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When the tree withers and the leaves fall, what is happening?
The golden wind is revealing itself.
This is a koan. You’ve probably heard the term “Zen koan,” perhaps used in the sense of a riddle or something confusing or paradoxical. Perhaps you didn’t know that they’re also a practice, a kind of meditation. Some are like poems, some are like little stories, some are like jokes, and they all are a kind of can opener for the mind, a way to get free of the tangle of thoughts and feelings and into a world that’s freer, where things just seem more possible, and where the meaning of life is obvious.
What do you do with a koan, then? Well, you can bring it to mind while you’re meditating, any part of it, even, and wonder about it, let it settle inside you like a question. You can carry it around in your life, bringing it into your attention when nothing else is working, or on a walk, or while stuck in traffic (“…what is happening?”). And the koan will come to you unbidden as well, perhaps in a dream, or while you’re talking to a friend (“the golden wind is revealing itself”). It will clear a little space in your life and in your mind.
There are many surprising things to be learned from working with koans, from the ways that they enter your life and make you see things in new and different ways. Sometimes it helps to have a guide to this new territory. At Pacific Zen Institute there are many teachers who can help you with your meditation practice and koan work. Visit our Teachings page, attend a retreat, or consider working with a teacher.
PZI is also a wonderful community of people who meditate together and live all sorts of different kinds of lives and bring their meditation practice into those unique lives. They are a help and support, too.
Frequently Asked Question:
Is there a “right answer” to a koan?
Everyone wants to get things right and succeed. Koans cans seem like a puzzle to solve, but the real measure of success is whether the koan helped you understand something important, whether it changed your life.
There are traditional responses to koans, often physical presentations, which are part of an elegant system created by the great Japanese teacher Hakuin Ekaku. These responses are a kind of assay (a try) that help the teacher see if the student understands the heart of the koan, but they are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the content of the koan is concerned. For this reason we don’t talk much about right answers. When you engage with a koan, the way you see the world opens up. When that happens, showing that understanding is not a problem.
To find out more about working with koans, visit the Pacific Zen Institute website, or show up at a PZI center or retreat and just try it!
Meditation can be as complicated as you want to make it, but here’s a move in the other direction:
1. Pay attention to whatever you notice (inside or outside yourself, it doesn’t matter) without thinking it’s good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, wise or stupid, worthy or unworthy.
Actually there’s only one step. That’s it.
Sometimes the word curiosity will help you.
You can start anywhere, even in the midst of a judgment: “I’m unhappy!” “This is difficult!” or “I’m doing this all wrong!”
Well, what’s it like? How does it feel? Explore it–its color, texture, emotion, sensation. What images come to mind? How would you dance it? If it were an animal, what would it be? Just keep yourself company. You can’t do it wrong.
You’re making friends with your mind, now.
When you notice you’re back to judging your experience, putting it away in a box, just notice that. You can start again. You can start anywhere. Really.
There’s a koan (any koan is helpful because a koan never makes things wrong or right) that goes like this: “What is it?”
That’s it. – Rachel Boughton, Roshi
Taking Refuge – What that means at Pacific Zen institute
and how we work with teachers on our personal vows.