Exploring Shikantaza, Retreats, and Koans


Shikantaza, sometimes called “just sitting,” is the subtle and radically nondual practice at the heart of Soto Zen practice.

Because shikantaza is so easily misconstrued, at GBZC, we teach shikantaza only after someone has gained substantial familiarity with breath-counting. And because it’s so easy to deceive ourselves with a story about “just sitting,” it is often helpful engage in discussions with senior students or meet with a Zen teacher.

And the best two books to start with are Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama and Realizing Genjokoan by Shohaku Okumura.

In our liturgy book, shikantaza is described in recitation pieces by Reb Anderson (“Guidance in the Absolute Practice of Shikantaza”) and Shohaku Okumura (“Those Who Greatly Realize Delusion Are Buddhas”).


Day-long or multi-day retreats are an unparalleled way to deepen your understanding of Zen, and connect more fully with yourself and the community. Everyone is encouraged to come to retreats.

Day-long retreats are a great place to start, or if you are one to dive right into the deep end, you can sign up for a multi-day retreat, known as a sesshin.

GBZC also sometimes offers multi-day commuter retreats: two day-long sits in a row.


Koans are part of the teaching technology of the Zen school—and koan introspection is, for some Zen students, an effective way to truly see the oneness of form and emptiness, the absolute and the relative. Traditionally, individuals working with koans do it with a teacher trained in doing that work. GBZC sometimes also offers Koan Salons, in which we reflect on a koan together. If you’re interested in beginning work with koans, ask a teacher in dokusan.

We use the Harada/Yasutani Soto reform of the Rinzai curriculum as modified by the White Plum Asanga. Most people never complete the curriculum—and this is not even the slightest bit of a problem. People who do complete it generally do so in 10-15 years.

We work through koans in this order:

  • the koan Mu
  • the koans clarifying Mu
  • a collection called “The First 200”
  • The Gateless Gate / Gateless Barrier
  • The Blue Cliff Record
  • The Book of Equanimity / Book of Serenity
  • Keizan’s Record of Transmitting the Light
  • The Precept koans
  • Tozan’s Five Ranks

If you want to read about koans, you might start with The Book of Mu: Essential Writings of Zen’s Most Famous Koan. 

But be advised: the essence of Mu can never be found in a book!