John Tarrant’s 2015 Letter

This world is on fire! – THE BUDDHA
What is this? – ZEN KOAN
Find something that’s not meditation! – JOHN TARRANT

Hello friends,

This letter is about why I care about Pacific Zen, what we do, and why it’s special. I ask myself about these things often, and once a year I report to you, as someone who has been touched by what we do. I’m asking you for money because your support helps a great deal and because I have found that when I give, I’m happier. So I hope that joining us will give you joy too.

How We Became Innovators in Zen.

We’re an unusual modern Zen organization. We found that enlightenment is something we do together. We opened the information flow in Zen and started sharing experiences. This changed everything. We innovate, we’re a living system, we put out leaves and flowers.

Ancestral Zen was based on koans which were a hybrid of art, poetry, conversation, gestures, and stories that change you. They were used as meditation in action—to guide your life or to run a country. They came to the west as puzzles, but we’ve discovered that they are more like portals into a new way of being. We’ve worked to make access the land of koans available to anyone. 

True Life Stories from the Land of Koans.

A koan turns our thoughts backwards and truly surprising things become possible. Infinite joy can fit into a moment: a man finds that his ancient wounds and grudges disappear by themselves; a woman being robbed at gunpoint discovers a beautiful spaciousness and kindness in herself. Meditation in action is an alternative to the verdict that, both inside and out, life is endless war. Wherever you go, your koan meditation is there, it follows you around like a helpful animal. You find that you might have been doing it right all along.


Support Us

(yes please thank you!)


What We Are Now.

We have had to keep changing and growing in order to make koans native in the modern world. This is who we are today:

A place where you can come to learn the arts of transforming the mind.
An open information system—you can talk about your meditation experience. Your voice becomes part of what we are—what works and what doesn’t become clear. We share all our materials too.
We’re interested in wholeness, not perfection. We like to get all the voices in the room. Kindness starts when imperfections become gates.
We free the imagination. We care about creativity and the arts. “Singing and dancing are the voice of the way” (Hakuin Ekaku).
We don’t tell ourselves or others what to believe, or what to feel. We trust each other with our own lives. We teach people to trust their own deepest being.
The ancient koan curriculum is alive and growing and acts as a guide for the long arc of the work of leaders and teachers, women and men.

The Zen idea is that we come to a retreat and teaching happens and we get wise. Fair enough. But it’s also true that we come to a morning meditation and find that we are already wise in ways we had neglected to notice. We ourselves are the vessel that people get wise in. We can’t separate ourselves out.

And here is the thing: with PZI you don’t have to wonder about how to take your discoveries home. You can’t find anything that isn’t meditation, and you have your own place in the mystery of things.

The Particulars, the Shape of Things.

CENTERS – We provide regular programs with deep meditation, good solid teaching and conversation that’s alive. Also we have special events, classes, and places for communities to develop. Check the website.

KOAN SMALL GROUPS Ancient Chinese leaders discussed koans freely and that tradition is alive now. We provide support for facilitators of these groups which happen in many places. The koans can guide us when we listen with our whole being and speak from the heart. People who don’t usually talk about deep or transformative things find they love talking about koans. It’s like a conversation with an old friend from long ago. People surprise themselves and find new possibilities. At the same time, koan groups support what is ordinary—you don’t have to be other than you are.


  • Sesshin – Our deep dive and a companionable place. Members who live far from each
    other meet, meditate and see teachers. Deep koan teachings. These last 6–7 days.
    Open Mind Retreats – A retreat designed to make Zen into a native form in the West – integrating your discoveries. 2–4 days long. Often, but not always, in Bolinas, CA, on the cliffs overlooking the sea.
  • One Day Retreats on a Theme – Gratitude, the Buddha’s life, Creativity, Ancestors, Silent Meditation – if you are looking for it, it’s here.
  • Leadership Retreats – One of our missions is to teach people to grow into leadership roles, to give talks, manage group dynamics, help individual students on the path.

NEW TEACHERS – This year we welcome four new senior teachers (Roshi): Allison Atwill, Steven Grant, Rachel Boughton, and Jon Joseph. It’s a profound thing to walk through that gate and it changes the teachers and changes our community.

Writings and the World Wide Web.

We are live streaming one talk a month and people are tuning in from far and near. We even live stream the 40 minutes of meditation which is fun and actually helps people to meditate. We plan to expand this program.
This year we will have an online archive of video and audio talks going back years, available for members.
Uncertainty Club – A new online magazine beautifully designed, with rich content, some from the PZI email lists. It will appear before the new year.
PZI Talk Email List – Amazing conversations about real issues, sharing, and simple encouragement. Poetry, physics, consciousness, embodiment, koans, kitten links—it’s all here. It’s part of making a culture. It continues to get better.
• We continue to expand, with koan groups starting all over the world.
Individual koan work with teachers is available in person, by phone and web. Get it
while supplies last.
I’m writing: Articles for Shambhala Sun (see our web page for the latest); Continuing to develop the Zenosaurus course in koans; translation projects for all the koans we use: The Blue Cliff Record, the Five Ranks, The Book of Serenity.

We Make A Path Together.

What we do is healing in a very real way. Awakening is inside the life you already have, inside your relationships and even inside your longings. You can find anything you ever lost, and you can trust our own path. You have companions as well.

It may seem as if it wouldn’t matter, but what you give really helps. We are the little engine that could, dedicated people, a small organization that looks larger than it is. Your money goes to support me and other teachers to drive up the mountain and hurtle down the other side, for the sake of teaching and talking about the deepest things. If you can contribute I’ll be deeply grateful and delighted to have your company.

Your membership, your contribution, encourages us and it’s my hope that your generosity will make your life feel more expansive too. Thanks for being part of this.

– John Tarrant

PS – A PDF version of this letter is available here to download and print.