Koans come down from immemorial time. Their known history begins in China in the 700’s when students would go to great teachers and the teachers began to answer them as if the student could in one jump reach an awakening. Koans were designed to correct the flaws that accumulate in consciousness, so they were always a way of finding a fresh start and transforming the mind to be in accord with reality. In the next few centuries these dialogues were recorded and collected into koan books that are still used today. The term koan means “public case” just like a common law case. The primary school for teaching koans was the Linji school—Rinzai in Japanese.
The koans went to Japan and Korea in the 1200’s. In Japan Zen divided into koan and non koan schools. The non koan schools taught silent, formless meditation and emphasized cermony. The koan schools emphasized the transformation of consciousness and the possibilities of imagination and we descend from them. At this time koans were used by monastics and lay people. They were thought to be especially useful for people immersed in the world, a way of finding peace and awakening in the midst of life.
A koan tradition developed in China that was amplified in Japan. This tradition was to pass down responses that great teachers had to the koans. These weren’t the only possible response but were interesting and provided a kind of measuring stick for a student. One great figure in Japan was Hakuin Ekaku (1686–1769) and most of the koan schools in Japan today descend from him. He taught Zen to all types of people and he and his circle collected koans and made them into a curriculum. In this way you could have the experience of working with many koans and opening different aspects of your understanding of reality.
As Japan opened to the west about 100 years ago there were many efforts to transform Zen to the new ways. One of these was an attempt to revive the tradition of awakening inside non koan Zen by merging the two schools and teaching. This attempt led to the establishment of the Sanbo Kyodan, a Japanese school that straddles both traditions and was influential in establishing koan Zen in the west.
Pacific Zen originally came out of that school but we have developed since then and are probably best understood now as leaning towards the old Chinese Linji style. This is because we teach that koans can have a direct impact on your life in all circumstances. We emphasize koans as a way of completely transforming your life, a way of beauty and of uncovering the secret kindness in the world.
Today the Pacific Zen School includes both Pacific Zen Institute and The Open Source Project.