John Tarrant Introduces 8 Different Koan Types

1. Predicament Koans

“I call these ‘predicaments’ and there might be a better name. ‘Dilemma’ is too cognitive, and ‘puzzle’—koans used to be called puzzles. But I think ‘predicament’ is not a bad thing to call them. ‘Predicament’ is a fairly old word.

Things are slipping away and you find yourself to be lost. This is the not knowing of Zen, in which the teacher participates as well. In these koans, there is a movement in which things are stripped away and simplified and then go through stages of transformation—danger, confinement, burning, drowning, dismemberment. These predicament koans allow the student to enter the difficulty until the koans themselves open the way.”

A Predicament Koan EXAMPLE:
Yunmen’s Darkness

Yunmen said: You come and go by daylight. You make people out by daylight. But suddenly it’s midnight. There’s no sun, no moon, no lamp. If it’s a place you’ve been, then of course it’s possible. But if it’s a place you’ve never been, how will you get hold of something?

—Yunmen Wenyan

2. Impossible Task Koans

“One of the appealing things about the Daoist tradition—and the Zen tradition—is that it’s not afraid of the impossible. In fact it rather relishes it. The Zhuangzi starts off with some giant fish that flies into the sky and becomes a bird, and you think, Well, we’re definitely in new territory here. So, something in the heart opens with the impossible problems and mysterious tasks, and I think it’s impossible not to notice that this is also part of the western traditions, with fairytales and myths. You have to go into the underworld to get knowledge from the blind prophet. Or you have to spin straw into gold, a favorite Grimm one. Or guess the name of the goblin, otherwise you’ll have to give up your child.”

An Impossible Task Koan EXAMPLE:

Save a ghost.

—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 17

Audio: Save a Ghost with
Jesse Cardin

Jesse Cardin Roshi takes us on a journey to the underworld through myth and story with Odysseus, Circe, and Hades. Includes an intro to the koan “Save a Ghost,” 2 silent meditation segments, dharma talk and comments. As recorded April 8, 2020.

3. Dream Body Koans

“If you’re going through a hard divorce or something—you’re  in some kind of ‘between’ situation—or if you’re going through, let’s say, an epidemic: We’re going through a something, a passage.

Memory, dreams, what the Greeks called ‘fate’, karma, ghosts, demons, angels: That’s a particular kind of territory which belongs to the Sambhogakaya, which is the dream body—the mystical strange part of life, the bliss body. And it’s also the place where strange things happen, where people remember previous lives, and long-gone teachers appear in your dreams and ask you to do things, that kind of thing.

One of the virtues here is patience, and fidelity, and in a certain sense, not losing your head. That’s good for epidemics too. And also, every journey has its magical, we might say ‘prohibitions’, and things like that. So if this is the place where remarkable things happen, it’s also a place where we need a lot of fidelity to the practice. If the world is very harsh outside, or inside you’re having very interesting transformative experience—it’s really good to be faithful.” 

A Dream Body Koan EXAMPLE:
Baizhang’s Fox

Whenever Baizhang gave a talk, an old man was there listening. When the people left, he left too. One day he stayed behind.

“Who are you?” asked the teacher.

The old man said, “It’s true, I’m not a human being. In a previous universe, in a time of a different Buddha, I was the abbot on this mountain. A student asked, ‘Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘someone like that doesn’t fall under the law of cause and effect.’ Because of this, I’ve been reborn 500 times as a fox. Please, will you say a turning word for me?”

Baizhang said, “You don’t cut the chains of cause and effect.” At these words, the old man had a great awakening.

—Gateless Gate, Case 2 & Book of Serenity, Case 8

On the Moment of Staying with Allison Atwill

Allison Atwill focuses with us on the core of Baizhang’s fox koan— the moment when the old abbot stays after hearing a dharma talk at the monastery.

Dharma talk on Baizhang’s Fox Koan, with Allison Atwill
Recorded in Summer Sesshin, 2023

4. Inquiry Koans

There’s something powerful in Zen about the notion of questions. Questions begin a journey, questions open a gateway—so that if you’re sincere, any question might lead you there.” And there’s no “there” there! Wherever we are, an openness to what is: “In a certain sense we have to think that the thing that I wasn’t looking for, that arrives, might be what I’m looking for. And there’s some beautiful possibility in it.” 

An Inquiry Koan EXAMPLE:
Zhaozhou’s Dog (also Zhaozhou’s No)

Someone asked Zhaozhou,
“Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“Yes,” replied Zhaozhou,
“Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?”
“It knew what it was doing and that’s why it dogged.”

Another time someone asked Zhaozhou,
“Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” “No.”
“All beings have buddha nature. Why doesn’t a dog have it?”
“Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”

—Gateless Gate, Case 1 & Book of Serenity, Case 18

Note: The last line of the koan is literally, “It has activity (karma) consciousness.” This is an Indian system of describing layers of the mind. “Activity consciousness” has the sense that through the agency of ignorance an unenlightened mind begins to be disturbed or awakened.

Aboriginal painting of the Unverse

Audio: The Dog Part of the Koan NO with John Tarrant

The dog part of the koan emerges from the resounding NO as a companion for the inner life. Humans and dogs have been companions for eons and are clearly in the fossil record from ancient times. Through this long relationship down through time, dogs have learned to relate and map us and our inner lives. What is our relationship to the natural world? Like meditation practice, dogs help us remember there is no separation.

5. Bright Gate Koans

“These are the koans, that if you were completely ignorant of koans—this is the kind of category of koan you’d run into. They’re usually given as an initial koan, but they’re not “inquiry koans.” The other (inquiry) koans that are given as initial koans are: What is it? Who am I? Who is hearing?

So these koans became the universal first gate, and they try to get to the sense of inquiry, through these koans, by wondering about them. These koans, they’re meant to set up a process in you and meant to accompany you if you’re waking, or going through your life, or whatever.

So the idea is to become absorbed in them and not take your struggles too seriously. They simplify your attitudes and settle the mind some. Some people approach them as concentration koans, although, fundamentally, you have to go beyond that. I’ve described them as ‘vials of ancient light.’ And the idea is that we’ll see the way the old teachers did.”

A Bright Gate Koan EXAMPLE:
Solitary Brightness

There’s 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.

—PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 38c, Linji

Audio: Solitary Brightness: Nothing to Hang Onto with John Tarrant

6. Vast Emptiness

“Experiences of emptiness ultimately include the perception of beauty, the love that comes with it, and freedom.

You can’t talk about emptiness without talking about the perception of beauty, and for me, love that comes with it—and so that’s something to notice, and freedom. 

Emptiness became very important in Chan, and Huayan—which is something that’s very like Chan. There are Huayan koans like,

Each branch of coral holds up the moon.

It’s clearly—each little piece of the Universe is a jewel, that holds the rest of the Universe, that kind of thing. And so, it’s important. Why I mention that, is because it’s kind of how Chan people see emptiness. And why do we have emptiness, why do we even say, ’emptiness?'”

An Awakening Koan EXAMPLE:
Picking & Choosing

Zhaozhou often quoted this saying by Sengcan:
“The great way is not difficult, if you just don’t pick and choose.”

—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 2

Audio: A Blue Cliff Record Journey of Not Picking & Choosing with John Tarrant

7. Awakening Koans

“These koans hold the notion of direct entry into the mystery, something we know for ourselves alone. The importance of giving ourselves to the path, caring about our practice, and about this matter.

Awakening gives us some kind of entry into the fullness of our experience of life now. That’s one thing. And when you do have some kind of awakening, it makes you prone sometimes to having other experiences. Also you’ll notice that there’s a kind of integration path that could be something very small or something that you experience as emotionally large. But then later on you reframe it, as you go on.”

An Awakening Koan EXAMPLE:
Peach Blossoms

Peach Blossoms:

Lingyun was wandering in the mountains and became lost in his walking. He rounded a bend and saw peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. The shock awakened him. He wrote: “For 30 years I sought a swordmaster. How many times have the leaves fallen and the new buds appeared? But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms I’ve had no doubts.”

—Transmission of Light, Case 12,
Entangling Vines, Case 8

Audio: The Interwoven Journey with Tess Beasley at Spring Sesshin 2021

Tess Beasley invites our voices into the room, acknowledging the interwoven yet not-interwoven vessel of sesshin. We are each a unique presence, yet it is when personal identity and ambition recede that feeling and empathy emerge. As recorded April 11, 2021.

8. Intimacy & Immersion Koans

Falling into a well, the red thread of passion, not trying to get a credential—just walking in the world with open hands. We step  into everything, without having to know who we are. If emptiness is holding us, we are serving emptiness.

An Immersion Koan EXAMPLE:
Falling into a Well

The clearly enlightened person falls into a well. —Baling

Audio: Falling into a Well with Jon Joseph

Jon Joseph Roshi gives an overview, then the koan “What is the Way?” leading into meditation with Baling’s “A clearly enlightened person falls into a well.” Or does a well fall into that person? Audio excerpt as recorded February 1st, 2021. 28 minutes.