A Sufi Spills the Beans on What a Zen Koan Is

A Sufi Spills the Beans on What a Zen Koan Is September 22, 2016

Mary Shrine

To be honest, just for a moment, just between the two of us: we really don’t need religions.

The real has no name, not Christian, not Jewish, not Hindu, not Muslim, not Buddhist, not Zen, not Sufi, not Unitarian Universalist.

However, that freely acknowledged, at least just between the two of us, within each of these ancient ways, these and so many others, there is a secret band of sisters and brothers of the true way. They have many names, a hundred million of them, and each true in one way or another, but need none in order to recognize each other. They follow the ancient path. They sing the ancient songs, nearly all the verses. And any of us can learn as they show the ancient way.

And so to koans. On the one hand the koan is the great and unique gift of the Zen schools to world spirituality. But there’s endless confusion about what precisely they’re for. So, as one who has walked with them for near a lifetime, I try to help. When people ask me what a koan is, and I say it is not a meaningless question meant to throw us into another state of consciousness, nor is it simply a thorny question, often that appears not to be enough and so they push, and ask, so what is a koan.

I then like to point them to this poem written by Mevlana (which means, of course, our teacher), the great Jalaluddin Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi Order. Here in Coleman Barks lovely version. The whole of the Zen way laid bare.

Here, just between the two of us…

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,

Like this.

When someone mentions the gracefulness
of the nightsky, climb on the roof
and dance and say,

Like this?

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.

Like this.

If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.

Like this. Like this.

When someone asks what it means
to “die for love,” point


If someone asks how tall I am, frown
and measure with your fingers the space
between the creases on your forehead.

This tall.

The soul sometimes leaves the body, then returns.
When someone doesn’t believe that,
walk back into my house.

Like this.

I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.

Like this.

When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.

Like this.

How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?


How did Jacob’s sight return?


A little wind cleans the eyes.

Like this.

When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
he’ll put just his head around the edge
of the door to surprise us.

Like this.

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