13 – Two Pieces on the Great Koan, ‘No’

I. The Great Koan No, Your Dog, and the Meaning of Life

A koan brings about a change of heart—its value is to transform the mind. The problem we are trying to solve with a koan is this: The mind we work with every day evolved to flee saber tooth tigers, hunt mammoths, not kill each other too often, share food, gossip, make babies and develop theories of the universe. To manage all this, the mind makes hypotheses, wondering, “Is that a stick on the path or is it a snake?” or “Is that boy or girl hot?” or “Do I have egg on my face?“ or “What will the cancer biopsy numbers be when they come in?”

So we wander along, having thoughts, believing them, acting on them, dealing with the results we get. We scheme and plot, fear and want, trying to wrestle our states of mind into a comfortable shape. People think, “I want not to be crazy when I see my mother,” or “I don’t want to feel jealous, or afraid,” and its hard work and painful to be always two inches to the left of where we want to be. Adjusting our states of mind is a gymnastic work out that never ends. Our minds are still in beta and we live at some distance from our actual lives.

Koans take account of the confusion and cross purposes that are a feature of the mind. They lead us to rest in our uncertainty, including what’s happening now and what we want to flee.

Koans offer the possibility that you could free the mind in one jump, without passing through stages or any pretense at logical steps. In the territory that koans open up, we live down a level, before explanations occur, beneath the ground that fear is based on, before the wanting and the scrambling around for advantage, before there is a handle on the problem, before we were alienated from the world.

A koan doesn’t hide or even manage fear or despair or rage or anything that appears in your mind. Instead, with a koan you might stop finding fault with what your mind presents, stop assuming you already know what your thoughts and feelings are about and how they need to be handled. At some stage my thoughts stopped being compelling and I found a joy in what was advancing towards me. Everyone thinks you need a patch of earth to stand on or you will fall down. Your patch of earth might be someone’s approval or a certain amount of money. When the koan opens, you don’t need somewhere to stand, or a handle on your experience.

The kindness of a koan consists mainly in taking away what you are sure of about yourself. This isn’t a sinister trick, and though I found it disorienting it was more relieving than painful. Taking away is the first gift of a koan.

Among the couple of thousand koans in the curriculum, the koan Mu (as it’s known in Japanese), or Wu (Chinese), or No (English) has been used for about 1200 years. It is popular as a first koan, the koan that stands for all koans, the exemplar and representative, confusing, irritating, mysterious, beautiful, and freeing, a gateway into the isness of life, where things are exactly what they are and have not yet become problems. It begins by looking at the question of whether we are alienated or whether we participate fully in life. It comes from a long dialogue with an ancient, twinkly, Chinese grandmaster called Zhaozhou. Here is the full version of the koan about No and the dog—from The Book of Serenity, as translated by Joan Sutherland and me:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“Yes,” replied Zhaozhou,
“Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?”
“It knew what it was doing and that’s why it dogged.”
Another time a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“All beings have buddha nature. Why doesn’t a dog have it?”
“Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”

(Note: The last line of the koan is literally, “It has activity—or karma—consciousness.” This is an Indian system of describing layers of the mind. “Activity consciousness” has the sense that through the agency of ignorance an unenlightened mind begins to be disturbed or awakened.)

Teachers usually offer the student the one word “No” or “Mu.” There is a long history to this tactic and it was how I first encountered the koan, reading about it in books. It offered a completely different way of approaching the world, something that, given the confused state of my mind at that time, seemed worth trying. I took the koan up by myself without a teacher and made all the beginner’s errors, treating the koan more or less as a gadget. I tried to discover the use of it, the way a hunter-gatherer would deal with a toaster found by the trail—pulling on the cord, banging it on the ground, using it as a mirror. “This gadget doesn’t seem to be working,” I said to myself, scheming and plotting. The other error I made was to treat myself as a gadget that had to be tuned to receive the koan—more scheming and plotting.

I like the koan being about a dog. It addresses the question of whether we can actually change, whether we defeat ourselves, and the way we often rule ourselves out. I live with a border collie puppy and in the morning she is complete in the world, and amazingly kinetic. Her heart beats quickly, and she hurtles toward me on her big paddy paws—she is now grown enough that occasionally when she leaps and I’m sitting on the floor she descends from above, a surprise, flailing and excited. There is no flaw in her universe. The koan is about me, about my buddha nature in any state I happen to be in. If I think life is hard, that thought is the dog with buddha nature, and peace is exactly inside that thought when it jumps on me. Then the apparent difficulty of life suddenly isn’t a difficulty.

The second thing this koan is good for is as a navigation aid in territory without maps. Once the gates in the mind start to open, the koan is pretty much all you have for navigation. The koan helps you to walk through the dim and bright paths that you have never walked before. You don’t have to return to knowing things and assessing your value and skill, and working off the nice map you bought along the way. When you feel as if you are in a dark passage or not getting anywhere, all that is necessary is not to believe those thoughts about being lost in twisty passages. The koan is a nice substitute for wrestling around with your fears.

And if you do resort to your maps, you will find that they are temporary, you don’t quite believe in them, and the world itself is more interesting than your explanations of it.

Everyone is new to this koan since everyone is new to this moment. You can drop everything you think you know about this koan and everything you are eager to tell others that you have already learned. Then the koan can find the space to meet you.

Lots of people from lots of cultures have been changed by this koan and I find that an encouraging thought. While it is exhilarating to step off the cliff of everything that has already convinced you, it can also be frightening. It can be consoling to know that lots of other people, like ourselves having no special aptitudes, have found that this koan saved their lives.

With all the difficulties and absurdities of the koan path my own reaction has been gratitude to the ancient teachers who invented this way of changing my mind. They found a way to talk down through the centuries, a language that helps unshape what I see so that I can see that it is the first day of the world. That is an unforgettable gift.

Koans are a great treasure of civilization and their beauty is just beginning to be understood in the west. After an initial promising start in the West koans came to be considered esoteric and by a couple of decades ago were being neglected as a method. One of the decisions I made at that time was to teach only koans and nothing but koans and to develop new ways of teaching them, ways that might fit Western culture. Along those lines many possibilities are opening for us. The koan No is the quarter horse of Zen practice—resilient, durable and adaptable. It’s been used so often, in so many countries and eras, that there are many different and contradictory ways to encounter it. It is a mysterious guide, a hidden friend, a vial of ancient light, a rodent that undermines the foundations.


Guilty as charged

When you read about koans, a practice will leap out at you, and an impulse will rise out of your own heart to meet it, and. If you follow that practice with all your heart, or even with sort of most of your heart, and listen to how it’s going and adapt what you do, and follow some more, this koan will change your life. You will come to your own, unique understanding of freedom. You might get enlightened. That’s what all the writing is for—to give you a practice that works.

II. No, nay, never, nyet, iie

Koans are purpose-built to transform consciousness. The usual pitch for using a koan is that it will open a gate into joy and freedom. As far as I know a koan isn’t useful for any other purpose. Koans imply a universe that is in motion; they help us to sympathize and harmonize with the way of things and to find the knack of letting ourselves be carried by it. In other words koans imply that some crucial features of our consciousness can change.

You can think of koans as vials full of the light that the ancestors walked through, and if you can get these vials open you share that light. By getting them open I mean you get at the light any way you can—you find the key and open the vials with a click, break them, drop them from a height, sing to them, step inside them, shake them so that some of the light spills out. Then that light is available to you, which might be handy if you’re ever in a dark and twisty passage.

The koan “No” has been used a great deal as a lantern. You sometimes have special discoveries associated with your first koan, so some people find it reassuring that many, many people have used this koan for over a thousand years.

I think that the key point, and the sweetness in the koan, is that we can change. If it really is possible, in this life, to have a shift in the way you come at things, well that’s an amazing idea to consider. If you understand that a shift really is possible, then the rest comes down merely to questions of method. And that’s the kindness of the path: the old master says, “Well sometimes it seems crazy to think it, but transformation really does happen. So try it out. Go at it. And here’s a method for you.”

What follows are some thoughts about method. These are suggestions about ways to line up to the koan and to manage your mind once you are on board the koan.

Hacks for consciousness

First a new metaphor: A koan is a kind of technology, a hack for the mind. It strips our opinions and views away. Unlike some other technologies, koans don’t work in a linear fashion. They surprise you by transcending the terms on which you took them up. They draw you into a different way of seeing and experiencing your world.


When the fit is good with a teacher it is one of the most intimate relationships possible, and humans like intimacy. But the fit is not always good and people being people, your relationship with your teacher might turn out to be important or trivial. Also, your teacher could be someone you met for one retreat, or the master who initiated the koan a thousand years ago or someone who visits you in a dream. In the end the koan is your absolute, fallback, rock bottom teacher.

Because it is a technology not a set of answers, a koan allows certain insights to be passed on through someone who doesn’t have a deep understanding of them—an obvious advantage if you are interested in handing the light down over thousands of years or ferrying it across cultures.

Choosing a first koan

It can’t possibly matter which koan you use first. I’ve noticed that people succeed with a wide variety of them—for example, “Quickly, without thinking good or evil, before your parents were born, at this exact moment, what is your original face?” Or, “In the sea, 10,000 feet down there’s a single stone. I’ll pick it up without getting my hands wet.” There are probably a thousand of these that work well. Zhaozhou’s dog is famous though no one knows why—perhaps its simplicity and the fact that many of the Japanese schools had a rigid order to their curriculum and this one came first. Hakuin used this as a first koan so it went more or less at the beginning of his curriculum, though as a teacher he was inclined to experiment. In spite of its popularity, it’s a fine koan.

A rigid curriculum has the virtue of introducing a predictability and impartiality to the process. On the other hand, there are advantages for a master who is confident or foolish enough to move around in a curriculum according the needs of the student. So some Japanese schools (as well as Korean and Chinese ones) don’t use a rigid sequence to their curriculum. Pacific Zen School, which includes Open Source and Pacific Zen Institute, feels itself to be in sympathy with those traditions, so we use many different first koans.

If you dream of a koan, if it sticks in your mind like an ear worm, if you find yourself humming it, if it gives you vertigo or nausea, if you feel as if you have come home from a long journey when you hear it—if a koan grabs your attention, if it follows you home, then that’s a good reason to keep it. It chose you. You might as well trust being grabbed, a force bigger than your usual awareness is at work.

The method of working with a koan

The method is simply to keep company with the koan, adhere to it day and night. That’s it, the whole method. And don’t think that it’s not there when you sleep or forget about it for a while.

Strategies for working with the koan—Tips & tricks

1: First find the koan
If your mind is somewhere, find the koan. If your mind isn’t anywhere, there’s not a problem.

2: Any part of the koan is the koan
In this case, No, dog, Buddha nature, does? could stick in your mind—or the koan might consolidate to a sense of being on a quest, of traveling through the mind. Quirks occur; one person had an interesting experience when a cat exchanged itself for the dog in his mind. There is an autonomy to any real process in consciousness and working with a koan is something you do your best to guide without entirely controlling. It’s a creative act and you attend to what appears more than you impose your will on the universe.

3: Accept your mind and its states
If you are being reasonably accepting of your mind states that’s probably a good direction. Mind states are, after all, what we have as humans, they are what we have to embrace and forgive and love, as they are.

4: Relax
Trying to achieve a certain state implies reaching for something not present, living in a projected future world. So, no need to try. I know that some of the old teachers said to try hard, but what did they know? You have to truly appear in your own life. Then there is no question of effort or trying, there is just the koan.

5: Mind your own business
Making a critique of your colleagues and peers and their progress is, well, useless and somehow ungrateful. In fact even an assessment of your own progress is probably useless and somehow ungrateful. Don’t mind even your own business. Just keep company with the koan.

6: Timing
It takes us years to build a prison in the mind. It’s OK if it takes some years to deconstruct that prison. Freedom is worth it. Being on a quest is what life is about.

Membership in a community
One thing we are doing is making a culture for awakening, making awakening a feature of the landscape of modern intellectual life. The meditator isn’t a ronin, a masterless samurai, wandering around alone, looking for personal survival at any cost. Koans make you a participant in the drama of discovery, a member of a community of those who care about consciousness. The deeper the journey goes the more you are likely to notice your love for this community.

The koan and your life
The link between the koan and the transformation of your life is real but since the process isn’t linear you might not notice it at first. The link might seem to be in a black box—invisible. There will be times when the koan shows you your most painful mind states and your most confining thoughts. It doesn’t invite you to identify with them. Nonetheless, you might think that the koan doesn’t seem to be working during your official meditation times, but your life might be opening up greatly. Well, that’s not really a problem.

Gradual and Sudden
The process is always both gradual and sudden because there is some development and then a jump. An example of the gradual side of things is that for some people the koan opens a space in which the mind is not building its prison. In that space, you will notice joy and aliveness and a sense of having a link to eternity. This is in the neighborhood of awakening. Then the space will close up, perhaps leaving a sense of loss. You can just notice these things without grabbing them. Over time you will get more and more space till the spaces start joining up.

Sometimes your longing and impatience and harshness appears in front of you. It doesn’t seem to work to force your way through. You just have to know that the obstacle is somehow you and keep going as best you can and when you acknowledge this and don’t chew your leg off, the trap will disappear.

On the sudden side of things, some people have epiphanies. They plod along for a period and then there is a bang and a large shift happens all at once. This can happen completely outside of a training context also. Whichever way you come to it, freedom is freedom.

The basic nature of consciousness is empathy
If it’s heartless that’s not the koan, either as a method or as a result of the method. When consciousness is stripped down there is a velvety, vibrant quality to it—everything is alive and sparkling and also I am you. It’s unlikely that you can get to this by a harsh method. As far as we can say that a dream has a basic nature, the basic nature of consciousness is something like empathy and a boundary-less love.

Questions just for you:

  1. What is Buddha nature? Do you have it?
  2. What thoughts and feeling arise for you when you say no in meditation?
  3. Say No in all the ways you have ever heard it said. Now say it as though it’s so large that it fills the universe. What’s that like?
  4. When in your life have you said No to something that you had always said yes to before (even something very small)? How does it feel to say no? How is it when someone says no to you?
  5. Where do you feel No in your body?
  6. When you notice your thoughts and say No to them what is that like?
  7. Have you had an experience of everything falling away and life seeming to be vast and eternal? What was that like?