Ways to Keep Company with a Koan
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.
Koan Meditation Journeys with John Tarrant—download, carry with you, listen:
The teachings are a record of the meetings with the dragon; they are a discovery of what is true and intrinsic to life.
For twenty years I struggled fiercely.
How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?
—Xuedou, commentary on Blue Cliff Record Case 3
Wandering free and easy, without judgments or interruptions, the space inside everything is a kind of light that gradually becomes visible.
A student asked Jiashan, “What is Jiashan’s state of mind?” Jiashan answered, “Monkeys, clasping their young to their breasts, return beyond the green peaks: a bird with a flower in its beak alights before the blue grotto.”
—Entangling Vines, Case 99
Peach blossoms can turn up anywhere, and the Valley Spirit appears.
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.
—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 37
More Meditations with John Tarrant & PZI Teachers:
Was there a time when you realized that you could rely on something larger than yourself?
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?”
—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 86
When there is just sound in the universe, what is it like to be me? Is there even a difference between that sound and me?
Who is hearing this sound?
—PZI Miscellaneous Koans
Koan Stories for Meditation
Your Unique Recipe for Awakening with Allison Atwill
We are exhausted by our own agendas; in Chan and Zen the Bodhisattva of Great Mercy vows to stay until all beings are awakened. Her primary bond is with uncertainty. Your recipe for awakening is only for you.
Water Moon Guanyin with Tess Beasley
The various ways compassion can manifest. Water offers compassion at unfathomable depths and in reflections. As recorded Aug 16 2020.
The Ox Follows with Jon Joseph
Ox-herding Pictures 4 & 5
Verses four and five, for me, together represent the question, “How do we practice?” We do not work with koans holding onto some notion about how we should live. Rather, we bring koans into our lives just as they are. So how should we practice? “Without devices or chain, of itself, the Ox will follow.”
—Jon Joseph Roshi