the term “gateless gate”—for example, in the name of one of its koan collections. 

    What is emptiness in Zen?

    If Zen had a credo—not as a statement of belief, but a statement about how it’s interesting to experience reality—it would be the Heart Sutra.

    The Heart Sutra says, Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

    It’s a key notion, because it maps onto something very deep, both in the intellectual currents of the Zen tradition, but also in the experience that you have in our own heart-mind. You can’t talk about emptiness without talking about the perception of beauty and the love that comes with it. And so that’s something to notice, and freedom.

    Vertigo is a natural reaction to finding yourself outside the usual confines of the self: “I thought I knew who I was, but I’m not sure any more.”

    In that uncertainty lies your gate to freedom.

    What is Zen’s relationship to death?

    Eternity is in everything. We’re stuck with it. It’s even in dying, which can be unpredictably full of intimacy, beauty, comedy, pain, boredom, awe—all in all, truly something not to be missed.

    A traditional Chan (Zen) way to approach the question of death is to stroll, stumble, hurry, struggle, fall accidentally through the gates of samadhi—the deep concentration of meditation—and look around. 

    This is to go to the place that doesn’t have a place or a time. It’s before you can do or say the wrong thing. And when you really enter this moment, it has no end, no beginning; it is older than the universe that seems to contain it. Then it will inevitably occur to you: “I’ve always been here.”

    What is Zen’s relationship to dreams?

    Dreams and koans are related—they are worlds in themselves and gates to those worlds. We move about these worlds in unfamiliar ways, they sweep us into depths we did not know about.

    We are all in the dream of the world—the only solution is to allow the koan, the dream, and life, to seize us.

    What is Zen’s relationship to beauty?

    In John Tarrant’s words: Beauty announces you have come to the end of the known universe. You look up before dawn—the morning star is in the arms of the old moon and the world stops.

    Beauty speaks for itself, and somehow practice helps us learn to listen.

    At dawn
    the owl quiets her call
    the light soft in the fog

    How is poetry part of Zen, and vice versa?

    In ancient China, where Chan (Zen) began, poetry was its own deep practice of bringing into form the texture and feeling of experience.

    Greats like Li Bai and Du Fu, themselves old friends who wandered together and traded letters when they were apart, laid bare the beauty and vastness of simply feeling the time they were in.

    What is a sangha?

    Zen often references “the three jewels” of practice: Awakening (Buddha), the Way (Dharma, or teachings), and companions on the Way (Sangha, or community). Each jewel is vital on the path.

    At PZI we have an enduring commitment to nurturing a community and ecology of practice.

    Just gathering in the temple together is a deep thing—sharing the silence and sound of the bell.

    What is a rakusu—that little bib thing? How can I get one?

    In the early days of monastic Zen, seekers of the Way sewed together patches of old cloth that became their robes, their way of leaving home and taking up the Way.

    When the political tides turned and Buddhism was free to flourish and spread, thousands upon thousands of monks and nuns made vows of devotion to the path. Sewing a robe and taking the great Bodhisattva Vows and monastic vows came to be known as “taking refuge” in Awakening (Buddha), the Way (Dharma), and in one’s companions on the Way (Sangha.)

    Today we honor that stitching as a ceremony.

    At PZI, we have a community ceremony of refuge where one or more students formally take up the Bodhisattva Vows, and receive a bib-like patchwork robe called a rakusu and a dharma name from their teacher. This event takes place after a period of exploration of the Vows as koans, undertaken by mutual agreement between a student and their teacher.

    I want to start with one Zen book. Which one?

    John Tarrant has written two books you might find helpful in orienting yourself to PZI’s approach. 
     
    For a dive into koans: Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans to Save Your Life
     
    For a deeper dive into the arc of the spiritual journey, and the blend of Eastern and Western traditions we incorporate in our teaching:
    The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & Spiritual Life
     
    John Tarrant has also published a number of articles [LINK to dharma theme pending] in Lion’s Roar and other forums over the years. 

    Questions on Pacific Zen Institute

    What is PZI’s mission statement?

    Pacific Zen Institute is a community in the Rinzai Zen tradition that embraces koan practice, creativity, and real life. Our mission is to create a culture of transformation through meditation, koans, conversation, and the arts. 

    As we continue to evolve, we’re tending towards the old Linji style of Chan. 

    After twenty years of teaching koans in a classical way, John Tarrant discovered ways of teaching koans that can orient anyone, including people who have no experience with meditation or Zen, towards a rich, full engagement with their own lives, and towards awakening. 

    We encourage people to take one step into freedom, and then the next, and then the next. And everything we do in PZI is directed to that end.

    What is a culture of transformation?

    The important part of awakening, the fun part, is to embody the transformation and actually live in the world that’s transformed. We find out what it’s like to be free, to live inside a mind that’s open and free—and that’s worth a lot. 

    One feature of awakening is that it’s light; you can travel easily because you don’t need a lot of equipment. Effort and apparatus turn out to be optional. It’s something anyone can do. 

    The Bodhisattva idea is that we live in a field with each other, and our most profound wish is that we can be happy and have joy in each other’s joy. A culture is something we all contribute to with our kindness, our service, our encouragement. As a community we help deepen one another’s practice.

    We want to make it easy to trip over moments of clarity, big and small, and also to support each other to live in this fresher air. Enlightenment happens to us in a world where there are other beings. 

    Join us—you’ll find a community of people exploring the path of meditation and freedom, and a space for open conversation about the journey. If you choose to become a member of PZI, and work with a teacher, you’ll help us grow this larger culture of awakening as you actively engage with your personal practice.

    How does PZI Zen interface with the arts?

    Creativity is its own practice, is a feature and outcome of deep practice, and it is at the heart of what we do.

    When you wake up, creativity blossoms. This could shift the way you solve problems at home, or in your work as an engineer, or it could open space for an image or poem to land in your mind. It’s all the same movement towards freedom.

    Many members of PZI are artists, professionally or independently, and they contribute greatly to the texture of our community. The practice of koan meditation offers a way for all of us to live our lives creatively, as works of art.

    See for yourself on our Creativity page

    What is different about PZI Zen and our Chan lineage? Is Zen Japanese or Chinese? Does it matter?

    Japanese or Chinese? Yes. 

    Does it matter? Not exactly. But there are distinctions. 

    Here is a snapshot of the PZI landscape to help you get oriented: 

    The Pacific Zen Institute is a community rooted in the Rinzai (Japanese) Zen tradition and way of seeing the world. But as we have continued evolving, we are best understood now as leaning towards the old Chan Linji style, which originated in early Tang Dynasty China. Sayings of Chan masters like Linji were circulated and used in meditation, and later collected into anthologies which form the basis of our Pacific Zen Koan Curriculum.

    Chan is the originating tradition of Zen Buddhism. Chan Buddhism spread from China, south to Vietnam as Thien, and north to Korea as Son—and, in the 13th century, east to Japan as Zen.

    Linji’s Chan had a forceful, creative directness that was born in the midst of great national turbulence and hardship.

    In both Chan and Zen, you don’t believe the dharma—you inhabit it.

    John Tarrant has developed a unique kind of Zen that embraces meditation, koan practice, the creative process, and real life. Dreams, myths, and stories are part of the exploration.

    At PZI there is space for art, music, poetry, creative leaps, and for ordinary life in its messiness and deep relatedness. We honor emptiness and the emptiness of emptiness, the dark feminine, and the great Way—the Dao that carries us all.

    Join us! Or join in at one of our many public events.

    What is the PZI temple?

    When we gather, the temple appears. This became most apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic when all our offerings moved online and the PZI Digital Temple blossomed across time zones. Dharma talks, special series, day-long and weekend retreats, sesshins, master classes, and daily meditations all appeared in the space we created, and held us as the world quaked and tumbled. 

    You can join the temple right from your home. Check out our Events Calendar for weekly meditations and dharma talks, 1-day retreats and multi-day sesshins.

    We hope to return to in-person retreats soon, too. 

    Do I have to be Buddhist to be a PZI member?

    You don’t have to be or not be anyone or anything, which we hope comes as a relief.

    We have members from many traditions and from all walks of life. Since Zen is far more about discovery than belief, we welcome diverse backgrounds and points of view.

    Do I have to speak Japanese to practice at PZI?

    While we honor the languages and lineages of our primary founding cultures—Chinese and Japanese—many, including PZI’s founders, have worked hard to make Zen stories, koans, and texts more available to English-speaking minds.

    What is sesshin? Can I join sesshin as a newcomer?

    Absolutely.

    Sesshin is a long retreat and an ancient vessel for transformation that has been handed down through the Zen lineage for centuries.

    Translated directly from Japanese, sesshin means, “touching the heart-mind,” and in our community it spans five to eight days and includes intensive meditation, dharma talks, interviews with teachers, daily tea and sutra services, and deep silence. It is a chance to be carried along by the great forces of awakening and to discover the ancestors alive in your own heart. 

    We welcome all levels of practice, and our leaders are available to help orient and guide your first experience. Our culture values wholehearted engagement over getting it right—whether “it” happens to be meditation or anything else in life. 

    Can I become a member right away?

    Don’t wait another minute! Join us here.

    You can join us for as little as $10/month: this offers you full access to our ever-expanding KALPA library of dharma talks and other resources, allows you to read and participate in our PZI Talk forum, and grants you discounts to retreats and other offerings.

    If you need any more reason than that, our community is chock full of creative and committed folks. Read member stories here!

    What is PZI Talk? How do I participate?

    We value being in conversation together about the deepest matters.

    As part of our shared practice, we offer our members access to an online forum, PZI Talk, dedicated to sharing insights, reflections, questions, and personal creative works.

    We now also offer PZI Talk LIVE online, an intimate evening program of conversation and discovery led by senior practitioners Corey Hitchcock and Chris Gaffney, and open to everyone. Check out our Events Calendar for upcoming topics.

    I want to learn more about PZI teachers. 

    Our teachers each have different styles and backgrounds, though all have committed themselves deeply to the koan path.

    You can read each of their profiles here, and also check our calendar for when they may be leading an evening meditation or an upcoming retreat.

    Members have access to our entire KALPA library, an ever-expanding reservoir of teacher dharma talks and transcripts. You can search by koan, topic, or teacher. 

    How can I work with a teacher?

    The best way to get to know our teachers, and get a sense for how we work, is to attend a PZI long retreat or sesshin.

    You’ll have the opportunity to meet with one or more teachers—and if you discover someone you might like to work with, you can inquire directly about engaging more deeply.

    We do require an active PZI Membership to work 1-on-1 with a teacher. Visit our membership page for details about all our member benefits.

    Many of our teachers also offer weekly dharma talks with time for questions and conversation as part of the gathering. Check our calendar for details on upcoming events.

    What is teacher dana? Where does my dana go? my donation? my membership?

    Dana:

    Dana is a longtime tradition in spiritual communities for thanking and honoring your teacher and their teachings. It is a designation of giving that is offered directly to the teacher you wish. You may give dana to more than one teacher, and may feel moved to do so if you receive an interview during sesshin or appreciate a particular talk or program.

    We have several set amounts available or you may choose your own amount. Anonymous and tribute donations are also possible. Your generosity helps support all of our online meditation sessions and teacher dharma talks.

    More on dana here.

    Donations:

    PZI is a 501C3 organization and your donations are 100% tax-deductible. We offer a number of ways for you to designate your gift in support of our work. 

    PZI General Fund: to help with operations and all things needed to keep the dharma lamps burning.

    PZI Scholarship Fund: to help other members attend our retreats and sesshins. Our scholarship program is 10% of our budget and our hope is to support as many members as we can to attend our retreats.

    PZI Community Fund: to help those in the community with emergencies.

    More on donation here.

    Membership: 

    Your generosity helps keep our koan path opening to the world and the mystery evolving. Without member dues and donations we could not do the work we do, which also includes the countless donated hours of our many volunteers. The funds we receive make it possible to support our director and fund a very small staff. Your dues also make it possible to maintain our website, continue to populate our extensive koan (KALPA) library, and publish our online newsletter – all vital elements for sharing the dharma and nourishing our community. 

    More on membership here.

    Can I donate once a year?

    Sure. You can donate any time you like. 

    What koan versions does PZI use?

    Two of our founding teachers, John Tarrant and Joan Sutherland, have worked for decades to contemporize the koan collections while staying true to the spirit of the original Chinese and Japanese. 

    We generally work with their translations of the Miscellaneous Koan Collection and the Wumenguan (Mumonkan) or Gateless Gate. 

    For other koan books, including The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Serenity, The Book of Equanimity, and other collections, we rely on a variety of translators and editions.

    What are the essential koan collections at PZI?

    We spend a lot of time steeping in the koans of the Miscellaneous Collection, the Wumenguan (Gateless Gate), and the magnificent Blue Cliff Record.
     
    We’ve also innovated over the years to include nontraditional koans, from our own and other traditions, that have proven worthy companions. EA sampling of additions to the Miscellaneous Collection include:

    Quick, don’t get ready.

    In the dark, darken further. —Daodejing

    The stone woman dances while the wooden man sings. —Dongshan

    A tree older than the forest it stands in. —Hanshan

    This is the stone, drenched with rain, that points the way. —Santoka

    Maralung, the Song Man: Where do songs come from? Read Maralung’s story here.

    Can I get a copy of the PZI sutras and songs? 

    You can find most of our sutras and songs in our KALPA library.

    How can I help PZI? How can I serve the community?

    First and foremost, as a nonprofit, we depend exclusively on the generosity of our community to continue doing what we do. 
     
    We greatly appreciate our volunteers and frequently have opportunities available to support our work. Most often we need transcribers to help digitize dharma talks for our KALPA library. Contact Corey Hitchcock to learn more.

    How can I get in touch with a sangha member?

    If you would like to contact someone directly, please reach out to Corey Hitchcock, who will act as liaison between you and them to ensure that they will welcome connecting.

    Where do I go if I have a problem at PZI?

    Although we’re a small organization, we do have a number of strong supporters who ensure the health of our community. Corey Hitchcock— our Operations, Membership & Donations Manager—can generally direct your concern to either a teacher, board member, or senior practitioner as appropriate.

    Am I really welcome at PZI?

    At the Pacific Zen Institute we welcome people of all backgrounds, colors, genders, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

    We are committed to helping people step into freedom in their real lives, just as they are. We offer sanctuary, community, a place for self-care, and for honest conversation about how to navigate these times with freedom and humor and joy.

    Everyone is welcome here, no matter how you are feeling, where you come from, what you believe.

    Questions on Meditating

    Do I have what I need to practice meditation?

    Yes! Meditation practice helps us notice what we love. You have everything you need.

    It is natural to look for the things you want outside of where you are now. That is the whole point of a journey. Yet this moment is all anyone has. So if freedom, love, beauty, grace, and whatever else is desirable are to appear, they must appear in a now.

    Meditation is not hard to learn. Getting started is as simple as sitting down and noticing how it is for you. You don’t have to sit in a certain way, although if you start to love it and want to do it more, it may help to figure out how to get comfortable so your body isn’t bothering you.
    Pay attention to whatever you notice (inside or outside yourself, it doesn’t matter) without thinking it’s good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, wise or stupid, worthy or unworthy.

    Actually there’s only one step. That’s it. Sometimes the word “curiosity” will help you.

    We don’t pay attention in order to be happy or to fix the problem or to improve ourselves. Attention is a kind of love and our way of showing up, and when we do that, life unfolds by itself.

    Support also helps. To give meditating at PZI a try, check out our Events Calendar and join us in an online meditation session. They are FREE! (or you may donate $10 to help us keep the lamps burning.)

    How about if my mind is a mess? Can I do it wrong?

    Meditation is not about manufacturing a state of mind that’s clear, calm, or full of insight. It’s about interfering less and less with what is actually here.

    There is not anything that’s not meditation. You are the universe that you are in, so the thing you think you are not, you’re that too

    There is a way in which we are all being held by this great path, and you can trust that you’re not having the wrong life. 

    And you’re not having the wrong dharma, and you’re not having the wrong practice (or the wrong mind!). And you put yourself in the vessel, and then you don’t take yourself too seriously. Because, why bother? You don’t know what you are anyway. 

    You’ll think, “Oh, I was doing terribly,” but actually you might be very close to it. When you think you’re doing badly, you might be wrong. So you can trust that the fortuitous and the unpredictable gifts are on your side.

    What meditation posture is used at PZI?

    Meditation is not hard to learn. Getting started is as simple as sitting down and noticing how it is for you. You don’t have to sit in a certain way, although if you start to love it and want to do it more, it may help to figure out how to get comfortable so your body isn’t bothering you.

    Just sit.

    Or, take some time to just walk. Find out who you can be, who you are, when the world meets you fresh in each moment.

    What if I can’t sit in a meditation posture? Can I still meditate?

    Meditation reaches far beyond any one posture.

    We have members who sit on cushions, in chairs, kneeling on benches, and even lying down from time to time. The idea is to be relatively comfortable and supported, and to stay awake. You will encounter passages of discomfort and sleepiness in any posture, but feeling your way into a position that you can keep long term helps with the journey.

    It also helps to consider that underneath the forms of the practice, we’re listening for the universe, really. We can’t do anything about that. It’s appearing as us. We’re the flower of the universe.

    What is a koan? How do koans work?

    Koans are an ancient method for addressing the question of who we are. The basic assumption behind koans 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 your consciousness so that you can experience that light.

    Sometimes the format of a koan (\’kō-‘än\) is question-and-answer, but the answer is designed to shift your consciousness rather than answer the question. Sometimes a koan is snatched from a poem. It might be beautiful or puzzling in a way that is designed to stop your thinking so that you can experience life directly.

    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.
    Koan work is also inherently creative. 

    A koan says that right there inside of the dilemma, it might be funnier than you think, it might be happier than you think. 

    A koan shows you the power of resting in unpredictability and uncertainty. You don’t know what the outcome of working with a koan will be, and great wisdom lies in that truth. Suffering and despair always rest in certainty: you have already decided what the outcome is or what it should be. 

    When koans remove our certainty, it feels as though we have just escaped from prison. When we are not bound by the story of our lives—the fictions, really—and not bound by the effort of knowing what everything is and where it’s going and what it should be, then a new kind of freedom appears. The body feels that and becomes at ease. 

    Then anything you look at—the walls, a tree, your friends, even somebody you thought you didn’t like—is suddenly full of possibility. You experience the wonder and beauty of just being here in the world of consciousness.

    Visit our Koan Meditation page for origins, history, and examples of koans and koan practice.

    Do I have to use koans in my meditation? 

    You are invited to enter koan-world and take your time.

    You might find that without much effort on your part, a koan from a dharma talk, or meditation session, or newsletter might speak to you even if you aren’t quite sure yet what it has to say. There is no need to hold tight to it or fend it off. You can simply see what happens with it in your midst and allow it to tag along. 

    To begin any practice, it often helps to let it be alive and organic, to trust that it has its own life. You are not seeking an answer, you are noticing what happens.

    You might notice under what circumstances a koan opens your heart or sparks your curiosity. You might get to see how your mind responds when it encounters uncertainty or steps outside its familiar story about your life or life itself. Koans reveal a world far more surprising and mysterious than the mind’s explanations, and prove good companions both on the cushion and off. 

    How is the bell used in meditation?

    The sound of the bell is full of space and stillness and welcome.

    Bells help us feel the time and rest in what’s already here. We’re not rushing on to the next moment. The bell helps us know that just being here is enough.

    We use old temple bells to open and close each meditation period, for retreat rituals, and as part of our sutra singing. 

    As the sound of the bell dies away, perhaps your idea of who you are dies away too. And the thoughts die away. Then you realize that you’re already at peace.

    What is the best time, and how long should I meditate?

    How’s now? Now seems promising.

    No need to have your eyes closed or be on your cushion to meditate, though having a regular and dedicated time of practice does seem to help. 

    Master Hakuin Ekaku, who revived the heart of Zen in 17th century Japan, taught:

    Meditation in the midst of action is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness. 

    As another said of meditation, “It can’t be explained, it can’t be praised enough.” 

    In Zen, there’s that moment when you realize that even the “trying to meditate” is just trying and has nothing to do with meditation.

    If you’d like some help getting started, or just some company as you find your way into a regular practice, try our guided meditations or visit the Koan Meditation page.

    What is kensho? 

    Officially, translated from Japanese, kensho indicates “seeing,” and “nature” or “essence.”

    It is the seeing of one’s true nature, seeing Buddha nature, seeing how the same light that shines in all things is none other than your own light, your own heart-mind. Rather than a place or a state to reach, it is the waking up to what is already here and has been all along. 

    Consider the story of Lingyun, who had wandered for decades in search of such an awakening and one spring 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

    Centuries later, Keizan, the Japanese teacher, wrote:

    The village peach blossoms didn’t know
    their own pink
    but still they freed Lingyun
    from all his doubts. 


    —PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 37

    Where does enlightenment come from?

    Where does anything come from?

    This is a great mystery: some call it emptiness, vastness, the Valley Spirit, Buddha, the Dao, the Dragon underneath…

    We invite you to investigate, fellow pilgrim.

    Here is a Dharma Talk by John Tarrant to kindle the flame: The Valley Spirit Never Dies: Peach Blossoms Appearing

    What if I never “get it”?

    One koan exchange with Master Yunmen offers:

    A student said, “Master, I am reaching for the light—please help me!”
    Yunmen replied, “Forget the light; give me the reaching!”


    —Case 33 (Yunmen)

    To have the life we actually have, to savor it and let its clarity arise and fall away–this is the essence of practice. John Tarrant tells the story of “not getting it” but continuing his practice and temple duties, and recognizing, at some stage, that he would be just fine being the temple gardener. Resting into the “not getting it” began to set him free without having or not having. 

    Sometimes awakening comes as a grand event, but it also arrives as a slow seeping in of ease and joy into your life, and a greater intimacy with the Mystery and all living things. 

    It’s all right to have whatever life you have and whatever journey of practice you discover. “Step by step in the dark,” as one of the koans goes. We rely on the things we don’t know that are holding us up. And you just start to trust that with time.

    Everything you bring is an addition into this great heritage. There’s something beautiful about that. So, trust what you’re bringing. What you have is not nothing.

    Who am I? Why am I here?

    In Zen, we tend to rest in questions more than answers, and the “who,” “why,” and “what” questions are among the greats that have been carried and mined for centuries. 

    Who is hearing?
    Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? 
    What is this?


    These are all themselves koans, as is the great Fayan’s exchange with one student on pilgrimage—an enduring metaphor for self-discovery: 

    Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going from here?”
    Fayan said, “I’m on pilgrimage.”
    “What sort of thing is pilgrimage?”
    “I don’t know.”
    “Not knowing is most intimate.”
    Fayan suddenly had a great awakening. 


    —PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 62 & Book of Serenity, Case 20

    Said another way, from the point of view of the Dao, we’re already home free, which is tremendously compelling. It’s a true promise, yet it doesn’t do our living for us. That living is the part we have to do for ourselves.

    A Koan for Questioners

    KOAN:

    Q: Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?
    A: The oak tree in the garden.

    —Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans, Case 43


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