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How to read a Zen koan

A koan is a riddle or puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation to help them unravel greater truths about the world and about themselves. Koans are “surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.”

Zen masters have been testing their students with these stories, questions, or phrases for centuries. Many koans can be traced back to the collections of sayings amassed by Chinese priests in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Koans may seem like paradoxes at first glance. It is up to the Zen student to tease out their meaning. Often, after a prolonged and exhausting intellectual struggle, the student realizes that the koan is actually meant to be understood by the spirit and by intuition.

  1. Read the koan aloud to yourself. Memorize it.

  2. Just keep company with the brightness and see how it changes you.

  3. A certain piece of the koan will appear to you—perhaps. That’s how you form a relationship with the koan. Hang out with the piece that appears.

  4. Think of the koan as a friend who follows you around and is always there. All you have to do is turn toward it.

  5. If you forget the koan, don’t worry; it might remember you, and turn toward you. If you notice you have forgotten the koan, then you have remembered it.

  6. You’ll wonder if you are doing it right. You can’t do it wrong, and working out whether you are doing it right is as useless in koan work as it is in poetry or love.

  7. No need to judge, assess, criticize, evaluate, condemn, or find fault with your thoughts.

  8. Take your koan to work. To bed. To sleep. To the pub. To a telephone conversation. To the impossible family problem. To the night when the racing clouds open and a few stars shine through.

  9. You don’t need to reach for the koan because it is you.

  10. Infinite thoughts and worlds fold into each other. They are here now in every moment. And the solitary brightness goes through them all. The solitary brightness is you.

  11. Meditate on it. .

Flow Like a River: Zen Koan

Zen River - Li River Yangshuo, China

There is the story of a young martial arts student who was under the tutelage of a famous master. One day, the master was watching a practice session in the courtyard. He realized that the presence of the other students was interfering with the young man’s attempts to perfect his technique.

The master could sense the young man’s frustration. He went up to the young man and tapped him on his shoulder.

“What’s the problem?” he inquired.

“I don’t know”, said the youth, with a strained expression.

“No matter how much I try, I am unable to execute the moves properly”.

“Before you can master technique, you must understand harmony. Come with me, I will explain”, replied the master.

The teacher and student left the building and walked some distance into the woods until they came upon a stream. The master stood silently on the bank for several moments. Then he spoke.

“Look at the stream,” he said. “There are rocks in its way. Does it slam into them out of frustration? It simply flows over and around them and moves on! Be like the water and you will know what harmony is.”

The young man took the master’s advice to heart. Soon, he was barely noticing the other students around him. Nothing could come in his way of executing the most perfect moves.


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