Working with Koans

a talk by John Tarrant

A koan is a piece of old wisdom in a very concise form. I think of it as a vial of ancient light that has been passed down to us. It’s the same light that was in the heart of the teacher who invented the koan. So, if you can get the vial open, what will pour out is your inheritance. It won’t be the usual kind of inheritance with bank accounts, real estate, debts and family feuds. This inheritance will be a perspective—the way an old master saw and experienced the world. Once you’ve learned how to open that vial you might find it handy to have with you on your travels.

Recently I’ve been wandering around with the koan, “The coin lost in the river is found in the river,” so let’s take that as an example. Here’s one way it can work. You’re walking along with this, the coin lost in the river, the coin found in the river is lost in the river, which way around was it? And it’ll take different forms and “coin” will come to you and you’ll think, I’ve got it, that’s it! I’ll just stay with the coin, seems to be right. Then “found” will come up again. You just have to let it be alive and organic; it has its own life. It reduces itself to portable portions. You are not seeking an answer, you are noticing what happens to you under the instruction of the koan. You might notice under what circumstances the koan opens your heart. You might start to feel your way into what it is that you truly love, and must do.

Another way to think of working with a koan is that it’s like going on a date. You have to pay attention, bring flowers, and not offensively ignore your companion. Don’t think you’re not on a date just because the movie hasn’t started yet. In this way, you might find that those coins are in many places. This will affect what you do, because if everywhere you look there is gold, you don’t have to pick up every coin you see. You don’t have to hold onto every passing moment since plenty more are coming. And you too are golden. So you might not reach out for things as much as you once did.

Also if you’re always looking for someone to bless and adore you, you’ll probably be less hungry for that too, because you have the blessing already, it’s here. You can see the ways in which another person and you are emanations of the same field; you’re joined underneath, as the hand joins the fingers. You’ll also see that you don’t have to be better than everyone else, or worse than everyone else, that it’s a bit silly when the fingers start fighting each other. You can do it if it amuses you, but you wouldn’t want to believe in that stuff.

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You find a way to be with your koan, and that is to become your koan. Strangely enough you do this by noticing your life, by noticing how it’s already evoked by the koan. At first it may be unclear to you exactly how this happens and what you must do to help out. This lack of clarity is probably good. When I first started, I worked alone, without a teacher, on the koan “No” for a long time. I didn’t have anybody to tell me whether I was doing well or not. I thought at the time that this was a disadvantage but later on I wondered if actually it might have been an advantage. I really got to know that koan upside down and backwards beyond any narrow idea of answers. And everything I learned was mine.

So I think if you turn towards the path, and you turn towards the koan, you don’t have to fuss about it all the time. When I was a kid, the first spring I planted peas, I dug them up to see if they were growing. You don’t have to do this. If you put yourself in the way of the koan, you can trust that that will be enough. Your way of interacting with it will be unique to you. If you talk to other people about how they do it, you’ll find that everyone has her own technique. Some of these ways might seem familiar or interesting to you, and some would never occur to you in a million years. That’s as it should be, because a genuine life is handmade. This is obvious, yet we can forget and think, I can’t be doing it right, I’m not doing it like her. She probably had a better prom dress than you, too. But it’s good to have it be your own way, and wear your own dress, since there’s really no other choice. What we have is what we have. And it’s good to trust the universe to help out. The universe did an unlikely thing by giving you a koan in the first place, so you can take instruction from that, and accept the gift.

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A koan develops a kind of master skill. Its light shines onto the mind itself. You will be able to see how your perspectives govern your world and how stepping out of them opens into a panorama without end.

The koan isn’t meant to make sense according to the way you usually make sense of things. The way you usually make sense of things is that you begin to think you need something. Next you have to start struggling and searching around for it. You either do or don’t get what you want. Then that transaction is over and you have a new need. This stance places you somewhere on the continuum between mild and devastating unhappiness. The koan doesn’t pretend it’s going to make sense in that way. It doesn’t try to improve your place on an unhappiness continuum. This has immediate consequences. The ambient paranoia common to all species diminishes. You might experience the world as softer, and less toxic—its rhythm less like a war and more like a dance. You can steer by the softness and sweetness of life, through what’s good and unafraid.

So what might seem to be the koan’s very worst feature, the what the hell does this mean? factor, is actually its strength. Because you can’t approach it in your usual way, you can’t turn it into a commodity, and so you can’t turn yourself into a commodity. The koan is too respectful of what it is to be human to allow you to do that.

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The main problem everyone has on a spiritual path is that it isn’t different from your life. Whatever in your life you fled, you will meet again in any inner work. This is a feature, not a bug. With the koan, you have methods and tools to help you through and a love for the journey that you might not have had the first time around.

So in life you get stuck to your thoughts. This is the nature of obsession. You might start thinking things like I’m not very good at this, or, this method sucks, I need a different method, a different religion, a different job, a different spouse, a different left foot. That’s okay, those are just thoughts, and the koan will show you in living color exactly how you get stuck to your thoughts, and how you believe them. Normally you treat your thoughts as if they were as solid as Stonehenge and twice as heavy. You’re hearing a voice in your head, not a very bright or interesting or helpful voice, and you keep on taking orders from it and doing what it tells you, usually the same old stuff, year after year. Meanwhile you miss the fact that there’s a semi-trailer bearing down on you. Or your true love is walking out the door.

So the same thing will happen with the koan. Everything that happens in life happens with the koan. You‘ll get stuck to your thoughts and you’ll try to manipulate the koan to give you something you think you need, such as peace of mind. The koan won’t help with that project, since by definition it’s leading you out of need. The koan might show you your thoughts about need and the belief you carry with you that life isn’t ever quite good enough. Then you are in a cold place, up to your knees in sleet and mud. You can read the sign that says, “Cold Place of Sleet and Mud” and you may be tempted to huddle there because it’s what you know, but you can also go around to the other side of the sign and notice that it says, “Warmth and Shelter Here.” When you’re in the field of the koan and it shows you how much you suffer from your needs, this can be a sign that there’s a turning, an opening that’s beginning to happen. The noticing itself is an opening. Your way of seeing the world has started to come apart, to stress, crack and fracture, and that might be good.

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Perhaps the greatest gift of the koan is that it will also show you what it’s like without your big delusions, without your perspectives on the world, and without your need. I notice that when I’m without my need, I don’t have this fellow John with me either, and that’s nice. I’m walking around without my credentials. I don’t have a bank account with me. I don’t have how much you love me with me. And I don’t need any of it. The koan shows what it’s like to live without the autobiographical fiction, and without a plan to fulfill your needs. The world happens anyway, without your apparatus, without all your stories about who you are and what you’re trying to get from this life. Things can flow for you if you’re not trying to make them flow.

We do a lot of strategic and manipulative behaviors that we think are necessary to get by, such as doing something we don’t like so we can get something we do like. An example would be going to a party where you don’t like any of the people, because you’re lonely. The hypothesis here is, If people I don’t like, like me, that will make me less lonely. Or if I pretend I like these people, then they’ll like me and give me a job I don’t like, too, and it begins to get very complicated. So the koan lets you drop that kind of motive and stop pretending to like things that you don’t like, and then you’ll find out how it is to trust the universe. You can just move toward what makes you happy and see how it turns out. So you have to tolerate learning by experience what does and doesn’t work for you, but you won’t have to spend your life upholding fictionalized versions of yourself.

You’ll also find that you don’t need a good reason to follow a spiritual path, or to do anything, really. You can live outside the domain of reasons and personal gain and self-improvement projects. You don’t need the koan to help you get richer, or better, or to absolve you of your sins. And you don’t have to police your own thoughts or try to make other people think the way you do, because you don’t believe either their thoughts or your thoughts. You’ll discover that love is present in this moment already.

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When you talk to your mother, your kid, your wife, your husband, your lover or your enemy, the koan can take away your idea of who they’re supposed to be and of who you’re supposed to be when you’re with them. You’ll find that you’ve never even seen them before because you’ve always filtered them through your beliefs. Now it feels like you’re not sure who they are. Then you might see how the apparatus of your beliefs can make things small and dead, the There you go again nagging me about the kitchen counters, why can’t you just… kind of thoughts. And without that apparatus the moment gets very broad. It’s that simple. The koan just takes away the walls you built.

“Quickly, without thinking good or evil, before your parents were born, what is your original face?” That’s a koan that breaks down the stages for you. It says, try right now, quickly, without thinking good or evil, without bringing your prejudices in, before good and evil happened, before even your parents were born. You probably don’t have much of an idea of yourself before your parents were born. Who are you then? What are you then? What is it like to be you? When you try this imaginative adventure, you’ll find what it’s like to live without your idea about how you should live, because even a good idea about how you should live makes you shrivel. If you throw away the good ideas as well as the toxic ideas, then you’ll find that you live pretty well, and kindness pours over you.

And then you’ll just notice for no apparent reason you are making yourself small again. You just believed a thought and it got stuck to another thought that seemed innocuous enough, and, Well I can get away with believing this one, and this other one I’ve always been a bit fond of, you know, and this one’s been in the family a long time, I think my granddad told it to me. Then suddenly you’re in pain. The light is still available to you, it’s just that you’ve built something that makes it hard for you to see. You start out with a raincoat and end up with a prison.

There are a lot of koans and you’ll find that every time you build the prison, the koan will come at it from another angle. Each time you’ll think Wow, look, no prison, this is really cool!. And then the prison will be there again, and you think, damn! But the koan will bring you the love and compassion to bear that, too. It will be there even when you just were stupid, the way when your kid is stupid, you still love her. It’s not stupidity, it’s just cluelessness, innocence.

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So if you start seeing the light, the light is everywhere, and just because someone’s yelling at you doesn’t mean they don’t have it. Even if you’re yelling at yourself, the light is still streaming out of that vial. That’s why in the inward work, if we’re not being harsh internally, if we can see the light here, in our own lives, it’s easy to be generous and forgiving with other people. The most shocking and wonderful discovery of koans for me was that when I experience life without the fictions about who is an enemy and how to keep myself safe, then my feeling for people opens up. This is not an effort, it’s just something that appears. And in its turn this insight is funny—the things I thought were absolutely, utterly true are actually false. And then I realize, God, I’m a complete idiot, and that’s good too—How lucky, I’m a complete idiot!.

The way the koans keep taking things away is not in the service of austerity, it’s in the service of beauty and the real. If all those thoughts are crowding on you, and all those judgments and opinions are crowding on you, it’s hard to see the light. So letting the thoughts go might be a better thing.

My last point is that when you throw overboard everything you are sure of, you’ll know how to do your journey. What to do, when to eat, how to raise the children. You’ll still be able to plan and pay your rent and sell short in a down market, but you will also not spend all your time planning. Living will happen too. You’ll notice then that life has been walking towards you, to greet you, without any manipulation or struggle on your part, and that will make all the difference.

 

A talk given during a retreat in July 2004