At a certain point in meditation engineering doesn’t work, because life is an art, not an assembly line. At some point we let go and leap into the open field. There are many poetic koans to work with, and the imagination comes in as an actual Way.  —John Tarrant


Ways We Support the Creative Process

PZI has long held that the arts enhance our meditations and encourage our conversations and awakenings.

Music: We have musicians in the zendo and in our online temple gatherings. They play original solo musical responses on many different instruments, into weekly PZI-wide temple meditations and the daily sutra services during our sesshins.

Magazine: We publish Uncertainty Club: The Online Magazine of Zen & the Artswhich includes every format the web world will allow: video clips, original songs, and multiple visual forms of expression—painting, drawing, sculpture, essay, poems, haiku and more.

Newsletter: Our Dragon of Requirement  is PZI’s Quarterly Membership Newsletter—a curated compilation of dharma talk excerpts, artworks, musings, and stories, as well as a personal message from John Tarrant and news about upcoming community events.

Art Cards: We’ve developed a tradition of mailable Art Cards which include koans, calligraphy, and original art and design. These double as sesshin announcements for our seasonal long retreats.

Forums: PZI’s Chan-leaning Zen encourages lively conversation and our PZI Talk Live! sessions online allow community conversations to blossom and deepen. The PZI Talk Google Group is a forum for members that allows us to stay in touch with each other to share personal insights and practice related experiences, koans, poetry, imagery, and original art and music.

Sangha: Our far flung PZI sangha includes musicians, artists, dancers, sculptors, writes, illustrators, animators, poets, calligraphers and those of many other creative traditions, from all over the world.

Meditating with Music

Zen practitioners of Fuke

Music in the zendo, a Chan tradition we embrace at PZI, dates back to a flute-playing Zen ancestor, Yoritake Ryoen.

Shinchi Kakushin (1235CE)
was the zen teacher of the samurai, Yoritake Ryoen. Yoritake was said to have attained enlightenment after hearing the sound of a flute following a battle. Under Kakushin’s direction he was able to use the music of the flute to bring others to awakening. The sect they founded in this way was known as Fuke.

The practitioners of Fuke, komuso, were often lay people or ronin, wandering samurai, looking to start a new life with the anonymity the attire provided. The sect made use of a distinctive headgear that included a basket-like covering of the face. Wearing one symbolized a dismissal of ego or self, though the masks also hid the identity of the wearer. 

Through the guidance of men like Kakushin and Bukko Kokushi, Zen became the religion of the samurai. And music and zen have never parted in Chan practice.

Cantor & Violinist Amaryllis Fletcher

James Anthony, Amaryllis Fletcher & Chris Gaffney singing

Special Mention: Richie Domingue
PZI Cantor Extraordinaire, Composer & Musician

Richie Domingue

At PZI we have always been fortunate to have a group of talented musicians whose musical response melds with koans during our meditation sessions and retreats in the PZI Digital Temple. Richie Domingue was a talented and wild and woolly Cajun musician, who melded his rockin’ bluesy composing style with PZI’s Sutra Service beginning in 2003 until his untimely death in 2007.

Sutras will never be the same.  His musical contribution transformed the way PZI Sutra Services were performed. He set the complete PZI liturgy to music, to be sung by the community—all original compositions with distinctive rhythms. Below are some of Richie’s offerings recorded during those years.
Thank you, Richie!

Audio: Written and performed by Richie Domingue:

All Buddhas, All Beings, One Body: Original version of the 4 Boundless Vows
Closing Ceremony: Dedication & Thanks to the Ancestors
Kanzeon: Chanted during a PZI Sesshin

Right when people were expecting the evening chanting with its drums and bells—stern and very high Zen—Rich arrived in his Mardi Gras costume with jangling things sewn into his jeans and with great purity and force sang a Cajun song. Everybody’s hair stood on end.

I thought, ‘This is wisdom and love hitting perfectly.’

It was like those old Zen stories in which hearing the sound of a cuckoo brought somebody to awakening. The next day, again, there was silence, everybody sitting still in rows. Suddenly we had a different appreciation of the aesthetic of silence, itself a wild poem. 

—John Tarrant

PZI Musicians

Guitar & Vocals

Audio: Jordan McConnell – Miriam’s Waltz, a Celtic Traditional

Jordan McConnell not only sings, plays music as a response to our meditations, and composes songs—he also crafts custom guitars in his Winnepeg, Ontario workshop.

Flute during Sesshin

Audio: Michael Wilding – Music for Meditation

Michael Wilding plays flute (& saxophone) improvising responses to koans during meditation in our 2021 Summer Sesshin.

Guitar & Vocals

Audio: Ryan McCoy Sings Oh What a Beautiful City

Ryan McCoy plays guitar and sings for the Blue Grass Zen meetings in Kentucky and during PZI sesshins.

Visual Art & Koan Zen

Artists are the shamans of a culture, who move out ahead to grasp the real and reflect it back through their work. Zen koan practice naturally draws creatives of all stripes, and its practicum of embodied life offers the possibility of wide open expression and inspiration for artists and seekers. Koan inquiry and practice tap into the infinite well of essential nature, the source of all creative action. Having “everything” in the mix, even the dark and gnarly bits of life, is just the kind of fertile ground necessary to encourage artistic risk-taking.

Angie Hiesl

Bodhidharma’s fierce reply to Emperor Wu reside in all of us who ask: “What merit have I earned?” He had the courage to respond, “No merit whatsoever. Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” These truths are touchstones for visual pilgrims facing an empty canvas, screen or wall. Artists court the new wherever it may be found: in a color blooming on a wall, a dreamed map, a child’s laughter.

Insights gained in Zen practice revive and influence artistic expression. Chan’s intimate relationship to essential nature and cosmic connectivity are glimpsed in a landscape, a meditation, or a dreamscape, and open gate after gate into new understanding. What comes is beauty. We find we already have it!  

Transcript: Hosting the Life You Have

Rilke said, “Life is always right.” Whatever I think about that saying, this is the life I have, and I can’t have another life. And really, fundamentally I don’t want another one, because this one is so rich and compelling, no matter what’s going down right now.

Video: Allison Atwill on Creative Process: Painting Baizhang’s Fox

Allison Atwill, “Baizhang’s Fox,” 2011

Art Sensei (now Roshi) Allison Atwill presents on the creation of her painting “Baizhang’s Fox.” This is an ancient koan which asks the listener, “Does an enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?” Allison describes how a koan chooses her and appears in her dreams and waking life. Each aspect of the koan comes to life on the canvas. Recorded June 22, 2011.

Creative Expression & Transformative Process

William Blake – Hades

Audio: Paths in the Underworld: Music, Koans & Stories of Our Time

John Tarrant  at the Garrison Institute in New York. Recorded on April 20, 2020, at the start of the pandemic.

Audio 1: Where Do Songs Come From?

Musicians Jordan McConnell and Jesse Cardin join Jon Joseph Roshi to share elements of music practice and their creative relatedness to koan work. Recorded on April 10, 2021.

Audio 2: Where Do Songs Come From?

Where do songs come from? “Maybe nowhere! They are just here, waiting for us to get out of the way and let them in.” Jordan McConnell and Michael Wilding converse musically, play riffs in response to each others’ inspirations—and then share their histories, how they found meditation and music, and how one practice influences the other. Hosted by Jon Joseph Roshi on November 29, 2021.

Video: The Story of Painting “The Well”

Allison Atwill, “The Well,” 2012

“I want to describe the process that I went through, over the last year of making the painting, and I want to do that in the spirit of ‘when something arises, don’t believe it, and shine your light on it.’ In a year a lot of things can arise to not believe, and they did. But even if you’re in the meditation hall, five minutes is probably long enough for plenty to arrive to not believe in.”
—Allison Atwill

Inuit Shaman Sculpture

John Tarrant on Creativity

John Tarrant sits down with Jane Kolleeny of the Garrison Institute to discuss the approach to creativity, koans, and meditation that he and the PZI community have developed over the last 30 years.

Watch the 4-minute video of their conversation here.

A PZI Tradition of Art Cards: Koans & Original Art for Sesshins

PZI 2021 Fall Sesshin Art Card: Collage by Corey Hitchcock. How Is My Hand Like the Buddha’s Hand?


PZI Art Card #6: Maralung, An Australian Koan
PZI Art Card #12: Each Branch of Coral Holds Up the Moon

PZI Art Card # 10: Baizhang’s Fox, Painting by Allison Atwill. Baizhang’s Fox Koan

PZI Art Card #7: After You Have Died…

PZI Art Card #11: If You Have Nothing, You Can Give it Away

Most Art Cards are still available

Four Talks on Hakuin Ekaku’s Creative Wellspring

A curation of four dharma talks on a single page, for easy finding and listening, from Hakuin’s Praise Song for Meditation 4-Part Special Sunday Series with PZI Teachers Allison, Tess, Michelle, & Jesse. As recorded in the PZI Digital Temple on January 9, 16, 23, & 30, 2022.

A Talk on Koans & Creative Process: David Weinstein in Conversation with Michael Hofmann & Jordan McConnell

Art and creativity are mysterious. Those viewing and appreciating art also participate in creative process. Works of art invite us to find ourselves in them. David Weinstein asks, “What is a work of art? Who is an artist? And how does creative process relate to koan practice?”

Creative Process at Open Mind Retreats

Commonweal’s Bolinas Center – Open Mind retreat turf

Painting by PZI Member & Artist Dennis Peak

John Tarrant has developed a unique kind of Zen retreat with a focus on meditation, koans, and the creative process. These are the Open Mind retreats, and they usually happen twice a year.

At Open Mind retreats we work with koans, poems, and stories to touch a deep, rich place inside of us that opens up into fresh awareness. We have time for long walks, conversation, and dreams.

Most meditation sessions include live music from one or more of the members our great sangha “band,” which includes Cantor Amaryllis Fletcher, and musicians  Jordan McConnell, Michael Wilding, and Ryan McCoy. Even at a more traditional long retreat, or sesshin, there is space for art, literally space to make art, as well as the inner space to take creative risks, to try something new.

Something Happens When We’re in the Bath Together

The power of a cauldron

A koan can be one of those “in the old days, once upon a time” stories. There are a couple of interesting things about this type of story. The first thing is about the idea of just getting in the bath, that maybe one of the metaphors for spiritual tradition is you get in a bath, and not only that, you do it together. We do it with each other. You could say we do it with the crows who call, we do it with the frogs, with the trees, with the birds.

And then something happens in the bath. What happens in the bath is really most of what happens on the spiritual journey. In some way we’re heated up, we’re transformed together. There’s an old Irish fairy tale about a cauldron and if you put dead people in it, that would be your return to life. That would be the notion about the power of a cauldron, the power of being cooked together in some way.