Lineage begins with silence

Emptiness was there before the Universe was. —John Tarrant

At the beginning there was silence and non-time, the universe had not yet begun. But even silence is a step, it repeats, it’s the beginning of a journey. —from the Story of Buddha’s Life as told annually at PZI in December

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

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

It’s a key notion, because it maps onto something very deep, both in the intellectual currents of our tradition, but also in the experience that you have in your own heart-mind. There’s a perception of how things are and of the way we’ve constructed the world. Seeing through that, and that form is empty and even emptiness is empty—is a Zen idea, a Chan idea. 

—John Tarrant Roshi

Bodhidharma’s Vast Emptiness

Great Ancestor Bodhidharma brings Chan to China, 500-600 CE

Ancestor Bodhidharma

Buddhism was already established in China when Bodhidharma, the “Blue-eyed Barbarian,” arrived from India, bearing the Lankavatara Sutra. The koan tells of a legendary meeting with the emperor where Bodhidharma does not offer him any ground to stand on:

KOAN: Emperor Wu asked the great teacher Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” Bodhidharma said,“Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” —Case 1, from the great Blue Cliff Record

Chan Meets Daoism

Laozi and Zhuangzi, 200-500 CE

Ancestor Laozi

Chan transformed Buddhism in China, and it also banged into Daoism and became a much more process-oriented idea. People became interested in it as an experience rather than an idea, and that’s how you’ll feel it, you’ll hear it, in Zen. 

KOAN: The true traveler has no fixed destination and is not intent on arrival. —Laozi, from the Daodejing

KOAN: The Dao is in the ant, in the potsherd, in the shit and the piss. —Zhuangzi, from the Zhuangzi

Huineng’s Original Face

Early to Middle Chan in Tang Dynasty China, 500-900 CE

Ancestor Huineng

Koan work in a formal sense has its origins during China’s peaceful and prosperous early Tang dynasty, (7th-9th centuries CE,) when sayings of former and current masters were first circulated and used in meditation. Huineng points you inward to your essential self:

KOAN: Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born? 
—Dajian Huineng: Original Face Koan, Gateless Gate, Case 23

The nation is destroyed, mountains and rivers remain. —Du Fu

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, The History of Koans (and Chan): Leaping into New Territory, Lion’s Roar, April 6, 2018.

Mazu’s Current Matter

The collapse of Tang Dynasty China and the Golden Age of Chan, 750-1000 CE

An era of hardship produced luminaries: First among them, Mazu Daoyi (Great Ancestor Ma) and Shitou Xiquian, who embraced the urgent matter at hand—how to love and engage life in difficult times. The earliest koans are records of their encounters with students; intimate meetings where people could experience freedom for themselves. 


Great Ancestor Mazu

Mazu’s way was to walk freely in the world as Guanyin: His heirs included Linji Yixuan, who established the Linij (Rinzai) school; and ancestors Baizhang Huaihai (Koan: Baizhang’s Fox) and Huangbo Xiyun (Koan: Huangbo’s Gobblers of Dregs) When Baizhang asked Ma about the essence of his Hongzhou School, Mazu replied, “It’s just the place where you let go of your body and your life.”

KOAN: To advance from where you can no longer advance and to do what can no longer be done, you must make yourself into a raft or ferryboat for others. —Mazu

KOAN: The whole meaning of your life is in the current matter. —Mazu


Ancestor Shitou

Shitou’s was the way of deep insight and harmony, and his heirs came to the Caodong (Soto) school; notably the profound ancestor Dongshan Lianjie (Koan: Five Ranks of Dongshan) Two great song-poems were attributed to Shitou and are part of our Pacific Zen liturgy:

KOAN: We and everything we perceive are interwoven and not interwoven, and this interweaving continues on and on, while each thing stands in its own place.  —from Shitou’s Taking Part in the Gathering

KOAN: I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value. Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world. —from Shitou’s Song of the Grass Hut

Yunmen’s Light & Zhaozhou’s NO!

Dynamic teachers of the Tang Era: 618-906 CE

Other greats of this era were the dynamic and playful Yunmen Wenyan—”Cloud Gate”— and Zhaozhou Congshen, known for his “paradoxical statements and strange deeds.” Yunmen founded the Yunmen School (one of the Five Houses of Chan) which was later absorbed into the Linji School. There are a lot of legends about Yunmen, who’s a strange, interesting, brilliant person. He often answered his own questions.


Ancestor Yunmen

KOAN: 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

KOAN: Yunmen said, “In the center of the cosmos, inside heaven and earth, there is one treasure, hidden in the body. It picks up a lantern and walks into the meditation hall. It brings the entrance gate and puts it on top of the lantern.”  —The Blue Cliff Record, Case 62



Ancestor Zhaozhou

Zhaozhou was the ancient, twinkly grandmaster, thought to have been the greatest of that time. His famous koan 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, the Great Koan NO:

Someone asked Zhaozhou,“Does a dog have Buddha nature?” And Zhaozhou said, “No.” —First Case in the Gateless Gate

Someone asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?” Zhaozhou said, “Welcome.”

Tang Era Emperor Xuanzong & attendants

Linji’s True Person & Dongshan’s Open Hand

Palace at the Blue Cliff

The Great Koan Collections and Five Houses of Chan: Song Dynasty 960-1279 CE

In the Song dynasty, stories of meetings and encounters were collected into anthologies which formed the basis of a curriculum, including The Blue Cliff Record (Xuedou Chonxian and Yuanwu Keqin), the first and greatest of the koan collections. The Record was the culmination of the culture, a cathedral and a vessel of transformation. It was intended as a guide for those who needed to consider the deepest matters and live a practical life at the same time.

Boundless wind and moon, the eye within eyes,
inexhaustible heaven and earth, the light beyond light.
The willow dark, the flower bright, ten thousand houses;
knock on any door—someone will answer.   

—Xuedou’s Preface to the Blue Cliff Record

Other important collections: The Book of Serenity (Hongzhi Zhengjue and Wansong Xingxiu) and the Gateless Gate (Wumen Huikai.)

The Linji School

Ancestor Linji

Among the Five Houses (schools) of Chan, Linji Yixuan’s Linji (Rinzai) School was dominant in the Song period. Linji was a formidable master of innovation and creativity, described as “a nine-colored Phoenix, a thousand-mile horse.” He demanded we “face the world and go cross-wise,” and that “true persons of no rank” refrain from taking a fixed position, trusting the light inside everything. Every transmission document in the Pacific Zen school has calligraphy or a painting of a dragon, and Linji’s name on 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.  

—from the Recorded Sayings of Linji

The Caodong School

Ancestor Dongshan

The Caodong School, founded by the great Dongshan Liangjie, formed the basis of what would become the Soto School in Japan. Dongshan’s teachings include the profoundly beautiful Five Ranks and Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. He taught that all stages of the path happen at once, and every part of the path is golden.

A teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.”  

—from The Record of Dongshan

Dahui Burns the Blue Cliff Record

In every tradition there comes someone who disrupts the status quo.

Ancestor Dahui

Dahui Zonggao was said to have noticed his students engaging in too much intellectualizing on koans. So he burned the wooden blocks used to print the Blue Cliff Record to “rescue disciples from delusion.” Dahui’s teacher Yunawu had been the compiler of that seminal record.

Dahui did not care to explain and analyze koans. He introduced huatou practice, a method of meditating with the “head” of the koan and becoming one with it.

Another significant ancestor of the period was Honghzhi Zhengjue, a master in the Soto lineage who collected 100 koans to create the Book of Serenity. (Koan: Hongzhi’s Called Back from the Dream)

KOAN (huatou type):
Who am I?  —PZI Miscellaneous Collection

Hakuin’s Great Doubt

Revitalization of Rinzai in Japan 1600-1800 ?

A formal koan curriculum and checking questions

Ancestor Hakuin Ekaku

Hakuin Ekaku, in the 18th century, emphasized transformative enlightenment experiences and life-long deepening of wisdom. Hakuin and his immediate successors put the koans into a specific order and formalized a system that gave you a way to navigate past the point where most spiritual guidance stops. This for me was the amazing feature of koan work. The first shift into freedom was explored and tested in depth through checking questions. And then for those who wished, years of deepening and embodiment were possible.

At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.

Harada’s Gold

Bringing koans to the West: Daiun Harada and Kuon Yamada 1907-1989

Ancestor Kuon Yamada & Kazue Myoen Yamada

Two lines came down from Hakuin: the Inzan and Kosen lines. The latter was known for its emphasis on subtlety in the work, which meant, among other things, lots of checking questions for koans. Much of American koan work comes through that line. Koans came to the West in a peculiar way however; since one of the notable figures in the process was Daiun Harada, who worked with Dokutan Toyota, a prominent Rinzai master of the late 19th century. 

“This stick; if you cut it here, it’s gold. If you cut it here, it’s gold. If you cut it here, it’s gold. There’s gold all the way through.” —Daiun Harada

This was a time of innovation and adaptation in Zen as in other aspects of Japanese life. Harada began as a Soto monk who wanted to revive the lost Soto koan tradition. He sought this end, though, by dropping Rinzai koan work into (primarily) Soto forms. The Japanese Soto powers were not interested, so Harada, along with his successor Hakuun Yasutani, and his successor Koun Yamada, started and developed a separate school, referred to as the Three Treasures. In its emphasis on kensho (initial insight or awakening) and koan work as the heart of Zen this line became in its inner core a special branch of Rinzai, but Harada did revive some of the lost Soto koan curriculum and kept a Soto sense of ceremony. 

Also, an emphasis on the importance of a large initial opening came from him, though in practice Koun Yamada, the poster child for big kenshos, did not himself require this. 

Another koan influence: Soen Nakagawa 1907-1984

Ancestor Soen Nakagawa

Nakagawa was a Rinzai master and haiku poet. He was interested in the West and in the arts, spoke good English, taught in the West and had close friendships and connections with the Three Treasures line. He was Koun Yamada’s high school roommate and they were classmates at Tokyo Imperial University. He was in the Myoshinji tradition of Rinzai Zen which is in the Inzan line.

We are linked to him through an interest in the arts. Nakagawa’s line of Rinzai Zen also had a flexible attitude to the koans; he was more inclined to take them out of order and to improvise koans. So his influence is manifest in our practice and curriculum in this way, as well. 

At Pacific Zen Institute we walk inside the stories and images of the koans as if they were cathedrals carrying the wonder of the old masters. —John Tarrant Roshi

PZI Today – John Tarrant’s Spirit of Love & Joy & Play

Pacific Zen School: A Culture for Transformation

Hybrid forms of ceremony

In matters of ceremony at Pacific Zen Institute we are developing hybrid forms that include Western archetypes and music. This is a departure from Harada’s school but, we feel, in line with both his syncretist spirit and the context we inhabit.

Haiku and the arts

One other koan influence is Soen Nakagawa, the Rinzai master and haiku poet. He was interested in the West and in the arts, spoke good English, taught in the West and had close friendships and connections with the Three Treasures line. He was Koun Yamada’s high school roommate and they were classmates at Tokyo Imperial University. He was in the Myoshinji tradition of Rinzai Zen which is in the Inzan line.

We are linked to him through an interest in the arts. Nakagawa’s line of Rinzai Zen also had a flexible attitude to the koans; he was more inclined to take them out of order and to improvise koans. So his influence is manifest in our practice and curriculum in this way, as well.

The koans called “miscellaneous”

The first book of koans we use is a Rinzai miscellany in the Hakuin style. In keeping with that style, it has additional koans thrown in as a way of innovating or introducing new koans, or making koan work connect to local circumstances. Some of the miscellaneous koans are ones I invented; they occurred to me and they offer proof of the concept that the koan tradition is alive and well today. I have seen the way they come alive in my own and students’ lives.

KOAN:  Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds.  —PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 23b


The Five Ranks of Dongshan and the sixteen Refuge Vows are done as Hakuin did them, but a little material from Harada is added. We are rooted in the Rinzai way of seeing the world, but we have continued evolving and are probably best understood now as leaning towards the old Chinese Linji style. 

PZI Founder John Tarrant Roshi

—John Tarrant Roshi 

On Compassion: “Guanyin is everywhere, and her compassion is profoundly important in Zen. To have compassion is not to be overwhelmed by the dark, but not to shut out the dark either.”

On Waking Up Together: “One of the things I like about Chan and Zen is that enlightenment is something we’re all involved in, we’re implicated in. We’re all criminals in the game, and we’re all helping each other. And it’s not always clear what’s the helpful thing, but we know that somehow we’re in it together. And if we trust and listen, then all of us get transformed.”

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