PZI Teacher Archives

11 The Coin Lost in the River – The Zenosaurus Course in Koans


Zenosaurus Curriculum 11: This koan offers offers the chance of finding that there is a home in traveling, in the smell of toast, the chill of the morning air and even in the feeling of being far from home.

11: The Coin Lost in the River – The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

Lost and Found

Some koans are about having a meditation practice. So this piece is going to be about some of the intricacies and dance moves of that practice.

The Koan:

The coin lost in the river is found in the river.

(PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 64)

The sun and moon are travelers in eternity. Even the years are wanderers. For those whose life is on the waters or leading a horse through the years, each day is a journey and the journey itself is home.

—Matsuo Basho


Meditation is something that you do, which is what makes it a practice. It doesn’t need much in the way of theory and it teaches you how to do it as you go. But in order to do it you have to actually do it. In meditation, the world moves toward me and through me and falls away behind. Even if I stay in the same place I am emigrating through time. This koan offers offers the chance of finding that there is a home in traveling, in the smell of toast, the chill of the morning air and even in the feeling of being far from home. The koan reverses the equation that the mind is always trying to solve.

In meditating with a koan you find yourself making moves that would not otherwise occur to you. Basically, you show up in the life you are having at this minute, without judgment or critique. Then you find out what happens.

Meditation goes like this for me:

Let’s start with the part about having lost the coin, let’s say the mind feels off balance in some way. That’s just the first noble truth, that we suffer and most of the things we try to do about the suffering thicken the suffering. The koan is the beginning of a step backwards, of a new direction.

When you are with the koan, you could say that the koan notices your situation for you. Any part of the koan will waken your sense of doubt in the thickness of your unhappiness, so the word coin or river might be what appears in awareness and that will be enough. It is also fun to think of whatever is happening in your life as the form that the koan is taking today. For example, today my body felt out of whack and I noticed my mind offering theories; my thoughts have been a bit sticky and off balance too. The theories are the usual flailing around that the mind does—maybe I need more sleep, maybe I ate the wrong thing, maybe I’m sad, maybe I should get that flu shot….

It doesn’t really matter what theories my mind offers, or even if some of them have a leg to stand on. The mind does lists: the to-do list, the I-can’t-bear-to-or-at-least-prefer-not-to list, or the list-of-dreadful-possibilities. It doesn’t matter whether you are waiting for the results of a cancer test or your lover just ran off, or nothing serious is going on at all. The mind treats the thoughts as an instruction to solve a problem but the problem can’t be solved in that way. The thoughts are handles on the situation. The koan takes away the thoughts, then I don’t have a handle on the situation because I’m closer in than that.

At first the mind rushes off after each item that comes up, whether it’s something that happened or a song hook. This doesn’t achieve anything. As the koan continues to operate, the mind settles a bit, it feels the pull of the theories and beliefs but doesn’t follow them so breathlessly. The koan’s job here is to pry you loose, to undermine you, to reverse the direction of the quest. Your awareness notices that it is somewhere and then it’s free for a moment.

Next the mind notices the thoughts but is less identified with them. What is happening when the mind is not chasing its thoughts is starting to seem very appealing. Even the sense that life is unsatisfactory becomes a piece of freedom, something amusing and full of life. Then even the looking is what you are looking for.

Next, not many thoughts or theories seem to be arising but whether they arise is not important. There is no need to move on from this moment, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to do. Then there is not much to say about what is noticed. There is no skin between you and the world. This is the “found” part of the koan. There is not a you and a world in any separated way. The sound of hammering from next door, a truck hauling up the grade, the coyotes doing their midnight cheer, all the sounds happen in stereo and have an aura of eternity about them. The river flows and where you reach is the coin. And the events inside too, the thoughts and feelings are also the coin.

The content of what is happening in my mind doesn’t matter as long as I don’t think it’s me or it’s real. What the koan does is to undermine the thoughts so that what is left is the world. When that happens we have found the coin already and are dancing together—along with the dog who has Buddha nature and the maple tree putting out new buds.

This has all sorts of implications. If I don’t suffer, if I don’t have my known problems, who am I? This is the core of koan work, where it is all headed. Then I step into a darkness or a vastness, and even my thoughts don’t tell me what to do.

The practice part of it is that it doesn’t matter if you think you lost the coin and start to be unhappy about life. That is another theory. And it doesn’t matter how many times that theory rises. Even that theory is the coin. A koan practice means that you go back to the river over and over again and you can trust that process. You can trust the moves your mind makes when you are not ordering it around, telling it to be happy or calm. Then you rest in the source and it it is apparently inexhaustible.

Questions, questions

1. What brought you to meditation? Was there a problem to solve? Does it work? Do you think you’re doing it right?

2. Is there a treasure you seek? Can you describe it?

3. What happens for you when you meditate? What happens to the koan?

4. Do you have a favorite explanation for yourself or something in your life? What’s it like to imagine being without it?

5. What’s the most important thing you’ve ever lost?

6. What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?

The koan is from the ancient Chinese grand master, Yunmen.

The painting “Incoming Tide” is by Adrian King from Lockhart River.
The map is by pirates.
The toast is by Orowheat.