PZI Teacher Archives

Falling Into the Well of Sesshin


The nice thing about falling is it’s already happened, you know? It started already; there’s not much you can do about it. So you’re kind of free, in a way. It’s sort of like being condemned: Knowing you’ll die tomorrow—well, you can do anything you want tonight.

Dharma talk given in Fall Sesshin 2022
John Tarrant
October 5th

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Hi, everyone. It’s nice when things just make you happy by themselves, without your doing anything—just being in the temple with you. 

What is the Way?
The clearly enlightened person falls into a well. 

Just falling, falling, and falling. The nice thing about falling is it’s already happened, you know? It started already; there’s not much you can do about it. So you’re kind of free, in a way. It’s sort of like being condemned: Knowing you’ll die tomorrow—well, you can do anything you want tonight. Falling is this marvelous thing where you might be able to expand your range. 

Koan Study and Western Culture

When I was looking for something that met koan study, in some way, in Western culture, I had this feeling that, Wow, there’s this amazing thing: koan study. It’s awesome, right? And actually, people didn’t really think that—they saw puzzles that were somehow incomprehensible. 

So, I did a couple of different things. One was a translation project with John Sutherland to try and make the koans a little more available. Not to really change them or dumb them down, but to look at the words from the point of view of someone who was really using them in practice, rather than from the point of view of a scholar. So that was a kind of cool thing. 

And before that, I had tried all these things that might meet koan study, with mixed success. So, I decided to get a psychotherapy degree. Most people come the other way—they’re in psychotherapy, and they think, Oh, Buddhism is kind of cool, I’ll get that as a side gig. But my thing was the other way, where I thought, Oh, I want to find something where I can have a conversation with koans under this vast strange work. And I ended up seeing that poetry seemed good. Fair enough. And the arts. 

Koans and Dreams

But, mainly I ended up with the idea of listening to dreams and listening to the unconscious—listening to things that appear involuntarily. 

The nice thing about a dream is that you didn’t cause it and you can’t do anything about it. And even if you think you know what a dream means, it’s not likely to be that way. So, here we are—it’s like koans. I felt that a conversation could start happening there. And one of the things that they both had, I thought, is that one has to trust the deeper forces. You have to cast yourself into the well. Actually, you don’t even cast yourself—you just find yourself falling. You have to trust the deeper currents to be at work. It wasn’t something where you can stand back and get a nice aerial view or use a screwdriver or socket wrench or maybe a shifting adjustable wrench. It gets worse the more you do that.

Then, you have these long books, which I’d read quite a lot of when I was trying to work out what koan study was, before I had a teacher. And I didn’t want to read those books again. It couldn’t be done through philosophy. Great things can be done through philosophy, but koans weren’t among them. You’re not going to understand them [that way] any more than dreams, really. 

So, one of the things I realized was that we don’t solve problems [in Zen]. In general, we don’t solve problems. If you have a problem in your life, what happens is that you dissolve the you that has the problem. The you that has the problem transforms and expands all that stuff. And when I thought about that, it seemed incredible to me that I’d spent so much of my life solving problems that weren’t solvable. And all I had to do was not bother with having a me, you know? To sort of wander around in a world without that problem. So, it seemed like a good thing.

Falling Into a Well

The first gate is,

The clearly enlightened person falls into a well. 

You can tell, just by saying, “a clearly enlightened person falls into a well,” that it has a disturbing relationship to practice. Because we practice pretty hard to not fall into wells, however you’ve considered wells. Also, we’re pretty sure that if we are clearly enlightened, we’re definitely not going to fall into wells. 

I had an interesting experience with a friend who was telling me how enlightened he was. He’s somebody who’s done a lot of practice and written a lot of books and things. So he’s not stupid. But he was telling me how he’d gotten to this place where he wasn’t disturbed by things. For some reason, I got really annoyed. I just was like, God, I’m sick of this bullshit. And I said, “You don’t understand Zen, you don’t begin to understand Zen.” And he got enraged and he won’t speak to me now. Well, I actually haven’t tested that, really. But he got enraged and stopped speaking to me. And I thought, Okay, there’s something interesting going on here—we both kind of fell into a well. And that was somehow more interesting than not falling into a well. So, falling into a well can be good. And when you’re falling, all the things dissolve. 

You will notice that before falling, then you’ve got a Zen where people get to this imperturbable state and everything’s pure and wonderful. But when you’re falling, all bets are off. You can’t forget about that. And you are more in the Dharma in some way, then. So that’s what I’m saying. There’s something wonderful that’s in that falling. 

Just the iteration of the koan gives you that possibility that the thing you thought was the wrong direction might be on your side. The universe might be more on your side than you thought. The stupid things you did when your kid was a teenager to try and help them, that backfired. That’s on your side. The divorce you got, the divorce you should have gotten, but didn’t. The disease you got. Whatever it is, it’s on your side. I don’t have to reinforce my idea of who I am. And you can tell that that is just there in the koan—it is not some extra elaborate thing we understand. The right direction to go in is going to be given to you, it’s not something you work out. You’re going to sort of fall into it, really. 

You can tell how falling can be a cool thing. And you can tell how really difficult experiences stop you from worrying about trivial things. It’s why, often when people are dying, they are much more interesting than they ever were in life because they’re not censoring themselves. I don’t know if they are more interesting than they ever were, but they become free, in a way. So there’s that. 

Say Something in Response

So, the next gate. I promised you that there is another gate. It’s one of those funny questions, 

What is the teaching of a lifetime?

What is the teaching of a whole lifetime? You can tell there’s something screwy about the question. Like, who cares? I mean: lifetime, not lifetime—what is the teaching? The Chinese language is rich in multiple possibilities. You could understand it as the Buddha’s lifetime—what is the thing the teacher taught? Sum it all up for me! Or what is the teaching that will last you a whole lifetime? What’s the best teaching for your lifetime? So, it’s not a completely stupid question, but it’s sort of a bit screwy. To me, it feels like it’s moving at the question in some tangled way. But that’s alright, because it’s the best we can do. Sometimes all we can do is come at it—you know, sidle up like a crab—and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something to be said for it, actually, because at least the person is making themselves open and interacting with the teacher. 

The teacher was the great Cloud Gate Yunmen. 

“What is the teaching for a whole lifetime?”
Yunmen said, “Say something in response.” 

A very Yunmen sort of thing to say to do, because he has immediately gotten in under your question. He is face-to-face with you and he’s got a hold of you. “Say something in response.” 

This links, for me, with the previous koan about falling, because there’s some way in which we’re required to welcome life. And then we realize that life welcomes us. So, if we’re falling, that’s our Dharma field. We’re only going to live for however long it takes us to fall from the high place we’re falling from. Most of us have experiences of this in our lives. That minute, or whatever it is, that’s our life, that’s the whole of our life. And who knows, it might not be huge and vast. It is also true that we’re all falling because all the things, all the apparatus we’ve got, aren’t going to help. 

So, we have to enter directly into the place where we’re falling.

That’s why Yunmen says, “Say something in response.” And this became the famous koan. I thought about a number of things: That it’s a bit like a knock-knock joke, but certainly a response; that it’s got a beauty to it; that Oh, it just comes from us; and the idea of a dance with life. Kids understand immediately—say something in response, be something in response, offer something back. We can’t dodge things. In other words, we have to meet it.

Jiashan and Daowu

One of the teachers I like is called Jiashan, an old teacher. He was a famous, intelligent lecturer on sutras. Once when he was giving a lecture, Daowu came. Daowu, who was a great but then anonymous pilgrim, would wander around and hear what people had to say. It was kind of nice. And no one knew who he was. Someone attending this talk asked Jiashan, “What is the body of reality?” (The empty body of reality: dharmakaya.) 

“What is the empty body of reality?”
Jiashan said, “The dharmakaya is formless.” (Which is kind of what it says in the sutras.)
“What is the dharma eye?”
“The dharma eye has no defect.” 

This person is sort of going down a list of what it says in the sutras, and Daowu, unable to help himself, just bursts into laughter. He’s standing next to a homeless guy and suddenly he laughs. He’s not trying to be rude. He just couldn’t help it. And then, at the end of the talk, Jiashan got down off the lecture platform and said to Daowu,

“Something I said in my answer was not correct and it caused you to laugh out loud. Please don’t withhold your compassionate instruction about this.” 

So he’s doing something in response, already. That’s kind of nice, and better than, “Throw that man out!” 

Daowu said, “Haven’t you had a teacher?” 

And it’s kind of embarrassing. “Haven’t you had a teacher?” 

And Jiashan says, “No, may I ask you to clarify these matters?”
And Daowu said, “I don’t think I can do this for you, but I invite you to go to see the Boat Monk at Huating.” 

From Teacher to Teacher

So there’s an interesting thing where sometimes people will move from teacher to teacher. There’s a karmic thing involved. Daowu felt—who knows why, but he just felt this person would be helped by a journey and then meeting this other teacher. Who knows. 

I remember when I was living in a temple and doing meditation training. And on a very light day, we‘d do five-hour meditations. In sesshins and training periods, we did more. I could feel something was deepening. But also, it was almost like a pebble that needed to drop in the pond, or something. Anyway, after a while I was traveling, and there was this other teacher teaching, and I went to him. But his whole scene was very chaotic. And I remember we had it down—we had a proper temple, we cooked properly, we did all this stuff. And there, somebody—the head of practice—would go and touch you on the shoulder and tell you that it’s your turn to cook. You’d go into the kitchen, there would be some rice and lentils, and that was it. And nobody even cared whether you knew how to cook lentils, which can be very indigestible. But it was sort of sweet in a way. It had a very homemade kind of quality about it. 

It was easy to be dissatisfied and to refuse it, and so I was starting to fall. And it was an eight- or ten-hour flight from where I was training. I’m here in this temple with this Korean teacher, and I’m looking at these very unaesthetic concrete blocks, and it’s freezing cold. And there was really that, “Oh, wherever we are, we’re here.” So that’s how I was falling. I’m falling and then the concrete blocks became beautiful. And the koan started opening up, and I can see the power and force of the concrete blocks. 

Then I went in to see the teacher and I could answer his koan questions, which was shocking to me. So that’s the karmic thing, like when Jiashan gets sent, and he goes to this other teacher. For me, that was some sort of opening, but I knew there was something more that I wanted and needed. I went back to my first teacher and didn’t say anything about the beauty of concrete blocks. I resisted the temptation to tell everybody all about it, which is good.

Who Is the Boat Monk?

So, Jiashan goes off. And who is this Boat Monk guy? The Boat Monk is an interesting character because he had trained with Daowu—he and another great monk, whom I can’t remember now (it might be in this book, here!), had all trained with Decheng, who’s this great teacher, for thirty years, and received the mind-seal of the Buddha. 

And Daowu and Yunyan, when they were all leaving their teacher—I don’t know if the teacher died, but they all got dharma transmission, and left—the teacher said, “You’re going to be wonderful, you’re going to go into your separate worlds and your separate ways, and you’ll be wonderful teachers, and I’m so happy for you. I’m just too wild to run a temple, I would never manage that. It would be a very bad idea.” And he said, “But nevertheless, if there are certain people of real ability that you come across, occasionally you can send them to me.” And so they had to work out what that meant. And so then he (the teacher) went. 

And China is full of rivers, and, of course, they had bridges, but mainly not because the whole country was traversed by canals. And there were great rivers where sometimes you couldn’t see across to the other side. So Decheng left, and he got a small boat and was just a monk who rode people from one side to the other, and then he rode them back. And they gave him a little bit of money, a little bit of food, whatever—he was a monk. And he was called the Boat Monk. He chatted with people and said hello, and nobody thought much about him. Occasionally, somebody would ask him a question and he would say things that weren’t very comprehensible. 

Jiashan Meets the Boat Monk

Anyway, Jiashan has his traveling clothes, makes this long journey, and then he comes to the Boat Monk. And Decheng, the Boat Monk, saw this guy coming and said, 

“Reverend, what temple do you live in?”
And Jiashan said, “I don’t live in a temple. What I abide in is not like…”
Decheng said, “It’s not like what?”
Jiashan answers, “Not like the Dharma that meets the eye.”
Decheng said, “Where did you learn this teaching?”
Jiashan said, “Not in a place where the ears or eyes can perceive.” 

So, Jiashan is saying the same thing he had said in the temple. 

And Decheng says, “What rubbish! Like a donkey who has been tethered to a post for eons.”
And then he said, “You’ve let down a thousand-foot line, you’re fishing deep, but your hook is still short three inches of the great fish. And why don’t you say something?”
Jiashan opened his mouth to speak and Decheng hit him with the oar and knocked him into the water. And he clambered out, and Decheng said, “Speak, speak!”
Jaishan tried to speak, but Decheng hit him again and as he fell into the water, he achieved a great awakening. 

So, that’s the way to do it. [laughs]

And Jiashan nodded his head and then the teacher said, “Now you’re the one with the pole and line, you’re the fisherman now. Just act by your own nature and don’t defile the clear waves.” 

In other words, don’t get these fancy philosophical sayings out of sutras and pass them off as if they’re real. 

Jiashan said, ”What do you mean by ‘throw off the line and cast down the pole?’”
The Boat Monk said, “The fishing line hangs in the green water, drifting without intention.” 


Jiashan said, “The master’s words carry impenetrable mystery; it’s as though your speech is without words.”
Then the Boat Monk said, “When the hook disappears into the river waves—the golden fish.”
Jiashan then covered his ears.
And the Boat Monk said, “That’s it, that’s it!” 

It’s not something that comes in from the outside. That’s it, that’s it!

And the Boat Monk said, “Go someplace where you might not be visible, consider yourself without trace. I stayed with Yaoshan for thirty years and what I learned there I pass to you today. Stay away from crowded cities. Plant your hoe deep in the mountains. Find one or two people to inherit this teaching, who won’t let it die.” 

That’s a really important, beautiful injunction, right? We won’t let it die. How are you doing in the not- letting-it-die department? “I’m too busy falling into a well to be able to answer that question.” Yeah, don’t let it die.

And Jiashan said, “I guess I’ll go.” And he bid the monk thanks and goodbye. As he walked away, he looked back and the Boat Monk yelled, “Reverend!” And Jiashan stopped and turned around. 

Decheng held up an oar, the very oar he had knocked him into the river with and said, “Do you say there’s anything else?” Then he tipped over the boat and disappeared into the water, never to be seen again. 

Strange magical being.

Jiashan’s State of Mind

In Zen history, the saying, the Boat Monk caught the golden fish refers to his dharma transmission to Jiashan, who, in turn, then became a great master. One of his famous sayings was when somebody asked him, 

“What is the state of Jiashan?”
And he said, “Clasping the young to the breasts, the monkeys go behind the Blue Cliffs.
Holding a flower in its beak, the bird descends to the purple grotto.”

You can actually translate it the other way:

“Clasping the young to their breasts, the monkeys go beyond the purple mountains.
Holding a flower in its beak, the bird descends to the cave of the Blue Cliff.”

And that’s where The Blue Cliff Record was written. 

So, say something in response. You can tell that the call-and-response becomes this dance that’s about the deepest thing, isn’t it? And so we’re all engaged in this thing, where we’re not solving it at the level at which we usually solve things. What level are we solving it at? It just comes out of you. And there’s nobody here who does not have it. It’s sort of obvious, but when you think you’ve got to see it, you can’t see it, you know? And then you realize, Oh, I have it. Well, you actually don’t realize, “I have it,” because there’s not really so much of an “I.” It’s not very interesting. So it just comes out of you. And you know, it could be worse, it could be worse. This, this. 

What is the teaching that lasts a lifetime?
Say something in response.

Teach Us!

And we are back where we started—the idiot joy of just being here. It’s a nice thing, there’s nothing to be done about it, that’s the important thing, there’s nothing to be done. Jordan?

Jordan: Hi, John.

John: Teach us!

Jordan: When I was asked to play tonight, Amaryllis had asked me earlier if I would do it, and I said, “Yes.” And then I completely forgot—I one hundred percent forgot that it was happening. And I was sitting meditating, and had my eyes closed, and opened them and saw, “The host would like you to unmute now.” “Oh, shit!” So I grabbed my guitar, hit unmute, and it was a cool experience because I didn’t have any time at all to think about what I wanted to play or what was going to come out. And I think I hit that [strums guitar] by accident. And then that [strums again] happened, and then it was just following one note, following the next, sort of letting them fall out, and following them down the well.

John: Excellent, thank you. 

John: Allison, teach us!

Allison: [remains still]

John: Thank you. JJ, what is the one teaching for a whole lifetime?

Jon Joseph: [makes gesture]

John: No, wait, wait, what is that? Commit to what you did, what are you doing—you’re playing golf?

Jon Joseph: That’s an oar. 

John: Oh, very good. Thank you.

Jon Joseph: I just love how they’re so dynamic, you know, and just acting…

John: Hang on, that’s not yet the teaching! That’s like saying it is [inaudible.] Very good. Thank you, yeah.

It’s not so bad! It’s kind of fun, isn’t it? We can all do that. We are all the Boat Monk and also the one who doesn’t get it. And, you know, it’s a great thing. A great thing to be here, a great thing to be alive in the vastness together. Okay, I think we did it. So, thank you very much.

John: Tess, teach us!

Tess: The rain is falling so softly outside, I can barely hear it.

John: Very good. Eleanor, teach us!

Eleanor: I’m here.

John: Good enough.

Amaryllis: [chants]

Peacefully, humbly, the ship stars travel.
The grass hunches down to earth.
The demons take their rest.
And we call on the protectors to smile over us.
As the work in darkness goes on until dawn. 

Jordan: [play guitar, sings the Four Boundless Vows]

Evening Words from David Weinstein:

Knock on any door. Someone will answer. 

So that line has been keeping me company since Tess brought it in yesterday. The last part of the poem is in the preface to The Blue Cliff Record, but it was originally composed as a capping verse—a response to another koan. In that other koan, 

A student came to a teacher and asked, “When all the doors are closed, what then?”
The teacher said, “How do you understand what happens on the inside?”
The student replied, “No one can teach me.”
The teacher replied, “That’s about eighty percent of it.”
The student pressed the teacher to explain more. And their teacher was silent.
Frustrated, the student said to the teacher, “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to hit you.”
And the teacher said, “All right.”
To which the student began to bow. And when the student began that bow, the teacher said, “No one knows you,” at which the student realized something. 

And when my me dissolves, and I become no one, then I know who I am. And when I knock on one of those doors, it’s me who answers, saying something in response. 

Have a good night.


2022 Fall Sesshin
Dharma Talk on October 5, 2022
John Tarrant

Listen to the Audio of this talk