Dream: Becoming more intimate, finding my own way

I am with a group of people. We are in a kind of workshop and are presented with several conundrums in a spiritual context. I realize that my old approaches are not enough anymore. I need to find something more intimate to the situation and me, something that’s more organic and real.

The conundrums in the dream were life koans – situations without an obvious solution that life presents to us. These are the real koans. (The typical koans from Zen are standardized practice-versions of universal life koans.)

In the dream, I was faced with these life koans and it was clear that any standardized approach was not enough. I needed to become more intimate, find a more organic approach, and follow my own guidance.

I can, of course, draw on everything I have learned and all the different more formalized approaches I am familiar with. And yet, when it comes down to it, I need to find my own way. I am my own final authority. I need to find an approach in each case that feels deeply right and authentic to me and the situation.

Anything else will feel at least slightly off and out of alignment.

This is similar to clothes. We can find clothes in the store that fit more or less and may be sufficient for most purposes. But if we want clothes that fit even better, they need to be tailored and they need to change over time as we change.

I feel I have been in this process for a while, and it does require some intention to break out of old grooves of using standard approaches and find something more genuine and authentic.

After all, life is inherently free from any approaches or traditions. Most or all of the standardized approaches come from a real and authentic experience which are then standardized to fit more people and situations. And they are meant as training wheels until we find a more genuine and authentic approach.

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Hakuin: What is true meditation?

What is this true meditation?
It is to make everything:
coughing, swallowing, waving the arms,
motion, stillness, words, action,
the evil and the good, prosperity and shame,
gain and loss, right and wrong,
into one single koan.

– Hakuin Ekaku

When I look, I find that in my first-person experience, I am capacity for the world as it appears to me. I am what my world happens within and as. I am what any experience – including the list in the quote – happens within and as.

To myself, I am oneness and the world happens within and as this oneness.

This is already happening, whether I notice it or not. And when I notice, I find it’s all happening within and as the oneness I am. It’s all one single koan.


This noticing has an active and receptive aspect.

It’s active in that there is intention in the noticing, and a bit of (relaxed) effort. And it may be guided by pointers and/or an experienced guide. Also, there is some effort in keeping noticing.

And noticing also has a receptive aspect. I notice what’s already here. Nothing needs to be created or fabricated. My nature is here independent of states and any content of experience. All that’s needed is noticing and finding receptivity to what’s already here.


This form of true meditation can happen anywhere and at any time. It can happen within any spiritual practice. It can happen through situations in daily life.

Basic meditation is similar. It’s to notice and allow what’s here. And then to notice that what’s here is already noticed and allowed. The first is more effortful and ultimately impossible. And the second a bit more relaxed, essential, and possible, and something we can notice anywhere and at any time.


Hakuin calls it a koan, so in what sense it is a koan? Perhaps because it’s all inherently a mystery? And how I live my life with all of this – with all of the richness of experience and life – is an ongoing exploration. There is no final answer. There is no finishing line.

Drawing: Ink on paper by Hakuin Ekaku

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Love and moving through

I am still in what can be called a dark night of the soul, and it’s still quite challenging. My brain feels foggy. There is fatigue. Painful emotions surface. Painful memories come up. The rug keeps being pulled out from under my feet.

And a living koan keeps coming up for me related to this.

On the one hand, there is love. Finding love for what’s here, and recognizing it as love.

On the other hand, there is aiming for it to move through as easily as possible.

Both are from kindness and wisdom. And both can clearly co-exist, are mutually supportive of each other, and complementary.

Love helps me recognize that what’s here is the divine. The divine recognizes itself as even what a thought may call difficult.

Aiming for it to move through keeps the bigger picture alive, and is a reminder to feel what’s surfacing without wallowing in it.

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Sounds and aftertoughts

When I sit with the Zen question who hears the sounds?, or explore the sense fields, I notice that what’s here is already here. It seems quite obvious.

Sounds are already heard. Sights already seen. Tastes already tasted. Sensations already sensed. Thoughts already thought.

It’s all already here, crystal clear, as awareness.

A sound appears. It’s already heard.

Then, there is a gap in time, and an image comes up, perhaps of a bird. It labels the sound. It’s an innocent question. Bird?

Then, another gap in time, and thoughts come up. It’s morning. It’s a small bird. And these are also innocent questions. Morning? Small bird?

By the time images label, and thoughts tell a story, the sound itself is gone. All this happens afterwards, as an afterthought.

Then there are some other thoughts.

The sound is heard by me, by this human self.

It’s heard by I, this doer, listener.

And these too happens afterward. A sound appears. There is an image, a label. There are thoughts, telling a story. And there is an image of a me hearing it, and I listening.

As this is seen, it’s almost comical. What I sometimes take as so solid and real – the label and the stories, the me and I listening – is, quite literally, an afterthought. It happens quite a bit later, after the sound itself is gone. It’s constructed.

When it’s taken as real and true, it seems real, substantial and true. It’s experienced that way. And when it’s seen to be just an afterthought – images and stories happening after the sound is already gone – it’s seen as an afterthought. It looses its sense of solidity. The label, the stories of the sound and a me and I are recognized as images and stories.

The same happens when I explore sensations, tastes, sights, and even mental activity itself. Who senses these sensations? Who tastes the taste? Who thinks these images? Who thinks these thoughts? In each case, I find it’s happening, crystal clear, as awareness, and there is a gap in time until there is an image and stories labeling and explaining what’s happening.

What’s hearing?

Here is a classic Zen question/koan:

What’s hearing the sounds?

Or… What’s standing? What’s walking?

As with any question, the asking and exploration is what’s important, and whatever is “found” is not really it. There is always further to go.

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This is it


A sentence from any source can be used as a koan, a question for own exploration.

It is most interesting when the statement appears mundane or counter intuitive, and even if it is a familiar reminder, it can be an invitation to look in a fresh way and perhaps a little further.

This is it.

This is all there is. All my images of the world and myself is my own world of images.

All I see “out there” – in present, past, and future, is here now. All goals, dreams, qualities, dynamics, whatever it is, is here now.

It is an image here now. The feelings and atmosphere it evokes are here now. The qualities and dynamics I see out there is here now.

Even the images of present, past, and future themselves happen in my own world of images.

I can notice and get familiar with this in the usual ways. I can inquire into my beliefs. I can explore my sense fields. I can recognize my images as images as they happen. I can notice my emotions as here now, and not belonging to anything out there in the past, future, or present. I can recognize my goals as stories here now. I can find the qualities and dynamics I see in others here now, in myself, including in how I relate to that person. I can ask myself if what I seek is not already here.

In this way, I get double benefit from my world of images. I can use my images, goals, and so on as guides for choices and actions in the world. And I can recognize it all already happening here now.

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God hath given you one face

God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.
– Hamlet 3.1, Shakespeare

This is an example of how great koans can be found in non-traditional sources.

And more importantly, it is a reminder of how any statement is a question and a pointer for inquiry.

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Live up to your attainment with care III

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

Here is yet another way to appreciate this quote….

When I inquire into a belief and find what is more true for me, can I live up to those insights with care?

Can I notice the symptoms of again attaching to the story as true? What did I find when I inquired into it intially, and how would it be to live from those insights here and now? What happens if I live one or more of the turnarounds in this situation? What do I find if I explore it again, here now, in a fresh way?

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Live up to your attainment with care II

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

A few more things about this….

I can use a more yang or yin approach to live up to my attainment with care. A yang approach may be: don’t not allow yourself to fall into old patterns. (Don’t think you are absolutely right, protect a viewpoint etc.) While a yin approach may be to simply notice the symptoms of identifying with a viewpoint, and then find what is more true for me. Can I find the freedom to use one or the other, or both, depending on what seems most helpful in the situation?

Also, living up to your attainment means to live with integrity, to live from absolute and relative truths. When I live from relative truths, I live in ways that seem the most sane, mature, wise and kind, even in a conventional sense. And living from absolute truth is to remind myself of what I really am, and that there is no absolute truth inherent in any story or viewpoint. I use stories as practical guidelines for attention and action, chose the stories that seem the most helpful and appropriate in the situation, in the context of don’t know.

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Live up to your attainment with care

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

In this koan (see the full text below), Myo awakened. (Reality awakened to itself, awakened from temporarily taking itself to be Myo.)

And after awakening, there is the process of living from it with care. It can easily be obscured, and that happens as soon as we take any story as true or identify with any viewpoint.

As Byron Katie says, we are awakened – or not – to a thought. The thought that is here now.

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Tail of the ox

An ox passes through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t it’s tail pass through?

This is a koan that has come up for me now since it reflects immediate experience.

The ox passes through the window. The world and this human self is recognized, in immediacy, as awakeness itself. As no thing appearing as something.

Yet the tail does not pass through. There is still identification with the doer and observer. Even as the doer and observer is recognized as awakeness itself, even as it is recognized as a gestalt made up of sensations and images, there is still some remaining identification there.

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What am I koan & tools for exploration

When I was at the zen center, my teacher gave me the “what am I” koan. I worked on it the usual Rinzai way, repeating it to myself with great intensity and otherwise not knowing what to do with it. It does fuel motivation and intention, which is very helpful, but it was also an exercise in spinning my wheels.

Along with giving someone the “what am I” koan, it is helpful to offer a few tools and pointers on how to use them…! After all, that is how we do it in any other area of life.

If I ask someone to dig a ditch, I show him or her the tool shed and where the shovels are, I’ll point out where the ditch is going, and if needed, I’ll give enough instructions to get the person started.

In the case of the “what am I” koan, there are – at least – two focal points for inquiry.

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I only worked with koans for a short time, and was pretty slow, but here are just a few things I noticed about them in general.

To put it roughly, koans work from the absolute and the relative sides, with Big Mind and our human self, and how Big Mind/Heart can be expressed through our human self.

Each koan has a different emphasis and focus, similar to a prism filtering light so we can explore the different aspects of it more closely. And each koan has a specific and unique resolution, which becomes obvious when it is seen, and something to work with in terms of bringing it into daily life.

Koans invite what we are to notice itself. After a while, thoughts tend to exhaust themselves, inviting in a release of identification from thoughts. And the resolution to the koan can often only be found from the Big Mind/Heart side, from shifting into and finding ourselves as Big Mind/Heart.

They invite in specific insights into what and who we are, through emphasizing specific aspects of Big Mind/Heart and how it can be expressed through our human self.

And they invite us to explore, through our daily life and in specific ways, how what we are can be expressed through who we are. (When I worked with koans, my daily life was often infused with the koan, there was no separation between working on it on the cushion or through daily life. And as it clarified, there was a curiosity about how to express it, live it, in daily life.)

This is one of the many things about Zen I appreciate. It is very much focused on what we are noticing itself. But it is no less focused on how it is lived through this human life, in a healthy, mature, thorough and skillful way.

Koan: withered tree

In ancient days an old woman made offering to a hermit over a period of twenty years, and one day she sent her sixteen-year-old niece to take food to the hermit, telling her to make advances to him and to see what he would do. So the girl lay her head on the hermits lap and said, how is this?

The hermit said: The withered tree is rooted in an ancient rock in bitter cold during winter months. There is no warmth, no life.

The girl reported this to her aunt, and the old woman said: That vulgarian! How outrageous! To think that I have made offerings to him for twenty years!

So she drove the hermit away and burnt down his cottage.

Zen, in my limited experience, is of course about awakening in the traditional sense, the realization of no I with an Other. But it is equally much about becoming more fully human, and how the practice before awakening, and the awakening itself, allows us to be more fully, deeply and richly human.

In the beginning, and depending on what teachings we are exposed to and practices we engage in, it can appear as the two are somehow in conflict. But after a while, and even right away with the right teachings and practices, we can see very clearly how they are not only aligned, but support each other. When we deepen into one, we can deepen further into the other.

Including both not only makes the path much more enjoyable, and allows us to get something out of it even if there is not a stable awakening of Big Mind, but it also allows Big Mind – however clearly it has awakened to itself – to express itself more fully, richly and fluidly through our human self.

It helps who we take ourselves to be, before awakening. And it helps what we find ourselves to always be to express itself more fully and richly, following awakening. (Big Mind always expresses itself fully and perfectly, whether it is awake to itself or not, and no matter what shape the human self is in, but there is still a difference in how maturely, richly and fluidly it is expressed through our human self.)

To use God language, we can say that all is God, no matter what, and it is all God expressing and exploring itself. But there is a difference in whether it is awake to itself or not. And there is a difference in how healed, mature and developed the human self is that it is awake (or not) to itself through. Why focus on just one?

In this case, the test was not only how attached the monk still was to beliefs and identities, which is the awakening aspect, but also how fluidly any awakening and release from beliefs and identities was expressed. The monk failed in both respects.

As with any koan, this one must be resolved by living it. It is never resolved by insight alone, however clever, even if it comes from a clear and stable awakening.

Ikkyu, that crazy monk, knew this:

The old woman was bighearted enough
To elevate the pure monk with a girl to wed.
Tonight if a beauty were to embrace me
My withered old willow branch would sprout a new shoot!

Quantum Koans

A talk on quantum experiments as koans by Thomas McFarlane at the Center for Sacred Sciences. As koans, these quantum experiments pull the rug out from under thoughts, and help us see how there is nothing absolute in our conventional ways of mapping the world.

Quantum Koans from Center for Sacred Sciences and Vimeo.