PZI Teacher Archives

Falling with the Koan NO


John Tarrant gives a talk on Zhaozhou’s NO: This koan is often offered as a first “gate,” but I think you need to already be in trouble and falling before it’s useful. Life is always offering us that cliff—that door of falling. When you’re falling, you can’t screw it up because actually there’s not a lot you can do. But what you do will be very free and won’t be constrained by the usual. From a recording made in Fall Sesshin 2022.

Fall Sesshin dharma talk given by John Tarrant on October 6, 2022

Listen to Audio of this Talk



Hi. Good to be here. We’ve been here for a thousand years already—so we’ve been told, you know. I don’t know why we need a door if we are already here. But doors are kind of nice. They appear in dreams and they appear in our lives and they appear inside and we walk through. And then everything is different.

So we start with,

The clearly enlightened person falls into a well. 

And the question to which that was the answer was, 

What is the Way?

You can tell there’s a freedom. When you’re falling you can’t screw it up, because actually there’s not a lot you can do. But what you do will be very free and won’t be constrained by the usual. How do I prevent myself from falling? Thoughts. So, that’s a great door. As the koan goes,

Quick, don’t get ready!

We can tell there’s a kind of vertigo when we step like that. But it’s more interesting than dodging it. Because life is always offering us that cliff, you know—that door of falling. You can feel it. You can feel the “Oh” as things fall off us and as we fall—I can feel excitement and the awe of that. 

Just to look at you all, I feel how vast it is to be here. And if you look inside, it is here. And we have all this apparatus that we ordered from “Acme Explosives Company” to make our lives work or to catch things or stop things. But the apparatus is not needed. We’re here. And we’re already falling and we don’t need to stop anything. The universe is just unfolding and manifesting through us. The more we categorize it and the more we’re certain about it and jump into certainty about it, the less interesting in a way and the less free we become. So you know, starting out with cluelessness is not a bad idea. If you complain that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s always promising.

The Third Gate

So here we are. Today I want to do the next gate, the third gate. And it’ll be well known to many of you:

A student asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
Zhaozhou said, “No.”

In Chinese it’s Wu, in Japanese Mu, and for us it’s No. It’s a great thing in Kanji because it’s great to paint and draw and reproduce, which with English letters we can’t quite do. “No!” said Zhaozhou. So that became the door. Everybody says, “Well, yeah, but all beings have Buddha nature. Why doesn’t the dog?” It went against expectations, so it was used as a koan. But mainly it got used as a koan because there were, at the time it became famous, a lot of other famous short koans, for example:

What is your original face before your parents were born?

There is a true person with no rank coming and going through the portals of your face.

There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form.
It knows how to listen to the teachings.
It knows how to understand the teachings.
It knows how to teach.
That solitary brightness is you. 

Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?
The oak tree in the garden.

So, that kind of thing. There was a great collection that later became known as “koans to open the body of reality,” or dharmakaya koans. So this is often called the first gate, but we’re taking it on as the third gate. I think you need to already be in trouble and falling before it’s useful. 

Some teachers in certain schools, like in the Harada-Yasutani line, which we inherited, start every great retreat with this koan. I think they started it not because of the koan—I mean, the koan is fine— but because the commentary on it is very, kind of, well, I’ll read it to you. It is Wumen’s commentary in the first case in the Gateless Gate, the third of the great koan collections. The first collection was the Blue Cliff, then the Book of Serenity, and then the Wumenguan (Gateless Gate), collected by Wumen, which means “no gate.” I’m treating gates and doors as more or less in the same category.

In studying Zen, you must pass the barrier set up by the ancient masters. For the attainment of incomparable enlightenment, “satori,” you have to cast away your discriminating mind. Those who have not passed the barrier, have not cast away the discriminating mind, are ghosts haunting trees and plants. 

So, let that be a lesson.


Now tell me, what is the barrier of the Zen masters? Just this one word: No. It is the barrier of Zen. It is thus called the gateless barrier of Zen. Those who have passed the barrier will not only see Zhaozhou clearly (the ancient master), but will go hand in hand with all the masters and see them face to face. You will see with the same eye that they see with and hear with the same ear. 

Won’t that be wonderful? Don’t you want to pass this barrier? Go through this door? Then concentrate yourself, pour yourself into this No with your 360 bones and 84,000 pores in your skin, making your whole body this great question. Day and night work with it intently. Don’t think it’s nothing. Don’t think about has and has not. It’s like having swallowed a red-hot iron ball. You try to throw it up but you can’t. It has hold of you.

So cast away your illusory knowledge of yes and no and all the consciousness, your understanding accumulated up to now.


So, it’s important isn’t it? Cast away the consciousness accumulated up to now. That’s what the point of falling is. You know, it’s probably not going to help me—all the consciousness I have up to now—because I’m falling. That was useful before I started falling, but now I’m falling, so it’s not any use.

After a while, all that yes and no, in and out, will naturally fall away. You will then be like a person who can’t speak but has a dream. You only know it for yourself and within yourself. You can’t say it to anyone. Suddenly you break through the barrier. You astonish heaven and shake the earth. It’s as though you’ve snatched the great sword of the great general. If you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. If you meet the ancient masters, you kill the ancient masters. On the edge of life and death, you’re utterly free.

On the edge of life and death, you’re utterly free. And if you look where you are right now … Tess, where are we? [bell] We’re here. The edge of life and death. The edge of life and death. It is always here, always being presented. Well, it’s not even being presented, it’s just that we’re here, we can’t really do anything else about it, right? 

Wumen also talks about how it’s like running along the edge of a sword or a ridge of ice. When you go up the Pali Cliffs in Hawaii, you start up this path and it’s really nice. And it’s kind of wet and getting wetter, and then the path gradually gets narrower and narrower until it’s like one of your own feet wide. And you start thinking, I don’t know … and there’s a thousand-foot drop on each side. That’s what it’s like. Having breakfast—that’s what it’s always like. On the brink of life and death, you are free.

And in the six realms and all ways of being, you can live with great joy.
A life that is genuine with freedom.

A life that’s genuine with freedom. We can feel that. You can feel, like, Oh, nice work when you can get it, you know. It’s good. Yeah, the genuineness is really the thing. It is an illustration of freedom, I guess. Well, then how would we work with it?

With all your life energy, work with this one word: No. No. And you become No. If you do not stop or waver or hesitate in your meditation, behold your dharma candle will be lighted and the darkness is enlightened.

What I like is that he says, “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” And indeed it is, you know? So, fair enough. Wouldn’t it be wonderful? And if you look in your heart, when you’re sitting, you might notice that you’ve been sitting here for so long. But it’s not hours, it’s like millennia. I’ve been sitting here since before the earth was made, before my parents were born. You can feel the peace of that and the joy of that. 

Going on Strike

It takes courage to live on the cliff-edge of birth and death. But once you’ve done that you realize, Oh, there’s nothing to be brave about. It’s just here. And the important thing is not to sort of go on strike and try to stay safe. “What’s the right answer?” That’s going on strike. “I know!” That’s going on strike, too. “Actually, I don’t know.” And isn’t that wonderful? It’s not that knowing is bad, or we don’t know what we like for breakfast best, or something like that. But maybe we don’t! That would be a classic example of the thing—if we were surprised, it might be better.

There are things we know, but they’re not the important things. I noticed that there’s a great tendency in the mind to suddenly give the answer to things that we don’t know anything about, and then suddenly make an assessment that we don’t know anything about. And think, this is worse-than, or this is better-than. This koan is better than that koan. Clearly! This Zen Center is better than that other Zen Center which is too strict, or they sit facing the wall, or they’re just not enlightened.

And you can tell how that puts us in a phone booth. I guess I have some ancient friendliness for the phone booths that used to exist when I was a teenager. I spent years trying to talk to girls in phone booths, because we only had one phone at home and it was extremely audibly, aurally accessible to my parents. So, yeah. Phone booths … there’s a kind of security in this small thing. I think the koan looks small, but it’s more like a TARDIS when you walk inside. It’s infinite. Whole galaxies are all in there, in that one word: No.

Dogs Welcome

At some stage in the work I remember truly trying to hold on to the koan, and not even remembering what it was—and it was only one word. And I couldn’t even get to the “dog,” you know. Also, I knew that kind of question wasn’t of great interest to me. 

I always liked the story about that place where they won’t let you bring your dog inside, that’s got the gold paved floors and everything. And the guy says, “Oh, yeah, you’re really welcome. You’ll have everything you want here. But you can’t bring your dog.” And he thinks, “Oh, no.” And so he goes on to the next place—it looks very handmade and scruffy. And there’s someone sitting there, they’re sort of just sitting there, kind of outside, under a tree, at a table at the gate. And they offer him a glass of red wine when he comes in, and “Do you want anything to eat? Have a few olives.” And he says, “Well, I don’t know, this is pretty nice for hell.” And they say, “This isn’t hell, this is heaven.” He says, “But they told me that was heaven just down the road.” And they say, “Any place that won’t let you bring your good friend in-–that’s got to be hell.” So he brought his dog in.

That was sort of our attitude. Bring it into your koan. The dog can come into your koan, too. I have had dogs who sat in meditation with me in night-sitting, which was very nice. And I liked it. They liked it, too. So, it’s not about the question, it’s that nothing you look at doesn’t have it, right? Like you can see, after a while, when you’re not in the way and you’re not telling things what they must be, that they come to you and they open and the joy opens inside you. Nothing can be done about that.

So awakening is of a category of things that nothing can be done about. Which is why the falling image is great, because you can’t do anything about it.

And there are a lot of talks on this koan, of course, but mainly they’re just all the same. They say, “Meditate with this koan; it might help.” And sometimes people get stuck because they beat the koan or they beat themselves, you know. They sit the koan down, and like, strangle it to give up the answer. Or if I just strangle myself, that will help: stop all my impulses and thoughts and feelings and so on. But you can tell that something beyond my thoughts and feelings, beyond starting them or stopping them, is involved here.

And so, it doesn’t matter whether it’s No or Yes. Everybody who’s ever heard this koan knows. Actually, the first time Zhaozhou was asked this—he was being asked for a second opinion—but the first time he was asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” He said, “Yes.” And then the student said, “Well, how come he’s in that hairy bag?” And Zhaozhou said, “He knew what he was doing and that’s why he dogged.”

It’s such a great word, “to dog.” I knew what I was doing and that’s why I human-ed. What are you doing here? Really, I mean, look inside! Why did you human? Well, you knew what you were doing, and that’s why you human-ed.

Anyway, then somebody else came along and asked for a second opinion on the dog and Buddha nature and said, “Does the dog have Buddha nature or not?” And Zhaozhou said, “No.” He tried Yes the first time. And the student said, “All beings have Buddha nature. Why is it that the dog has none?” Which is philosophically correct. And so Zhaozhou said something very strange, “Because he has karmic consciousness.”

In other words, because he’s a dog, really. And his being a dog is greater than Buddha nature not being a dog—that’s just a description of you being human and him, her actually—my favorite dogs have been hers—her being a dog. Sitting with me at night watching the moon. That’s what she does.

So, karmic consciousness. Daisetsu Suzuki has a thing he says about karmic consciousness, that you’re “beginning to awaken through the agency of delusion.” Which is kind of nice, isn’t it? So think about the delusions you’re trying to get rid of—you might be beginning to awaken. So that’s where the cluelessness can help, you know. Being clueless. At least you don’t think you know stuff.

This is Shibayama. He’s kind of an interesting translator and interesting Zen master. He spent a lot of time in the U.S., actually. And he said, “Really, the only point of this is to open.” Shibayama doesn’t talk about little awakenings. He says, “Great satori, the world shatters. It all falls open.” [satori: to awaken you] So that’s for you. And you don’t assess or challenge yourself or question yourself. 

Wumen in the Fields

Wumen was a strange character, actually. Towards the end of his life he just spent a lot of time—I have a friend kind of like this—he just went off into the fields. He just liked working in the fields. And he was always working in the fields. Some high official would come to meet the great Zen master, and he’d just come in with his stained and dirty and torn field clothes on, and sit on the high seat and say, “Yes?” People weren’t quite sure what to make of him, you know.

I have a friend who’s a tech person—it’s a close friend of my daughter’s. And he’s just really good at working out things and he tries to do software development for things that are kind of good causes, as he says, “If any causes in software are good.” And the richer he’s gotten, like, the more ragged his clothes have gotten, I noticed. And Wumen, he was rich in awakening. And he knew what he wanted to do. Basically, he would rather hang out and work in the garden than entertain high officials and answer questions about dogs and Buddha nature. But, you know, he had to do that too, because he had to keep his temple funded and tend to his students to fund his website, you know—things like that.


But a thing we notice is how whether it’s good or it’s bad arises before we even asked it to. It didn’t consult us. Our opinions and views just arise. There’s a certain way in which the koan—some people think it cuts it off. You know, people are doing Aikido swordwork or something with their demons. And I don’t know, I think that just keep the demons alive, myself. So, I think you go to the place where there’s no one who’s deluded. And in actual fact, the place comes to you, so you don’t even do that much. And you’ll see:

Quickly, without thinking good and evil, before your parents were born

You can say, Oh, it’s the same koan.




Solitary brightness is the same koan:

How many brightnesses are there in the world?


But everybody seems to have a brightness! 


There’s the dog-Buddha-nature. How come humans are so nutty even though they have that brightness? They knew what they were doing and that’s why they human-ed. That’s why they’ve got all that strange, desperate stuff that humans do, that we’re always finding out about. And we realize that, well, we won’t always be here, and so we probably can’t fix all of that, but we can go into the awakening. And in a way, it’s just to do your own inner path. When you do that, you’ll notice that the light starts to shine in you. It’s a weird thing, because it’s not something you can say like, “Hey, I’ve got a light in me!” Because that’s up to other people to wonder about, if so. But you notice that you’re not as cranky as you were, and there’s more joy. [reads] 

And the ancient sorrows of the past, eliminating mistaken views and attitudes you have held from the past, including our old sorrows.

That’s what Wumen says.

So you can tell that’s right; it’s when we become translucent with the koan. We can’t make it do anything. And anything we say—this is why it’s incredibly hard to convey to people from the outside what we do, because—I don’t know. Linji said, “I just strike off locks and bolts.” That was about the best he could do. “I bring it in a formless bowl and carry it away in a bottomless tray,” somebody else said. So that’s helpful.

East Mountain Walks on Water

And the other koan, one of my current favorite koans in the same category as No is:

“Where did all the Buddhas come from?” someone asked Yunmen.

And this is part of the enlightenment story of Dahui, who made the koan No popular. 

And Yunmen said,The East Mountain walks on the water.” 

So now you know. Now you can write your grant proposal. This is what I’m doing. Or your book proposal. It was very hard for me to write book proposals. My agent would always give up and just write them for me. And then not let me look at them, because that wasn’t what I was writing about at all.

Yeah, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Just feel like we’re just lounging around here. You can feel the joyful quality of it. Just look at anything in your room. Or look in your own heart. If I have a complaint, you can tell that, Oh, I’m narrowing myself. And if I think, Yeah, but it’s a good complaint, then I’m starting to get reasons for the complaint. You can tell there’s not this vastness anymore; there’s somebody with reasons. And that’s fine, but it’s not freedom and joy, and it’s not enlightenment. And it’s not helpful to people. It’s just reasons.

So, yeah. There’s a lot more to say about this koan. But the main thing is not to separate yourself from it and think, Oh, I was concentrated half an hour ago, and everything was calm and clear and it was beautiful, and now I can’t stop thinking about whatever it is, and I can’t stop improving the world or whatever I’m doing. But then, even when you’re doing that, you’re really free. You’re just falling. It’s what the mind does sometimes while it’s falling.

It’s a nice thing to know that even the things you do where you feel completely stupid—you may have a good point, or maybe you are, but it doesn’t matter. The koan doesn’t care about stupid or clever. In fact, stupid is more helpful because you’re not trying to deal with the, “I have to do Aikido with people’s being clever.” Daisetsu Suzuki, the great DT Suzuki—Daisetsu, that was his dharma name, teaching name, it means “great blockhead.” It’s pretty good. How to get pompous around Great Blockhead? Maybe I’m more of a blockhead than you!

So, you can tell how we get free and then there aren’t wrong moves. The koan isn’t wrong and you’re not doing the koan wrong. And then you’ll notice that usually what happens, what we complain about, is that I’m suffering in some way. But are you, really? “I’m bored,” or “I’m afraid,” or maybe someone won’t do what I want them to do. Yes, that’s usual. Or, I want somebody else to feel differently. I don’t know—that’s not very likely. So that’s when they say, “eliminating mistaken views and attitudes we’ve held from the past.” Getting someone else to feel the way I know would be good for them. Yes. Anybody ever have a child? Anybody ever have someone they loved? A partner? Anybody ever actually know anybody else? Anybody ever had a friend? We’re always intervening with the world instead of being in the vastness with it, you know. Then, what happens just happens. It appears. Great Dahui—who’s the person who made this koan infinitely popular—he said, “When you’re sad, just weep.” Which is kind of a nice thing.

Anxiety and Doubt

And finally I want to read you something. Mainly, people felt that anxiety and that doubt whether you can do things, you know? When they talk about the doubt, that’s what they mean. So you need that—I don’t think you need it, I just think you’ve got it. They said, Well, let’s ride the horse the way it’s going. You need it. The anxiety and skepticism and the “I don’t know if I want to be in this,” and that sort of thing. And you can tell that in sesshin you forget that sometimes, and the vastness just comes out of you, and it’s like a thousand miles wide—and the joy of it. But it’s not something to grasp, it’s just something that’s there. And tomorrow, you might be pissed off or the gophers ate my persimmon tree or whatever it is. But then it’s in that. And so if you’re afraid, “But if I…” Just there, it’s in that. In the Buddha nature. And so, uninterrupted practice, and your dissatisfaction, doubt, and anxiety. 

James Boughton is a really good translator who lives in Kyoto. And he thinks that word “doubt” is more like “anxiety.” So the very thing that we’re trying to get away from, that’s it. That’s it. And so just have the koan in the middle of that. Don’t try to get rid of it. Don’t think it’s not having the koan; just have the koan in the middle of it. That’s what uninterrupted practice and doubt mean. Don’t try to separate them. Have what you have, and then it’s all practice.

So, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with whatever wakes me up—my body, usually. And there’s the koan. It doesn’t mean my body shouldn’t hurt or, you know, the knee I blew out trying to keep up with my thirty-year-old friend six weeks ago isn’t going to hurt at night or something. It’s fine. Yeah, it’s fine. And you’ll see, Oh, that’s No. Or that’s the East Mountain walks. That’s the original face.

And here’s a lovely thing from Nakagawa Soen, who’s got a strong lineage connection to us. He wrote to Senzaki Nyogen, who had moved to America. He was very anti-war and his teacher thought bad things would happen to him if he stayed in Japan. So the teacher shipped him off to California. He worked a strawberry farm … all these things that he was hopeless at, and so on. But anyway, he got a life here as a teacher. And he says to Soen, who was a notable poet and up-and-coming Zen master:

I’ve been studying your dharma talks on the Gateless Gate, the Wumenguan. One after another, I feel emancipated, just seeing the teaching conveyed in Roman letters rather than the kanji. Zen, which is fundamentally about the emancipation of all beings, is unfortunately sealed in some square box called Zen. In this enclosure, the ancient dog in the koan Zhaozhou’s No has been suffocating. In English, the dog is joyfully alive.

Just Keep Company with It

So, just to bear in mind. I think the final thing to say is that whatever the koan you’re working with, just keep company with it. Let it keep company with you. And after a while, you will find it is just there whether you asked it to or not, and it won’t go away. But you don’t need to be there. I’m just talking about the landscape, the terrain.

And then other koans … “God, what do I do? They’re always talking about different koans.” And so you will notice that if you do the PZI Open Temple, you’re actually in a training period. We didn’t say that, but that’s what it is, you know. You’ll have these intelligent leaders giving you koans and just throwing this and throwing this and throwing this, and you trip over them or skid on the kitchen floor on them, or whatever it is. But also they’re giving them to you till you think, Well, this is a disturbance. I’ve already got my koan. So you keep close to the koan that’s your root koan, your core koan. Whatever that is, whatever your teacher talked with you about. But all the other ones—they’re not really different, you know? There’s an old saying: There’s just one koan. It’s the door into reality, the opening.

So, Dahui said you should have a leisurely easy attitude toward meditation. He is known as the fierce warrior of meditation. You should enjoy it, you shouldn’t be straining, things like that. I think that’s the last thing I want to say today.

Holly, you’ve been in the Dharma. Teach me!

Holly: There we go. Pancakes.

John: Okay. Gaffney, teach me!

Gaffney: [yells]

John: Koan indigestion. Michael Wilding, say a word of Zen.

Michael: [sound of picking up instrument] This is probably way too intellectual.

John: No commentary, please, just the word.

Michael: Wait a second, here it comes [plays didgeridoo]. That’s it. 

John: It’s hard to warm up a didge.

Michael: Eloquent, huh?

John: Thank you. That’s a good word of Zen.

Okay, well thank you very much. Just this one word: No. Or in my case, it’s The East Mountain walks on the water … whatever it is for you.

The solitary brightness.
Everyone has their own light.
If you try to see it you can’t.
The darkness is dark, dark.
What is your light? 

Quickly, before you think about it. Pass me your light, show me your light. Okay, thank you very much.

Head of Practice JanBro: Restore the temple. [bell]

Cantor Amaryllis: [chants] 

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

Amaryllis: [plays violin intro]

Jordan: [plays guitar and sings vows]  The Four Boundless Vows… [bell]

Little Prince

Allison: [reads]

Six years have already gone by and I have never yet told this story. The companions who met me on my return, they’re well content to see me alive. I was sad. But I told them I’m tired. But now my sorrow is comforted a little, and that’s to say, not entirely. But I know that he did go back to his planet, because I did not find his body at daybreak. It was not such a heavy body.

And at night, I love to listen to the stars. It’s like five hundred million little bells.

But there is one extraordinary thing. When I drew the muzzle for the Little Prince, I forgot to add the leather strap to it. And he’ll never have been able to fasten it on his sheep. So now I keep wondering, what is happening on his planet? Perhaps the sheep has eaten the flower. At one time, I say to myself, Surely no, no. The Little Prince shuts his flower under the glass globe every night. And he watches over his sheep very carefully. And then I’m happy. And there’s sweetness in the laughter of all the stars. 

But at another time I say to myself, At some moment or another, one is absent-minded. And that’s enough. One evening, he forgot the glass globe, or the sheep got out without making any noise in the night. And then the little bells are changed to tears.

Here then, is the great mystery for you who also love a little prince. And for me. 

Nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has, yes or no, eaten a rose. Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no?


Head of Practice JanBro:  Goodnight everyone.


Fall Sesshin 2022
Dharma Talk: October 6, 2022
John Tarrant 

Listen to Audio of this Talk