PZI Teacher Archives

A Donkey Sees a Well, a Well Sees a Donkey


On thing you realize when you’ve been walking along for thirty lifetimes, is that the journey itself is home. There’s no flaw in what you’re doing. And in the journey you encounter peach blossoms, and you can feel that it changes you. There could be many forms of peach blossoms in your life.

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Head of Practice:  Would you like some incense, Roshi? 

John: Thank you very much. Which kind of incense is better? The one that gets passed through the screen, or the other kind? 

There’s a story I’ve told before, how in Australia, where we were having tea way out in the bush, the cook—on the first morning—underestimated the amount of water needed and everybody ran out of tea. And it’s 4:30 in the morning, and it’s kind of freezing cold and there’s no power except propane to heat the water. And the tea service went round and everybody held out their cup. And when they ran out of tea, they just kept serving the tea. Nothing was coming out of the spout, but people would do this [upward hand motion] to stop the tea as if their cups were full, and then they’d bow. And when it was time to drink tea, they drank the tea. It’s always complete. The mystery is always complete, completely revealing itself.


So today I want to talk about this old koan, as a way in, I guess.

Caoshan’s Dharma Body

Caoshan asked an old student called De, “‘The body of reality is like space. It responds to things, manifesting its forms the way the moon appears in the water.’ How do you explain this responsiveness?”
And De said, “It’s like a donkey looking into a well.”
Caoshan said, “Well, I kind of like that. But I don’t think it’s the whole thing. It’s most of it, but not the whole thing.”
“Well, what’s it like for you?”
“It’s like a well looking at a donkey.” 

If ultimate reality is a well, then it is looking at us, and we are the donkey and we see ourselves. It’s looking at us and there is this marvelous way in which the blossoms appear out of emptiness. We appear out of emptiness. That’s from the Book of Serenity

And here’s another line from one of the koans:

In front of the cliff of dead trees, the flowers and plants are always in spring.

The cliff of dead trees is the vastness—it’s really the valley spirit. And when we’re just depending on the vastness, then everything’s always in spring. And the particular forms that all things take when the well is looking at the donkey—what the donkey thinks, the forms the donkey takes—they’re all pure, really.

Peach Blossoms

So, I was thinking about the direct encounter in the Peach Blossom koan, the core koan for this retreat. The pilgrim was walking along, day after day, night after night, year after year, for thirty years. We’ve been sitting for thirty years, today. Just walking along for thirty years, thirty lifetimes. And then, one thing that you realize when you’re walking along for thirty lifetimes, thirty years, is that, Oh, the journey itself is home. It’s good. There’s no flaw in what you’re doing. And you think you’re going somewhere, you know—it’s kind of good to have something you’re going for. But there’s a beauty to the journey and a profound peace in the journey. And then after a while, you realize that the journey is home. And in the journey you have an encounter with the peach blossoms, and you can feel that it changes you. There could be many forms of peach blossoms in your life.

A couple of people told me moving accounts of the deaths of their mothers. That could be peach blossoms. You know, that Oh, here’s the ultimate thing, here’s the great thing, and with someone I care about a lot. And I encounter it. One of my friends said she woke up at four in the morning and realized something was wrong. And she realized she couldn’t hear her mother breathing. Then there’s this profound peace, really, because we know that people die, and then we’re meeting it in just the way we know that people are alive. And so it could be that.

Give Me the Longing

Or it could be the thing I keep thinking about for some reason, when long ago as a teenage boy, I was trying to work out dating. And I ran into a girl at a dance, and for some reason she wanted to dance with me. [laughs] It was the first time anybody had said Yes. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. So we danced and it was great, and we kissed and it was great. And I thought, Wow, I’ve got a girlfriend. And we talked to each other on the phone, and then I would meet her. I’d often be late to school because I would arrange to do a bus transfer where she did a bus transfer. And then at some stage, I realized she had an actual boyfriend. And I realized how wonderful that was. The longing I had was more interesting—it was itself a fine thing that she’d given me. And I didn’t have any complaints about her.

And I think enlightenment is like that. You’re in relation to it. I had a direct encounter with that girl, but I also had a direct encounter with longing and the way everything in the universe longs for something. And if you can be at peace with your longing, you can stop worrying. You can be at peace with the longing. Give me the longing!

So, I suppose that’s mainly what we have. And then we get distracted and we worry about whatever we worry about—the details of things, you know, Can I make these numbers work out, will I have enough this, enough that. But if we’re just here, when we are at peace with the longing, that’s when the flowers break out. In the withered tree, there’s a spring beyond the ages. “In front of the cliff of dead trees,” as the poet says, “the flowers and plants are always in spring.”

So when you consider the peach blossom moments, you come around the cliff and there are the peach blossoms, and behind you are the dark shadow of the canyon and the journey, and in front of you there’s this mysterious and overwhelming encounter. But you’ve already had it! And then you might realize that you’ve had many of those encounters already, and everything you meet on the road is one of those encounters—often when you’re not looking for it.

Deshan Meets the Tea Lady

The pilgrim meets the tea lady and the tea lady says, “Well, which mind are you trying to refresh? You’re an expert on the Diamond Sutra. It says, ‘Past mind can’t be grasped. Present mind cannot be grasped. Future mind cannot be grasped.’ Which mind are you trying to refresh?” 

Which heart-mind? So, suddenly, it’s peach blossoms. In that situation, the pilgrim just stops and has no thoughts. He doesn’t know what to say. That’s peach blossoms, too. 

You might find that sometimes something happens to you. A friend of mine just got a cancer diagnosis that was quite, quite strong. I think it’s quite alarming, actually. And I think he’s just having it, just settling. He’s a person I’ve known for many years, in the Dharma. And so he’s doing that and he’s taking it in, and that’s peach blossoms, too. I notice how he’s suddenly much more interested in being connected—it’s touching and intimate and soft. So that’s peach blossoms. 

You might want to think, in your life, what is a peach blossom moment for you? How are you doing with your moment? Is there any moment that isn’t a direct encounter? Or I suppose another way to say it: Is there any moment in my life that I can refuse and say, This does not belong?

No Choice About Being

Everybody has their own karma and their own fate, and there are many things you can do with it. You might have studied the thing your parents didn’t want you to study. You might have married the person your parents didn’t want you to marry. You might have been much queerer than was legal in your universe when you grew up. Or you might have merely been much stranger, which is true of everybody. And you realize, Oh that’s my peach blossoms: to run into my own kind of being which I have no choice about. That’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. So, thinking about times we’ve really met the world. They’re uncountable. 

One person who became a teacher had this weird thing happen. You could never get the smell of urine out of a particular bathroom at one of the old retreat centers we always used. She had this big awakening experience just walking into the bathroom and smelling the urine. The smell of pee. And ever after, whenever she smelled pee, it was a great experience. So there’s that kind of thin, or it could be the subtlety of the light striking the redwood branches.

So, consider what a peach blossom moment is for you, where you’ve had that direct encounter and you realize it was beyond choice—it wasn’t something you manipulated, it wasn’t something you made happen. That’s the nice thing about the peach blossoms: it’s not the consequence of your virtue or your vice, it’s not a consequence of a mistake or a good deed. It’s a pure appearance of the universe. 

And like the koan says about Caoshan, a donkey looking at a well is a wonderful thing. And that is how we experience it, and we see our own true nature. 

And Caoshan says, “Well, but what about the way the universe throws things forth, like us?”
“That’s a well looking at a donkey.” 

And then after a while, we’re kind of, Hang on, which one am I? Am I the well or the donkey? Am I the tree or me? You know, Am I the river or me? Am I the person I see in the street, or me? So all the koans have that quality about, Am I the sound of the bell, or me? 

What Is Your Peach Blossom Moment? 

You’ve got to be brief about this because otherwise it’s gonna get weird. It’s gonna get weird anyway, so put up your hand and tell me a peach blossom moment. Particularly if you’re the kind of shy person who doesn’t usually put up their hand. Tell me a peach blossom moment.

Unknown: I have a peach blossom moment. About four years ago, my father died and I was his caregiver. It was not unexpected—he was in hospice. And so he passed away, and there was a retreat with Sarah Bender about three or four weeks later. It felt like I had processed the grief and did the crying and felt sad. I came into the retreat thinking, This is not going to run me. This is not gonna run the retreat for me. And Sarah was a little bit suspicious that  maybe I hadn’t fully come to grips with it. Then we’re in the closing circle at the end of the retreat, going around one by one by one, and I don’t know what I’m going to say. I think I was going to say, “Well, my father died about three weeks ago…” The minute it was my turn, I just completely lost it. I started babbling. I couldn’t even mouth out the words: My father died three weeks ago. I see that as a peach blossom moment because it’s something I had absolutely no control over, and was very unexpected.

John: That’s nice. It seems there’s a no-picking-and-choosing quality, isn’t there? We’re not even taking instructions from the universe, it’s just got us. And yeah, thank you, that is beautiful. There’s a kind of perfection and that’s the response. Dolly.

Dolly: I was walking at night, and had put my hand in my mailbox when I was bitten by a rattlesnake. I realized something was wrong rather quickly. And my first thought was, Can we rewind and go back to ten minutes ago? I won’t go to the mailbox. But this was not possible. I didn’t want it to be happening, obviously, and I wanted to rewind. But it was such an extraordinary experience to be in the helicopter when they air-evacuated me to the venom center. And looking down, thinking, I may never see this ever again. And there was joy—there was absolute joy. After that I was lying in emergency care in a silly dress, having a wonderful time having been bitten by a rattlesnake. Like that.

John: Thanks. Yeah, yeah—that’s it. Excellent. One way we might practice is that after that we say, Well, let’s find a rattlesnake. I don’t know, we all need our own particular form of the peach blossoms. 

Anyone else? It doesn’t have to be dire. It can be just seeing the light striking a wall, you know, the pattern of roses. Nicola.

Nicola: Yeah, mine is a quieter one. I was driving into town last week, and I just noticed people walking along the sidewalk and that I had no opinions about them. I just loved them. And this went on for about half a mile. Then I was back in my old self, having an opinion, or sort of listening to my ideas about them. But it wasn’t compassion—it was something broader than that. And it seemed quantitatively different from how I usually feel.


John: Thanks. Yeah. So there’s always this sort of knitting and interweaving. That’s a beautiful example, because you weren’t doing anything, you weren’t holding your mouth right, you were just going into town and suddenly the universe is full of bodhisattvas. And you’re having the beginning of the experience of deity yoga. You’re right there, you know—it’s great.

And I love that that happens. I just step outside the house and, Oh, I’m in the Pure Land. And then there’s that thing where it goes away again. One of the interesting things to notice is that maybe it hasn’t really gone away, you know. If it’s gone away, where is it? Inside my opinions, even inside that kind of thing. So it was like that old story about the girlfriend. It’s like, Oh, it was inside the longing. It wasn’t about whether I got to be with her or not, which would have been a different kind of peach blossoms. Thank you. Carla?

Carla: Today I was walking in a park that I walk in all the time. And I saw people looking up into trees and pointing. And these are trees that we sometimes see owls in. So I didn’t talk to them, and I looked up into the trees and I didn’t see anything. So I kept going. And then, in my peripheral vision, I saw on the ground, in the grass, there’s this owl. And he’s just sitting in the grass. He was just the most magnificent owl I’ve ever seen. I just love the way they look. They’re just such a unique bird. So it was totally unexpected and not where I thought it would be. And I don’t know if they were looking for owls or not, but there was one right there. And I saw it, and it was great.

Then today I was making salad and making kale and stuff. And I was going to make mushrooms, but I’d forgotten that I had put them in ziplocs in the freezer because Rick told me to do that. They take up less room. So I told him that I found my mushrooms in the freezer, so I don’t have to make them now. And he goes, “Well, why don’t you write them on the whiteboard?” He writes his freezer food on the whiteboard and I never do. So I wrote how many mushrooms and how much kale I had in there. And I looked at him and said, “You know what? I knew there was a good reason I married you.” And we both laughed. So that was kind of a peach blossom moment.

John: Very good, thank you. Many forms. Sometimes there’s a thing about reaching past something that’s already here. And kids discover how they were really wanting something, and they didn’t get it, and then they find out they were happy anyway. I think that’s part of the essence of the dead tree experience—when we’re not completely full of our reaching for things and reaching for things and reaching for things. And even if we’re reaching, it’s absolutely fine if we don’t get what we’re reaching for. And in fact, it might be better, because then we might get peach blossoms.

So, this old story keeps coming back to me, about when I was in deep Zen training and I was sitting in a Korean dojo. I had a bad case of loving the temple bells and the intelligence of the Japanese forms—how deeply they contain the psyche and the rhythms of things. And we’ve been trying to do that this time with Chris Gaffney. We had that practice, you know. He had made a han, and things like that. So, the crisp sound of the woodblock at the end of the day, somehow goes right through us, just like peach blossoms … that’s the idea … or the bell goes right through us. 

Chris sent around a note to the leadership this afternoon saying, “We’re not going to do that because of my mike. It sounds awful.” And somebody said, “Oh, can we try anyway?” And he said, “No.” And then he said, “On second thought—no.”

I was very much in love with those kinds of things. And then we have to do without them sometimes. And we suddenly find out that the retreat we have is marvelous. 

So, I was in this shonky kind of basement dojo with concrete block walls—unpainted—and a washing machine that would sometimes be running during the meditation. And we’re sitting on very thin Korean cushions. I definitely had the feeling, like, Why didn’t I go to some nice Japanese temple with beautiful Buddhas and things? 

So anyway, I’m sitting there, and I think, Well, I’m here and I’m just working on my koan. I’m working on my koan, and I’m cold, too, and my knees are hurting. And I’m in a basement looking at gray concrete block walls. And suddenly, everything was perfect. I could feel the perfection in my whole mind and my whole body and feelings. And I could understand koans after that—and it didn’t seem important. I realized it wasn’t an achievement to understand koans. It was just like being in the peach blossoms wherever you are. It’s a way of describing what the blossoms look like, and the cliff and the dead trees, and all that sort of thing. And it’s not something you can cling to, to say, Well at least I did that today. At least I did my taxes today. That’s not a peach blossom moment. That’s a consolation prize. The peach blossom moment is the involuntary thing that is in the midst of the tremendous ordinariness of life. Gaffney. Mr. Crane.

The Han That Didn’t Happen

Chris: I wasn’t going to say anything, but you mentioned this han. And this is really a little story about longing. So, years back I was gonna make the most magnificent han, and it’s the worst-sounding han in the world. It was made completely backwards. In every way. I’m a physicist and I forgot every principle of acoustics because I just wanted to make something beautiful. 

And the peach blossom moment was when I brought it in, and two fellows who made hans, Gregory and Brian, they hit it and all you could hear was the piece of wood that was striking it [thunk]. That was the moment like, Oh, it’s an utter failure. So that was a peach blossom moment for me, which was definitely not about, “I did it.” It was like, “I didn’t do it.”

John: Thanks, Chris. If you can hold up that han again. I can see the butterfly joints. It’s a beautiful piece of wood, it’s a sculpture. And when you hit it, it does sound like you’re hitting wet cardboard. Thanks, Chris. I was part of that, and I sort of remember the mad delight of having the han that didn’t happen. And in a way that’s what happened just now, because Chris is describing this eloquent Dharma point and we can’t hear it [because of Zoom tech problems.]

So I just want to sit here together for a bit, feeling all of this. 

One way to look at it is, “the donkey sees the well,” before we get to “the well sees the donkey,” which is tremendously exciting and wonderful and strange. Even if we’re at “the donkey sees the well,” we can begin to realize that everything we look at is our own face: the peach blossoms, the person who is in trouble and comes to see us, the unsolicited, threatening email we get. Whatever it is, it’s all part of looking in a mirror. And that quality also of unsolicited but involuntary love we feel when meeting the world. It’s something to be noticed.

One thing you might notice about your mind is that it tends to over-qualify things we think of as difficult. But wherever you are in your practice, even if this is the very first time you’ve ever really sat, you’ve already entered the pilgrimage of freedom. So you can’t really escape that. And whatever presents itself, you can trust. Whatever presents itself, it’s for you. It’s peach blossoms. And one of the things I notice is that whatever I look at, it’s got my own face.

Look at Someone’s Face

Just look at something now—look at someone in the Zoom thing. Some people have a hard time looking at the fractured windows, but I see them as windows in Ali Baba’s cave. It’s good. I’ve got Chris on my screen because he was the last person who spoke. And he looks so wonderful because he’s the head of practice and you’ve realized, He can’t talk [because of tech problems], and what do I do if he can’t talk? So he’s just being there, just holding the universe. It’s really good. And that’s my face too. 

Have a look at somebody. Just look at them for a minute, and you’ll see, Oh that’s your face. You don’t have to adjust. Stop fiddling with things. Stop fiddling with your mind. Stop making it better. Just look at somebody, and you realize, Oh my face. Kind of a nice thing, you know? And there is a person you might not know, but they look beautiful, and the person you know but not very well, and they look beautiful, and the person you know really well—all the way down it’s beautiful. It’s gold all the way through.

So … peach blossoms.

Peach blossoms are not exotic or far away, but the pilgrimage is long. It really does sort of saturate us. I think we can say that what we thought of as the difficulties of the Way were, in a way, freeing us for the peach blossoms. And of course they are the peach blossoms, but it takes us a while to notice that. So, peach blossoms. 

If somebody has another comment that’s brief…? Notice how a good comment about peach blossoms is not about something I achieved or realized, it’s something the universe achieved and realized. Do you notice the difference? It’s sort of nice, isn’t it? Does anybody else have anything? Lonnie.

Lonnie: Yeah, this is a shorty. Snowy cold day and my husband, Doug, went out to feed the birds and smear bark butter on the tree. And I was watching him and I immediately had this thought of, Oh look how the universe is taking care of the birds. It was just really neat. It came all by itself—that he was the universe.

John: Thank you, yeah. Sandra.

Sandra: I was just going to take my hand away, but you caught me. Peach blossom moment. So this story is about a group of us who were going to go to this river to look at the salmon spawning. We were on a bridge looking down,and I said, “Where are they? Where are the salmon?” And someone said “They’re right there. They’re swimming.” Opening up to what I was looking at …the river is going one way and the salmon are going the other way, and the stream was so blackened with fish that I could not determine that there were fish. It’s a beautiful memory. But it’s also symbolic of seeing and not seeing.

John: We get it. Excellent.

So the other thing, I suppose, about seeing the peach blossoms, is there’s a kind of sweetness about our feeling for people that happens—for me—and you might notice that, too. I can’t tell what somebody else’s peach blossom moment is. Did you have the right peach blossoms? Was that the same as my peach blossoms? So the assessing mind will try and get into anything, you know. But the truth is that when we’re just free, and we’re taken over by the universe coming to meet us, I think we have this affection.

I remember in that retreat—which was very unsatisfactory in a lot of other ways, apart from the fact that I got what I came for, which is rare in retreat, the only good thing that happened—that the leaders were trying very hard. Everybody was trying very hard to be proper. They were pretty much all [only] guys, and they were trying to be stern and keep us in line for our own good. And it was sort of annoying the way that sort of thing is. And I realized that I had a little tenderness for them. That they were right, you know; they were doing their best. They are peach blossoms too—the universe’s peach blossoms. The person who’s trying to help in a clumsy way is peach blossoms. So all of that. It’s a nice thing, that tenderness that we get.

So you might once again look at somebody, just for a second. Just look at somebody, as I usually say, “Don’t be chicken shit, look at somebody.” Actually, in this case, they can’t see you looking at them, so that’s kind of good. Try to sit still and look at somebody. Just notice. And notice, What is it like to be you doing this? We’re these amazing pilgrims, and god knows where everybody is, but we’re all walking along the path together. I’s kind of an awesome thing to do. For me, that’s peach blossoms too. 

Thank you. That’s the end of my talk.

Amaryllis: [sings] 

Peacefully, humbly, the ship’s stars travel.
The grass hunches down to earth.
The demons take their rest, and we ask the protectors to smile over us
as the work in darkness goes on until dawn.


Spring Sesshin 2021
Dharma Talk on April 8th
John Tarrant 

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