What Is a Koan?
A koan is a piece of old wisdom in a very concise form.
Think of a koan 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. 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.
A koan brings about a change of heart—its value is to transform the mind.
A koan may take many of your thoughts and assumptions away. It may show you that you stand on an emptiness, a mystery. And you may find this freeing. When you witness things as they emerge from mystery, you may find that you too are just emerging, and are essentially unknown. You are a something, vast and infinite, not limited by having a self. When you do not hold onto a set belief about who you are, many things are open and possible, and you may find that kindness just arrives by itself, without effort.
What a Koan Is . . .
You’ve probably heard the term “Zen koan,” perhaps used in the sense of a riddle or something confusing or paradoxical.
Perhaps you didn’t know that they’re also a practice, a kind of meditation. Some are like poems, some are like little stories or conversations, some are like jokes, and they all are a kind of can-opener for the mind, a way to get free of the conventional tangle of thoughts and feelings, and into a world that’s more free. In this world things, including joy, seem more possible and closer than you expected.
Koans are also a practice, a kind of meditation.
Some koans are like poems, some are like little stories or conversations between friends, some are like jokes, and they all are a kind of can-opener for the mind, a way to get free of the conventional tangle of thoughts and feelings, and into a world that’s more free.
& What It Isn’t
Koans are not linear, nor do they offer a direct, literal answer to a question, even one asked within the koan itself. Koans are not vehicles of certainty. Traditional Koans do not require one way of interpreting them. Koans are not pronouncements of truth, but living promoters of lively exchanges. Koans themselves do not hand out enlightenment. Koans are not secret or exclusive and no matter how hard you try, you can not break a koan.
Zen koans are a key part of what we do at PZI, although there is no requirement that anyone work with koans to practice with us. 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.
How to Begin with Koans – What Is It Like to Be You?
Which Koan Is Best?
Good question! Working with a Zen teacher is a good way to find your way with koans, in a curriculum. Here are a few excellent first koans:
Not Knowing Is Most Intimate
Linji’s True Person of No Rank
How Is My Hand Like the Buddha’s Hand?
Whatever Confronts You Don’t Believe It
The Journey Itself Is Home
A Valentine’s Day Bankei Koan Miracle
with David Weinstein
A search for the source of a zen koan: Bankei’s Miracle leads David Weinstein on a Valentine’s Day tour of koan history and many lineage teachers – “It’s like a murder mystery, tracing the clues, a prime suspect emerges, but then there’s a twist and it’s someone else, until finally, in the end I realize the prime suspect is me. In the process of dipping into who the suspects were, when they were, and other things they’d said, becoming more intimate with them in that way, I become more intimate with not only what they said, but also with what they were saying it about. The effort of tracing it back to the beginning leads to right here.”—David Weinstein
Eight Steps for Practicing Zen Koans
A koan is a little healing story, a conversation, an image, a fragment of a song. It’s something to keep you company, whatever you are doing. There’s a tradition of koan study to transform your heart and the way you move in the world. The path is about learning to love this life, the one you have. Then it’s easy to love others, which is the other thing a practice is about. —John Tarrant
The Territory of Koans: How They Work with You
Koans Pose Impossible Tasks
“Bring me the Rhinoceros Fan.”
“Then bring me the rhinoceros.”
So, that’s not making a lot of sense. But it’s sort of really interesting and strange, and does something to you, and you can start to feel the rhino in your body.
The koan seduces us into participating with the world and being immersed in the world.
Koans Speak to the Body
Koans have a way of reminding us we have a body and reside as form as well as emptiness: Who Is Hearing? What Is This? How Is My Hand Like Buddha’s Hand? are some helpful companions.
Where Do Koans Come From?
Most of them are old, and originally from Chinese teachers, but new ones are developed all the time. Many koans are records of conversations between teachers. All the major koan collections include comments and verses written later as commentary to the original case or story. Gradually, people began to use all of these case records in meditation. More on our Koan Zen History page…
Examples of 8 Koan Types
Koan Encourage Getting Lost
Step by step
in the dark
If my foot’s not wet
I found the stone.
When the night is dark and the world has gone mad, that’s the time to lose your way.
Getting lost is the middle part of the story where everything exciting happens, stranger and mysterious.
All you have to do is get out of bed and already you’re beginning to get lost. You’re alone and afraid, or in a war, or can’t cope with spouses and kids, or you’re lost in the woods with only a red hoodie and a basket and the night is full of sounds. Hardship, impossible tasks, and surprising allies all belong to getting lost.
Things happen when you get lost, the world changes, the old ways don’t work anymore, something new comes into being. And this happens over and over again. It’s the beginning of getting found but you don’t know that yet. So perhaps the strategy is just getting really, really lost, waking up from the slumber of a certain destiny into the wonder of what’s here.
Koans Have a Secret Affinity for Dreams
Koans and the dream world: Secret harmonies are on our side whether we think they are there or not, and whether we look for them or not.
A dreamlike koan, Zhaozhou’s Great Koan NO: it gets us down to a deeper place than our opinions about things.
Koans interweave with our lives. When we surrender, everything reveals itself. You and the koan change places, and the koan carries you. The dream of the tribespeople weaving the universe—they don’t know what they’re doing, they just weave. The universe is weaving through them. The vast world of “Nooooooo…” where we come from and where we go back to.
Soen Nakagawa: Came out of the dream, then I dreamed my life, going on to the next dream.
The dreaminess of life does not diminish it. Our secret fidelity to what is most important allows us to hear it.
—John Tarrant, August 2021
Dreams & Koans with John Tarrant: Hearing Secret Harmonies
A Koan Sample: The Great Koan NO
There are many types of koans. John Tarrant has categorized 8 types.
This is an example of an Inquiry Koan:
Someone asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”
—Gateless Gate, Case 1
John Tarrant on Finding Refuge with the Great Koan No
Enter here, and you are free!
Just enter here—there’s no guilty or innocent. Turn to the deepest koan: there is your refuge and simplicity, the deepest teaching.
—from a dharma talk by John Tarrant, recorded in Summer Sessshin on June 14, 2022. 4 minutes.
View the complete Dharma Talk here.
More on Zen Koans
Practice on the Koan Path
PZI Koan Curriculum
The PZI Koan curriculum teaches a language that is useful for describing the world more accurately. This is available to all PZI members working with a teacher.
Chan Koan Zen
Get acquainted with the great koan collections of Tang and Song Dynasty China and Rinzai Zen in Japan.
The PZI Way
More Koan Zen History
There’s a wonderful feeling in being part of the ancestors. There’s a sense of belonging, a feeling of joy, of being part of the mystery, and being accompanied by something greater. But also, we are the ancestors in the seamless fabric of reality.