What is the journey for? What is it to have this life? We’re in it—it’s so marvelous, so overwhelming and so incomprehensible. You’ll find, I think, that you can’t stand back from it and answer that question. So the “good day” is just how it is. It’s like the gift of the universe, and you’re in the universe, having received the gift. Transcript of John Tarrant’s dharma talk in Winter Sesshin 2020.
Dharma Talk in Winter Sesshin, February 12, 2020
All the beings of the universe are here. In sesshin it’s always there, but it becomes more visible to everyone, there’s a kind of light that’s in everyone. And it’s sort of nice—I just want to say that. It’s kind of nice to notice, and I’m for it.
One of the other great inquiry koans is Yunmen’s Good Day. And that’s the good day. Like,
Don’t ask me about before the full moon, what about after the full moon?
Everyday is a good day.
Somebody came in today and I said, “How’s it going?” And she said, “Life is poifect.” Yah, that’s the good day. But it’s not a sort of sentimental feeling, it’s a sort of, we’re in something that’s carrying us. It’s not how I feel today, actually. It runs through all that. For me there’s a light quality to it, as in not heavy. But, you know, everybody’s got their own galaxy with their own good day in it.
One of the things to notice is how in the midst of what looks like trouble, it’s not trouble. How are those tears? Well, I don’t know if I’m sad or happy. There’s a kind of inner movement. It’s that we’re walking the Way, and there’s an inner movement. And we can’t come to conclusions about where we are because they’re just horse shit, they’re just an assessment, you know. And what’s the first principle of the holy teaching: ”Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” There isn’t a conclusion to come to about this moment, because it’s here—and here is so vast. Here was given to us before the beginning of the universe, by dragons, just so you know. [laughs]
And so you’ll feel yourself walking around in that. And you’ll notice that we have our problem and it’s on a leash and we make sure it follows us. Make sure it doesn’t get hurt on the freeway or anything. And in the good day, there’s nothing that happened to the problem, really. Nobody came up and said, “You’re being a good Zen student, I’ll take your problem off your hands!” [laughter] You just—the light is in you, and you’re in it, and it surrounds you. You hold up your hands, and the flames, in a way, come out of your hands. And you just see people.
I heard the violin today, so I walked into the room where it was playing, but [PZI Cantor and Musician] Amaryllis didn’t hear me. And I could just hear her from the back, because she was listening, she was just playing, in a room alone. So I just watched her, and it was like light through no good deed of hers. It was just how it is. So the good day is just how it is. It’s not an achievement, and it’s not because you held your mouth right or any of that stuff. It’s like the gift of the universe, and you’re in the universe, having received the gift. And so there’s that.
So it was Hakuin, I think, who said this great thing about the good day:
This thing is cold, you just can’t approach it.
You get his point, right? There’s nothing you can do with it. You can’t make it into anything, you can’t use it for anything, because it’s just too vast. You can’t explain it, but you can be grateful for it, and you can appreciate it. And then you’ll find that loving your life and knowing what you love, in a sense having the courage—that’s the cold bit too—having the courage and integrity to find what you love, you can trust that. And to find the generosity in yourself to give that to people.
That’s the “sword” part of it. I kind of like that too. The general idea was that the people at Yunmen’s place—they’re scary, Yunmen’s scary. [laughs] And he’s the guy who had an attendant, and every day he’d ask him a dharma question—every day he [the attendant] never answered Yunmen’s ”What is it?” He could never answer. For eighteen years, he couldn’t answer! He answered, but Yunmen said “Mrrmmff” [mumbles] and then just laughed. But he kept asking. So the devotion and love in that is tremendous.
The attendant wrote down all of Yunmen’s efforts to help, which became The Record of Yunmen. He wrote it down on his paper robe. Because Yunmen wouldn’t let him write anything down, he had to secretly write it down. He’d rush next door and write it down in the robe and then fold it over. So that’s the tenderness of the good day.
The fact that it is happening now but “Now” is a journey too—that your whole life has been opening you to Now. And it’s good, somehow, to be loving and patient with our process. That’s the other thing to say. You can’t bully the Tao—it’s bigger than you. It doesn’t care. Ask it if it cares! And it’s so great, that’s why we like it. That’s what’s saving for us. That’s why the good day is so intimately tied with the not-knowing. Not-knowing is most intimate because that opens the space, then we just see, “Oh, it’s good. Life is good. Still crazy after all these years and life is good.”
Here’s Szymborska, one of many great Polish poets, [reads]
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise though I loath improvisation
The whole thing about Chan is that it’s an improvisational culture. Because we love it? No, because that’s what life is! That’s the good day.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for hammy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliates me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.
Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.
If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage.)
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.
So, not knowing is most intimate. And you see there’s no alternative to life, right? We’re in it. Good luck with that! Good luck with finding something else. You can see the light, she’s got that light, they call it prajna sometimes, in Sanskrit—that’s the fancy word for it, but “light” is good enough. It’s in us all.
You notice when you come to conclusions and you have a prejudice of some kind and you realize, “Oh,” it puts a little wall between you and life. Or it makes you smaller. Someone had this great phrase,”It’s like that lead blanket the dentist puts over your chest.” So, it’s kind of great. It’s great when people come and give me the metaphors. We recognize them because we all have the same experiences. So, the anesthetic of conclusions and believing things and not keeping the field open.
So, a couple of things, little story bits come to mind. Great Guishan, one of the other great old masters. We have a special feeling for him because he and his brilliant student were kind of best friends. You tended to see them together. They had a lot of conversations together. In one of them Guishan said to Yangshan, “When did the flows stop with you?” You know how the mind’s flowing all the time and there’s like, I don’t know—my mind has a fatal addiction to pop songs. Tags. I don’t care about it actually, but my mind has its own opinion. My mind has a mind of it’s own. There’s stuff that appears: thoughts, desires, longings, worries about things, whatever. That’s “the flows,” right? And people have always talked about, “Well, can you stop the flows?” Go ahead, right now, stop! And then you see the freight cars, buckle up! [laughter]
And you realize there’s something rich and strange going on here with the flows. It’s not like, “Okay, stop your mind.” Naively, when we notice that our mind does things we hadn’t given it permission to do, we think we can revoke its privileges. Take back it’s passport and things. [laughter] But it doesn’t care about that. So then there’s that thing about, well, maybe you’ll get friendly with the flows. Well, that’s one of the great old mind-training things: [recites]
Don’t raise delusive thoughts! When you have delusive thoughts, don’t get rid of delusive thoughts.
Take it easy. Relax. That’s the thing about working hard to get rid of delusive thoughts, having the mind work hard is kind of…I don’t know—it’s not cold enough for Yunmen, you know? It’s not tough enough, in a way. It’s like, laziness is harder. Profound path, you know? Linji said, “Someone with nothing to do.” So it’s that. So the good day’s inside that. It’s got to be already here, right? It’s not like it came because I stopped my mind.
But it’s an interesting thing, the “mind flows,” because sometimes they stop in meditation, or they pretty much stop. You can tell there’s something going on, but you can tell it’s like hearing the wind in the trees outside. It’s fine, you might even like it. The wind in the trees can sound wonderful, but it’s not telling you what to do—you don’t think it’s you, all that stuff. With the flows of the mind you basically think, “Oh, that’s me. That’s what I am.” And then at some stage you realize, “Ah, that’s got nothing to do with me. Why wasn’t I informed? I didn’t get the notice.”
That’s sort of strange! And then you might wonder what you are or there might be some groping around for that. Then you realize, “Oh, it’s my journey of discovery, nobody else can do this for me,” which is great, because even if I tried to persuade somebody to understand my life for me, I don’t believe them anyway. And it starts to become yours as you realize, “Oh, I’m not this [mind flows] and well…what am I?” Which is where we come back again to the not-knowing thing.
You don’t have to know who you are to take the step. In fact, as Szymborska says, you can’t. You can’t have Wednesday again. Or Thursdays again. Wednesday’s the one you want to plan. Thursday’s the one you want to do over. But everybody—at least when I started meditation, I was always wanting to just stop my mind. I thought it would be kind of interesting. Not a stupid idea, but then I didn’t know what my mind was or what was in it or what that stopping meant. So I had some unclarity about my terms, as they say in philosophy. I found that the effort to stop, of course, was a thing in the mind.
But you’ll notice when you put yourself in a practice, in a great vessel like retreat, you’ll notice that actually things do calm down a lot. Radiance become more visible. And that’s a real thing. You’ll notice that people speak about kindness, but I don’t know if that’s a tremendously good description, because it’s not something you will do or want to do. It’s just a feature of consciousness that appears. It’s not like, fluffy—because you might realize that saying “No” to somebody is better than saying “Yes.” There’s that sense of the tenderness and beauty of everyone and everything, is there.
Every now and again you’ll realize, “Oh, I just didn’t have much going on for a day or two or awhile.” You might have that experience, you might not. I remember talking this to an abbott, an interesting guy, years ago. He said,”It had been three years since he’d had a disturbing thought.” It was true—he had a real feel for emptiness. Complete beginners would walk into a room where he was teaching, and somehow they’d get emptiness. They’d walk out, and then they wouldn’t again. He had a kind of presence about him; you could tell he wasn’t making it all up. You could tell he had a feeling for the Heart Sutra. He was a Thai guy, actually.
And the feeling that the Heart Sutra isn’t something to believe, but is something you might notice is happening in your life. Like that. I thought, “Oh, I wonder what he means by that,” Basically does it mean he doesn’t have thoughts? Or he only thinks about, “Oh the fundraising plan for the temple.” It really depends what he means by a disturbing thought, doesn’t it? He has thoughts, but they don’t disturb him. Yah. It’s not too bad—nice work when you can get it!
In a way, everybody here has had that experience. You can’t really survive a great sesshin without having some moments of that. There are times when a deeper kind of thing happens when it really does stop. So, there’s that. In the Chan tradition it says, “Well, yah, that’s nice but so is when it doesn’t stop.” It’s still a good day. It’s not not a good day. So in other words, there is still a little bit too much desire of wanting to stop the mind, of wanting to be enlightened or something. And that gets in the way of the good day.
Guishan says, “So when did you stop the flows?” to his brilliant student.
The student says, “When did you?”
Not brilliant for nothing, so he says, “Well, what about you?”
And Guishan says, “It’s been about seven years.”
About seven years, I guess.
And then he says, “But what about you? I asked you.”
And the student says, “It’s still quite lively.”
This is one of the great teachers. And you can tell he is kind of lively. He’s the lively one of the two.
But it’s a nice thing, that night-sitting practice, long nights sitting in the Gonwana Forest. And I still do it, and it’s one of those nutty things. That’s that coldness, that Yunmen says is like the dharma—it just does with you what it does with you. And so it gets me up in the middle of the night. Why? “Don’t ask, John, it just does.” I do not know. I used to think, “Oh, shouldn’t I?…I should be asleep.” Well, the reality is, I’m not. Are there reasons for this? I can’t see one. So I meditate, and I like to meditate outside in good weather. But my definition of good weather’s changed over the years and become more stringent. I used to like sitting out there in rain and snow and sometimes I still do. But mainly I tend to sit outside a lot more in summer. Then I’ll notice the flows. Not always, but sometimes there’s plenty going on. There’s pop songs or I’m annoyed at something, which is the popular entertainment in the mind. But after awhile I forget whatever I was…there’s not a problem. The good day is here.
And I don’t know how they became not-a-problem because I don’t know anything about who I am and stuff. Then after a while, I don’t know, sometime, I get up and I don’t know why. But I notice, “Oh,” and I get up and I go back to sleep, I go back to bed. It could be anytime from forty minutes to a couple of hours. I realize that I don’t really care. It’s not my business. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. No judgment, really.
The thing for me that happens then is that I dream, I usually dream. The dreams are often working things out—not working things out for me, but showing me bits of the karmic quality of my life, the personal quality of my life, not the eternal quality of my life. Which the meditation just gives us, that the eternal is here. But then there’s the differentiation side of things, the things it’s not. Is it the same or is it different? You don’t have to choose. But then I’ll have dreams that somehow seem… Like, somebody I had a really bad end of the relationship connection with, or something—they’ll appear in my dream and we’ll be talking, and you can tell that somehow it’s alright in the dreamworld now.
Something is happening at that level as well as the “stopping-the-flows” level. The lively level as well. There’s that sense of the beauty of things which is present there. And you don’t have to stop your mind for that. At the same time, you’ll notice you’re less compelled by the things your mind is producing. You don’t have to go back and fix the trauma…you can, and it might be a good idea, or you might learn something about yourself and you might be a lot easier to get along with if you do. But, at this moment you’re free. So, there’s something to be said for freedom. Something to be said about that quality of just looking out at the rain, looking out at the green leaves and how beautiful they are. The yellow tractor across from the house where I live that looks lonely in the rain. Just the beauty of that. The birds coming. The finches who’ve decided they’ll be our flowers this winter. The golden finches around the thistleseed bags. The woodpeckers have decided they’re going to peck huge holes in those bags and let it all fall on the ground. More bags, more finch seed. So it’s just like a perfect system really. It can’t be rehearsed. It’s just here.
So, there’s something about the terrain of the journey. What is the journey for? What is it to have this life? You’ll find, I think, that you can’t stand back from it and answer that question.
Yah, like that! What is it to have this life? And we’re in it. It’s so marvelous, you know. So overwhelming and so incomprehensible. There you have it.
Comments, questions, objections to reality? The usual list…enlightened epiphanies, things you’ve discovered?
Student: You said something about, we have to be patient and loving, and how you can’t force it. It made me think about how that’s one of the times that I feel most true to myself, and alive. Things just fall away when I’m working with my donkeys, it’s the exact same thing. You have to be patient and loving, and you can’t force things. That’s just my comment, it just struck me. That’s when I feel connected—when I’m not forced.
John: That’s the nice thing about animals. We see, “Oh, that’s about me. It’s about the donkey but it’s about me.” They have a whole lineage come through the donkey, it starts with dragons, then with Linji. He says, “Who will preserve my dharma?” Or something. I don’t know what he says, what’s that blind donkey koan? I’ll dig it up. Sansheng just yells and never says anything. He’s not interested in explaining things. Linji’s dying and he says, [reads]
“When people ask you what is the essence of my true dharma, what will you do?” Sansheng yells.
And Linji says, “Who would have thought that the essence of my true dharma would be destroyed by this blind donkey?”
So the term “donkey” became… it was his way of blessing things. And then he died in the story. But he actually died in life too. So the notion of the donkey became this beautiful thing meaning not holding too many thoughts—not too many attitudes to life. Animals are good for that. And also, they have their own wisdom. We realize what I’m calling wisdom is just what I’m calling wisdom.
Student: I had a good day today. I accidentally broke a dish at lunchtime. I was kind of in my head, and the dish broke and I was kind of startled and just looking at it. Michael puts his hand on my shoulder and he’s like, “That’s awesome.”
John: Well done. [laughs]
Student: And it helped. There was this feeling of… a lot of thoughts rushed in, “Now we have to wait to get it cleaned up, and there are all these other people who want to throw their food away and the kitchen staff looks harried and rushed and now I’ve added one more thing to their plate and uhh…”
Student: Flows, yes. And then the kitchen staff came in, and was going to brush it up and I was, like, “Oh, I kinda want to get down there too and pick some up to show that I’m contrite,” and all this is going on in my head. Then the vows came to me. No competition, no hierarchy, just love. Instead of making it worse I just stepped back and waited for them to clean, and he looked up. I just looked into his eyes and said, “Thank you.” He seemed like he was in his head, then all of a sudden he looked and me and smiled and he said, “You’re welcome.” And that was us dancing.
John: Nice. Yes, not getting in the way of life.
Student: I did something worse that that. I stole John’s coffee yesterday morning. Because I really love my coffee, so I brought a filter and I brought my own coffee. And I saw this sign that said, “For Guest Use.” So I thought, that’s cool, this is really good coffee. So I put in more than expected and there was barely any left, and I’m putting it in the [coffee maker] thing and someone says, “Where’s John’s coffee?” So I thought “Ohh…” [groans] And I said, “Oh I feel terrible.” And they said, “You don’t have to [feel terrible], but you could if you want to.” That was so wonderful. And John didn’t even know about his coffee. I felt like it was this song about a raccoon robbery. But it was so strong, I had it cold this morning.
John: Those little things are so interesting aren’t they? Like—you drop the dish, you take the coffee, or your mobile phone rings just after you’re asked to turn it off, and you didn’t, or you thought you did. Or maybe you didn’t because you don’t like people telling you to do things. And then your mobile phone rings, and you don’t want it ringing and you turn it off, and there wasn’t yet a problem. Just broke a dish, or somebody might have gotten enlightened! Awesome. Well done. It’s nice to have that.
I have a friend who’s kind of clumsy. There’s psychological theories about this, but he just gets anxious around people. He’s kind of smart, but he drops things or breaks things or loses things, but in this intense way. Like, I can do that too, but wow, he’s really good at it. I remember asking him about it one time. He broke, like, three dishes at my house and there was clearly something going on. He’d had a hard life. Step-daughter was murdered, you know the kind of life that’ll make you break things. Drop things. He said, “Well, I’ve just had to accept that I do that.” I said, “How is that for you?” Because I was kind of interested, you know, and I felt for him. He said, “I just have to accept that I do that.” And one of his other friends calls me up another few days later and says, “He’s in jail. We’ve got to go and get him out.” Somebody had stolen his tools and he managed to get arrested and thrown in jail. It’s not just breaking the dish again. Let’s us get you the lawyer. Don’t you choose your own.
So, it’s touching. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got, including you can’t do Thursday over again. And also the time you were cruel and you didn’t…actually you intended to be! But you like to think you didn’t, because you don’t think of yourself as a cruel person. You don’t think of yourself as mean. To accept that—then gradually… there’s something kind about people who can accept their own shadow, whatever it is; anger, desire. Whatever you don’t accept in yourself. Sorrow.
Student: Does meditation burn up bad karma?
John: Not for you! [laughs]
I’m going to find a poem here, with any luck. This is a guy who, he’s really a wonderful poet. He’s an Australian poet called Les Murray but you can just tell he’s got… his neurology. If you ever think you have problems with your neurology, you don’t. He gets, like, intense depressions and things like that. Kind of an interesting guy. Empathy. He has a poem he wrote imagining himself as a cow on killing day. Kind of nice, you know. But that’s not the one I’m going to read you, because I’m going to read you the one about a human. [reads]
An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow
The word goes round Repins,
the murmur goes round Lorenzinis, [these are just cafes or clubs in Sydney]
at Tattersalls, [where people gamble] men look up from sheets of numbers,
the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club:
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. [which is the heart of Sydney] They can’t stop him.
The traffic in George Street is banked up for half a mile
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. [George street would be equivalent to Market Street in San Francisco]
Many run in the back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast, nor even
sob very loudly – yet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes about him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit amongst us
trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgments of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons.
Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit –
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping:
as many as follow her also receive it
and many weep for sheer acceptance, and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea –
and when he stops, he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt Street.
“The epiphany of weeping.” I want to read you one more which takes the whole thing in a completely other direction. We’ve got a minute. This is one where the shadow here is desire. This is a wonderful poet called Barbara Hamby, who writes a lot about language. She’s very interested in language. She’s also very interested in desire. [reads]
Ode to Skimpy Clothes and August in the Deep South
A young woman is walking with her boyfriend, and it’s summer
in the South, which is like being in a sauna
but hotter and stickier, and she’s wearing a tank top
and a cotton skirt so thin I can see her black
underpants, and this is the way I dressed in my early twenties,
partly from poverty and partly because my body
was so fresh that I couldn’t imagine not showing it off—
marzipan arms, breasts like pink cones of vanilla
soft-serve ice cream, hips more like brioche than flesh,
and the sound track to those times I can conjure
on my inner radio on a day in August—”Wild Horses,”
and “All I Want,” Joni Mitchell and Mick Jagger
singing a duet for me, but I was in love with Bartok, too,
and Beethoven’s trios, moving through those sultry days
to that celestial music, going to the campus cinema for the air
conditioning and Wild Strawberries and La Dolce Vita,
skin brown from taking the Chevy pickup to the coast,
at night putting the fan in the window and reading
thick novels until three or four, and one morning waking at noon
to a cardinal screaming, the red male hovering,
flying above, my cat with the brown female in her mouth,
and when I release the bird she falls on the grass as if dead,
but she’s in shock, and I hold the cat, who wants her again,
but then the bird comes to, hops across the grass
and flies off with her mate, and seeing that girl’s black panties
under her skirt brings back those days with such a fierce ache
that I might as well be lost in the outskirts of Rome, [she can’t stay still in one place so she flows] a little girl
making up a story of seeing the Virgin and everyone
wanting to believe that God has appeared in the parking lot
of an abandoned store, the graffiti a message, something
divine in the plastic bags and fast-food boxes rolling in the wind.
A different celebration of life, and how we get through. There’s something I read pretty much every sesshin, right at the end of the evening. This is another summer poem but it’s a Good Day, so it can be in your heart. It’s Howard Norman’s translation of The Swampy Cree Wishing-Bone Cycle and it’s the Moonlight Poem. [reads]
All the warm nights sleep in moonlight.
Keep letting it go into you.
Do this all your life.
Do this you’ll shine outward in old age.
The moon will think you are the moon.
Thank you very much.
Winter Sesshin 2020