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.

Rachel Boughton


A little guide to koan meditation
John Tarrant 2015The koan: The coin lost in the river is found in the riverA koan is a little healing story, a conversation, an image, a fragment of a song. It’s something to keep you company whatever you are doing. There’s a tradition of koan study to transform your heart and the way you move in the world. 

The path is about learning to love this life, the one you have. Then it’s easy to love others, which is the other thing a practice is about.


Koans don’t really explain things, instead they show you something by opening a gate. You walk through, you take the ride. Before anything is explained, there is the sky, the earth, redwood forests, pelicans, rivers, rats, the city of San Francisco. And you are part of all that, we’re all part of that. In the land of koans, you see that everything that happens in your life is for you. There is no one else it can be for. Your life counts.


It’s familiar to reach for things you already know about, and meditation means stepping beyond that. It’s not training your mind because that is something you already know about. What’s required is more strange and also less effort; it’s outside of easy or hard, yesterday or tomorrow.


You might think meditation is difficult, that your job is to change your mind about reality and to see through your illusions. But the ambition to improve your state of mind is part of the consciousness that finds fault with itself and lives in pain. With a koan it’s different: You just keep company with it. It draws your attention to something you already have but might not have valued. Reality is on your side.


Choosing a koan.


There are many koans. If you have heard of a koan and it stayed with you, you can try that one out. It can be like an ear worm; it seizes you and won’t go away. In this way a koan can choose you. It is for you the way your life is for you. No one else’s opinion really counts. If no koan has already grabbed hold of you, here’s one to try:


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


How do I work with this koan?


  1. First of all, don’t try too hard.


Just repeat the words of the koan to yourself a bit. The coin that’s lost in the river is found in the river. You are joining a timeless conversation and you are forming a relationship with the koan, so you can let all that happen without worrying about it.


  1. You show up.


Have the life you have, and let the koan into it. Think of it as play. Everyone wants to develop meditation as a skill, but building a skill is just making your life smaller than it is. Before that, meditation is showing up for your own life. It’s personal; something in your life will rise to meet the coin that was lost. It will not be what you expected.


  1. Trust what you don’t know.


Usually if we want to understand something we take it up to the top floor and find a shelf with a label for it. If we do that with meditation we are still outside of our own lives. Instead you can let the koan into your heart and your body. Let it change you.


  1. Experiment.

Fall into the koan, make mistakes, try to misunderstand it, find its virtues. You can’t break a koan. Ask yourself questions, ‘Is this a coin?’ ‘Is anything really lost?’


  1. The koan can be your friend.


It can be the good dog that follows you around. So you can stop struggling. Just wondering about that coin will change you, you’ll begin to notice it everywhere. Keep company with the koan whatever you are doing; even when you are asleep it might be there, an unnoticed kindness.


  1. Any part of the koan is all of the koan.


Your mind presents all sorts of things—coins, lost and found, hidden treasure, the ever flowing river. Loss is itself a kind of coin. Even if you were delirious, dying or just really excited, the gold would be there. The practice is robust like that. Secretly, inside any state there’s the glint of something that has always been here. You just show up in any condition and you start to notice.


  1. You don’t need a special state of mind. There are many calm and clear states of mind but the meditation is not about chasing after them. Meditation occurs before any states of mind became fixed.


  1. Have confidence in yourself. The most important thing is not to judge, criticize, assess, or find fault with anything that rises in your mind. This includes how you are doing with the koan. If you can’t help it and you do judge, criticize, assess and find fault with yourself, then don’t criticize that. Then the compassion has somewhere to come in.


Any final suggestions for trying this?


We can turn toward whatever arises.

No moment of life is unworthy of us or wrong and every being has a treasure that was never lost. It’s fine to enjoy your koan, to let it become you, to relish your life. Ah the coin!

You might be doing it right.