John Tarrant on Summer Dreams, Koans & Mysterious Meetings

My friend Steven Mitchell is always writing something, and I’m the person who tells him whether what he’s saying about Zen is kosher. I think it’s just his way of having a relationship actually.

But he said, “Well, my thing about koans is it’s a device that puts you into a state of not-knowing. How’s that?” I replied, “The not-knowing does seem fundamental.” I think of koans as more of a situation now—less of a gadget and more of a situation than I used to.

Everything we meet becomes part of the Way in the dream of the world.

Audio: Danxia’s Dream of Light with John Tarrant

Dreams help us to find our way
– Danxia on pilgrimage dreamed of a great light.

And a diviner asked him a question that changed his life. His practice became a path.

Audio: Mysterious Tasks & Impossible Problems
with John Tarrant

Psyche’s mother set her a task, to sort the sesame seeds by morning.
Think of your own problem, then go to the bottom of the sea.

Broad Distance Pavilion: Shih Tao 1642–1707

Are your mistakes mistakes? They got you here.

You’ll never be more holy and sacred than this.

We will be very individual in our choices.

There is a solitary aspect of the journey, and also an aspect of relationship; of meeting.
In the dokusan room, the ancestors are present. There is no need to impress your teacher.

Three Koan-Stories About Meetings


True World

Judi’s Encounter
with True World

As a young monk in 9th century China, Judi stayed in a mountain hut, practicing alone. One late afternoon a nun named True World walked in as Judi sat in meditation. She walked around him three times and then said, “If you can say a turning word, I’ll take off my hat,” meaning that she’d stay. Judi couldn’t say anything, so she did the same thing two more times. When he still couldn’t speak, she turned and walked out.

Judi went to the door, calling after her, “It’ll be dark soon. Why don’t you spend the night?”

True World turned around and said, “If you can say a turning word, I’ll stay.” When Judi had nothing to say, she disappeared into the night.

Judi was bereft. He thought, “I have a man’s body but not a heroic spirit. I need a teacher.” He packed up to leave and find a teacher but fell asleep over his luggage..

In the middle of the night the god of the mountain appeared to him and said, “You don’t have to leave—a flesh-and-blood bodhisattva will arrive soon to help you.” So Judi unpacked and waited. After a couple of days, the Chan teacher Tianlong appeared. When Judi told him the story of True World, Tianlong just held up one finger, and Judi awakened.

Audio: Direct Encounter with the Big Questions of the Blue Cliff Record with Tess Beasley

Transcript: Secret Fidelity & One Finger Zen – Even in the Bardos with John Tarrant



and Emperor Wu

Emperor Wu asked the great teacher Bodhidharma, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?”
Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”
“Who are you, standing here in front of me?” asked the emperor.
“I don’t know,” said Bodhidharma.
The Emperor didn’t understand.

Bodhidharma then left and went off to Shaolin to meditate facing a wall for nine years. The Emperor asked his advisor, “Who was that man?” 
“He was the living seal of the Buddha.”
“Then bring him back!” 
“He would never return.”

—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 1,
& Book of Serenity, Case 2

Emperor Wu meets Bodhidharma

Audio: Bodhidharma’s Response to Emperor Wu with David Weinstein

Transcript: No Rank! The Wild Path of Awakening with John Tarrant


The Great heart Sutra

Tortoise Mountain
Wakes Up

Yantou and Xuefeng were snowed in on Tortoise Mountain. Day after day, Yantou slept while Xuefeng sat up and meditated.

On the third day, Yantou sat up too and said, “Get some sleep. What do you think you are—a roadside shrine?”

Xuefeng touched his chest and said, “My heart isn’t at peace. I can’t fool myself.”

Yantou gave a great yell. “HAAA! Don’t you know that the family treasure doesn’t come in through the gate?” he said.

“Let the teaching flow out from your own breast to cover the sky and the earth.”

Xuefeng was suddenly enlightened and cried out, “Today Tortoise Mountain has finally awakened!”

Audio: Tortoise Mountain Wakes Up! This Very Matter Is It with John Tarrant

Xuefeng Yicun