Hubris Atë Nemesis environmental installation

What Is the Koan Path? 

Koans and vows understood as koans take us down a level to put us in touch with the deeper, mysterious current of things. This is where practice becomes a path. A refuge ceremony can be a station on this path as well, a blessing and an initiation. 

The path is founded in the deepening of your own practice, and in a confidence that’s not confident that you’ve got all the answers.

It’s a confidence in being on the path.

Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it.

When something appears, shine your light upon it. 
Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you. —Linji

The basic koan,’What is this?’ is always appropriate on the journey.
The question, ‘Is there anything wrong in this moment?’ is a bellwether on the Way.
If you are in the Dao, this question will seem silly. If you are caught, it seems crazy—of course something is missing!

At a certain stage of practice, when there is no way to go further, we make ourselves a raft for others. This is the path—we can’t explain it! We’re creatures that contain the universe and each other. We have a lot of unexpected help along the way.

—John Tarrant Roshi

Called into the World

Bodhisattvas are free to go anywhere

At a certain stage, there’s an impulse toward inwardness in meditation. Then, we’re called out into the world. If you find that you are stuck, that’s where we find the path: we take a step by helping others, by being the raft that carries others across to the other shore. We’re always trying to ferry ourselves to the other shore too. This is the notion of the bodhisattva. 

Being able to help is one of the deep, core things in Zen. Only through solving your own great questions, and facing your own great questions in the form in which they present themselves to you—only in that way can you be a raft to help others.

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

The Great Way Appears

Walking on the empty sky

Zhaozhou’s response when asked, “What is Buddha?”
He said, “Who are you?”

When we accord with the universe, we notice and accept the call, the invitation—and the Way appears. Zen is in touch with the deeper mysterious current of things. We learn to trust being held in the Dao—the Way—the Great Way that includes all practices and paths. There’s nothing underneath your feet.

Bioluminescence on the ocean

The vows and companions on the path are like the golden bough that Aeneas used to light his way in the underworld of Virgil’s tale; bright lights on the way.

There is a discipline in the Way, but mostly, you are getting out of your own way so you don’t miss the invitation of the mysterious blessings that come to you.

A Koan for You: You Are Enough

Someone asked, “The ancestors said that everyone has it, but I’m covered with the dust of the world and don’t know whether I do or not.”
And Caoshan said, “Show me your hand.”
Then he pointed to the questioner’s fingers:
“One, two, three, four, five. Enough!”

—Caoshan’s Fingers

How to Begin: First Steps at PZI

Join us online for any of our weekly Meditation & Talks in the PZI Digital Temple, which include koan meditation, a dharma talk, and community conversation.

Explore the many dharma talk audio files in our KALPA Library.

Join us any time as a PZI Member for unlimited access to our KALPA, inclusion in PZI Talk Google Group, for retreat discounts, and for the opportunity to work with a teacher individually. We love it when you are part of us.

A Tradition of Meetings: The Intimacy of Dokusan

Dokusan refers to the practice in Zen of meeting one on one with your teacher. It’s kind of the soul of Zen work, isn’t it? There’s a meeting between you and a teacher. It’s an interesting thing, what constitutes such a meeting. There’s a mysterious way that meetings are passed on, from hand to hand; a sense of darkness about it, because there’s a mystery about it too.

If there’s an inner transformation in your heart, then that’s passed on. But it’s not passed on in the way you’d normally hand on a certificate saying, ‘You’re enlightened!’ It’s more that it’s something you’ve discovered inside yourself. You’re in the same field with the teacher, the same mysterious field.  

—John Tarrant

A Tradition of Koans: Say It Upside Down

harry houdini jumps from the harvard bridge

Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine, June 29, 2009.

John Tarrant reflects on the subjectivity of labels like “enemy” and “crazy,” and the effect of adding a question mark.

The teaching is upside down.  —Zen koan

People stumble upon escape arts in the course of life. An escape art frees you to be in greater harmony with what passes for reality

One of the simplest of escape arts is to notice that every thought you have could benefit from a question mark. The upsidedownness or reversibility of everything the mind is doing is a crucial discovery. Read on…

Working with Koans

Another way to think of working with a koan is that it’s like going on a date. You have to pay attention, bring flowers, and not offensively ignore your companion. Don’t think you’re not on a date just because the movie hasn’t started yet. In this way, you might find that those coins are in many places.

This will affect what you do, because if everywhere you look there is gold, you don’t have to pick up every coin you see. You don’t have to hold onto every passing moment since plenty more are coming. And you too are golden.

treasure hunters

So you might not reach out for things as much as you once did. Transcript of a dharma talk by John Tarrant Roshi. Read on…

Audio: Walking the Mysterious Path Together

John Tarrant talks about the mystery of meditation as he first experienced it in the ancient forests of Queensland.

He also talks about transformation on the ancient koan path we follow, and the evolution of Pacific Zen Institute as a community, and koan school with a new online resource center, the KALPA (Koans and Liberation Project Archive) Library.

Your support helps produce PZI’s ongoing retreats and dharma talks, John’s writing projects, and spreads the teachings.

Donate to PZI

Audio: What Is It to Meet Things?

The Ink Dark Moon with
Tess Beasley Sensei

 Tess Beasley asks, “What is it to meet things?” as she introduces The Ink Dark Moon—stories on meetings, love, and Zen. Love brings something forth in us: we step into noticing and find ourselves within the vast, strange territory of love. Tess talks about dokusan, the meeting without barriers between student and teacher and shares poems from Kyoto’s Golden Age, on the beauty of longing, missing, and loss.

What Is Refuge? 

Refuge is our ceremony of initiation in Zen, or Chan. There’s a kind of entry—a declaration of entrance of the gate, a declaration of the Way—involved, and we have a ceremony for it, which is one of the ceremonies we’ve paid quite a bit of attention to, over the years. Any member working with a teacher can ask to take refuge.

the back of a pzi rakusu painted by a teacher for student

Basically, the ceremony involves some kind of blessing, some references to the sutras—the Heart Sutra, particularly—and then taking up the Bodhisattva Vows.

—John Tarrant

Working with the Four Boundless Vows as Koans

Audio: I Vow to Wake All the Beings of the World with Allison Atwill

The first of the Four Vows has the grandeur and awe of an “impossible task.”

The vows function as prayers in the service of awakening: one’s own life, one’s own room expands outwards.

How do we to save all beings? By including them, now. That which has already been born—allow it to be here and find its place. 

Audio: I Vow to Set Endless Heartache to Rest with Tess Beasley

The second of the Four Vows evokes the richness of the experience of heartache, and how we are drenched in tenderness and love for the world.

Fearing the watery submersion in heartache—the drowning—we put up walls: “This shouldn’t be happening.” Seeing the endlessness of heartache allows it to move through u while trusting the great river which holds us and carries us along. Setting heartache to rest is setting a kind of certainty to rest.

Audio: I Vow to Walk through Every Wisdom Gate with Jon Joseph

About the third of the Four Vows,  we might ask, “What is a wisdom gate? How do we walk through?” The impossibility of the vow and the impossibility of our lives—this is exactly where we should be. The endless nature of unfolding and of always-appearing wisdom gates.

We ask, “What is my part in the world?” By becoming the koan, or the vow, we set up a resonance with it and begin to soak in it. We are not separate from the world!

Audio: I Vow to Live the Great Buddha Way with Michelle Riddle

The fourth of the Four Vows is a task that seems impossible and may also not be possible to ignore!

Koans and sutras give many instructions on how to live, but you must live the Great Buddha Way as YOU.

Like great art, it is an intimate and particular expression, but speaks to something we all feel, and something we all must do. Realizing, “I am here!”