Day two of 2018 Winter Sesshin. John Tarrant introduces the great koan “No,” a gift from the ancestors. The gift is what happens when we hang out with the koan. “No” as the purest gate. When we step through, we find out we’re here! It’s not personal, you’re harmonizing with the universe. Transcript from a recording on January 17, 2018.
Here we are in the middle of sesshin, and—and what? It’s grand. Even without words, it’s grand.
So we’re working with this old poem, an ancient poem, and it’s kind of an excursion among the ancestors—people who handed treasures to us that might help us on our way. When I first discovered koans, I was kind of amazed that people had thought of us. Over a thousand years ago, people had thought, “Oh, there will be people in California who—we ought to give them something. Their times will probably be difficult, you know. Dark moments.” So they handed on these stories, these talismanic environments, these diagnoses—they’re divinations, in a way. They handed these on. They came from hand to hand to us. And when we take them with that spirit, they’re a gift to us. The gift is, it’s not like, even a vase you put flowers in, or something. It might be beautiful, but it changes us when we keep company with it. So the gift is what happens to us when we hang out with it, walk around in it. It follows us around. And so we understand the ancestors by what arises in us. So I thought that was a pretty good gift they gave us. Nice thing.
There are different styles of hanging out in the koan world. If there are sixty people in this room, that means there are sixty styles. There is a handmade quality to it, because it’s not so much an object or a gadget as something that’s an interaction between you and the world. Between you and your own true nature, actually. So something is shown to you. It’s a revelation in that way; something is revealed. It’s something about your own place in the universe.
So, the gift is a little hard to explain but it’s easy to experience. It’s much easier to experience than it is to explain. So, if you try to explain, it’ll take a long time to get to the experience, which is nice to know. It’s sort of like kissing, better to try it than explain it! [laughs] I’m not responsible for my metaphors; they’re given to me by the universe—it is. There’s an erotic quality to the koan work, because you’re in love with the world. Not only are you in love with the world, the world has a tender love for you. A regard for you. So it’s a nice thing, because you feel like you’re at home. And even when you’re in your bad moments—when you can get into, “Nobody loves me and my clothes don’t fit. I’m going into the garden to eat worms,” or whatever it is. But you know what, you’re kind of full of shit. It’s not really that way! It’s sort of, like—you might enjoy pretending it’s that way for a while, because of the theater of it; but it’s really infinitely welcoming, and you’re always at home. That’s a lovely thing.
It really is this poem, “Taking Part in the Gathering.” It just says,”Try it, you might like it!” But try to walk it, rather than understanding it in the way we usually understand things. Try to let it in and change you. And you’ll notice that a poem like this is something like meditation, because it doesn’t make sense in obvious ways. But as you let it in to you, as you keep company with it, something shifts. Like, something shifts in your relationship to things. So that’s the big thing here.
People say there’s a sudden quality to waking up, which is kind of true. But also, there’s this other thing, where if you just enter any moment, “Oh!” [claps hands] Any moment. Then, that changes us a little bit. We may not notice a big change, but it changes us a bit. And then you enter another moment, and there’s a kind of gradual staining of us. A dyeing, as in fabric dyeing.
You can feel the transformation. You don’t have to know a lot about it, but it’s like something growing in a deep way. Your heart is changing, and you’ll find that you understand that. Mainly, we come to spiritual practice because, I don’t know, we thought we needed something. It might help. You’ll find that, oh, actually, it does help—but not for the reasons I thought, because the person who thought that isn’t here anymore. Because I’ve changed. Yeah? I think other people probably recognize that, right? It’s a cool thing. Mysterious and cool.
And the miracle of zazen happens at any moment, because—it’s kind of a cliche—there’s only this moment, right? You may have noticed this yourself. Because there’s only this moment, it’s always worthwhile to show up for it. And there’s a certain courage in showing up for the moment, because we’re naked, really, when we do. We’re not armored. And because we’re not protected, then the universe can hold us. It’s a different thing; it can love us and hold us.
And we can love our own lives and love each other. So the courage is in that vulnerability. And the vulnerability is that I have to do it now, before I’ve improved myself. Because if you wait until you’ve improved yourself, good luck! Somehow there’s something not quite honest about that. It’s about embracing life, right? It’s like, it’s not going to be [the truth] because that’s just my idea about my master plan. Stop trying to control things, it says. Shitou says, “Trying to control things is only delusion.” That’s in the poem, right?
So, we did do—in a certain sense—all those things we didn’t want other people to know about us. But mainly we didn’t want us to know about us. It’s alright, it’s here. And it’s not really important—in the world of the koan, it doesn’t care. Truly, deeply, the universe does not mind, does not care about that. If we enter this moment, then the flowering begins.
So I thought we’d try a little exercise. You up for a little exercise? The basic exercise is always the same, it’s to keep to the moment. So, try it right now: [meditation]
Just be here—like, stop. You can tell, if I try to stop, that’s doing something, it’s not stopping yet. So just notice, try noticing. And like—you need to do nothing to prove your worth! You need to do nothing to be worthy of enlightenment. You need to do nothing to be worthy of your citizenship in the universe right now. So just try it. You need to dislike nothing, because there’s not really anything to dislike, right? You need to grasp at nothing because you have everything.
Is that okay? So far so good, right? Could be worse. [laughs] I mean it’s kind of great, isn’t it? It’s amazing that this is available to us. I mean, this vastness is right here. So, the next thing is a little exercise. Tolerate this with me, because I think it’s cool. You might think it’s obvious, so,—that’s kind of my job, to be obvious.
So, to show you how this is built up—this is how the field of the koan work got built up: in the bright and the dark of it. There’s a famous koan that I worked with, and some of you, everybody, has worked with at some stage; the great koan “No.”
A student says, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
You’re a dog, you’re you. Do you have Buddha nature or not?
And the teacher says, “No!”
So immediately that kicks us into, “Am I worthy? Is my dog worthy? Will my dog get into heaven with me,” whatever. “Can my dog get enlightened too? You’re saying it can’t! I think my dog’s pretty enlightened.” So you can tell, that “arguing part” of the mind, that’s arguing with life, gets evoked immediately—koans often do that—and so it’s offering you a gateway through that, into something else. Where, if you just quietly let yourself say “No…” (gently) just “Nooooo…” to yourself. Like, try it right now.
Everyone: [chanting] Nooooo…
I mean, take the ride. It might not kill you.
Everyone: [chanting] Nooooo…
So, we enter. And then when we step through, we find out we’re here. That moment is always available to you.
Gradually, it’s a moment where there’s no delusion happening. We’re not adding anything, we’re not subtracting and trying to flee anything. So, it’s profoundly moving; just that moment with the koan. It’s like you are the koan. You’re not trying to do the koan. You could say it’s kind of fun to think, “It might be the koan’s doing me.” Which is kind of true. In any event, we’re here, and the whole universe is in this moment with us. Everybody knows, everybody holds the universe, right? We kind of know that, but we act like, “Well, I don’t know how to deal with that,” so I’ll just pretend that everybody’s a gadget or something. I’ll pretend that everybody doesn’t hold the universe. I’ll pretend I don’t hold the universe. But I do.
So, in that moment of the sitting, that moment of the koan, we just step through the gate. There it is. And then you notice that you don’t have to deny that, you don’t have to say, “I’m insufficient, or I lack something, or I’m not enough.” Because you are [enough.] It feels sort of petty to be complaining about how unenlightened I am. “After that, [enlightenment] you care? You’re still judging like that?”
And you’ll notice that in the world of koans, “In the world where there is before and after,” as the poem says—you do, actually, deepen. You can feel this movement building up inside you where you’ve changed. And you think, “Oh shit, this thing happened and I didn’t change.” But actually you did because you notice that even where it gets dark or difficult or you hate it, even that eventually becomes its own gate. The worst thing—it’s something, it’s life, and you can still love it and be present. So that’s your basic “101 Meditation.” You can tell 101 Meditation is also the Ph.D. in meditation. Which is a kind of nice thing, because it doesn’t reward expertise. It rewards “This!” Nooooo…. It’s not a matter of collecting credentials, it’s a matter of showing up with your own heart and mind. What do you think?
Student: You make it sound so simple.
John: Nooooo… Try it.
John: Thank you. It’s nice to jump in, isn’t it?
Student: I actually thought I sounded silly at first.
John: Yeah, but it’s boring to think that, isn’t it? Anybody want to back her up? Try it again?
John: Well done! So you can see, there’s nothing to apologize for. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe when we say “Can’t do it wrong”—you see? It’s an amazing thing. Can you experience that the universe is holding you at this moment? As I said, it could be worse. There’s a way in which we can enter, and we are always accompanied by the universe, because we’re here. Even to say “accompanied” is a bit dualistic. We’re always, it’s always us. Anybody?
Student: How long did it take you to believe that koans were magic?
John: Nooooo… That long. You see, it’s nice, isn’t it? Everything—things get small; and then it opens again. We get afraid, “Oh, it will take too long.” But it opens again. The right amount of time is always the answer—not long! Strangely enough, there’s an ease to it, because the gate is open. We think the gate’s closed and we’ve got to work out that it might be locked, but actually the gate’s open.
Student: First of all you’ve got to find the gate.
John: Well, Nooooo… There was a teacher who, whenever he was asked a question, held up one finger. Yasutani used to do this, apparently. But one finger, that’s good enough. Always good enough. Being here is always the answer. Being the universe is always the answer. Anybody else?
John: Not much to talk about after a while, is there? Can’t find a problem. If I found a problem, it’d be interesting. “Wow, cool, I’ve got a problem.”
[Roshi] David Weinstein: John—I’m so much reminded of how valuable it was for me, in my relationship to this koan, that I thought was “No,” and not “Mu.” And somehow, I knew that I needed that little bit of actual “Mu” that means potentially “No.” I was just sitting here appreciating it greatly for that.
John: See, somebody says something, and everything opens out, right? Everything goes through the gates. Like, somebody says something wise, or somebody says something I don’t understand, and it’s fine. Nooooo… It’s for us. It’s available to us. You know, it’s often said that on day two, particularly late on the second day of retreat—which is where we are—that the demons arise. [laughter]
One of the great Japanese koan masters, used to know—he has that great story about the demons, where—you’ve heard this, but I’ll tell it again:
The two friends are traveling, and they get a bit lost in the mountain country. There’s this old cabin, and a bit of smoke coming out the chimney, and it looks pretty ramshackle. They knock on the door, and there’s this old farmer type there who says,
“Ah, I can’t let you in. There’s ghosts and demons around here. This is pretty haunted territory. They come for you at night, and you could be a demon yourself.”
And so, one of the friends decides to go on and look for a shelter. The other friend talks the farmer into getting him into an outbuilding, and so he’s in this outbuilding spending the night. It’s gonna be cold, and it’s in the mountains.
And, in the middle of the night, something starts banging on the door, and he’s thinking, “Oh my god, it’s the demons there.” He spends the whole night holding the demon off. It takes all his energy, all his energy. And in the end, dawn comes and he collapses, and the demon breaks in, and it’s his friend, who’s come back from the [place?—inaudible.]
So, that’s your demon—your friend. And how do you make the demon your friend? Nooooo. And we could say, by not excluding it in the first place. It’s your shadow, it’s alright; it’s your shadow. You might think parts of you are not salubrious, however, wholeness is more profound than any kind of narrow perception, and can’t be avoided, really, in the quest for enlightenment. And so, whatever goes on with you: Things you don’t understand, things you don’t like about yourself, your impulses that are, admittedly, appalling; your fears, the things you feel like you fail at. All of those—you don’t have to subtract them. And all of your beauty and your virtue and your courage and your sincerity—you wouldn’t be here without that. And your kindness. You don’t have to even hold on to that, because there are infinite qualities that are available to you too. Nooooo…
And you know, M. reminded me that Shitou found this poem [Taking Part in the Gathering] in a dream. Like, he had a dream where he was riding on a turtle with his grand teacher, his teacher’s teacher, the Sixth Ancestor. And, fair enough. So then he wrote this poem.
So there is a way in which even when you fall asleep, the forces will be helping you, yeah? “The work in darkness goes on until dawn.” If you’re trying really hard, or you’re finding fault with your meditation, that can’t be the koan. That’s not the world of “Nooooo.” Because trying is adding something. Even subtracting something is adding something. You can tell because there’s, “Ah, I’m fussing too much.” Somehow, it’s already here.
So, is there anything you’ve noticed? Anything you’ve discovered. Anything you want to say?
The old teachers were always holding up these big neon signs saying, “Here it is.” And we’re saying, “Oh wow. What’s that mean?” That’s what koans are about. “Here it is—what’s that mean?” And so, great! Even that’s fine, too. Like the student says, “How do we practice better?” and the teacher says, “What do you dislike that you’re asking that question?” What is there to dislike?
Student: I was noticing something about the brightness. I was having an experience where I was in a conversation, and I was trying to enter into the conversation. And I’d, like, come this way, and that didn’t work. And then I tried another way, and that didn’t work. It wasn’t really entering the conversation; it was getting my opinion across, would be more accurate.
John: And that’s great, because that moment is a moment of prajna right? That’s where “Nooooo” gets in, right? Otherwise, trying to have a conversation—”Wait, I’m lying to myself.” That’s where it’s just so delicious and fun.
Student: Well, and it’s exactly to the point, because I kept trying to come in and get my point across. At some moment the brightness revealed itself in that—”Give it up. Just give it up. Let it be. Be here.”
John: Yeah. Like, for a friend to love you, you don’t have to do a campaign. It’s like that. It’s the same with the brightness.
Student: And so I was aware that the brightness just arose by itself. I didn’t have to do anything, it just happened. And I was aware of it, in the moment that it happened, and I stopped my project. But I also became aware that there’s another piece, which is when I bring the light in; when I consciously am aware that there is something. So that just happened spontaneously. There are other times when I notice I’m suffering and I realize I don’t have to suffer. There’s a way in which I can turn the light around, and then the whole experience changes. It’s been interesting to me. I never really thought of it in terms of two ways in which the brightness reveals itself. There’s probably more, but those were the two ways it showed up for me. If that makes sense. I think it does.
Nooooo… That’s the purest entry. Just, Nooooo… What you said is sufficient, it’s enough. The universe revealed itself, and then the next moment is here: Nooooo… Like that.
And then in terms of the world of practice, we’re kind of working out, “Oh, I’m not suffering,” and then suddenly, “I’m suffering,” so what do I do about that? Which is kind of what you’re talking about. And then you’ll notice there are different strategies. And sometimes the light, what you’re calling the light, which Shitou talks about—is the darkness, he calls it, pulling in the darkness—is before any difficulties or problems arose. And so he’s very close to the Daoist spirit, you know, “The valley spirit never dies.” Everything rests, comes out of the valley, not out of the brightness, you know. But other teachers call it the brightness because, you know, if you call it one thing eventually someone’s going to call it the opposite. And so, there’s a great thing—there’s a koan [collection], Entangling Vines, which is a lovely way to think of koans. They tangle up your conscious attempts to find the truth, so that you won’t actually find the truth.
The teacher says, “Well, there’s different kinds of awakening.” There’s the awakening where you’ve found a light, but it’s really behind your back; and so wherever you go, you’re actually stumbling, because the light is behind you. It’s a real light, but it’s behind you. So you get glimpses, and it falls on things sometimes. Then there’s another way, where you kind of find the light, and it’s with you and then it’s not with you. That’s when the light is beside you. And everybody, I think, has had some experience of this where, when it’s with you, “I can see.” But then sometimes “I can’t,” and you get defensive or feel badly treated. Being defensive is a good sign you’re in the dark, right? Explaining yourself, things like that. And then when the light’s in front of you there’s “No.” You don’t—it’s not really a problem. You don’t really have delusion, enlightenment—I don’t know, I can’t tell, it’s just everything; it’s like that. And you can tell the genius of the koans is that you can go into that. You can just go into this one moment. Nooooo. And, you can see, it’s not even a question of where the light is. You can feel that.
Then the thing is—it’s great in the meditation hall, then I walk around, and it’s not. So the light’s back beside me, or whatever it is. But, you know, that’s okay too. That’s the light, too. That’s the truth, too. And so if it’s obscure, that’s the gate, and the light’s in the obscurity. Even if you’re complaining to yourself about, “This koan sucks.”
Actually, Hakuin—the guy who told the story about the demons who were friends from the beginning—he went through a period in his life where he was training, and he just hated his koan, and decided he was surrounded by strange and evil people in the meditation hall. So he had that paranoid revulsion about practice. He spent his days reading poetry, until he died. And then he got bored, and came back, and became a great master.
There’s that quality, whatever it is, that comes up—and you attack your own path, or you attack yourself; that’s a way of keeping yourself in prison. And why do we do that? I don’t know. We just do. I could give you reasons, but I don’t know if they matter. It’s all about keeping a “me” that I think—I said the reasons don’t matter and now I’m telling you what they are! But there’s a thing in which it’s safer to be “Me, unhappy” than “Nooooo.” And you feel it, right? There’s no one there, and no one’s doing No. The universe is doing No. No is doing you. No is pretending to be a human being in this room. It’s kind of fun, you know.
Student: I have a little story about the prisons we create. [Someone?—inaudible] in interview had the misfortune of sitting next to me. You know that I like to sing, kind of loud, I enjoy it. But for whatever reason, whenever it’s time to do sutra service, I just don’t want to go. I mean, I obviously like it. You’ve seen me, I clearly like it and whenever Amaryllis says “Grizzly Bears,” my heart just cracks open. I love it. But for some reason, I don’t want to go. Almost every time. “No.”
John: Nooooo. So again, this weird thing. It’s fine.
Student: That’s it. Even that.
John: It’s beautiful. It’s great, T. loves to sing, and he hates going to sing. It’s so great. I love that stuff. That’s getting into the true territory of the mystery. The true territory of the not-knowing.
Student: So what about leaning into the darkness? I was thinking about the political situation, having trouble sleeping, so I got up really early and was in a yoga pose and I said, “I’m just going to lean into this.” And it just opened up. And all of a sudden, you know what—I’m the same as him. There’s a sameness, and I was like, “Wow.”
John: Yeah. That’s the world of No. Nooooo…
Student: So, rather than protecting myself, I just…
John: Well, protecting yourself is like, good luck! Good luck, right? I’m going to protect myself from nuclear catastrophe. Climate change. “I alone will triumph over climate change!” But, you can feel, there are so many ideas we project out. Political scenes are real and all that, but they’re also delusion. And we project our inner conflicts out onto the political scene, as well. Everybody knows that, right? Except when we don’t. And the fierceness of people contriving ideas about themselves, and defending themselves, is very deep in any political sphere. And sometimes it feels more fragile and more desperate. It’s deeper, like now. And you feel like, “Shit, things could unravel quicker that I thought.” And so there’s all that. And still the deep inner work is the same. And the freer you can get, the freer the people around you will get. You can walk through the fires, you can walk through the mud, whatever. Or get swept away by it. So it’s a beautiful thing.
The task is always the same. If you want a task, the task is, “Oh, this is my task. I’m a meditation teacher.” And anybody who meditates is a meditation teacher. Whatever they’re doing. They’re doing political action, if they’re doing (where’s D.?) dance, choreographing koans around the world—that’s walking through the fires, really. And it changes other people. So there’s a bodhisattva offering there, but also, it always comes from changing your own heart. Opening your own heart.
Student: The intention. To me this word intention, when it was studied in my shamanic thing, really made a big difference. Thinking about how the good intention is working through this good work.
John: It’s an interesting thing, because what happens is you have to go before there is any intention, which is the word “No” before there was a “me” to intend. And then, in the bodhisattva path, there’s this expansive feeling of good intention where, I’m not just in it for me, I’m in it for us. But the way to start being in it for us, is to really do the inner work. Then it really starts to flow, and then I realize, “Well, wait me is us. Us is me.” So, it’s kind of nice.
Student: I’ve sat, kind of, in this area for all the talks, and I can’t stop looking at the flower arrangement there over your left shoulder. It’s so, kind of, arresting when I look at it. Especially when you’re sitting there, because it seems like you matched your rakusu to it.
John: I had it specially sewn.
Student: Yeah. It’s there just for me. So that’s my Nooooo. It’s just really striking.
John: It’s the “Pow!” smashing quality of beauty and blossoms.
Lingyun walked the roads of China for thirty years seeking wisdom, sinking deeper and deeper into his walking. And one day, he rounded a canyon and saw peach blossoms—Quince blossoms, in this case. On the opposite wall of the canyon, he came around a bend:
“For thirty years I sought a master swordsman. How many times did the leaves fall and the buds break out. But from the day I saw those peach blossoms, I’ve had no doubts.”
And I know you know this story is a famous story that I like. Then hundreds of years later in Japan, in another country (that was in China), a teacher wrote about it and said,
“The village peach trees did not know their own crimson but still they freed Lingyun from all his doubts.”
So, in other words, it’s objective, it’s involuntary, the process of awakening. It’s not personal, it doesn’t depend on your personal efforts. You’re harmonizing with the universe—it’s carrying you. That’s a good place to stop. Thank you very much.