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Z E N K O A N
#1
Who is asking?
*

A student once asked, Where is the Buddha?” The master replied, “Not far from the source of your question.” The deepest answer that Zen gives to any question is, “Who wants to know?” How can we find a solution to our questions if we don’t know who we are? Most people identify themselves with their body and personality, but Zen says, “look again.” Your body has changed beyond all recognition - from a small baby to a grown adult. Your personality is adapting all the time to new situations. Are these really you? The only consistent thing in your life has been your experience of being a witness of all the changes. For Zen, our sense of personal identity is a self-created illusion. Any idea we have of who we are is just that - an idea. We are not the idea, but the consciousness that is experiencing the idea. We can, therefore, never know ourselves through thought. We can only be where we are - indescribable Buddha-Nature.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Do you assume that you know who you are? Before solving the problems in your life, spend some time with the fundamental question, “Who am I?”

  • Are you trapped in ideas about who you are? One by one, consider all your ideas about yourself and then discard them. Sense your subjective experience of simply being. Allow your choices to arise from the depths of your true nature, not your ideas about yourself.

    *

    (Discover Who You Are)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#2
TO FIND YOURSELF
IS TO LOSE YOURSELF

*

Master Hashida taught, “To study the way of the Buddha is to study your own self, and to study your own self is to forget yourself.” Zen teaches that the separate person that we take ourselves to be is not our real nature. To know our true Self, we must cease to identify with this illusory separate self. When we behave in a selfish way, we serve the false ego-self, but when we become selfless, we awaken our deeper Buddha-Nature. Selflessness is the spiritual path to overcoming our sense of separateness, and experiencing the Oneness of all that is. According to Buddhism, enlightenment is not something you obtain for yourself, but something that naturally occurs when you give yourself away.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you trying to find yourself? Then give yourself away. Think of something you can do today to serve others selflessly. Be aware of the needs of those around you and simply express your natural compassion. Test out Hashida’s teachings and you will find that when you rise above your self-interest, you feel more your Self.

  • Are you trying to be selfless, but finding it impossible? As long as you believe you are a separate person serving separate people, you cannot help but act from your self. Imagine all beings as the hands and eyes of one great being.

  • When you help others, let it be as natural and unaffected as if you were feeding yourself.

    *

    (Be Selfless)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#3
The wave and
the sea are One

*

Master Thigh Nhat Hanh writes, “The wave lives the life of a wave and at the same time, the life of water.” Zen teaches that our seemingly separate self is like an individual wave that rises and falls on a great sea of Being. Like a wave, we are propelled forward by the deep currents of life. If we only experience the surface of things, we will believe we are the wave. Then we will feel as if we are being pushed around by life and will fear crashing down onto the rocky shore line. If we experience the depths of things, we will know that we are the whole ocean, and all anxiety will disappear. Waves come and go, but the ocean remains.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you feeling tossed around like a wave on the sea? Go deeper. Be a part of life, not apart from life. Let life flow through you and live in harmony with its ebb and flow. Fighting the current is a waste of energy. Pushing the current will not hurry things along. Ride the waves of life with equanimity, knowing that you are in reality the whole sea.

  • Are you anxious? Imagine yourself as a wave with the power of the whole sea behind it. Unstoppable. Feel the Life-force surging through you. What is there to be anxious about? You are Life itself.

    *

    (All is One)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#4
Look and see with your
own eyes. If you hesitate
,
you miss the mark forever
*

Master Yuan-Wu teaches us not to hesitate, but to see directly into the nature of life for ourselves. In the Zen tradition, a human birth is seen as a wonderful opportunity to become enlightened. If we don’t do it now - when will we do it? If we hold back from fully embracing life today, we will miss it forever, because the Zen vision can only be experienced in the present moment. The past is gone and the future has not come. Now is the only reality, and if we want to awaken, we must awaken now.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you holding back from life? If you don’t seize the day, you will reach your death having missed your life. Don’t hesitate. Be alive.

  • Are you putting off until tomorrow something that your inner intuition is telling you to do today? Whether it is something important, or significant, when we don’t follow our inner prompting through fear and inertia, we cut ourselves off from the guiding light of our life.

  • Are you waiting to begin your spiritual search in earnest? You are alive now, and you don’t know for how long. Don’t waste this precious opportunity to discover the Truth for yourself.

    *

    (Look for Yourself Now)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#5
I burn the books in My bag,
But the verses written in my
guts cannot be forgotten

*

Ikkyu was an outrageous Zen master who taught that instead of endlessly studying Buddhist scriptures, we should learn to read the love letters sent by the snow, the wind and the rain. He burned his copies of the scriptures and followed the dictates of his intuition. He simply expressed his own nature. He was as at home in a brothel as in a temple. Spending time with a pleasure girl, he reports, never made him feel like he was burning in hell. He believed Zen was about becoming a natural human being who enjoyed life to the full, and thought a puritan saint was nowhere near a Buddha.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you following your deepest intuitions or what others have told you is right? We often fail to express our own nature through fear of others’ judgments, but a Zen life is free of any such constraints.

  • Do you fear that if you let yourself go you might act badly? Transcend your ego-self and sense your Oneness with all life, and you will naturally want to act for the best. Zen is about becoming free to express your particular nature in natural harmony with the whole of life. Sense your deepest Self. Trust it. Now, disregarding all the opinions of others, even the teachings of the Buddha - how do you want to express who you are?

    *

    (Be Yourself)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#6
When walking - walk.
When sitting - sit
.
But don’t wobble
!
*

When asked how he disciplined himself in Zen, a master once replied, “When hungry, I eat. When tired, I sleep.” His astonished questioner responded, “But that is what everyone does.” “Not at all,” replied the master, “Most people are constantly distracted from what they are doing.” Zen is knowing that we are a part of Nature, and allowing our own nature to express itself naturally - when hungry, we eat. But it is about doing whatever we do with complete awareness. In this koan, master Yun-men advises us not to “wobble.” We wobble when we are not fully present with what we are doing. Zen is not doing something special, it is consciously performing everyday activities. Master Nan-ch’uan was once asked, “What is Zen?” to which he replied, “Ordinary mind is very Zen.” “Should we try to get it?” the questioner continued. “As soon as you try, you miss it.” cautioned Nan-ch’uan. Zen is not “trying” to be a certain way, it is just being what you are and doing what you do."


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you completely engaged with whatever process is unfolding in your life? Insight does not come from living unconsciously or standing aloof, but by fully entering in.

  • Are you valuing the extraordinary and overlooking the ordinary? Zen is nothing special. It is simply being conscious as you live your everyday life.

    *

    (Be Natural and Aware)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#7
Without anxious thought,
doing comes from being

*

Zen teaches us that it is possible to live spontaneously. This is not condoning a wildly irresponsible approach to life. It is about allowing our natural decision-making process to function efficiently. A useful modern metaphor with which to understand this teaching is to imagine the mind as a computer. If we are running a lot of unnecessary programs on a computer and then ask it to process certain information, it is significantly slowed down. Each step of the process appears on the screen before us, until eventually it presents us with the answer. If these unnecessary programs are turned off, all of the computer’s power is freed up to process the question. In the same way, if the mind is full of irrelevant thoughts and anxieties, our natural decision-making process is slowed down and we become painfully aware of each step in the deliberation. If we still the mind through such practices as meditation, it frees up our mental powers to respond quickly and efficiently, so that we spontaneously know what to do.


Thought to contemplate:

  • Instead of thinking through the question that life is confronting you with, sit quietly and let your thoughts settle down. Allow the answer to emerge spontaneously from your intuition without unnecessary deliberation. Go straight to the solution

    *

    (Be Spontaneous)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#8
Do what you will ~
but not because you must
*

 

Zen teaches us to follow the promptings of our inner nature, but these should not be confused with habits. Zen is fresh in each moment. Masters are infamous for suddenly doing crazy things to shock their students out of their habitual states of mind and into the immediacy of the spontaneous NOW. When we act from our habits, we are like a record that has become stuck in a groove and is repeating the same things over and over again. When the Zen Master intuitively responds in a bizarre way, students do not know whether to be insulted, angry, or amused - they suddenly don’t know how to be. It is as if the master has given the record player a nudge and suddenly it is playing new music again. Students are free from their old habits and are alive to the wonderful magic of the present moment.


Thought to contemplate:

  • Are you caught in playing out a habitual pattern of behavior? Be your own Zen Master! When you catch yourself being habitual, spontaneously do something absurd. Make a strange noise or put your shoe on your head. It will feel very strange, but you’ll find you can’t take your habits so seriously when you’re behaving in a bizarre, uncharacteristic way. Every time you do this your habit will become harder and harder to slip into unconsciously - until you are effortlessly and naturally set free to find new ways to respond to each new moment.

    *

    (Don’t be Habitual)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#9
Know who you are.
Be what you know

*

Zen teaches us to look deeply into ourselves and know who we really are. Having glimpsed even a little of our intrinsic Buddha-Nature, we must then attempt to live what we know. It is easy to have a momentary insight into our essential nature, but then only to hold onto it as a philosophical idea. To practice Zen, we must constantly return to this insight to make it a living reality. Zen is not a set of beliefs to be discussed. Zen is seeing the Truth and then living authentically.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you being authentic? If you are not living a life that expresses your inner nature, consider what changes you need to transform yourself and your life so that you can really be you. Start making the changes today.

  • Are you living what you know? Consider one way in which you would live your life differently if you put into practice your deepest insights. Decide to live that way from now on. If you find you have failed to do so, don’t waste time in self-judgement, just affirm the decision again and continue on your way.

    *

    (Be Authentic)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#10
Water beats gradually
and boils suddenly

*

Some schools of Zen emphasize a sudden and spontaneous awakening. Others stress that we awaken gradually through practice and perseverance. There is no contradiction here, however, as is brought out by the Zen saying on this page. Through patiently persevering in practicing the principles of Zen, we prepare the conditions that are conducive to the completely natural experience of enlightenment. You cannot force a seed to sprout, but only provide it with the best conditions that allow sprouting to occur naturally. Likewise, awakening can not be forced, but may be encouraged.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you frustrated with your life? See yourself as water that is slowly heating and will suddenly surprise you by boiling. Let go of your frustration and concentrate on creating the conditions in your life that will gradually allow fulfillment to arise naturally over time.

  • Do you need to develop patient perseverance? If you developed this attitude, how would it change your life? Consider one specific area and decide to be like a gardener cultivating seeds. You cannot make the seeds grow, but you can lovingly tend them until harvest time.

    *

    (Be Patient)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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 Z E N K O A N
#11
A MIND IS ONLY ABSOLUTELY PURE WHEN IT IS ABOVE PURITY AND IMPURITY
*

Although Zen teaches us to act well and think good thoughts, its highest revelation is that the true nature of mind is above all such limited concepts. It encourages us to abandon negative self-judgment and accept ourselves as we are. If we acknowledge that we are in the process of spiritually awakening, then life becomes a sort of school for consciousness. We are students because we have something to learn, so it is pointless to criticize ourselves for our ignorance. Master Seng-t’san teaches, “Live with a Zen awareness and no more worries about not being perfect.” A naughty little girl was once told to pray that God would make her behave well. Her behavior didn’t improve, so she concluded that God obviously liked her just the way she was. Zen is being yourself - as you are.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Do you accept yourself as you are? See yourself as in a process of learning and do not criticize your inadequacies, but learn from them whenever you can.

  • Let go of all your ideas about how you think you should be. Let yourself be exactly as you are - including your desire to be better and your failure to be so. Sit for a while with the feeling that life likes you just the way you are, otherwise it would have made you differently.

    *

    (Accept Yourself)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#12
THE INNER SIGHT IS BEYOND PRAISE AND BLAME. LIKE SPACE, IT KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES
*

Master Yung-Chia Ta-shih teaches that our Buddha-Nature is the light of pure Consciousness - the limitless space within which thoughts arise. It is the essential “I” within us that experiences everything. Like the light of the sun, it illuminates that which we call good and that which we call bad, but it is itself beyond both good and bad. If we know our Buddha-Nature therefore, we can be like the sun that shines on all alike. We will not be caught up in praising one person or blaming another - or in seeking praise or trying to avoid blame ourselves. Such judgments are alien to our Buddha-Nature and only serve to trap us in our separateness.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you caught up in blaming someone? Distance yourself from your judging mind. Imagine your consciousness like a living light that shines indiscriminately on all alike. Remember that you can never know what it is like to be someone else in his or her unique predicament. Reach out with understanding, not judgment.

  • Are you seeking praise or trying to avoid blame? Let go of your idea of yourself as something that could be worthy of either. Imagine yourself as a natural part of the universe - like the flowers in the field or the birds in the sky. They express their own nature without needing praise or fearing blame. How others see you will not change what you are.

    *

    (Be Nonjudgmental)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#13
Don’t SEARCH FOR TRUTH, SIMPLY STOP HAVING OPINIONS
*

Master Seng - T’san teaches that enlightenment is not an opinion, but is found through the absence of all opinions. It is not an idea, but an awareness of the consciousness that experiences all ideas. This consciousness is vast and limitless, like a clear blue sky, and ideas are clouds passing across the sky. When we focus on the clouds, we miss the empty vastness. Zen teaches us to let go of our preoccupation with opinions and embrace an attitude of “don’t know.” Through the process of not knowing we can come to know the knower - our Buddha - Nature.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are your opinions obscuring your intuitive insight into your situation? Stop frantically trying to have an opinion about what is going on and simply say, “Don’t know.” Live with this and the clouds of confusion will dissipate, and your intuitions will become obvious.

  • Consider your most cherished opinions. Do you really know them to be true? Actually, life and death are incomprehensible mysteries. Instead of filling the void with some opinion, be courageous enough to live with your profound ignorance. In Zen, wisdom is not found by having ideas about life, but by experiencing life directly through not knowing.
    *

    (Embrace “Don’t Know)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#14
THE WAY IS NOT DIFFICULT FOR SOMEONE WITHOUT PREFERENCES
*

Master Seng - T’San continues these teachings: “When attraction and aversion are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set indefinitely apart. When we completely accept what is, we perceive the Oneness of Life beyond the dualities of good and bad, desired and undesired, pleasant and unpleasant. It is by dividing life up in these ways that we obscure our natural state of enlightenment. Only when we let things be as they are do we see things as they are.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you confronting a situation in which your value judgments are coloring your direct perception of your predicament? Let things be as they are and accept all that you like and dislike with equanimity. This is not passive resignation. Don’t “put up with life,” but don’t, “fight against life” either. Simply embrace it as it is. Through acceptance you may begin to see what this situation has arisen and allow the appropriate solution to arise intuitively, unencumbered by your expectations, fears, and other value judgments.

  • Are your preferences making life difficult for you? Be at peace, neither pulling anything to you nor pushing anything away. When you don’t want things to be a certain way, what difficulties are there?
    *

    (Accept Life As It Is)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#15
GAZE AT THE STARS BUT WALK ON THE EARTH
*

The Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki writes, “With all our philosophy, with all our grand and enhancing ideas, we cannot escape life as we live it. Star-gazers are still walking on the solid earth.” Buddhist philosophy may sometimes lead us to the final frontiers of abstract thought with concepts such as “the void” and “enlightenment,” but the Truth of its teachings are only to be found in our everyday lives. Zen teaches us to be practical and ordinary, yet to see the miracle of life all around us.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you in danger of drifting off into the abstract world of ideas and losing your foundations in ordinary life? Decide today that attend to some practical details of your life, yet see them as a Zen koan which, if studied consciously enough, could lead to sublime enlightenment.

  • Are you so wrapped up with everyday things that your life is devoid of magic? Decide that tonight you will step outside for a little while and just stare at the stars. The night sky is a perfect “koan.” Consider that it goes on forever, and wrestle with the impossibility of your mind conceiving of something that has no end. Then just accept its awe and beauty without understanding it at all.
    *

    (See the Miraculous in the Ordinary)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#16
THE WISE DON’T STRIVE TO ARRIVE
*

Master Seng-T’san advises us to give up goal orientation and simply be. Zen teaches that life is not about getting somewhere but enjoying traveling for even when we do reach our goals we experience only temporary satisfaction, because there is always a new horizon. Master Shunryu Suzuki says, “What is more important, to make a million dollars, or enjoy your life in your effort, little by little, even though it is impossible to make that million; to be successful, or to find some meaning in your effort to be successful? If you do not know the answer, you will not be able to practice Zen; if you do know, you will have found the treasure of life.”


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you trying to get somewhere? Instead of thinking that it is important that you arrive, focus on traveling well. Live life like playing a game. There are goals to give it purpose, but the true aim is to enjoy playing.

  • Are you seeking enlightenment? Completely accept your unenlightened state and let life unfold as it will. Although the aim of Buddhism is to gain enlightenment, ironically this is only achieved when all desire to arrive anywhere is completely abandoned. As long as you are a someone going somewhere, you will never see that there is nowhere to go and no one to go there. As long as you desire enlightenment you will not realize that your Buddha-Nature is always enlightened.
    *

    (Give Up Goal Orientation)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#17
With Zen, every day is a good day. Without zen, even good days are bad days.
*

Zen teaches that if we live without attachments, every day becomes a good day. If we do not, even good das are ruined by the knowledge that they will pass. By adopting a positive and appreciative attitude, we can let every day be good in its own way. It may be good because it is easy and enjoyable, or because it is a challenge, or because it shows us our present limitations and inadequacies. If we are unattached to life being the way we want it, we can transform ourselves to harmonize with the way life wants it - then we are always surrounded by goodness.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Are you experiencing a bad day? Find something good in it. This is what today is offering you. Are you taking this unique opportunity or missing what is good by focusing on what is bad? Let go of how you want things to be, then live today as it wants to be lived.

  • Are you experiencing a good day? Can you appreciate it now, in full knowledge of its transient nature, and welcome its inevitable passing? Consider the changing seasons and how there could never be new growth without death and decay. See your life as a natural continuum of change, in which each day plays a vital and integral part. Don’t judge the seasons as good and bad, but rejoice that without them there would not be the goodness of the whole year.
    *

    (Be Positive)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#18
water is one essence: drunk by a cow it becomes milk, drunk by a snake it becomes poison
*

Master Thich Tien-An writes, “Whether life is blissful or sorrowful depends on our state of mind, not on the world.” The same experience may happen to two people, but they will make something completely different out of it. Not only will their reactions be dissimilar, but even how they conceive of what has happened to them. Our attitudes to life create our experience of life. Master Hakuin once demonstrated this to a Samurai warrior who asked to be taught about heaven and hell. Hakuin took one look at the warrior and began insulting him. The warrior was enraged and drew his sword in anger. “There,” said Hakuin, “That’s hell.” Realizing that the master had risked his life to give a practical demonstration of his teachings, the Samurai fell to his knees in gratitude. “There,” said Hakuin, “That’s heaven.”


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • In what ways are your attitudes turning your life into heaven or hell? Are you happy with these attitudes? If not, how would you like to change them?

  • Are you angry or distressed? Remember Master Hakuin and the Samurai, and see the situation as a Zen master in disguise, teaching you that you create heaven and hell with your own attitudes.
    *

    (Be Positive)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#19
THE SEEDS OF THE PAST ARE THE FRUITS OF THE FUTURE
*

Buddhism teaches the law of “karma” - that our present fate was created by our previous choices. Karma is more than a sort of cosmic justice that punishes us for our bad thoughts and deeds and rewards us for our goodness. It is a natural mechanism that helps us to become more conscious. If we acted badly in the past, it was because of ignorance of our essential natural goodness. When our present situation forces us to acknowledge this, it helps us to become more aware in the future. Likewise, when our present happiness is the result of goodness expressed in the past, it shows the value of continuing to live in harmony with life. Karma is not just something that takes time to effect us, however. It is also immediate. When we think and act selfishly, we are instantly trapped in our separateness. If we think and act selflessly, we are instantly set free.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Consider the good and bad choices you have made in the past that have resulted in your present predicament. What can you learn from seeing this relationship?

  • Your present situation is a karmic result of all that you have been, in this life and perhaps in past lives as well. You have in some way created this situation as an opportunity for you to awaken. What is it teaching you about who you have been and what you could be now?
    *

    (Choice Creates Fate)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
koan_card.jpg
 

 Z E N K O A N
#20
WE STAND IN OUR OWN SHADOW AND WONDER WHY IT IS DARK
*

Zen teaches us that when we think there is a problem with life, the problem actually lies in ourselves. When we look at things from the point of view of our separate ego-self, we cast a shadow that obscures the light of our essential Buddha-Nature, and everything seems dark. If we turn and face the light, we rise above our limited self-interest and can see the whole picture. When we are trapped in our personal agendas for life, we cannot see life’s wider purpose. When we become a servant of life, not of ourselves, everything becomes clear. We may not be able to transform the situation, but we can transform ourselves and how we perceive our lives.


Thoughts to contemplate:

  • Is there a situation in your life that seems dark and confusing? Step out from your obsession with yourself and look again. Is the situation dark or are you obscuring the light with your own ego? If you cease to worry about your own self interest in the situation, you can simply let life unfold as it will.

  • Are you facing a problem? Actually, the problem is that you perceive it as a problem! Accept it as a challenge that life wants you to face.
    *

    (You Are the Problem)
    The Zen Koan Card Pack
    by Timothy Freke

 
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