Find out how to Apply Zen Koans

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John Tarrant demystifies Zen Koan practice. Yes, it is paradoxical, poetic and very personal. And so is life.

Illustration of the coin in the river

Illustration by Tomi Um.

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

A koan is a little healing story, a conversation, a picture, a fragment of a song. It’s something to keep you company whatever you do. There is a tradition of studying koan to change your heart and the way you move about in the world.

The way is about learning to love this life, the one that 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 go through and take the ride. Before anything is explained, there’s the sky, the earth, sequoias, pelicans, rivers, rats, the city of San Francisco. And you are part of it all. We are all part of it. In the land of the koans you see that everything that happens in your life is for you. There is no other for whom it can be. Your life matters.

It is known to reach for things you already know, and meditation means going beyond. It doesn’t train your mind because that is something you already know about. What is needed is more weirdness and less effort; it is outside of easy or difficult, yesterday or tomorrow.

You may think that meditation is difficult – that your job as a meditator is to change your mind about reality and see through your illusions. But the ambition to improve your state of mind is part of the consciousness that faults itself and lives in pain.

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It is different with a koan. You’re just keeping company with the koan, and it will bring your attention to something you already have but may not have appreciated. Reality is on your side.

There are many koans. If you’ve heard of a koan and it’s stuck with you, it’s time to give it a try. It can be like a catchy tune – it grabs you and won’t go away. That way a koan can choose you. It is to you how your life is to you. The opinion of others doesn’t really count. If you haven’t grabbed a koan yet, you can try it here:

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

How do you work with this koan?

1. Don’t try too hard at first.

Just repeat the koan’s words a little for yourself.

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

You enter into a timeless conversation and develop a relationship with the koan so that you can let it all happen without worrying about it.

2. You show up.

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

3. Trust what you don’t know.

When we want to understand something, we usually take it to the top floor and find a shelf with a label on 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 body. Let yourself be changed.

4. Experiment.

Fall into the koan, make mistakes, try to misunderstand it, find its virtues. You cannot break a koan. Ask yourself: “Is that a coin?” “Is something really lost?”

Man goes for a walk with dog

5. The koan can be your friend.

It can be the good dog that follows you. So you can stop fighting. Just wondering about this coin will change you; You will notice it everywhere. Whatever you do, keep in company with the koan. Even when you are asleep there may be an unnoticed kindness.

6. Each part of the koan is the entire koan.

Your mind presents all sorts of things – coins, lost and found, hidden treasures, the ever-flowing river. The loss is a kind of coin in itself. Even if you were delirious, dying, or just excited, the gold would be there. The practice is so robust. Secretly, something shimmers in every state that has always been there. You just show up in any state and begin to notice.

Man holds coin

7. You don’t need a special state of mind.

There are many calm and clear states of mind, but meditation is not about chasing after them. Meditation takes place before any state of mind becomes solid.

8. Have confidence in yourself.

The most important thing is not to judge, criticize, evaluate or fault anything that comes to mind. This also includes how you deal with the koan. If you can’t help but judge, criticize, evaluate and find mistakes, don’t criticize yourself. Then compassion has to come in somewhere.

Any final suggestions for trying this?

We can turn to whatever comes up. No moment in life is unworthy of us or wrong, and every being has a treasure that has never been lost. It’s okay to enjoy your koan, to let it become you, to enjoy your life. Oh, the coin!

Maybe you’re doing it right.

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