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Unexpected Gifts: 10,000 Feet Down, The Stone


John Tarrant talks about living in an underworld time, in a descent as a culture and as a world, and as a planet. Accepting the descent, and accepting the quality of being lost when it appears, is profoundly important. And there’s a great, strange, and interesting mystery in that.

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A Green Glade of Meditation Sunday Talk, given April 5, 2020.


Accepting the descent

So, we mentioned last week—and nothing has changed about that—that I think we’re in an underworld sort of time, a kind of descent, both as a culture and as a world, as a planet, we might say. And, individually, it’s impossible not to be aware of and touched by, and affected by such things. And I’ve been very interested in thinking about how the spiritual path always begins with such a moment of stopping and being lost, and a descent. 

And so, we were talking in a leadership group we have, about how it’s good, in a group, in a retreat—people have to go down, sometimes. So if you start by letting the people go down, then they’ll come up naturally out of what they find by going down. Because if you try to have lots of positive thinking, and take people up, and say how wonderful everything is in spite of whatever, then they spend the whole time sort of clinging to the cliff as they’re sliding down, clinging by their fingernails as they’re sliding down. [laughs] And so, accepting the descent, and accepting the quality of being lost when it appears, is just profoundly important. And there’s a great, strange, and interesting mystery in that, in spiritual paths. 

I’m working on a new book on koans and the path, and one of the things I’m noticing is that the predicament koans, in a way, always come first—you know, you’re hanging from a branch by your teeth, or, you know, you find yourself in a stone crypt, with no windows, and the door is barred from the outside. And no one can hear you if you cry out. And you have no cellphone signal! That kind of koan is always the beginning of something. We meet something that stops the usual ways we do things. So we’re all in that kind of time right now.

Not knowing and being lost

The quality I particularly notice is just the quality of not knowing how things are going to turn out, and not knowing what to do, necessarily, and then, you know, being irritable about that, or sad about that, or just, “Oh, everything’s going to be okay,” or “Oh, it’s not,” you know, “Someone I love is gonna die,” or “I’m gonna die,” or “No, they’re not.” And that kind of vacillation in the mind is a feature of uncertainty and being lost, you know. 

So, I want to read to you—there are a few koans in this: when you’re lost, you naturally feel that the way forward is to have a better map. But in the deep work, actually, that doesn’t help, because we don’t know where we should be going. In the Daodejing, it says, “The true traveler has no fixed destination and no set time of arrival.” And somehow, in times like this, we know that. 

And so the solution comes from living through life, not from standing outside and having a map, you know; a description. Maps are lovely things when you can get them, but if they’re not describing the territory, they’re not a lot of use. And so, what the koans do is plunge you into the experience of the territory in a new way, so that we can get the aid that we need. There are a whole lot of koans about being lost, and here’s one:

You come and go by daylight,
you make people out by daylight.
But suddenly it’s midnight, and there’s no sun, no moon, no lamp.
If it’s a place you’ve been to, then it might be possible.
But if it’s a place you’ve never been,
how will you get a hold of something?


That feeling of being lost is sort of crucial. I think there are other koans here that really go into the same way: 

Don’t light a lamp; there’s no oil in the house. (you know, oil lamps)
It’s a shame to want a light.
But I have a way to bless your poverty, (your simplicity, your lack of tools, your lack of a map)
You can feel your way along the wall.

—Yinyuan Longqi, MK71

There’s another koan that goes kind of the same, which is:

Step by step in the dark,
if my foot is not wet,
I found the stone. 

—Santoka, MK72

Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I found the stone. 

So, I wanted to read you something from the great western tradition, of the journey that begins by going down. And this is Dante, the Inferno. Dante wrote three books [The Divine Comedy] —about the Inferno, which is Hell; and he wrote about Purgatory, which is a notion that suffering purifies you; and then, Heaven. And nobody ever seems to read the one about Heaven, because it’s sort of boring. [laughs] But there’s a lot about Hell. Hell [Inferno] is very interesting, and much translated, you know, because it somehow seems true. [reads]

Midway through our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. To tell about those woods is hard, so tangled and rough and savage, that thinking of it now, I feel the old fears stirring. Death is hardly more bitter. And yet, to treat the good I found there as well, I’ll tell what I saw. Though how I came to enter I cannot well say, being so full of sleep, whatever moment it was I began to blunder off the true path. But when I came to stop, below a hill that marked one end of the valley that had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up, towards the crest; and saw its shoulders already mantled in the rays of that bright planet, the sun, that shows the road to everyone, whatever our journey.

So, one of the nice things here is we don’t really know what we did to get ourselves lost, you know. In this case, we know—pandemics and things—and we were warned, and we didn’t take any notice. But really, life just gives us a descent sometimes. And if it’s an illness, or if it’s a huge collective thing like a war or a pandemic; it’s part of something larger than us. And one of the great things we discover at such a time is that since we are affected by things we can’t control—they’re massive things, and we can’t necessarily fight them very well—we do what we can do. And sometimes we can help, some of you in the medical world are doing your best to help. And sometimes we just have to sort of wait and do the inner journey. And that’s a noble thing too, to do. 

Gifts of the deep journey

One of the things about the deep journey is that you do get gifts as Dante did. Gifts that you weren’t expecting. And when people go into the underworld, they’re looking for something, in the tradition. You know, Odysseus was looking for a prophecy, to find a way home in his great journey. 

And there’s a certain sort of calm and peace that comes when you’re lost; accepting being lost. And so to fight with it is to miss the gift. But on the other hand, sometimes you can’t help fighting with it. So then we don’t fight with fighting it. And that becomes your classic meditation instruction: Whatever you’re meditating with, don’t argue. Don’t argue with what comes up. Don’t reject or find fault with what comes up in your life. Because, it’s yours, it’s okay, you know? And, even if it doesn’t feel okay, your fighting with it is just adding another thing to it that’s painful. So, that’s one thing to say: that the fundamental meditation instruction is really a fundamental instruction about life. 

And one of those great discoveries—Buddhism has this, very much: that in the midst of what seems like a happy life—and the whole myth of the Buddha goes in this direction—in the midst of what seems like a happy life, suffering can nonetheless be unbearable. Everybody has found this; the wedding, where they feel like they’re supposed to be happier, and they’re not, and the bride starts crying. Many things like that, you know. 

And conversely, if it’s possible that you can suffer, suddenly, in the midst of life, in the midst of having done everything as best you could, and reasonably well; then it’s also possible that when you’re starting to be lost and suffer and feel sorrow, or despair, or grief, or anxiety, or fear—or just a certain sort of restlessness of people trying, working so hard to understand things right now; there’s a restless sort of distracted anxiety as well, I noticed—that also, when you’re lost and suffering, you might get an unexpected gift, in that you might get an unexpected happiness. Because the gifts of life don’t come from a place we were looking for; they come when we’re free, and the mind is free and clear. 

Meditation and Maralung

We’re going to do a little meditation, and I’ll give you a story-koan about the gifts, this time. 

The thing with a koan is that you can try and work it out, and the mind tries to do that. But really, what the mind does is none of your business. Don’t take it too seriously. [laughs] Treat it like a nice animal that just wants to do what it wants to do. Look after it, and be kind about it. 

The meditation takes you to a deeper place than trying to work things out. And so, just let the koan work on you, let the story work on you. And something will be called out of your own depths to meet it, you know. You can just be easy about that. And then something else will be called up—so, you have a wonderful idea, and then another one, or you won’t like the idea, and that’s okay too; then something else will happen. So just let yourself take the ride. When you’re meditating, you’re doing something that perhaps at no other time in your life you’re aware of, you’re doing something wherein you can’t be at fault. You don’t have to criticize yourself. You also don’t have to do it perfectly. It’s enough to “step by step in the dark.” It’s enough to just put your foot on the path, and then the path, as in the “Irish Blessing,” starts rising to meet your feet. Okay, now we’re going to meditate!

So, in meditation, really the only thing is not to find fault with anything that comes up in your heart, or in the meditation, or in the world. And so, in this way, the world comes to meet you and reveals itself; and then your own heart reveals itself. So, the Way opens for you. You know the old thing, if you are finding fault with yourself, don’t find fault with that. [laughs] Sooner or later you’ll still argue with life, and then compassion enters. 

So here’s a koan that I’d like to do today. The context for this one is that I was interested in the way koans appear in our lives. It [koan practice] had been a very alive tradition, and then it was so wonderful that it got sort of turned into a bit of a museum, in a way. And so I was interested in the source of new koans, and how some koans very naturally—like “Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I found the stone”—don’t belong to any time or culture. It’s eternal. And so, I was thinking about koans for our time. Then a friend who had been a musicologist, who was working in the Northern Territory in Australia, came back with a story about where songs come from, which seemed great. So we decided to put that in our koan curriculum. I’ll read you the story:

In a place called Barunga in the Northern Territory of Australia, there was a singer named Maralung. He took dance troupes around to traditional places. The ghost of a master songman called Balanjirri and a bird called Bunggridj-Bunggridj gave Maralung his songs. The master songman lived so long ago that nothing of his life is known. In the outback, you see mysterious moving lights, will o’ the wisps—they are thought of as spirit lights—called Minmin, and have their own creation stories and dreaming. They are also considered to be dangerous. 

One night Maralung was sleeping, watching a Minmin light. The light was blue and green and white and fell down across the sky from west to east. Balanjirri and the bird, Bunggridj-Bunggridj, appeared and set off after it. They followed the light and got a song there, and then they came into the camp where Maralung was sleeping. Balanjirri said, “Get up, I have a song to teach you.” The dreamer woke up, and the master taught him the song. The bird sang too. The song was in the ghost language so humans could sing it but only spirits could understand it. 

Maralung told the story:

“Don’t lose this song, you keep this one,” said the old songman, “I sang this song for you. It’s yours.” He spoke kindly like that. “All right.” “OK, you’ve got to remember it properly, this good song, this Minmin light of yours.” The songman went back, and I continued to sing after he’d left. But, I fell asleep. But don’t you worry, I’ll get it. Maybe one or two, three, four, five…if he shows me…six, seven, eight, nine, [nights] that’s it. So the next night, Maralung dreamed again and it happened the same way. Again, the master and the bird came into his dream, and woke him, and sang for him; and again he fell asleep afterward. But this time, in the morning, he remembered the song.

So, just sit with whatever details of that song appear to you.

You’re sleeping, and you have a dream. And you’re watching the lights, the spirit lights coming blue and green and white, coming from west to east; down across the sky. And your long-dead mentor, the ancient songman, and the bird who was always with him, chase after the lights and they get a song, and they bring it back for you. And they wake you up and teach you the song. And you sing it to yourself to remember it. And you fall asleep, and you forget it. But there’ll be many, perhaps many many days, you know: one night, two nights, three nights—”I’ll get it. Yeah.” And eventually, you remember it. 

So, any part of that koan that touches you, that’s yours. That’s your part of the good koan. Just keep company with that. 

The songman fell asleep and he dreamed, and he was watching the lights. And they fell from west to east, down across the sky, blue and white and green. The ancient master songman and his bird went to the Minmin lights and got a song. Then they came down into the camp where Maralung was sleeping, and they woke him. And they said, “Wake up, we have a song to sing you and to teach you.” So indeed, the singer woke up, and they taught him the song. And the ancient songman spoke kindly, and said, “This is for you, this good song, so don’t forget now, this song of yours.” So Maralung, after they left, Maralung sang to himself. And he had woken up inside his dream, but then he fell asleep inside his dream. And he forgot the song. “Don’t worry: one night, two nights, three nights, four, five, six, seven, nine nights—eventually I’ll remember!” And the next night it happened the same way. And they taught Maralung the song, and he fell asleep again, after hoping to stay awake till morning. But this time, in the morning, he remembered the song. 

When you’re sitting, everything comes through: noises from next door, noises from your mind, memories, objections to sounds, objections to life, objections to what you’re feeling, joy and love of life, and what you’re feeling. All the songs. And perhaps the heart opens; there’s a stillness and a peace inside everything that comes in. The song is for you. Whole lives have been waiting to come to this moment. So, there’s a koan that goes, “It’s for you, honored One.” This moment is for you. And what other moment are we ever going to have, but this moment?

And when you’re meditating, you don’t have to try to be here. All we do is just touch whatever part of the story comes up. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re here or not. But if you’re not here, you notice that there’s something constricting, something confining about not being here, and there’s something spacious and generous about being here with each other, and with everything you’ve ever been given, and have received. So we’re here, dreaming, and having songs come to us, and then forgetting them, and remembering them. 

Where do songs come from? 

Gifts of the dark

You know, great Linji, the great master, founder of the koan lineage, used to say, “I’m just someone with nothing to do.” When you really do nothing together, you can feel how easy it is to love life. How much it’s not something we add to life; it’s when everything falls away that we love life and each other. And it’s—you know—that feeling of good-heartedness is there, and it’s a natural thing, it’s not something we add to consciousness by serious and virtuous exercise; it’s something that is just in us already, in all of us. So I like that. And just to sit together and do nothing is enough! It’s kind of silly, but it’s true. 

And that thing, about if sorrow can come in the midst of what seemed like a happy, rich life; then also when difficulty comes, oh—joy might be hiding inside that. And so we’re not so much of a snob about what life gives us, we’re not so picky, and we’re more generous in our attitude to people and things, you know? 

One of the qualities about being in the dark time is that we can see what’s really true for us. And that’s a marvelous thing. There are things we thought were important, but they’re not, you know? And the things we thought we were worried about or objected to; we find, well, we don’t really care [so much], you know. And we find that, Oh—we can speak what’s true in our hearts, we can discover what’s true, and we can say things that are true, and they turn out to be kinder than we thought. Then other people will be doing the same, and you’ll find that people are nicer than we might have imagined. People are kinder and more generous with each other. It’s always a good thing to notice that other people might be nicer than me, and less paranoid about what I’m thinking than I might be about them. And so, that’s a good thing we can discover. A gift of the dark is love. 

If you consider the room you’re in now, like the room you’re actually in now—and you can see that I have an antique Tibetan sacred painting, a thangka, behind me; you might have sacred things, but your sacred thing might be just a teacup—that your life and your room is itself a temple, and you have sacred objects in it. And your chair becomes a wonderful thing, you know? Obviously, your cat, you know, [laughs] things like that. 

But you realize, Oh, just lifting a cup to drink tea, that’s an eternal act and a sacred act, and the whole of the universe came into being so I could do this. To look into somebody’s eyes—maybe you’re alone and can’t do that, except through the ether like this—but to look into someone’s eyes, then that’s a sacred act and a gift to them, and it’s a gift they give to you. So to really show up and attend to each other might be a gift of the dark time. A kind of nice thing, to appreciate each other in that way. 

And you’ll notice that when you walk, you walk through the universe. And an old koan goes, the “sunset” koan, “We walk on the red sky.” We walk through the vastness of things. So the sacredness of life is something else. If you just look around, look at anything, notice—and just look at it without prejudice, without agenda, without wanting it to be something—you’ll notice that your looking is pure, and the object becomes sacred, and you become sacred because you don’t want anything from the universe. You’re just showing up. And that’s the gift of the meditation tradition. You just show up, and it does with us what it does. [laughs] And that’s a good thing because the things we were thinking of doing with ourselves weren’t as interesting. 

Then we’re not so committed to our thoughts. And so, if you’re consumed by anxiety, or dark thoughts, or fear, or loathing, or irritation, or hatred, or sorrow, or whatever you’re consumed by—you can be kind about that. And then that is a sacred thing, too. And then, gradually, you don’t even need to change it; it doesn’t need to haunt you. You’ll find that there’s a joy inside everything. So that’s the whole gift of the koan tradition. Even when it’s a disaster, inside you, there’s a stillness. 

And you have your own personal connection to the vastness because it’s not personal, and you’re not personal either. Then you don’t have to make your—even your mistakes aren’t mistakes, you know? You don’t have to make the mistakes a mistake, because, how do you know? The thing you most think you did in your life that is a mistake, that you might be ashamed of, or feel like it was a terrible error of judgment—it got you here. And here is infinite. There’s a nobility about being here in this moment, in this temple that is the room you’re in right now. So just to say, here we are! And we’re in the temple together. A nice thing; a favorable thing. 

Dreams of the Underworld

The other thing that happens, I think, in the dark times, is that you get directions from dreams. When I was wondering, “Well, what sort of time is this,”  [that we’re in] I had this dream where I was in a house that I once lived in, and I noticed, in my dream, that if I opened a cupboard door, it started to come off; and if I put something on the shelf, the shelf started to fall out of the walls. And the whole thing was incredibly shoddy, and coming apart; the old life coming apart. Like, you know—people that put screws into the wallboard and then put a shelf on it, and so it’s coming off the wallboard; things like that. Things we’ve all seen happen. But the whole place was like that. 

And then this very tall man just walked into the house without asking. He was very tall and had a shaved head and a tremendous dignity about him. He was very wealthy. And he had his two wealthy, rather clueless, sons with him; in the dream. And he started talking to me about something: something he wanted to do with me. And, I realized I was talking to the God of the Underworld. It was Hades who had come to visit! [laughs] And I thought, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.” Actually, he seemed kind of polite, and he had good manners, as somebody so rich might. [laughs] And, so I walked outside to see what he wanted, with him, and what he wanted—and he wanted to look at something. And I walked outside. 

And then my old dog came, my favorite dog in the world came; this collie dog who used to sit with me in meditation, night meditation. She’d sort of sit with me and we’d just meditate together, at night, on the deck. And she came in the dream—she came hurtling rapidly up to me and launched into the air, and put out her paws as wide as she couldn’t; crashed into my chest knowing I’d catch her, and I caught her. And then she could talk to me, in my mind. And I realized, Oh, I’ve always been able to talk to her, and maybe some other animals, too. But this time it’s very clear. And I talked to her and told her how grateful I was to see her, how much I loved her. And she told me that she was so happy to see me, and she was arranging to come back and visit me more often. And then she left. 

And so you can tell that the dream gives something about the reality of the situation you’re in. You know this is a time for Hades, for the Lord of the Underworld. But in this case, Hades actually was well mannered, elegant; but very tall. I remember seeing Hadestown in New York and having this impression of the dignity and power of Hades. But then, the dog—life!—is there; even in Hell the dog will come and find you. [laughs] Even in the Underworld, the dog will come and find you. So there’s a quality in life that just goes on, and is always springing anew. It’s like the dog was Persephone coming back out of Hell for springtime. 

I’ve noticed people having dreams, and that’s a kind of nice thing. The dreams will be rich, or perhaps your ideas will be rich, or perhaps the rich thing will be that you realize that it’s alright just to be here and not achieving very much right now. Because you realize that you’re not your achievements. So— [these are] many of the gifts of the underworld. 

The sacred quality of life

What I really notice is [how we can be] just moving from one—you know how a moment seems sacred, and you’re just looking at a tree, or looking in someone’s eyes, and that’s great; then you go on to something else, because you want to do something with your mind, so you go on to something else and reduce the power of that moment. And that’s called living, you know, we call that living. And gradually, you might notice you don’t need to protect yourself from the sacred quality of life that keeps coming to you. And it’s alright, you know; eating and drinking and walking, it’s all meditation. 

The thing I really like about the Maralung story is, one; his modesty: that he’s [just] himself and he says, “Well, I tried to stay awake, and I was repeating the song to myself (the way you do, you know,) and then I fell asleep and I forgot. [laughs] Even though it was just for me, it was a gift for me, I forgot it and I fell asleep.” And the strange impossibility of how he was woken up in his dream by the ghost of the master songman, and how the master songman’s birds, like my dog, [laughs] were there. And then he fell asleep, even in the dream he fell asleep again and forgot it. And then that nice energy of “One time, two times, three times, four times, eight times, nine times; then I’ll remember!” And, in fact, the next night he did.

The musicologist told me he was very disappointed when he [Maralung, the storyteller] told him the first time that he didn’t remember the song, [laughs] because he wanted Maralung to sing it, and [so he could] record it. [laughs] So it’s kind of nice. And there’s a generosity about “Oh, you are who you are, and you can only do what you can do.” The song will remember you, is that what we might say. So if you want to meditate and you want to have your life be sacred, have the koan with you. And the koan will remember you after a while. And it may take any form. It might take just noticing some leaves, or the angle of light, or somebody’s eyes, the sound of someone’s voice. And it might just take the sense of noticing, honestly, what’s most important for you in life.

So what I want to do—is, maybe because there are too many people to just open it up and call on them—some of the teachers who are in the room, to see if you have anything to say? I like different points of view coming on. Tess, I think, Tess? I know Tess is here!

Tess: I’m here.

John: Very good!

Ushering a tomcat

Tess: The thing that’s sort of kept sticking out to me was how the spirits understand the words to the songs, and the humans don’t. And how there are so many questions that I find myself—we find ourselves—asking: “Why?” You know, “Why was this given to me, why now? Why this, why?” And just that refrain, of “it’s for you,” you know; this is just for you. 

And for some reason I thought about how, a few weeks ago—I feel kind of tender about it, actually— this old cat came to our house. There’s a big old tomcat—and you could tell he was very old because cats get this very beautiful kind of glass, fractal-like quality in their eyes when they get very old—and he would come sing us songs outside. It was very cold. And I just sort of felt that he’s hungry. He’s been a big tomcat outside for a long time, but something’s different now, he’s hungry. And I worried about my [own] cats, and “Why is he coming now?” and, you know, “Clearly he’s alright, what’s going on?” But I just started feeding him. And sometimes he’d go and just come sit in the sun by our porch. Sometimes he’d come to a special spot where he knew I would give him food if he came there, and I had to hide it from my cats so they didn’t get upset. And at a certain point, I realized he was injured. And I thought that there’s not much I can actually do right now other than feeding him, it would be traumatic to try to help him; he’s old, you know, he’s kind of going on with his life. And so I fed him a really big meal. And he was very grateful and sort of came to eat it and came a little closer than usual. And then I didn’t see him anymore after that. I thought it was something that was “for me.” It was just to kind of usher him on his journey toward the last destination where he was going. But sometimes I still find myself kind of listening for his little yodel songs that he would sing to us. That’s what came up for me.

John: Thanks. Thanks, Tess. Allison Atwill is here, I think, I’m sure it’s you. And Eleanor, can you do the unmuting thing?  

The fluidity of waking and dreaming

Allison: I was very struck, in the koan, by the way dreaming and waking—the line between those two states began to break down. And that’s something I’ve really felt in the last month of what we’ve been living through: how my dream life, and my waking life—that used to feel like there was a kind of wooden pocket-door that would slide between them, you know, where sometimes I could look through and the door wasn’t there, and I can see the dream—but now it’s more like sea fog in between the two realms. It’s very diffuse, and things appear and move through each realm on their own. And how the day world seems to have this very dreamlike quality to it. And also how each individual thing in the waking world seems to be in its own dream, and it’s like they’re hearing their own dream songs. For instance, we’ve got a pair of hawks that have made a nest in the eucalyptus tree on the property; and I was looking at them the other day through the binoculars, and one of them was calling, and I could see the feathers on the bird that was on the nest, sort of ruffled by the wind. And it was as if I had feathers, and I was being ruffled, and I had talons and a big sharp beak. So I sort of entered the bird’s dream, and I could hear the song that it was listening to, to make a hawk. So yeah, waking and dreaming are very fluid right now.

John: Thanks. Waking and dreaming. I noticed that Sarah Bender is here, another Roshi. Is there anything you would like to say, Sarah? 

Algonquin water blessing

Sarah: So, lots of connections coming up in that meditation. And one was just noticing that every song comes as a gift. And it’s always a song. That just sort of showed up and felt true to me about my life. And also, in the part about “we don’t understand the words, but the spirits do;” that also felt true to me and reminded me of two things: one was that “Zhaozhou thing” about “you don’t understand the words, but you recognize the handwriting.” This felt a little bit like that.

And also, the thing that’s happened to me with this little Algonquin water blessing song that just sort of came across my screen one day and I recognized it as mine. And it was the “girliness” of it, somehow, that spoke to my girl; and I learned it. And I repeated it until it was in me and without hesitancy anymore. The words are not translated, deliberately. One of the elders who’s teaching the song to the girls in this little video says that there’s a reason that they don’t provide a translation. So I don’t know the meaning of these words, but I sing them. And it’s my song. And so, why is that? I don’t know.

John: Can you sing it for us?

Sarah: Some of you have already heard me do it. The blessing—the way that it’s used in that culture is to sing it four times, one in each direction. I sing it when I’m washing my hands. And it goes, 

[sings] Nee bee wah boh, en dai en, ah kee bisquee nee bee wah bu. Heya, heya, heya, hey; heya, heya, heya, ho.

John: The girliness of it; you said you experience it as “girly.” I like the idea [laughs] of it being a girly handwashing song. Well, thank you, Sarah. I think I saw Jon Joseph somewhere sitting in a chair. [laughs] You around, Jon?

Jon Joseph: I am.

John: Anything you want to say?

Lost on a pilgrimage

Jon Joseph: What I liked was being in that place of having forgotten a song. The intensity of that struggle. “Not knowing” sounds more noble than it feels at the time, you know? But that intensity of life when you’re sort of unmoored and unhinged, made me think of some sesshin or retreats when I’m just feeling unhinged. And those are some of the retreats that I remember the best. 

It reminded me of a story, that one of our friends told yesterday, about when she was on a pilgrimage in Japan going from temple to temple—44 temples—and she couldn’t read the signs. Every day she got lost. And sometimes she got really lost, to the point where she thought maybe she would have to spend the night sleeping in the bushes at the edge of the road. And it was those days, when she was most lost, that life was most real to her, in a way. The colors and the sounds and the sights and the landscape were most rich to her, [at that time], and are embedded most deeply in her memory of that trip. And she said something that I thought was really wonderful; she said, “And those are the days we’re living in today, right now. It’s a privilege to live in these times.” It’s a privilege to live in these times. So I thought that was really beautiful.

John: Thanks, Jon. Yeah. It’s a beautiful thing; we know the truth of that: that when we’re lost, everything becomes alive, you know. We’re in a strange place, and after a while, it becomes kind of interesting and marvelous being lost, yeah. I feel like everything that happens in meditation is a piece of the whole of life. Each meditation is a whole life, just in a concise art form like a haiku. And that you go through it and [also] it pulls you through. And if you have a feeling that “Oh my God, this shouldn’t be happening,” it doesn’t really matter; the meditation is going to pull you through that too. [laughs] So each little moment of meditation is a whole retreat, in that way. 

And I’m thinking that I love Jordan’s music, and when he was playing I could hear the instrument overwhelming the gain on the mic from time to time. I thought, “Well, I’ll just enjoy that too.” You know, meditation will pull me through. 

And everything that comes becomes then a gift, you know. And then, after you’ve come through the parts that we might object to or think were problematic, or, you know, the thoughts we have opposing ourselves or criticizing ourselves—then, after we’ve come through, there’s this wide, spacious quality that just belongs to being human. And in that way we all are alike, nobody’s better or worse. One of the great koans from Linji, again, says “The true woman, the true man has no rank.” [S/he] isn’t above or below. That’s a way of being lost, because how we find ourselves is by ranking ourselves, saying “I’m good, I’m bad.” Like that. And if you don’t have to be that, it’s alright. 

I think Holly M. is on here. Holly, you told me a great dream. Could you tell us, like, a haiku form of your sea monster dream? [laughs]

Holly: Sure. 

Sea monster

I’m standing on the deck of a large, very very white boat. And there are many people, and the people are looking over the edge of the boat. And the people on the right-hand side, all of a sudden they recoil and head to the other side. And the boat starts to capsize. And I’m standing there and I just think, “Huh.” And then this large green-black hand comes over the right side [of the boat], followed by the Sargasso sea creature monster. And the weight of the monster balances the boat. And he comes on and comes towards me, and I’m curious, although I think this isn’t going to end well. And I reach out my hand and touch his face, and he just backs up and goes back from where he came. And people run around hysterically, and I run through them to the front of the bow spit because I want to see this creature again. And he’s swimming, and I see through the water, which is clear. And he looks over his left shoulder and comes out of the water and touches my forehead, and I wake up.

John: [laughs] So yes, that’s the time we’re in! And that’s also the unexpected help: it might be something that we wouldn’t normally think of. That’s marvelous. Thank you. 

Now, what else? I want to read you a transcript of a poem. Just because, just because. This is called “Tracks.” It is translated by Melina Maling, [?] who is a fine poet. Here is Tomas Transtromer: 

Two o’clock in the morning: moonlight.
The train has stopped in the middle of the field.
In the distance, lights from a town glimmering cold along the horizon.
As when a person has gone so deeply into a dream, she will never remember she was there when she returns to her room.
And as when someone has entered an illness so deeply that all that were his days become a few flickering points, a swarm cold and scarce along the horizon.
The train remains perfectly still.
Two o’clock: intense moonlight, a few stars.

So that’s the moment when everything’s sort of poised—the purity of everything being poised like that. And I sent that poem to the marvelous poet Tony Hoagland when he was dying. I sent that poem to him, I don’t know why. But it seemed like he was poised in that way. Then, after that, he went down. Here’s the moment we’re at, and we don’t know where we’re going. I kind of like that, actually. So here we are in the middle of it. 

So my thought is, let’s just sit a tiny bit more. And then we will have Amaryllis, I think I saw her somewhere. She could play the Four Vows, and after you’ve played it, maybe Sarah, could you sing the Four Vows? Great. Thanks. And then we’ll dance on out of here. [laughs] And thank you, it’s beautiful. Being together is a beautiful thing. [rings bell, reads]

One night, Maralung was sleeping, watching the Minmin lights as they came down from west to east across the sky, blue and green and white. And he saw Balenjiri, the ancient songman, and the bird Bungrijbungrij who always was with him. They went to the Minmin lights, and got a song there, and came back into the camp. And they woke Maralung up, and said, “Wake up. We have a song for you.” And he woke up, and they sang him the song. And the song was in the ghost language, that only the spirits can understand, and the ancestors. But it’s important that we sing it anyway. 

So the song was in the ghost language, and the songman said, “You try to remember this, this good song of yours. This is for you. I sang this for you.” He spoke kindly like that. And then they left. And Maralung kept awake in his dream, saying the song to himself, to remember. “But, I fell asleep,” he said, “in the morning, I forgot it.” [chuckles] “But don’t you worry. Two nights, three nights, five nights, eight nights, nine nights—then, I’ll get it! That’s it, that’s it!” 

And indeed, the next night, it happened the same way. Minmin lights were falling across the sky, and this bird and the ancient songmaster brought the song again, and sang it and woke Maralung up, and sang it. And again, he remembered it, and again, they spoke kindly to him. And then he sang it over and over again to himself. But once again he fell asleep. But this time, in the morning, when he woke up, he remembered.


You come and go by daylight.
You make people out by daylight, but suddenly it’s midnight.
And there’s no sun, no moon, and no lamp.
If it’s a place you’ve been to, then of course it might be possible.
But if it’s a place you’ve never been, how will you get hold of something?

Amaryllis: [plays violin] A musical intro to the Four Boundless Vows

Sarah: [sings] The Four Boundless Vows: I vow to wake the beings of the world. I vow to set endless heartache to rest. I vow to walk through every wisdom gate. I vow to live the great Buddha Way.

John: Well, thank you, Sarah. And thank you Amaryllis, for the beautiful voice of your violin. Thank you, Jordan, for your beautiful music. And thank you, everyone, for coming. I think it’s a grand thing that we do this, and I’m grateful. All my life I’ve wanted to be able to meditate with people: to have poetry and music and mysterious things be offered, mysterious gifts. And so we have this together. It’s not a small thing. Thank you. 

John Tarrant Roshi

We’ve got this enrollment thing now to get online. Anybody who has no money—somebody said, “Hey, I don’t really have a job anymore!”—it’s free, you can come on. If you want to donate, we think that’s wonderful; that supports what we do. And also if you want to donate, go into pacificzen.org and you’ll find all our schedules, everything we’re doing; we’re trying to do more things all the time. And if you want to help fund us, we’ll be grateful. Okay. So, all good wishes and check the website because some of the other people who spoke today are teaching this week, so every night we have something. 

Thank you.

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