On Koans

Introduction: Koans and their ways

A Zen koan is a short piece of text, perhaps a line of poetry, or an interchange between two people, or a little story. A koan encourages your imagination and at the same time frustrates the normal way you usually deal with your thoughts. With a koan, nothing goes the way you expected, the person you thought you hated turns out to not be so bad, the thing you thought was impossible turns out to be merely improbable, or perhaps even likely. Your life isn’t at all what you thought, and things are unexpectedly funny rather than tragic.

A koan can be used as an object of meditation, to get in the way of your normal thoughts, or you can do other interesting things with it, like take it for a walk, or let it take you for a walk. You can wield the koan as you would a tool, or you can try trusting it. When you trust it, and that what it is doing is showing you a different reality, you will discover all sorts of things you didn’t know before or even expect. It will uncover old sufferings and untie old knots. Beauty will be easy to find. You will enjoy your own company.

It’s a good idea to keep the koan with you, and to call on it when in any sticky situation, like boredom or anger or loss or fear. You can simply repeat it to yourself, or find an image from it to keep you company. You can wonder about it and let that wonder take you places. Specifically, you can trust yourself with the koan, so whatever part of the koan you remember, even just a single word, that’s the bit of it that’s important for you. Whatever is particularly up with you in your life, that’s the koan talking to you. Whatever happens in your dreams, that’s the koan, too.

A koan will always:

  • Surprise you
  • Be about your life, and pertinent to your current problem
  • Give you insights
  • Transform you

A koan will never:

  • blame you
  • say something unoriginal or clichéd
  • be about somebody else’s life but not yours
  • be an intellectual puzzle that you need to solve
  • Be a way to understand “Buddhism” better

I wish well in your adventures with koans.

By Rachel Boughton

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