Thursday, July 3, 2014

1 The Whole World Is Medicine

The whole world is medicine

(This post was originally done in 2010 as a quick offering for a group koan salon. I rewrote it in Spring 2014)

Chinese Elm
     I was not separated from people,
     grief and pity joined us.
     We forget—I kept saying—that we are all 
     children of the King.
Czeslaw Milosz (trans. Robert Hass)

Sickness and medicine are in accord with each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?

When the Buddha was growing up, his father kept four sights from him. The forbidden sights were a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and a pilgrim dedicated to the meditation path. The young boy snuck out of the palace and immediately stumbled upon a sick person. This was the first sign that something was being hidden. 
Sickness is memorable, though often we forget its pains, frightening, discouraging, disgusting, shocking, and as in the Buddha’s story, a discovery. Seeing through into that secret is the beginning of a new world. At that moment, the palace turned into a prison. Instead of becoming an emperor, the Buddha, as his father had feared he might, left home and took up the meditation path. 

Sickness tells me that no matter how interesting or clever I may be, I am also a body. Like other bodies, like dogs, trees, and stars, my body is made of stuff. Stuff in turn is made of smaller bits of stuff. You can recombine the bits in various ways. If a Tasmanian devil ate me, that would be a recombining process. 

Illness is a recombining process too. It turns out that the cells that make me up can be hijacked by other tiny creatures which start rearranging me to make more of themselves. Very exciting.

Coffin from Ghana
It is well known that we are guests in the body’s house and cannot stay. Though there are ways of distracting ourselves from this knowledge, even a king cannot conceal it. It is less well known that sickness can be a gate into vast, interior realms. Sickness is like the locked door in the fairy tale that we are told not to open. It holds the possibility of changing our course utterly.

Chemistry is us

When I was an undergraduate in Canberra, I had an intense experience of being reduced (or possibly expanded) into the physical. There was a period when I meditated every day outside under a Chinese elm tree, and also, a few times a week had a fever (a tropical residue, apparently hard to diagnose), which led me to rush outside and throw up. And I became close to the elm tree in the garden, so that as I write I am there again, consoled by its mild, reassuring bulk in the night, it’s delicate, serrated leaves, the progress of the moon in its branches, the twigs and leaves under my knees.

Sickness also took me beyond the idea that I must get back to being well. There wasn’t the energy to dislike or to dread my state so I was just given over to it. While in the rest of my life I was striving to complete reports, band birds, get weekends over with, beneath the tree I was not on the way to somewhere else. Whatever had gripped my body might have been disgusting, but because it was disgusting, it became an initiation. Time spread out so that there was enough of it. In the suburban garden in the most boring of capitals, I was in the underworld, and the glowing powers that move heaven and earth were visible above me. In my own way I was happy there and lacked nothing. Which is why I remember kneeling under my guardian tree.

During the days, I was often in a biology lab where I was struck by electron microscope images of mitochondria. Mitochondria among other functions, provide power in every cell in the body. They are us, and at the same time, not us; they are organelles with their own DNA, which is passed down outside the nucleus of the cell. And I wondered about my awareness of myself, which seemed precious and interesting, at least to me, and at the same time was entwined with the physical world in the most ordinary way. What I thought of as myself could easily be a mere agreement among very small organisms, a treaty they entered into for their own purposes. I felt myself to be like the mitochondria, hopelessly unclear about whether I was an independent whole or a part of some greater process, and was at a loss how to describe my true identity. 

We had been taught that there was a big bang after which the universe expanded rapidly and came into being. That sounded like it could have happened. Then, eventually, consciousness—along with kangaroos, theories of beauty, advertising, and art cars on the Playa at Burning Man—appeared as an emerging feature of
complexity. It wasn't like that under the tree, though. I was in a realm in which everything was being created as I watched. I gave up, I knelt on the roots, enjoying their lumpiness, and the most material thing—a virus, a spirochete, a pebble, the leaf of a Chinese elm tree—was apparently part of the same order that my mind was part of. It’s reasonable to question whether viruses are even alive—they are just a sort of lego construction made out of a few genes shaken in a bag. Sometimes we die in their embrace but they too are part of the scheme that produced us all. My mind appeared to be a property of things, just like my hand.

Years later during a zen retreat, a woman told me that when she sang, she could see the universe being created as the notes came out of her mouth. I had seen Chinese bronze sculptures of meditators chanting with Buddhas coming out of their mouths. ‘The universe does this sort of thing,’ I thought, ‘It will do that when you sing, or throw up. I’m coming out of the mouth of the universe too.’ 

Sickness Is For Us

Usually, casually, I think of myself as being well. When I am sick, wellness is the me I imagine I'll get back to. 

There are many situations in which it’s natural to think of myself as something I need to get back to after—after the war ends, the situation is explained, the chemotherapy is finished, the divorce is complete, the baby arrives, the exam is passed, justice is achieved. But the journey always changes me; even if I get the outcome I want, I can’t go back to the previous edition of myself. We are already ourselves in any circumstances, and something is always flowering in us. 

There are many kinds of sickness—cancer, love of the unattainable person, the isolation that cruelty and meanness imposes on cruel and mean people—and they are life too. 

I can't always be sure what is healing and what is the opposite. I explain things to myself but don't always believe my own reasons. We take the job or go on the date or turn down an offer because we are hopeful or because we are scared or because…well, we don't know why. 

Outcomes are not certain, finding the path by walking it. Let’s say you are a teenage girl with your first boyfriend. You intend to go away to college and know you will have to break up; you have a carefully considered plan about how to do it and stay friends and you have both talked about it. But your boyfriend isn’t happy about that plan and makes a preemptive strike—he breaks up now and you can tell from Facebook that he’s with someone new. You had no idea that romance could hurt so much and you cry for days. But now has certain advantages over later; because of those tears you see more of your father, and your neglected friends, you volunteer to teach in a school, you practice baroque music, you travel, you visit a university in another country.

When I was a child and had pneumonia I remember lying in bed with the winter sunlight coming through the window and hearing the other children go to school. This marked the exciting moment at which the day had become mine, and I began a voyage inward to an unknown territory where secrets were waiting. This is true for adults too; even a dark diagnosis can arrive with an intoxicating sense of freedom, of being able to turn toward the jungle where the great and sought after beast lurks. Here’s a conversation in that direction. A friend calls.

“I've been sick.”
“How are you now?” I ask.
“It’s been marvelous! I stopped imagining what’s next. I had no idea how much energy I spent projecting a future.”

Sickness is for us.

Who Or What Am I?

Vesalius: De Humanae Corporis Fabrica

The great, restless, irritating, question of who we are dangles from the end of this koan like a door into another galaxy. It’s the last thing, it trembles with curiosity, and absurdity, with wanting to encompass the whole of life. Wanting to get better is just a part of sickness. But a question might help when nothing else will. If I have a question, I'm beginning to wake up in the thick dark. If I wonder who I am, that is the faint beginning of a path through the tree trunks in the middle of the night. If I begin to walk, that path keeps showing itself, step by step.

Koans have a status as luminous fragments, little stories that are doorways. The phrase ‘the whole world is medicine’ is a short form, convenient and portable, that opens into something beyond itself. The question “What am I?” has this property too.

If we have become so desperate as to ask "Who am I?" we have given up on the usual solutions and are looking for help at in the bowels of the universe. This implies that we are open and that help or healing might come from anywhere, and probably not from an expected direction.

Yes It’s Out Of Control

At my house, there’s an old chicken shed behind the barn; sheep take shelter there in winter storms. Long ago, someone nailed a four by four redwood beam across the roof. It somewhat holds down the rusting, reddish brown, corrugated iron. Bark and grass and twigs catch against the beam and a couple of geese made a nest there. 

They seem exposed on their roof but it’s unclear how much. A couple of great horned owls live in those eucalyptus. I'm pretty sure those owls ate the barn owls and perhaps the red tail hawks who used to be here. There are other interested parties too. Raccoons, foxes, an occasional bobcat or even mountain lion wanders by. The geese however carry on. The gander watches from a high vantage on the barn and threatens sheep and dogs, proving he’s bad, he’s dangerous, watch out for him. Other birds cross on invisible roads in the air, swooping and whirring, bearing grass and insects. Robins, yellow-gold finches, black and white finches, steller’s jays, martens, mourning doves, hummingbirds in green and turquoise armor, it’s as if they are all part of a large, swirling device. Sometimes their calls change pitch together and the air roads move around. The geese float in this invisible, shifting net.

There’s a gate in the mind and stepping through is like leaving the palace that has come to feel like a prison. On the other side of that gate, silence fills the spaces. Nothing is happening but what’s happening. There’s no urgency, nothing more is needed than what’s here. In that silence and plainness, things step forward and shine by themselves. Though I enjoy seeing this, I don't make it happen; it’s not something that can be controlled. Help is unexpected.

With a friend, I've been working on a new translation of this medicine koan, which you see above: ‘Sickness and medicine are in accord with each other.’ ‘Sickness and medicine heal each other’ is also a possibility. But recently when I was teaching, an older version came out of my mouth — ‘Sickness and medicine correspond with each other.’ Afterwards, someone said, “I was deep in meditation and my thinking was down deep too. I took the word ‘correspond’ to mean ‘write a letter to’ and I began to do that in my mind. ‘Dear Sickness,’ the letter began, and it ended, ‘Your friend, Medicine.’”

If I look around it can be hard to find something that isn't medicine. I go outside and check on the geese. They are still there. They seem happy, waiting. So far so good.
The barn geese with goslings

  1. If you think of a time when you have been ill, what do you remember? What was it like? How did it change you?
  2. Jung said "The Gods have become diseases." If an illness you have had was a god who would it be, what did (or does) it bring you?
  3. What is sickness for you? 
  4. What are your own personal medicines? What works for you? Have you ever been surprised by something that helped you?
  5. If you close your eyes and feel your way way into your body what images rise for you?
  6. If you imagine your body, what comes to your mind first?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

18 Gratitude: Care And Feeding Of—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Let’s start with a koan

The teacher said, “I'm not asking about before the full moon, say a word or two about after the full moon.”
The teacher answered the question, “Every day is a good day.”

Gratitude comes with a feeling of openness, shyness, vulnerability. The person who is grateful can be hurt or rejected, she is taking a risk. With gratitude, there is more at stake, life is not small. 

Gratitude can surprise me just the way a poem or a song can surprise me, and fling me into another wider air. When the ancient Chinese thought of waking up as intimacy, they were referring to an appreciation for trees and rivers, an appreciation so strong that it amounted to identification—what's outside of us is us too. They also meant that our own innermost experience leads us outward to connect.
Food groups
Gratitude is an impulse that creates a community, it’s my contribution to living with others. It doesn't happen to me as a solo Ronin meditator practicing the dark arts of consciousness alone in a hut. Because of this and because other people are always doing unexpected things, gratitude has to confront anti-gratitude, bitterness, and despair. If we want to speak for gratitude we have to go down into desolation, damage, and hurt and find space to breathe exactly there. In that way gratitude is a path, as much as a feeling; it asks me to look where I'm putting my feet. 

Gratitude is what we feel for every single thing that occurs since we would rather be alive than not, would rather be here than not and perhaps our only job is to celebrate being here, being happy for each other.

Going To Santa Barbara

Airplanes are the little ships of our time, which is why people have hijacked them. They offer a view of our absurdity and virtue, drama in a confined space. The text on my Android phone read:

As of 9:30 a.m. United flight UA 6287 to Santa Barbara is delayed due to air traffic control.

The departure estimate was pushed back from time to time, we were moved from one gate to another and another. The attendant at gate 24 was a tall, pale man with the aquiline nose of my Scottish grandfather and an air of disdain achieved through discipline and long practice. He didn't respond to queries about whether this was indeed the right gate, whether the plane had arrived, would arrive, what our ETA would be or why the plane hadn’t arrived. It was as if the questions had not been spoken.

This lead us to believe a story circulating about a couple from Alabama who had been waiting in the airport since yesterday for a hop to Monterey. They had finally boarded, but there the little plane still was, sitting on the runway as it had been for half an hour. There was no evidence it would move.

Then a man came into sight, carrying a nice, though well worn tan briefcase. He had a barely visible limp, which might have been fatigue or the briefcase or something more fundamental. His short red hair stuck up at angles and he wore a close curled red and grey beard. His clothes were wrinkled. People on a flight from SFO to Santa Barbara are usually understated but he wore a business shirt with a black ground and brightly pale stripes. Yahoo Answers (I looked it up) says about this kind of shirt, ‘Don't wear it at work unless your company values people who don't fit in.’ His eyes roved about and as he walked he began to talk at high volume. “Lost luggage!” he said, “Where’s my flight?”

A stir now ran through the passengers and we all watched him, feeling that the plot was at last moving ahead. 

The new arrival then said some things I couldn't quite hear, “New York” perhaps. Little zigzags and red flames seemed to be coming from his pupils. The matron sitting next to me said, “I'm going to stay away from him.” In some ways though he was a union rep for lost passengers and Flying Dutchmen condemned to sail yet not arrive, and we were working out how far we wanted to accompany him, how much our disappointments matched his. The counter attendant was adequate to the challenge—neither his aloofness nor his air of condescension faltered. 

“Luggage”, said the red haired man, baffled, bewildered, angry, “Five different gates!” 
“Supervisor,” the attendant announced to the air around him, and picked up a phone. 

The supervisor proved to be a calm, practical, black woman. I was looking forward to her performance and she made a promising start, “Hello,” she said.

“You lost my luggage, I’ve been to five gates, I had to take a meeting, I’m not used to flying commercial.”

“Air traffic control,” she said, “Fog. I'll help you write a letter to air traffic control if you wish. Fog, air traffic control.” This was a standard chess opening in which both players advanced their pawns and freed their bishops. 

“You moved me to five different gates,” he said, “You lost my luggage.” “The executives are corrupt”, “Corruption in the United Airlines board of directors,”  he said. This was clearly an escalation, equivalent to an attack on her bishop. 

“I don't know anything about that,” she said, “I just talk to people.” This was a good moment.

“You lost my luggage and I had to take a meeting with the president of SONY in these clothes.” He reciprocated by opening his world to her. We could see his point. That shirt.

She was encouraging, “I’m sure you gave a fine account of yourself, Sir, and made a good impression on Mr. Sony.”

“It’s not Mr. Sony, that’s the company, Sony.”

“I'm sure you spoke well for yourself I meant, you are good at that.”
“It was alright, but still. I fly myself, I have planes. I’m not used to flying commercial.”

“Your plane is on the ground now and we'll get you out of here. We just have to let the passengers get off.”

His eyes no longer emitted red flames, the zigzag pattern was gone from his pupils. He seemed to be grateful. She had not indicated by even a twitch that having to fly without your own pilot on a small commercial plane accompanied by soothing flight attendants is a first world problem with which some might not sympathize. 
Madge, the Jacob's sheep

On the plane he sat across from me and fell asleep, his eye glasses tilted forward on his head, beginning to fall off. Then he jerked awake and asked, “Is this Santa Barbara?”

“No,” I said “We're still in San Francisco.”

“What’s wrong, why haven't we taken off?”

“It’s alright. We're in a queue on the tarmac, we're getting there.”

The woman sitting next to him smiled across at me. And under our gaze he fell back to sleep. 

In Santa Barbara he and I stood in the sun together waiting for our rides. 
“You fly your own jet?”

“I used to have a Citation. I had a 707 too for Europe. I've hardly ever flown commercial, I don't think I like it. It’s too confusing. I don't think I'm going to do it again.”

“You flew the 707?”

“No I had pilots for that.”

“Do you still fly?”

“I had a stroke a few years ago.”

His ride appeared, an older Nissan Sentra, a college kid’s car, driven by a young man. 

Gratitude is what I felt for the absurdity of it all, for standing by palm trees waiting, for the patience with which we all stagger through the days, and for the acts of love that we encounter in unexpected places. I had no clue about the truth value of what was said in the airport. My gratitude spread to everyone alive. The fluffy clouds, the pelicans. Standing at the curb, I closed my eyes, and starships and whales and whole rivers lay down to sleep in me. Everybody’s behavior makes sense inside their vast universe. Everybody’s doing the best they can. 

santa barbara

Here’s my version of a story that I first ran into in the Zen teacher Zenkei Shibayama’s writings. 

Thank You Very Much

Once upon a time there was a young man who was deeply unhappy. He had many good things in his life but they didn’t help. When he was at the end of his tether he heard about a teacher who was supposed to be good with hopeless cases and he made the journey to see her.

“I am very unhappy,” he said. “I'm too restless to sit still and do a spiritual practice and I'm too selfish to practice compassion and service. I reach for what I want but when I get it, I'm not happy, and I', always looking out for the next thing. I don't have a clue where to turn. But I'm told that you deal with hopeless cases so perhaps you can help me. You are my last resort.”

“I’m glad you came,” she said. “I might be able to help but you will have to agree to do the practice I ask you to do.”

“Why don't you tell me?” he said “and I'll decide if it will work for me.”

“Oh no,” she said, “The deal is that you agree to do what I say and then I tell you what you must do. There is no other way.”

He hemmed and hawed and went back and forth and finally surrendered and said, “OK I'll do it, but I won't do it forever.”

So she said, “Try it for a year and let me know.”

“A year!”

She said nothing.

“OK,” he said, “Give it to me.”

“I'll give you the practice I do myself. Whenever anything appears in my mind or appears in the world, I say ‘Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.'”

“That’s all? That’s it? That'll never work for me!”

“You agreed. For a year. Off you go now. Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

So he left and she more or less forgot about him.

Then a year passed and he asked for an interview and arrived in her room.

“It’s as I suspected, I knew it would never work for me, I'm still just as unhappy and selfish as I ever was.”

Immediately she said, “Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

With her words, he felt an eruption in his chest and began to laugh and immediately understood what she meant and laughed and laughed and laughed and his happiness didn’t subside though it did become quieter after some months. 

“Thank you very much,” he told people, “I have no complaints whatsoever.”

Here are some questions you can also ask yourself:

Who am I grateful to?
What was my best day ever?
Am I bitter about something? What’s that like for me, being bitter? 
Am I grateful for something that surprises me? 
Am I not grateful for something I expected to be grateful for?
And what are the practices of gratitude? 

Friday, December 21, 2012

14 When Something Confronts You Don't Believe It— The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Don't Believe It

We live knowing little about where we come from or what our tasks are, we use only a portion of our gifts, we perceive just a fraction of the immensity that every day carries us along. The greater part of our existence is unclaimed and orphaned, seldom visited or visible. We have intimations of this unclaimed life, hints that inside or beneath the tasks that press upon us is a more expansive life, and these hints make a difference to our outlook, we remember them and we hope for them.

A Chinese sage said this about the mind: 

         Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it. 
         When something appears shine your light on it. 
         Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you.

Gateways to the larger life are usually to be found where I don’t look, otherwise I would be walking through them already. I like to imagine these openings as concealed, written in runes visible only by moonlight, but they are often in plain sight guarded merely by No Trespassing signs. The signs don’t say “Avoid this Place’; they say ‘Forget that you noticed this place, these are not the droids you are looking for’. 

Fear is one of the gateways. At one moment there is a conventional landscape, with copy machines, convenience stores and parking garages, and suddenly, fear! Nobody voluntarily drops in for a chat with fear, we are just tossed against it, then it is outside us and inside us. Dread twists like an alien invader in our flesh; we sweat, we shiver, our teeth chatter, we’re scared for our survival, sometimes we are almost willing to die to get it over with. 

And it’s not just the story of fear that remains and is remembered; our cells remember, our noses and fingers and ears remember, we smell the interior of a post office where we once received certain letters and we get a migraine, we hear a particular tone of voice and our skin crawls, we hear a distant explosion and we shake. 

Fears accumulate. Life can press down in a way so physical that we are afraid to walk out the door. I knew a woman whose fear took a form in which she couldn’t leave the house, she couldn’t shop or take her kids to school. She and her husband, who was a Navy NCO, had camouflage sheets; perhaps she felt and shared his fear under fire, some fear he could not speak, perhaps the sheets allowed them to relax in the bedroom. She was an unconscious artist—her symptoms were a comment on her life. 

But having camo sheets is not still not really taking measures; it’s more like building a hut inside enemy territory. That’s not the same as being curious about fear. What if it's possible to enjoy fear and to use it to shine a light into the dark excitement of being alive. If we look into it, fear is a moment in which we are living fully without registering that fact.

Chattering teeth

One night my young border collie ran onto the road and, to encourage better and more self preserving manners, I picked her up by the scruff of the neck, as if she were still a puppy. Her eyes rolled in a surprising way and her teeth chattered and that night I remembered a night when my own teeth chattered.

“I’m cold,” I said to girl beside me, though it was New Year’s Eve and summer in the Southern hemisphere. I was on a pale, sandy track in a car beside a girl I didn’t know. In the front seat was a driver I hardly knew and another girl I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I wasn’t cold. Our way out was blocked by another car, sideways in the lights. The two men in that car got out and one of them wrenched open our driver’s door, dragged the driver out. A fight began. The one person I did know was the driver of the other car, who currently stood in the lights with his arms loosely by his sides. He was a magical physical being, a truly intelligent football player and street fighter who worked unloading railway cars. I climbed out of the chilly interior of the Holden, walked toward him and said, “Hello Peter,” as if we had just run into each other downtown. 

“I thought you were coming to fight me,” he said, meaning that it wasn't his fight but he was still letting that fact sink in. There was perhaps a note of wistfulness. No reply was necessary and we stood beside each other with arms folded and an air of connoisseurship, unearned on my part. The fight was unsatisfying and petered out. I thought I was shivering because I was cold rather than afraid, or excited. Perhaps because of this misunderstanding of mine, the night lost its charged and surprising plot. We all saw through the drama, since we changed course and went on our way, though when I remember that evening I can still feel the chill in my shoulder blades. 

It wasn't until the collie's teeth chattered that I remembered my own shaking. When I saw her reaction, I wasn't sure how to parse it—was she afraid of me, was it neurological? She was the doorway for another event apparently lost; empathy for the dog moved to empathy for my own life and a moment I had thought of as pointless became alive. I hadn't realized that fear was part of that night, a possibility in a swirl that didn't quite take a shape. And the long ago, commonplace night stepped forward and became wonderful merely because I looked at it.

The News

Moments in present time come alive too—maple leaves falling down their invisible, spiral stair, the wild geese crying out on their way to snow country, a call that tugs me to go with them. Then there is the elasticity of time, another source of liveliness, and the friend of all those who concentrate on their tasks. A gap appears between the squeaks of my footsteps on an old linoleum floor, as I walk down a corridor to a meditation hall. When something crucial needs to be decided events might slow down in an Emergency Room. Time softens when I listen; the wind in the trees, set in action long ago when the universe began, has something to say. Not explaining a moment allows it to blossom.

News arrives in the mind accompanied by a cloud of knowing, a whirl of reasons, opinions, assessments, convictions, past instances. Eventually this whirl collapses into something we call by a name—for example, fear. Or whatever we call it—it might be exhilaration. As William James said, if we see a bear, we run and we feel fear, in that order. Before the whirl of thoughts and feelings collapses into a shape, we don’t believe it. Since we don’t believe it, it might turn into anything, it might it go backwards, it might unmake itself. 

Undoing the world

Even when it comes to the emphatically physical dimension of experience—we don’t have to believe that either. A couple of years after the New Year’s Eve when my teeth chattered, I was at University and began to get migraine headaches. I paced up and down in a kind of exile, trying to escape my body. In this condition one sunny afternoon, I walked and walked and came to the wharves in Hobart. Some guys were drinking port wine, sitting on the splintery beams, leaning against a stanchion, swinging their legs over the water. They were Aboriginal, in exile in a different and darker way—from history, from jobs, from the regard of the commercial world. I sat on the beams beside them. They offered me some of the wine, which I didn’t feel up to. They wanted to go home to a fishing port just down the coast. The conversation went around and around. If we had the money, and we had a car, then we could go home where we could get a car and the money we needed to go home, but then we would already be home. It was a pure conversation, having no clear destination and no set time for arrival.

The water shone, slate-like, with rainbow pools of oil, the afternoon clouds moved upriver, a forklift bounced along the dock, everything was exactly the way it is. I think of the Sanskrit word Tathagata meaning the one who comes thus as referring to such moments. Everything is thus, sufficient and itself, everything speaks for itself, the persons and the objects we live among. 

I worked by the day cleaning typewriters and just been paid, and without thinking about it offered the cash for a taxi. This galvanized the afternoon, their joy was unalloyed, and confiding; a destination appeared. They were going up to The Coronation for a drink. That seemed natural too. ‘You want a beer,’ they said, ‘you come on up.’ I thanked them gravely. My headache disappeared. 

Situations changed when I moved toward them. With the headaches, there were auras and blocks of dark stain and rhythms in my head. But there was nothing yet wrong with that. An impartiality towards what was going on inside and outside began to seem possible. 


When things are too big and too near to be shaped or to make sense, a gate swings open, and that is a true moment. Disasters can do that because they limit the choices we have and all we want is to get dry or eat, or for things stop falling. It is enough to be alive then without constantly worrying about it. At such a time, being true is all a moment needs to do. “No eye, no ear, no nose, no mouth, no body and no mind,” says the Heart Sutra.

One evening in the depths of a retreat, in the grip of the idea of not believing in things, I asked people to write down their most frightening moment, perhaps the thing behind the No Trespassing sign. A couple of people jumped right into the experiment; they went into the twilight in the back of the meditation hall, lay down on the carpet, and wailed. Strangely, I had not expected this. I knelt beside one of them and asked how it was going. “I’m alright,” she said in a dignified way, “I’m doing this,” and went on sobbing. I felt the affection I always feel for those who have to go into the dark places. 

There is another thing I particularly remember from that exercise. An engineer who was usually amiable and hearty but preferred puns to emotion, began to tell a story. His voice trembled; in the dim hall tears shone in his eyes. 

"I was stationed in Ascom, South Korea—the NCO in charge of the Tech Supply Department, though I was trained as a radar repairman. January 23 started out with an early call for a company formation. There we were told that the North Koreans had attacked the Navy ship Pueblo and that the situation was tense. We were told to go to work and get ready to move everything south. Ascom is at Bup Yong Dong just a few miles from the DMZ. If any thing happened it would get to us very fast and we knew we had no chance. We had a ringside seat for the war. Missile trailers were lined up on the road heading north, armed with nukes, everyone else saw it by then. We were all shaken. I thought I had an hour to live. I was certain I was going to die and felt very helpless and scared. I still feel that way when I remember."

Missile tractor
There was no need to resolve anything but at that moment everyone in the room had confidence in him, and it seemed that he began to have confidence in himself too.

The dark, charged moments endure in us and they bless us—‘this,’ they announce, ‘is your life. Here it is.’ What you have always longed for has arrived. Even when nothing is done to transform your life, you can see through the moment, it becomes intimate and large like Autumn sky, it has with its own light.
The Space Inside What We Feel

Most of the stories we tell are a hurried sketch of what is happening or of what happened. We feel bad and fetch around for reasons. We are unhappy because—husband, wife, child, boss, ghost, disease, money, shame, grief, people are suffering in another country, it’s going to snow, our bones ache. We check off the reasons for unhappiness in an effort to find the plot of our lives. Having a problem becomes an identity, a narrative line and a reason to live.

As a child I thought that pretending you believed things must be one of the rules of the game. It was obvious that people pretended not to be angry when they were angry and not to be sad when they were sad, and also pretended not to know certain things that were common knowledge. I thought the game was like charades, it was an arbitrary system that everybody was agreed on. 

Some of the stories came to seem heartbreaking. I had a spinster great aunt, Mary, a women of verve, fond of hats and outings to the Melbourne Cup, the famous horse race. She had a secret; she had been left at the altar, pregnant, and her baby was raised by a cousin who pretended to be the mother. Aunt Mary asked my sister to bring what would have been Mary’s grandson home with her to play. My sister, to whom the request was inexplicable, said, “Oh I don’t know him well enough for that.” I suppose the absence of that child turned into all the cups of tea and kindnesses she gave to me, the wood I cut for her, the jam she made from the green gages in her yard, which I picked for her. If I had known I would have wanted to help, might have befriended the kid and brought him around. But there wasn’t a way for us to know, the only hint was that Mary made odd requests from time to time and was very sympathetic to children.

While privately reserving judgment, I pretended, almost out of courtesy, that what people said was something I believed too. At some stage I noticed that in following this course, what I loved had become obscure to me. The ancient question, ‘Who am I?” seems to come from such a process; it happened when I realized that I didn’t know what I believed or who believed it. Discarding the things we thought we loved is a move toward finding what we do love, which is not a matter of belief. 

Not Believing The Expected Thing

Difficult times are freeing because then the things we only thought we cared about are taken from us. They no longer burden us. I noticed this as a child when some older kids from a gang broke my nose. Once I had escaped and the bleeding stopped, I wondered what to do, but there wasn’t much I needed to do. I tried telling myself what a big thing had happened but it hadn’t, really. There was a kind of release, I wasn’t afraid of being beaten any more, the moments parsed themselves, the afternoon unfolded and went on. A similar example happened when someone cut me off, and I spun out a car. I was at the center of time, which stretched as trees and buildings turned around me; I was happy in the ‘oh it’s this’. Then my little car came to rest and I wondered what to do and how much outrage would be suitable. The other car was gone, and even the spinning seemed far in the past. I just drove off. 
When blunt enormity of the world becomes visible so does its dream-like floating transparence. Peace spreads out in every direction. Underneath all the maneuvers the mind makes is the rumbling of the universe at work, which carries on regardless. Sometimes I’ve been willing to have the undesired event last forever since it is life and any moment of life is complete.

To explain what’s happening is often to find a problem with it. For me, meditation became a time when I was spared; I didn’t have to explain what was happening, even to myself, it was not necessary that there be any fault in the world.

Meditation begins with fetching about in the mind. In a dark hour, a door opens, even our impairment is on our side. This is to be relied upon, because in the dark moment we stop reaching for our explanations. We can have confidence in what is going on within us because we can’t drive the process the way we would like to. Fearlessness appears in a world of fear.


1. Do you have places in your thoughts or memory that are off limits? What might some of them be? When you look at them does your story about them change?

2. Do you remember being afraid as a child? Do remember feeling fear in more recent times?

3. Is there a difference between dread and fear for you? Are there other emotions that you don't like to look at?

4. What is it like when you have been afraid of something and then not afraid?

5. What does your light look like? How do you know it?

6. What does it feel like to have confidence in yourself, in your light? What is a time when you have noticed that confidence recently?

Point Reyes Light
Notes. The koan is from Linji

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Searching for what it's all about

Ordinary days are dreamlike, filled with things that weren't planned and also with things that don't happen. I had an unexpected day and flipped open the Blue Cliff Record (which I'm translating) as if it were the I Ching thinking it might be fun to have a random koan for the occasion. Here's the koan by a teacher called Panshan:

In the universe, there is nothing.
Where will we search for the mind?

For me this saying refers to that effort in which we reach into the mind and a thought offers itself but it's clear that the thought is not what we're looking for, it's not the meaning of what's happening, and we keep reaching and there's nothing there. In some way nothing is going on, I'm not my thoughts and they aren't what's going on.

I had some unusual numbers in a test and my Kaiser doc with solemn demeanor sent me to be scanned for cancer on the bone. I could tell the docs thought it was a likely outcome, and while I didn't believe they were right, my mind did play the scenarios all by itself, without instruction from me: If I had say a couple of years to live, how would it change things? Would I actually do anything differently?

Nuclear medicine is in a beige underworld beneath the hospital. The corridors look alike, few people appear and they are silent and busy going somewhere, acolytes. The tech injects radioactive liquid into a vein and you wait a few hours for it to circulate and reach your bones at which point they scan you. In the bed of the scanner they tied my feet together and wrapped my torso, locking my arms in.
It felt like a high tech vampire coffin. 

Nice for meditating. The tech kept telling me I needed to close my eyes as the lid that holds the camera came down. 

The tech had little hooks in her personality and as I lay there a supervisor came in to confront her about needing to be on time, not taking off without saying where she is going and so on. The supervisor was mild and not very pointed for a supervisor. She wasn't really concerned or she wouldn't have done this on the fly. She kept trying to coach the tech to say the right thing so that she, the supervisor, could be beyond this, could have fulfilled her duty and go. The tech kept arguing and offering improbable and hard to follow explanations that might have even been true. I lay in my moderne vampire coffin enjoying them both. 

That was one thing different about the day—I sat in my truck in a parking lot—a non-place I would normally pass through, and it had become an actual place to be, like any other place, complete and satisfying, a temple. Finches flittered through, each person who drove by had a face with tender things written on it, a brush with love and hate, a hope, fatigue, a stance about how to live. Fog was clearing and sunlight splashed on little leaves. I had an impulse to call friends while I waited, but it was enough to feel close to them, without actually calling, it was good just to be here in a parking lot, and it seemed to require an effort to be somewhere else as well. The day just flowed along, without much thought, without much of a mind to hold it all.

In the morning I got an email from Kaiser message center. I had breakfast before I opened it. There was a little avocado at the top of the message, encouraging healthy eating and the news was that the scan was clear. I hadn't noticed that I was feeling heavy until I felt much lighter. The urologist said he was glad of the non evidence. I was too. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Zen of Laryngitis

In Autumn, there is often a melancholy, not necessarily personal, just a deepening attention as the vine leaves crinkle yellowly and Persephone goes down into the silence of the underworld. Things settle. One of my grandmothers was the wild child of an old family and lived in a cold water shack and traveled about to pick fruit. At the same time she wrote a feature for the Hobart Mercury on the beauty of autumn leaves along the Derwent River. She came to rest in Autumn.

I taught a silent retreat in Seattle last weekend, here: The silence of retreat goes towards vastness and self sufficiency—relief from the press of the other's gaze, being up before dawn, the perfection of each thing that rises into the mind—the leaves crimson and gold like antiquated military uniforms, Mt Rainier in the window with its crown of snows and its own vast considered air of being actually a volcano not at all tame thank you, the rain sliding down windows, the faces in the street, the feet of the meditators. We lived down a level, inside the world.

And as I came out of retreat I developed laryngitis. It is a different kind of silence. It’s like being a very innocent child engaging the world in new ways. I call the border collie; no sound comes out and on she hurtles. I am outside the world like Marcel Marceau in the mime school exercise when he is separated from us by a glass box. I start to talk with the guys working on the house and when nothing comes out of my mouth, I point, I knock on things, I draw in the air. At other times I look into people’s eyes and hang my head, I look up to the sky and raise my hands. I draw a tear line from one eye. I shrug and walk away. It’s freeing, there are so many questions on behalf of which I don’t find it necessary to wave my hands. It is a different way of living down a level. I feel well disposed, amiable, absurd, honest, more inclined to make jokes than decisions. It's a helpless feeling but perhaps for that reason, it’s fun. It’s hard to do on the phone though.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Albert Saijo and the long journey

Kevin Diminyatz an artist and long time friend of PZI told me today that Albert Saijo just died in Volcano on the Big Island. Kevin is doing his funeral.

Albert Saijo.gif

Albert was a friend of Jack Kerouac and of Phil Whalen and other beat poets. He was in the internment camp during World War II at Heart Mountain in Wyoming where Nyogen Senzaki had the only zendo in the US at that time. He didn't care much about possessions and claimed to have enjoyed the freedom from adult control that prison camp life conferred. Later like other Nisei, he fought in Italy.

Albert's mother was a haiku poet one of a number west coast poets in the camp though her poems from those hard years were lost. Albert's brother, Gompers, was an artist, some of whose calligraphy paper I still have. Albert wrote in caps but in different colored ink which made his manuscripts intimate, dark, sweet and giddy all at once. It's more or less what you might think if you pay close attention and hang in there happily or otherwise with the sinking ship.

One of Albert's poems:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

13 No—The Zenosaurus Course in Koans

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.

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 material that follows is from a talk at a Pacific Zen Institute Retreat --> in 2005 in Camp Meeker, Northern California)

The Koan

Student, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?"
Teacher, “No.”

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.”

I did actually work for some years with this koan. Since I began without teachers and just had to grab whatever was handy, it wasn’t the first koan I worked with. And it wasn’t the first koan I understood or with which I had an amusing time with a teacher. Yet when this koan opened up for me it was dazzling.

I tried to carry it with me every second of the day and even while asleep, and to merge with it, and I was slow at that. There wasn’t a lot of becoming-one-with-things floating around in my universe. There was a lot of, “Where’s the koan?” It seemed I had to learn to be patient with everything I didn’t know. But my clumsy meditation turned out to be good enough. So you don’t need a perfect technique, you just need a good enough one, a good enough path. Perfection is the enemy of results.

There is a tradition behind this inquiry into the nature of the dog. The question about whether human consciousness can be reconciled with the natural world is usually urgent, and making peace with the natural world, feeling ourselves to be part of that living matrix is one way to understand the purpose of koan work.

In the first place, what I take from the question about the dog, though, is that sometimes, when you begin a quest, you are just groping in the dark. The questioner, along with you and me, doesn’t even know what to ask, or what to explore, or how to get a grip on what’s primarily important, and that such cluelessness is traditional and even necessary. So there’s no such thing as a bad question. If you don’t have a clue, you might be starting in a good place. Not asking, when you’re puzzled, is probably not smart. And I’ve found that it’s good not to be snobbish about other people’s questions because my questions are just as silly as everyone else’s. Other people’s naivety might seem apparent to me but that’s nothing to do with me. My own innocence and naivety is opaque to me, and my questions move into that unknown territory. So asking a dopey question might be helpful.

And it’s good to know that any question contains the whole of our inquiry into the nature of mind and the universe. Any question you ask will be good enough as a place to begin. You begin where you can. In the Zen tradition you have to inquire for the sake of the exploration itself. A spiritual quest is always an inquiry and there’s a temptation to go into any discovery process with various agendas—alleviating our suffering, impressing others, or improving our opinion of ourselves. But such motives don’t work as a guide. Koan inquiry carries a true risk; you have to just want to find out what’s really happening. You have to really ask your question, to do the exploration into reality for its own sake.

Zhaozhou’s koan takes away what you think. He doesn’t value your opinions and you might find that you don’t either, which is good because they are a weight to carry around. There are two versions of this koan and the question, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” occurs in both. In one case the response is “Yes” and in the other “No.” “No” is more famous because it goes against what the sutras say, and if you are inclined to believe sutras, that makes it more interesting. But if you were to work with “Yes” it would be just as effective. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”  “Yes!”  “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”  “No!” You can tell that Zhaozhou doesn’t care about your views because he is not interested in his own.

Michael Katz related to me a conversation with Gregory Bateson, the thinker and anthropologist. Michael was driving him to a conference at Lindisfarne on Long Island and Bateson said he dreaded something about conferences.
“What is that?” asked Michael.
“Well, people don’t have a sense of humor.” 
“What do you mean? What does that mean to you?”
Bateson thought about it and said, “A sense of humor depends on knowing that what you think doesn’t really matter, or even that you don’t really matter.”
So life is not about how much you matter, and if you don’t start thinking that you matter, perhaps you matter more.

If you can go into the inquiry without prejudice, without prejudging the outcome, you’ll be likely to find that every difficulty you have is about your prejudices. The fundamental prejudice is some form of, “This shouldn’t be happening.” This rejection of circumstances can be anything from, “He shouldn’t have left me,” to, “Nobody loves me,” to, “I’m doomed. Even meditation doesn’t work for me.” And what rises might be a trivial thought or it might be a tremendous and traumatic thought—”Why did she have to die?”—but the solution is the same. You can bear it. Or rather you don’t need to bear it; that’s the koan’s job. Bearing things is usually to do with finding an explanation or a meaning, and life is truly beyond that. So there’s no need to bear things, and there’s no need to have a handle on them.

Eventually we just start to accept. Not only do we not dislike our circumstances, we do not dislike our own states of mind, which is the key thing. We begin to think, “Fortunately I don’t get it yet.” And if we forgive life for not being what we told it to be, or expected, or wished, or longed for it to be, we forgive ourselves for not being what we might have been also. And then we can be what we are, which is boundless.

We start off into the spiritual work hoping to change, hoping to become different, and we notice that there is a trick of the mind going on, and that actually we don’t want to let go of who we think we are. Buddha found that he was prepared to starve himself and do all sorts of strange, ascetic practices, as long as he didn’t fundamentally change. So there’s an ambivalence in the human quest which means that we have to muster more than reason on our side if it’s all going to work. That is why the koan doesn’t make sense. If it made sense our reasonableness and ambivalence would be able to block it. The koan embraces the whole of your experience, not just the noble bits.

My own experience was that sometimes I worked with this koan very hard, in a way that took me further away from it. The effort assumed, “What I have is not what I want. When I understand, when I awaken, that will be what I want.” And so anything that came into my life was automatically rejected, and any little piece of awakening that came along got rejected too, because it was in my life and therefore couldn’t be what I was seeking.

I knew that some weird game was going on in the mind, a game that seemed close to the core of the problem of the nature of the mind. Then I noticed that the impatience and critique was diminishing and there was a tiny bit of kindness for my own condition, a blessing on the moment. I had a lot of physical pain, so I would get distracted. I would sit up all night and the predominant thought would be, “I hope I can last till the end of this period.”  And I had to accept that about myself. It’s unique for everyone—what we have to embrace is the very thing we don’t want to embrace. Our incompetence, our distractibility, our greed, our fear—that makes us fall apart at little things—our detachment that makes us indifferent to big things. 

At a certain stage I stopped whipping the dog. Whipping the dog doesn’t make it not a dog. First it’s good to accept that it’s a dog. And in my case I noticed that no matter how perfectly I did everything according to Wumen’s famous recipe about becoming one with the koan “No”, I wasn’t one with the koan. I was hanging onto its tail, or being driven by it, or trying too hard. Sometimes I would fall into a deep meditation state and disappear and then I couldn’t find the koan because there was no one there to find the koan. By that stage it was becoming interesting.

I just started being there, keeping company with the koan in all weathers, and things changed then for me. I stopped trying for those recommended states of being. It became clear that even with the mind I had, I was free. I’d done everything in the prescribed way and still my mind was often chaotic and busy. The freedom was that I found this immensely funny instead of a problem to be solved. The thoughts were things like, “I have the wrong mind for meditation, Australians can not get enlightened.” What was hilarious was watching the way the mind produced nonsense and then believed itself. Then everything started unfolding, awkward and inevitable, like a crane preparing to take off, and my mind did clear. And the koan became clear too, and the laughter became involuntary and lasted silently for months and months, but it wasn’t something I did. I didn’t manipulate reality. I just paid attention to reality instead of trying to change it, or having reservations about it. And I think that’s where the kindness of the koan is.

Zhaozhou’s koan is gesturing toward embracing your current state—that’s why the dog is important because, in many cultures Rover is not greatly appreciated. Rover may even be served for breakfast, and so to be a dog is not a high state of existence. And when we’re unacceptable to ourselves, we regard ourselves as despised creatures. And that’s how it is until we stop building the prison and the inner conflict ends. I think that this No koan, is very deeply about the ways we reject experience as not being correct or appropriate. And if you are making a fundamental judgment that this moment isn’t right, and if you go into the heart of that refusal, it becomes a gate. Go towards the frightening thing, and you find that it holds a blessing. Then, “No” then becomes “No” to your critique, “No” to your “I can’t do this.” It’s a recognition that thoughts are just thoughts and the koan rises to explode them. “I’ll never get there, I’m in the wrong company, I’m unhappy,” all just thoughts. This is a way in which the koan starts to serve the inquiry at a cognitive level. This has a certain deconstructive power.

At the deepest level the koan takes away not only your judgments and your criticisms, but the point of reference that they depend on, the point of reference that makes a problem a problem. And it’s never anybody else who’s causing the problem, and also, not only is it not anybody else, it’s not even you. Even you are not a problem. It becomes clear that the problem of existence is an apparent problem, that existence is existence, full of richness, shimmer and intimacy. Everything is beautiful when seen in that dimension.

I’ll take a question. 

Woman in audience: I don’t have a question.

John Tarrant: You have a comment?

Woman in audience: Yes.

John Tarrant: Go ahead.

Woman in audience:  Lately I’ve been not quite knowing what to do, so in the morning I just throw myself at my life. I throw myself at these tasks that I think I should do but while I’m doing them I think I should be doing something else. I have a lot of anxiety, and today I walked by a dog. I usually just walk by him because he’s terrifying. He’s lunging against his chain and barking his head off.  So today I stopped and I looked at him and I stepped forward and he just went, “Oh, you’re coming over!” so I went over to him to pet him, and he was like so excited, and he’s a big dog and I’d go to pet him and he’d go, “Rhhaaahh!” He wanted me to pet him and I felt so bad that he kept clawing me so that I couldn’t even get to his head, really, to pat him. Then he’d get frustrated and he’d go “Rrrhhhaaahhh!”  and he’d bark at me and I’d go, “Well…” and I’d try it again, and he’d bark at me, and I couldn’t do it. And then I realized he was getting really frustrated. I backed off and I looked at him and he looked at me.  And I just walked away and I looked back at him and waved, and he was alright and he just turned around. Ya know. Big disappointment. Okay, where was I going with this?  It felt—that dog was me. That dog was me throwing myself at my life, wanting to do the right thing, but doing it so hard it was never right. So neither of us had Buddha nature.

John Tarrant: The ending you arrived at is part of it too. The blessing is there, even when it’s not the outcome you intended—you know if you’re sad about something and you just accept it, you don’t have to not be sad, as evidence that you’re accepting it. You can accept that you’re sad and then it can be lovely. If your meditation sucks, you accept that you have miserable meditation. It’s all right, and so the kindness comes in somewhere on the chain of harshness, and everything moves. There’s nothing wrong with being a dog and barking and being frustrated. And what’s wrong with throwing yourself at your life? So it’s like that.

At the same time, the experience we have when all that just stops, is a wonderful thing. When you open up and—how can I say it—things are friendly.  Part of freedom is about not thinking, “It’s not here.” When you stop thinking, “It’s not here,” you start noticing all the ways it’s here. And the more you notice how much it’s here, the more what the old teachers speak about as accumulated karma—the stacked up disappointments of your life—starts falling from you. If you only ever do things for strategic reasons, in order to manipulate people, that might fall off you. In this case you might want the dog to change or receive your kindness, yet the dog’s world is already complete. If you’re stingy, that might fall off you. If you try to buy other people’s favors and love, that might fall off you. So in other words, you’re not treating your self like an object, so you will start noticing those times when you’re not creating the walls of a prison. Life is not as hard, and more and more space surrounds that discovery. 

Okay thank you very much. And what’s the answer? Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”

Audience:  Woof!

John Tarrant: Thank you. How hard was that? 

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?