PZI Teacher Archives

Carried in the Dark – On Lostness & the Spiral Path of Practice


I’ve been thinking that everybody needs to start by being lost. And that the Dharma is a spiral path. It will happen again, and then again, and then again. So, when you are lost, instead of thinking, “This is an abnormal, wrong situation,” that’s what koans give us—they say, “Oh, well, I’m lost, fortunately. I don’t know what I’m doing.” 

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Hi, it’s good to see you all. It just makes me happy coming in. You know, happiness has no reason. There’s an important thing about that which comes out of the dark as a gift—when you stop reaching for things, they come to us. And we get offerings from the universe.

Think of something that makes you happy! Easy for kids, you know. It’s like the night of a big festival. Somebody wrote to me that the night of a big growing-up is like the night before the big feast. And that’s what it’s like going into sesshin. So, we have that. It’s always available. 

I just look out the window and the first apricot blossoms are here. That’s kind of an easy one. It’s a bit of a cliche. Nonetheless, it’s real. They’re beautiful. And they touch my heart. 

And, there’s something about lying down to go to sleep—I think it’s something about that we surrender and the world carries us. There’s something nice about surrendering and having the world carry us, not fighting with “All the things I could do if I were awake.” The world doesn’t care, really. The Dao holds us. 

Yunmen’s Midnight

So, we’ve been on the great Yunmen koan. Yunmen has a lot of koans about darkness. The one we started with was:

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

You can see that he’s saying that getting hold of something is not the point. 


I’ve been thinking that everybody needs to start by being lost. Also, that the Dharma is a spiral path. It will happen again, and then again, and then again—nice thing to know. So, that when you are lost, instead of thinking, “This is an abnormal, wrong situation,”that’s what koans give us—they say, “Oh, well, I’m lost, fortunately. I don’t know what I’m doing.” 

Fortunately, that’s just true. Being lost is just true. And I think that once you’ve sort of gotten used to being lost, expecting it, you think, “Wow, isn’t that cool? I could just go deeper into being lost.” I always think I’m orienting myself when I’m really just explaining the world. 

There’s a sort of tangle of things behind me. Vines. Anyway, move them! They’re tangled. [laughs] Spring vines are just starting here. I often like making flower arrangements with the tangles. And they’re like our thoughts but they’re beautiful, too, our thoughts. And they’re tangled. 

So, you know, we’re always working it out. In all these ways, we’re working it out. What is the explanation? What will happen if…? And that can be so many things: What will happen to my diagnosis? I have a close friend, a family friend, who’s going through a really dark diagnostic process at the moment with cancer, and stuff. And what will happen next? It’s dark—we don’t know. And what will happen next is—we’re here. No matter what, we are here. There’s something marvelously freeing about that; it’s like going to sleep—when you can really enjoy going to sleep. 

I’ve put the little boat on my altar, too. I don’t know if you can see it, but anyway! [laughs] The little card and the little boat and the little snowflake. Snowflakes, too, just get carried through the silence.

So, when you think, “Well, I’m lost, I’m sort of getting used to it, I don’t like being lost, but, you know, I’m sort of getting used to it,” what happens next? Then you get into real trouble. [laughs] It’s a Zen thing. 

Up a Tree

So, tonight, the next koan is:

You are hanging from a branch by your teeth.
Your feet can’t find the trunk, your hands can’t reach a branch.
Someone appears beneath the tree and asks,
“What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?”

You see, it’s good that the question is perhaps not the first thing in your mind at that time. “Why?” The great questions are always the same. “Why did the great ancestor Bodhidharma come from the west and begin the transformation that becomes possible with zazen?” He carried that from India. So, why?

And if you do not answer you fail in your duty towards a sincere question.
If you do answer you lose your life.
What will you do? 

[laughs] Like all good predicaments, there’s a little clue in this predicament because it’s kind of impossible. Because if you’re hanging from a branch by your teeth, you can probably think, “Reach?” But no, not in this universe. You can’t reach anything with your hands or your feet. And you know what’s going to happen. Maybe you’re two hundred feet up a California redwood. Perhaps you’re only one hundred feet up a really big oak tree. 

Xiangyan and Original Face

I really want to tell the story of this teacher because it relates to our theme of being carried in the dark. 

He was a brilliant student. And he was one of those people with a photographic memory; he could read a text and just remember it. He went to study with the great teacher Baizhang, but Baizhang was very old and died. So, he went to study with Guishan, who was the cook in Baizhang’s place, but who then went off to found his own temple. He had a very, very hard time but then gradually … He had gone up to this mountain that was supposed to be great for a temple—it had good auspicious signs, the Daoist geomancers told him—but nobody came for years and years. And just as he was about to give up, things changed and he became a famous teacher. 

So, this student, Xiangyan is his name, the person whose koan is the koan, Up a Tree, one teacher died and he went off to study with another one. And the teacher gave him:

Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born? 

This is actually a much-used Zen koan—really, one of the first koans sometimes used. But it’s hard to get hold of. So, he was given that. And he worked with it sincerely. 

And you can see that the “Quickly, without thinking good or bad,”—quickly. Like, right now. It’s happening right now—you don’t need to prepare to be here. Somehow important. But he couldn’t work out that bit about “my original face before my parents were born.” So, he was lost. Again, he was lost. And when you’re lost, that’s another way of saying, “I’m lost,” right? “And I can’t get rid of the ‘without thinking good or bad.’” That’s a really big thing, you know? 

So, when he comes to a Zen teacher, he thinks, “The teacher will judge me if I do not have the answer to my koan.”  “The teacher will judge me”—it’s got nothing to do with that, really, does it? If you think about it, it can’t be about not having an answer for your koan, it must be that I just think people will judge me. And that can’t be “people,” it must be you. I just think I’ll judge me. That’s probably true. I’ll go to the teacher, and I’ll judge myself for how I did, and then I’ll blame the teacher. [laughs] In fact, you can just cut out the teacher. There could be a statue in there or a cardboard cutout. 

Soen Nakagawa, who’s in our lineage, (and I have a calligraphy of his on my wall,) would do funny things to point this out. People would come into the interview room, the dokusan room, where you bowed across the threshold and you bowed to the seat and then you didn’t really meet the Roshi’s face until you stood up, in that old Japanese system. You stood up, and then, there wasn’t Soen Roshi, there was a pumpkin sitting in the teacher’s seat. That was his “Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face?” You may not be making best use of the teacher. You may just need a pumpkin. 

So, Xiangyan, this brilliant guy, he’s working away with this koan—and he has a lot of books and he’s written a lot of stuff. So it’s one of those stories that’s very common. It’s common to all of us that we think the answer is in the book. And so he thinks the answer is in the book, and he’s working away and flipping through his books, “It must be here somewhere. Let me see, where is it? Maybe it’s here, in this book of koans. Hmmmmm… I wonder if it’s that one?”  And he doesn’t get anywhere and he can’t find it. 

The Sixth Ancestor

The question is kind of famous because the sixth ancestor used it. You know the great story where the sixth ancestor was being pursued: He had been given transmission and the head monk thought he should have been given transmission and so he pursued the sixth ancestor. He had been a general, and in civilian life was still pretty strong and fit and big and fast. And the sixth ancestor is just this little kind of person, who in civilian life carried firewood. 

So, the head monk Ming caught him after a day, even though he had had a big start. And Ming had a sort of way that’s intense, like he really wanted something: Maybe he would kill him, or maybe his life would change. It was like that. And so, the sixth ancestor said to him, “Quickly, without thinking … ” 

And Ming tried to pick up Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl, which the sixth ancestor was making off with because he’d been given them. And he tries to pick them up but he gets overwhelmed by what he’s doing. And he freezes, and he can’t. The robe is as heavy as a mountain; he can’t pick it up. So, it’s one of those stories. How the Dao does not agree with you taking this robe away. The Dao does not agree. 

And so Ming says, “Ah, I came for the Dharma, not for the robe.” He did not know that that’s why he came. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? That we don’t know why we come. And we think we want all these things, you know, we think we want to be good or we want to be a star at something, want to be the one in charge. There’s something kind of nice about him saying, “I came for the Dharma, not for the robe.” 

And, then what? The sixth ancestor is just sitting there, wondering if he’s going to get killed or what, but he just asks Ming this question. Okay, very good. I can do that. He says, “Quickly, without thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born?” And head monk Ming just broke out sweating. Tears start and he is shaking. Tears came to his eyes and he had a great awakening.

So, that koan is associated with the sixth ancestor. 

Xiangyan and One TOK!

And Xiangyan received that koan from Guishan hundreds of years later. But he didn’t have instant rapport with it, the story, the first time it was used. So he worked with it and worked with it and looked through his books. And he came back to his teacher, “This thing about the original face,” he said, “I really can’t find the answer anywhere. And it is just tormenting me, I can’t sleep.” And the teacher said, “Very good.” And Xiangyan said, “No, no, I really…” 

From the teacher’s point of view, it’s going pretty well. [laughs] In other words, it’s pulling him out of the world he knows and constructs and strings together, the headlines he is telling himself every day. It’s pulling him out of that but it hasn’t pulled him through, and he’s stuck. We might say that it’s the same: he’s in the dark. We can see the profound nature of being in the dark.

You’ll experience that yourself. If you go through sesshin and you find a time in the dark, there’s a nobility in that. You’re being sincere. So, trust your own sincerity. Trust when you’re in the dark. It doesn’t feel good—or may not feel good—but, I don’t know, you can get to enjoy it, being in the dark.

So, he says, “You must tell me, please!” And Guishan, who was a great master, said, “I could tell you, but you would blame me later.” 

It’s something that one has to have one in one’s own heart, one has to have for oneself. Xiangyan, in a way, acknowledged that and decided he just wasn’t talented enough. So, he became very humble and decided to go off and become an anonymous gardener at the grave of the sixth ancestor. There was a little temple around the grave, and so on. And he said he’d go off and do that. And he did. Local people would feed him. And his role in the community was to sweep the garden, prune the trees—mainly just very humble things. 

And one day, he was sweeping the garden and a pebble flew up and hit a bamboo and went, TOK! Like that. And he awakened—a strange thing. Just like that

It is not our business how we awaken or when we awaken. You know, train whistles might do it. We don’t really know. You just wake up one morning and everything is clear, like that. It’s a real thing—you do step through a gate.

So he went back to the temple and said, “Hey, this thing happened to me.” [laughs] And he said to Guishan, 

One TOK! and I’ve forgotten all I knew. I didn’t need all that discipline at all.
In every movement, I uphold the way. 

When you lift your hand, you uphold the way. Lift your hand—see if it works. See, there you are! Holding up both hands? Yeah, you can see the whole of the universe. Ah, it’s like that! [claps] TOK sound. When you lift your hand, the galaxies lift their hands. And you can feel the magnificence of everything that you do and everything that happens. So, there’s that. 

Every moment I uphold the ancient way.

I’m never just passively drifting. 

But when I walk, no traces are left. 

Nice, you know. You walk as if through the sky, you walk and you’re not leaving things behind you. You’re not leaving your thoughts and regrets and complaints behind you. I don’t worry about whether I’m doing right or wrong. Don’t even worry about the precepts, “Is this virtuous or not?” Everywhere, those who have found out this truth, declare, “It’s very good.” Of the highest order!

And it was traditional for people to give a poem when they got enlightened. That was his poem. The best line is, One TOK! and I’ve forgotten all I knew,” Just like that, one TOK [snaps, claps], like that. And Guishan thought, It’s okay, hmm, pretty good—you seem to be doing better than when you left. 

Guishan had a senior student who was a friend. People lived together and knew each other for many years. This is something where we’re like the Chinese teachers, in that we put up with each other for a long time, enjoy each other’s company, and follow the Dharma together. His successor was Yangshan, who was very brilliant and famous and sparkling and fiery. And he said, “Ah, no, I don’t think so.” 

So, the person who had had the enlightenment experience with the one TOK said,

Last year’s poverty was not true poverty, last year’s darkness was not real darkness.
Last year, you got a fine awl, like a needle through.
But this year, there’s not even the awl. 

And Yangshan said, “Well, you paint a pretty good kind of Zen. But you don’t even have a glimpse of the great Zen.” He was a very annoying teacher, Yangshan. [laughs] He said, “Guishan accepts it, but I do not accept it. That’s rather wonderful. Yangshan had a mouth. Then he says, “You’ve got to do better than that.” 

And then he said, “I have a single potential that can be seen in the twinkle of an eye. If you still don’t understand, call the newest person in the temple and ask them about it.” And that convinced even Yangshan. The newest person in the temple hasn’t trained themselves and probably feels clueless. Maybe other people think they’re clueless. Maybe you think you’re clueless. “Yeah, I haven’t really studied long enough. I’ve only been at it for forty years, or five minutes.” [laughs] 

And he said, “It’s in everyone.” You know how that is—you hear a bird and you can tell, Oh, the bird has it. It’s a tremendously touching thing. The apricot blossoms coming up, just the way the stars come out, something to do with apricots and stars, you know. Everything has it. The twilight coming on here—in NorCal, the twilight is coming on.

And the great Mazu said, 

From the beginning of time, from before the time of the Buddha,
no being has ever fallen out of their Buddha nature, their great, true nature. 

So that’s what Yangshan was pointing out. And that’s why he was convinced. He just said, “Well, ask the newest person.” And even when he went away—he couldn’t get his koan, and he went away and he did something sort of faithful and something that was true for him. Related to his koan, he went away and swept the garden. He might have been meditating, but he might have not been meditating—we don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, because he was being carried. He was being carried in the Dao when he did that kind of cool thing. It’s a great story in that way, I think. 

And, this koan is kind of a good koan for beginners, because you can see how difficult life is, in it, and you can see how absurd life is, in it. It doesn’t try to make sense for you. And we realize, deep in our hearts, making sense of things is just what the mind does but it’s not what makes us full of joy, and happy. 

Whereas, even if you lift your hand—let’s try it again, see if it works. See, you’re holding up the Dao! [laughs] Don’t be chickenshit, lift your hand! And you see how to let go into it and not to protect yourself. “I could lift my hand, but I could, A, look silly and, B, be disappointed. Maybe I wouldn’t be happy!” Let’s try it again. Try the other hand. See? Joy! Joy! 

Joy is not far to seek, it just comes out of your own breast and your own heart. 

Being in Sesshin

So, there’s a nobility in sesshin. I just want to say that it’s great that we’re doing sesshin together. 

My early sesshin, they were kind of hard for me. In Australia, a bunch of us did sesshin because somehow we had started reading about Zen and thought, “This sounds really cool.” There were a couple of people who’d been to zendos in either Kyoto or London or Tokyo, and they were trying to help, and they’d walk around the zendo and say, “Sit still, you’re not trying hard enough!” in really big, loud voices. Well, that had been their experience in the Japanese system. “Don’t move!” Things like that. 

Also, we were in the subtropics. It was sort of warm and that wasn’t really a problem, but mosquitoes could get in all the time. Someone would hit a mosquito, and someone else would say, “Don’t move!” you know, and stuff like that. And so it was kind of interesting because after a while, you don’t care about mosquitoes, you’re just so deep in your meditation. Good thing to know that the thing you think is really the impossible difficulty is not that hard. It’s a small thing, you know. You can really get yourself twisted around about things. Anyway, when I possibly could, I staffed at winter zendos with mosquito netting. 

It would be hard, and my knees would ache, but something was sort of changing in me and purifying me. I couldn’t tell what it was. But then I had a chance to go and live in a real temple, a training temple. And there was that same thing where I was working with my first koan, and I really was like Xiangyan—I could see things but I couldn’t see what I came for. 

And it was nice. I was happier—I don’t know, I may have been nicer to people, and I was somehow more at ease in my life. I can feel that you might be able to feel that. I’ve seen a couple of people today where I can feel something’s flowering in their life. I think they know it, you know. But even if you don’t, it’s like Xiangyan, sweeping. 

There’s something marvelous about being a gardener and being surrounded by plants. There’s a kind of nobility about the humble work. You’re not full of greed and envy and watching stock tickers all the time, and things like that, you know, and anxiety and stuff. You’re just gardening. You can trust that your fate is carrying you. 

Being Carried

And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re in the great vessel. We’re being carried. And the ancient-ness… in the poem we started with, which is about the boat without oars, carrying us being carried on the stream:

When you turn your head, you see the waterweed motionless on the ancient bank. 

We’re in the context of the ancient-ness, the ancient bank of the vast world, emptiness, the place before the galaxies were born, that timelessness: You have that access in your heart, to that “Quickly.” Before thinking good and evil, before your parents were even born, before the galaxy was even born—there’s the vastness. 

And you can’t cling to the vastness because there’s also you and your shape and your name and all the stuff you’re trying to get away from about yourself. If you’re trying to get away from something about yourself, that’s the difficulty that we can turn towards. It’s just a way of being lost. Trying to hide myself from myself. Because we don’t really have much of a self and it’s alright—we’re getting carried, anyway. 

Let’s just feel it for a minute. Let’s just sit here together and feel it. Feel the time, feel what it is like to be in the dark, feel what it’s like to be hanging from a branch by your teeth. 

And nonetheless, we still have obligations. Some clueless person comes along and has to ask this kind of completely artificial Zen question, and here I am trying to stay alive holding on tight. But, you know, you’re not going to be able to do that forever. You can’t get through by holding on tight. So, don’t be afraid, you know?

And you realize that actually, there’s no time. Every moment you’re alive, and there’s no moment that is outside of your Buddha nature, there’s no moment outside of the wonder in life. You just can’t get away from that. So, I don’t know, enjoy it then, eh?

My experience with sesshin was that I just did as many as I could and just took some time out of my life. Then, gradually—”purified” isn’t quite right—some of the trouble stopped being real. 

The other big thing which I might talk about tomorrow is that your heart expands, and so, there’s a kind of love that appears. If you’re a very tough Zen person trying to get enlightened, you know, “and to hell with everything else,” that might be a surprising thing. “Wait, I ended up loving people? That’s disgusting!” That kind of thing. Because there’s nothing that makes us feel more vulnerable, actually, than being loved, and also in the loving. 

I think that’s something that’s part of, we might say, not just enlightenment but bringing our lives with us. We can’t leave our shadow behind, we can’t leave all the things we don’t like about ourselves—we have to take them through the gate, too. And maybe the Dao will heal some of those things, maybe not. It doesn’t matter—they’re part of your Buddha nature.

So, we can trust this path we’re on. That’s what I suggest.

Right now. Enjoy yourself.



Winter Sesshin
Evening Dharma Talk, February 2, 2023
John Tarrant

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