Introducing Koans with John Tarrant

Audio: The Mysterious Source of the Bright

Recorded at PZI’s 2018 Winter Sesshin.



KOAN:

There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form.
It knows how to listen to the teachings,
it knows how to understand the teachings,
it knows how to teach.
That solitary brightness is you.

—Master Linji


What Is a Koan?

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.

Channa & Siddhartha

Zen koans are a key part of what we do in 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 Work with a Koan

If a koan has grabbed your attention, or you’ve received one from a teacher, let yourself be open to it at first.

Maybe you understand it immediately. Good. What else is there for you? How does it enter your life? Maybe you want to take it deeper. Sit with a koan in your meditation and also let it accompany you wherever you go and whatever you do.

More on how to work with a koan: Koan Meditation


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.

You’ve probably heard the term “Zen koan” used in the sense of a riddle or something confusing or paradoxical. Yet 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.

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.


The Territory of Koans

Impossible Tasks

“Bring me the Rhinoceros Fan.”
—”It’s broken.”
“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.


Koan Types

Predicament Koans

Mysterious Task Koans

Body Koans

Inquiry Koans

Bright Gate Koans


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 of 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…

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.


Audio: Hearing Secret Harmonies – Koans & 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.


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 members working with a teacher.

Chan Koan Zen

Koan Collections

Get acquainted with the great koan collections of Tang and Song Dynasty China and Rinzai Zen in Japan. 

The PZI Way

Koan History

More on 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.


Meditation is something to learn in order to make your way through the inner and outer forces of your life, and the events great and small. Life is a great and marvelous mystery, but it is not something to be afraid of. So meditation is really a way to inhabit your own life, and love it and love the people you are with on this journey.

It is a way to be fully human. We can all do it, there is no one who is disqualified or wrong in the world of meditation. There are no reservations in life, we are here, and again we are here. We can all manage that. That is why meditation is associated with freedom and joy.

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