How to Practice Zen Koans

John Tarrant demystifies Zen koan practice. Yes, it’s paradoxical, poetic, and totally personal. And so is life.

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

A 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, and 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 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 finds fault with itself and lives in pain.


With a koan it’s different. You just keep company with the koan, and it draws your attention to something you already have but might not have valued. Reality is on your side.

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 you 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

I became interested in Zen Koans from my friend, Ulrike Greenway.  We joined a course and decided to exchange our reactions to the Koan.

I am sharing my reactions.  I will give the Koan and then my reaction.  I would suggest (if you are interested) to write down your own thoughts when you read the Koans.  I would be glad to hear from you, in an

e mail.

The Koans are from two books, The Book of Householders Koans, by Eve Marcos and Egyoku Nakao and The Hidden Lamp by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon.  All the Koans are by women and the reactions are also written by women.


Here is the first:

“Why does the fruit fall from the tree before it has ripened?”


My reaction:

I first thought, of the English expression of “The apple does not fall far from the tree”, which is often used to say that a son is very much like his father.   With my experience as a therapist, I often see how people have taken things, often unconsciously from their parents which influence their lives sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.  And in relationship to the Koan, sometimes leave their parents before they have “ripened” or become very mature.


In my own life I wanted to leave home and my parents and live my own life.  When I left home and took my first job as a teacher, I went far away from Nebraska where I was living to New Jersey, which was very far away from my parents and where I grew up.  I see now that I left home quite immature and not very ripened.  I thought moving away would make me feel better.  I wish I had known about my Enneagram type as a 9 at that time.  I see now that my personality type, my ego was somewhat developed and other parts were not very mature.  I had confidence in my teaching ability.  I knew how to adapt and please people.  Later I realized that the rebellious side of me was also there. Therapy started for me and I “improved” my personality, but where was my “Real Self”?  I didn’t know it was missing until I became interested in my spiritual development.  The idea that I had (as all people do) a part of me that was not my personality, my ego, but an “awareness” “a divine consciousness” that I could learn more about through meditation and study was a new idea for me. 

So in relationship to the Koan,  I left the “tree” before I had “ripened” but I had the potential to ripen.  As Joan Chittsler says in her interview with Tami Simon, “Potential doesn’t always lead to fullness.” Sometimes the potential does not develop but is stunted or dies.   Luckily for me my potential has developed through my inner work through therapy and spiritual teachers and good friends.



Koan 2 – How Pathetic I Am!

When Christina joined a group of longtime meditators, she asked, “Why don’t we share our practice by taking turns giving short Dharma talks?”

The group members became upset. “We can give instruction about posture and breathing,” they said, “but we need to have a proper teacher, at least a monk, to give a Dharma talk.  We householders cannot do that under any circumstances. Christina felt a chill in her heart.  She thought, am I also afraid of owning my practice in this way?  If so, how pathetic I am!


My reflection:

My first thought on reading this Koan, was,  “Don’t call yourself, pathetic. This is too critical of yourself.  You can wonder, if you also are not owning your practice, without using such a disparaging word.”

As I looked deeper into myself in my meditation, I looked at how do I not stand up for or own what I believe. Most of my life I have kept quiet in a group if I thought I might be criticized or thought to have a stupid idea.  On a one to one interaction I could more speak up for what I thought or believed if I had developed trust in the person.

For a long time I idealized the teacher, the guru, or anyone that I thought was better than me and so did not speak up with my ideas, especially in a group situation.  As I started to change this, I had both good and bad experiences.  Sometimes listened to and appreciated by the people I considered “better” than me and other times, criticized or pushed away or ignored.  I understood more and more why I decided to be quiet in the first place, as it hurt to speak up and be disparaged or to feel as if I had been “put down” in front of the people in the group.  As I grew into more confidence in my self and willing to “not take things personally” I did better with criticism or my ideas being ignored. 

It took some time to stop the idealization.  My husband helped me with that, as when the “bigwig” left our house after the workshop or giving me supervision, he would point out how I was idealizing this person and not seeing the whole of who this person was.  He would point out what he saw that was not so “ideal” and I would realize that on some level I had seen this, but ignored it.  I would decide that with the next person I Invited to give a workshop, I would not do this and act as if my thoughts and beliefs were just as important and worthy of saying as the “expert”. It was easier to do on a one to one basis.  But in the group situation, I often would wait too long and then when I said something it came out critical of the leader, which was not appreciated by the leader and my best friend would then give me a feedback I didn’t like to hear.  But I learned through the experiences of dong something different.   My best friend helped me a lot with helping me to believe that other people were not “better” than me but different.  An important insight and new belief was, “ The other therapist was not better than me, but different.  What he or she did when working with a client was not better, but different”.  The old belief of, I’m not good enough, began to change. 

Old beliefs from childhood experiences and patterns of behavior practiced for years are to my mind not “pathetic”.  They are hard to change and need a lot of acceptance of where you are right now.  It often takes help of friends and therapists and mentors.  I have found it is worth the effort and sometimes “grace” helps me out. 


Koan 3

6/8: Shishin: Golden Buddha  p. 221



One night, Shishin had a dream.  He and his teacher were sitting in the meditation hall when a brilliant golden light shone suddenly from a corner of the room.

         Shishin whispered to his teacher,  “The Buddha is here.”

         His teacher smiled and said, “Yes! Let’s go and greet the Buddha.”

         Shishin did not hesitate. He got up from his seat and walked over to the light, which was so bright that he couldn’t look directly at it.  Lowering his entire body to the floor, he bowed reverently.  Prostrated, he felt the warm light wash all over him and a deep sense of peace welled up inside. 

         Later his teacher asked, “What did the Buddha give you that was not already yours?”


My reflection:


This Koan touched a lot in me.   For years I hoped in my meditation that I would ”wake up” and have a spiritual experience of one with all, which I had read about from spiritual leaders.  As the years went by, I despaired of ever reaching such a state.  My more advanced spiritual friends, said, “Stop trying so hard, you shouldn’t have a goal with meditation.”  Others said, “You have had glimpses of a spiritual state” and would remind me of experiences I had shared with them.  I would have a moment of pride, which I then countered with “I shouldn’t feel that way, like I’m superior to others.” and then doubting that these experiences were anything like “waking up”.  Eventually I gave up thinking I could do anything to wake up and hoped that maybe when dying, I might have this exalted state. 

Another thought that came up as I meditated on this Koan, is how for years I thought I could reach this state from another person.  In one of my first meditation experiences with a spiritual teacher I was trying to meditate and the music playing was making it difficult to concentrate on anything except how annoying it was.  The Teacher stepped behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders.  Within a few seconds I changed states to a feeling of one with the music.  After (I don’t know how long, perhaps a few minutes) I came out of the state and the teacher said, “you started thinking about what happened to you, didn’t you?”  For years I hoped to have this experience again.  Didn’t happen.  I never felt this again when he would put his hands on my shoulders during meditation. 

I have had other experiences similar to this with other people who I perceive as being in a high state of awareness and I feel an energetic connection with them where I feel I am out of my “ego” and more connected to my “real self”.  Later, one friend said, I had connected to her energy.  I tried to create this state by myself by remembering the experience, but that didn’t work.

All spiritual teachers and gurus I know all say as the teacher in the Koan says, what can the Buhhda give that is not already inside you?  I believe it is inside me from what I’ve learned and read from others but I don’t have a belief that comes from direct experience.

So I’m left with the hope that Grace lands on me and acceptance that it might not happen. 


Koan 4:  Solidary Angler



One day as she was relaxing in her favorite chair Kodo flipped through a book and came upon Ma Yuan’s thirteenth-century Chinese painting titled The Solitary Angler.  In the painting, a lone fisherman sits at the bow of a wooden boat in the middle of a vast lake, his fishing line dangling over the side of the boat.

Kodo cried out, “That’s me!  That’s me as I truly am, but I am not yet that.  How do I become that?”



I assume that Kodo realized when looking at this painting, that it represented the silence and vastness of being one with all. She feels that she also is that, but not there yet.  She asks, “How do I become that?” 

My experience with my spiritual development was not an Ah, Ha moment, but a gradual understanding of what spiritual awakening means.  I started out with my psychological development.  I did this through my own therapy and becoming a therapist and trainer.  I belonged to a women’s group of 6 women who were all studying for our exams to be certified.  As we each passed our exams, we realized that our next quest was our spiritual development.  Several of us chose a spiritual teacher and mentor who had also started out as a therapist and now was doing Spiritual workshops, so this seemed to fit with my own background.  He was great for beginners like me and I started meditating and attending workshops and retreats.  My training in the Enneagram also helped me to see the relationship between one’s personality and the “real self”.  It offered a way to come to one’s “Essence”.  I also started listening to podcasts and CD’s that offered courses in Spiritual development, Meditation, and Buddhism. I listened to 35 hours of “What is Awakening?” talks by spiritual masters.  I wanted to learn and experience more and found a second teacher, with a psychological and spiritual background.  I learned from him also.  My most important learnings, though came through other people, like my husband, who said, “Stop looking outside to all these “teachers”.  You know what to do. Just do it.  It is inside you where you need to look, not outside.”

And like Miré from my women’s group who worked with me each time our group met.  She radiated a strong energy from her own spiritual experience that deepened my own development.  And Ulrike, my Buddhist friend, where we started doing workshops together combining, Enneagram, Buddhism and meditation.  The topics we chose and presented like, What can Death teach us about living our Life? And What is our True Self and Compassion at the Edge increased my Interest.  And mostly my friend ship with these and other friends on the Path sparked my interest and gave me the desire to become in touch with my true self, my essence.



Like Kodo, I wondered, how do I become that?  I still have not had an Ah, Ha moment of being “one with all”.  I have given up “trying” to get somewhere.  It may not happen.  I continue my meditation, my commitment to check in several times a day to Pause and see what’s going on in my thinking, my feeling and my body.  I am much more in touch with my body, my sensations and what I am thinking.  I realize at my stage of life (85 years old) the most important thing is staying in the here and now and accepting what is. I cherish my friendships.  And I know that as I approach death, I will not regret anything, as I know what is really important.  It is love for myself and others.  Would I like to experience that I am love, that the universe is love and I am connected to that all.  That I am a wave in an ocean of love like the fisherman that appears to Kodo to be one with his true self and therefore with “all”?  Of course and yet I accept that I am on the path but have not reached the destination and may not until I die.  And that is OK. 



Mylie Scott Meets Loneliness


Crying in despair, an earnest student asked her teacher, Seisho Maylie Scott, “I’ve worked so hard to transform this crippling loneliness.  I can neither shake it nor live with it, can you help me?”

         Holding the student in a steady gaze and offering her confident smile, Maylie ended the conversation with, “Please don’t ever think anything is out of place.”  



The phrase, “Please don’t ever think anything is out of place.” Is much easier for me to understand now after years of psychological and then spiritual development than it was when I felt “crippling loneliness” in my 30’s.  I had no idea that part of my deep loneliness was not here and now but reached back to abandonment depression from my childhood. I had a desperate wish for a partner, which I thought would fill the emptiness I felt.  My therapist said, “You take yourself with you where ever you go.,” which I interpreted as a partner would not make me feel better, while I was convinced it would.  Actually, I did feel better when years later I did have a partner, but of course I brought my unresolved problems from childhood with me to the new relationship. Luckily, I had good therapy, had grown a lot and had found a mature partner who realized that partnership takes a lot of work and is a way to grow together by looking what happens in our relationship.  Still even in my 40’s I still didn’t understand that nothing is out of place. 

Even now at 85 years old, my first reaction to this sentence said by Maylie, was, what a lack of empathy.  Is this student mature enough to understand this sentence? Will she feel a lack of understanding from her teacher?  Or is she ready to think about what it really means to think nothing is out of place, even her loneliness?  Will it help her to look deeper into herself?  She said she tried to transform it. How did she try to “transform it”?

 I think she needs first to look at this therapeutically. I don’t think you can “shake” loneliness and I do think you can learn to “live” with it.  By understanding the roots of the loneliness, and realizing you are not going to fill the loneliness by looking outside of yourself, by learning to feel the loneliness in your body and being kind and loving to yourself in those moments, you can “live” better with it.  Noticing the stories, you tell yourself when feeling lonely and stopping this thinking will stop fueling the feelings. 

I think “spiritual” work is not enough with something like “crippling loneliness”.  It needs therapeutic and spiritual work together. 

My experience is that one always notices later, that an experience that seemed “crippling” at the time, was also a chance for learning and growth and actually helped your development.  And part of that development is to realize that everything changes, all things are impermanent and as someone said, “who lives in harmony with this truth finds courage, happiness, truth and compassion.”




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