PZI Teacher Archives

Freely I Watch the Tracks of the Flying Birds


Everybody, every time, has its own difficulty and crisis. This is ours. We can trust our own lives that brought us here, and perhaps we have something to do here. And we don’t know what that is but we’ll find it as we keep walking. The thing about the meditation path is, I don’t have to think a lot about what’s mine to do. You just give yourself to the meditation, and it’s produced for you. It’s given to you. The path opens by itself, you know. Transcript of PZI Zen Online Sunday Talk with John Tarrant, recorded March 29 2020.

Listen to original Audio of this talk


So welcome. It’s happening now. Where is it happening? Right here. 

So this morning, the verse that is coming to my mind is an old one, that goes: [reads] 

Spring comes with flowers,
Autumn with the moon,
Summer with the breezes,
Winter with snow.
When useless things don’t stick in our mind,
That’s the best season.

[—Wumen Huikai, compiler of the koan collection Wumenguan, or Gateless Gate ]

So, meditation’s a time for us to just feel our way into the gaps between things, you know? And the gaps are always there. There is always a spaciousness in every moment. But we get so we’re always running onto the next moment and we just don’t notice the space. We can say that space has always been there and we’re always aware. Children are kind of aware of it actually, but we have to grow out of it and forget so that we can remember again, and so on. The drama of being human. 

So, the meditation is a matter of resting in what’s already there and not rushing on to the next moment. It’s like that. So, let’s just sit for a second here. In a minute we’ll start meditating, and we could say we’re already meditating—but in a minute we’ll start meditating and I’ll give you a koan. 

The thing about koan meditation is you don’t have to be good at it because it’s before being good at things or bad at things, you know. We just kind of help—that’s kind of nice. It’s one of the few things in life you can’t do wrong. So, good to know. Good to have that in your life. 

Because in a way what we’re doing is, we’re not doing it. It’s like the universe is coming through us. The deeper part of everything. The deeper part of us, the deeper part of life is holding it for us. So all you have to do in terms of method with the koan is just hang out with the koan. 

Then your mind will come up and start saying “you’re not doing it right,”’ or the koan’s not right, or something’s not right. What about what I’m afraid of, or what about what I hope for—and then you just go back to the koan. It’s kind of that same problem. And then you’ll notice that you don’t have to use any devices, you don’t have to change anything in any way about your mind. You can trust whatever’s in your mind, because it won’t be there long anyway. And we know that. And so you can sort of enjoy that, you know? 

What else do I want to say about that? In that sense, whatever comes up, we could say you have compassion for it—but we could also say that there’s a welcoming attitude towards it.  You don’t try to change what’s in your mind, because that’s the koan’s business. So just hang out with the instruction and the feeling for the koan. OK. So with that, let’s enjoy ourselves. 


As the sound of the bell dies away, perhaps your idea of who you are dies away too. And the thoughts die away. And even if they don’t die away, it’s not important that the thoughts [should] disappear in your mind, if they don’t die away. You’re not identified with them, you’re not identified with understanding “what’s the right way,” and how to be clear and how to be at peace. Then suddenly you’re already at peace. So here’s a koan for you from the ancient koan curriculum. The moment of ease. And it just goes, [recites]

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

[—from Xuedou’s commentary on Yunmen’s Good Day koan]

Lazily, easily, I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

So just let the image come into your heart, and you feel what you feel. Just let it. And then something appears, and that’s good. And then something else will appear. The image will keep deepening your experience of watching the tracks of the birds. So, [recites]

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

Just enjoy becoming one with those birds. No matter what comes up, the thing is not to criticize yourself, not to find fault with this moment, because this moment is the whole of life that we have right now. So we may as well relax with it. If you can’t relax when you’re meditating, when can you relax? Don’t be picky! Whatever you get, it’s good enough, and there’s joy in it. So whatever you get, just have it. And if you can’t stop criticizing what’s coming up or yourself or worrying or whatever it is, then don’t criticize that. Compassion enters somewhere. The good-hearted, open-hearted quality will enter somewhere. 

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

PZI Musician Jordan McConnell: [plays guitar]


Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. Watching the tracks of the flying birds. [bell]

Well, good. Meditation. Someone said, “It can’t be explained, it can’t be praised enough.” 

That was Jordan McConnell in Canada, thank you very much—you’re marvelous. Say something Jordan, say “Hello” so people will see your face. 

Jordan: Hi, can you hear me? 

John: Yah, thank you. 

Jordan: Sorry if that surprised some people! 

John: That was meant to surprise people. Ok, thank you. Jordan plays for us on retreats sometimes. So you can tell how it can come from music, it can come from silence, it can come from the sight of somebody’s eyes. It can come—there’s nowhere that doesn’t have it, but to have music and to have beauty is a good thing. So there’s that. 

And what else to say here? I like this particular koan because it’s not trying to preach anything. It’s just an image, and so it goes down to the deepest part of the heart. And the saying that I quoted, “It comes out of your own heart and covers the world,” is true for me, with this koan. You can tell you’re onto something if you watch a bird and suddenly you feel its wings in your shoulders. And you feel like, “Oh, I’m not as different from that bird as I thought I was.” And that’s part of the mystery of life, is that we’re all in it, and all together. That’s one of the good things to remember in times of panic and difficulty, that we still have that. We still have this marvelous connection to all things. 

A couple days ago I was meditating, and I was noticing how my mind was getting to be—it was like, it’s a retreat we’re in, some of us. Some of us are working pretty hard, and some of us are risking our lives in hospitals and places, or even delivering packages, but we’ve been having Zoom meditations pretty much most nights of the week, most days of the week. I’ve noticed I’ve just been going along and taking the ride, which is great for me when other people are teaching. I’ve noticed how it sort of saturates us. 

The thing about meditation, is it’s not something you do, it’s something you open yourself to— and you’re in a vessel. All these things happen, and you’re in a vessel. Heat and steam and boredom and love and loathing and trivial thoughts and wonderings, and dread and terror. And in some way, all of that makes a human being at the time. And it all gets sort of cooked, or heated. It’s the old alchemical metaphor that’s all in a kind of retort or a vessel that’s being heated. Meditation just allows it all to be there and work itself out. And so life works itself out for us. Then we realize, “Oh!” we have to trust our life, we have to trust the life we have, that we have to be in. And let the life we have instruct us. The great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Life is always right.” It’s annoying but true. Because it’s our life and we don’t have any other life or any other moment. And If we really look, we know how to do it. It’s endless unfolding in us, and we know how to respond. We don’t have to think about it too much, it’s just here. 

So there’s that part of the koan work, that aspect. The other really important part, just to repeat, is that when you really surrender to the moment, when you just let the moment have you and carry you, then you notice that it widens. Things are, even if you’re really worried, inside that worry there’s a silence and a space and there’s music. Whatever it is, there’s the light on a finch’s wings, there’s a light in the raindrops on the tree. There’s the light of a reflection in a window. There’s—any little piece of the world is a reflection of the heart. Any little piece of the world contains everything we’ve always wanted and needed and loved, you know. 

So then what happens is fine, you know? I asked Jordan to play because I thought it’d be a gift. There’s something nice about it, it’s an ancient koan tradition to play music sometimes during retreat. It’s come down to us from Japan and China and I thought it’d be lovely for everyone. But then it was actually lovely for me, and I found I had tears, and it’s good. I thought it was for you, but it was for me as well. It’s kind of nice the way that works. 

And then, you’ll notice the other things the mind does. When I meditate, I notice sometimes it keeps offering things to worry about, or keeps offering things—ways I should help, things I can dread, things I dislike and disapprove of. You’ll notice that in a certain way when you’re just sitting there and you have the koan—freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds—and you feel the wings and the air and just the vastness of the sky, and the vastness that’s inside you and in the world. Then you realize that those worries and plans, they’ll sort themselves out. If they’re real, no doubt you’ll respond to them. And some method will work itself out to deal with them. But also, then if they’re not real, it doesn’t matter. Either way—it’s as if we’re walking along in a forest path, and creatures rustle and things jump out. Demons come and say, “Boo!” But that’s alright. Demons are just demons, you know. And, as long as you’re walking the forest path and you have your koan, you’re ok. You have that magic power. 

It’s just part of the journey that things jump out, and it’s particular to you, and they’re particular to your culture. Right now there’s a lot of dread and fear in things. And it’s sort of coming out of the walls. Even if you yourself—I have friends that say “I’m not worried,” and then “I just fought with my girlfriend.” Maybe you are worried! “She went home in a huff.” She may have been right. So there’s that kind of thing. 

We may not even know what’s working in us, and we’ve just got to trust us, and we’ve also got to become us! So whatever comes up in us is also from the time. It’s not just a personal thing. So that sort of worry—and it’s important not to believe, not to think that what we’re thinking is us. There’s a deeper part of us that’s in a silence that’s always been there from the beginning. All through our evolution as creatures there’s been a silence. And the silence is between words and is in the moment, and you can always feel it. 

If we just stop for a second right now [rings bell] And so the silence, it’s here inside the bell. It’s in the silences, the quiet between the bell sounds. It embraces us all and you can’t describe it. 

So the old teachers, they used different words for it. One of them was “emptiness,” because it’s got no flavor or taste, but it holds everything, and it shines and it’s beautiful. Through that, we love each other and love the world. That’s the other thing to say, I think, that we’ll notice— that when we’re not listening to the demon voices and the things coming at us all the time from the mind, or coming out of the walls or coming out of the news or not listening to the panic—then we’re held. And then we won’t object to being in the time we’re in. Everybody, every time, has its own difficulty and crisis. This is ours. So we can’t think somebody else should have this time, it’s for us, and we can trust that. We can trust our own lives that brought us here, and perhaps we have something to do here. And we don’t know what that is but we’ll find it as we keep walking. The thing about the meditation path is, I don’t have to think a lot about what’s mine to do. You just give yourself to the meditation, and it’s produced for you. It’s given to you. The path opens by itself, you know. There’s an old poem that goes, [reads] 


The peach trees, without words, make a path.

Like that. So there’s that quality about things. 

The other quality is about, you know, death. In the Buddha story, death was the thing that was hidden. The Buddha story is kind of—probably most people know it, but if you don’t it’s an interesting story, because it’s unlike the great Greek stories like Odysseus. Ulysses was trying to get home from war, which he didn’t want to go to in the first place, but he was sort of trying to bring his ships and his people home and accumulate loot on the way, if possible. But he was trying to get home and he just couldn’t. What he longed for was his house and his child and his wife and his world. You know, a good meal and a glass of wine at the end of the day. So he wanted the simple kind of thing. The smell of the olive trees of his native land. So that’s what he wanted. 

But the Buddha story starts there, where the Buddha has everything. What’s hidden from him is the knowledge of suffering. So the big secret in life, the liberating secret, is that we suffer. And that everybody has to come to their own terms with that because we can also say that once you accept that and accept that the body’s uncomfortable, we die, things like that—you’ll find it’s not frightening. We worry about things and each other, because we love each other. But we know we can’t control all that, so the worrying is just part of the loving then. It’s not something where I don’t need to get you to behave differently or me to behave differently. We can just trust the unfolding of it all. 

And so once we accept that “Oh, we’re going to die,” then there’s “Well, how will I do it [how will I die]?” Well, I don’t have to know that. Probably I’ll know how to do it the way a child knows how to walk. Most of the things about dying, we’ve already done. Have you passed out, have you ever passed out? Well, every night when I go to sleep. Have you ever felt pain that you didn’t want to continue? Yes. Have you ever been short of breath? Yes. Have you ever had a fever? Yes. So, it’s one of those things. And if you’ve ever recovered from a fever? Yes. It’s one of those things that we’ll know how to do when it comes, and wondering about how to do it is not super important. Or, if we’ll be able to do it is just one of those demon things. So that’s what the koan is for, [recites]

Freely, I watch the tracks of the flying birds.

Then, actually, it’s pretty good. There’s nothing really to do. One of the great teachers said—Linji, was that teacher’s name, great master, founder of the koan tradition said, “I’m just someone with nothing to do.”

So the whole of life, it’s here, right now. And when I look at your faces—one of the nice things about Zoom is I can see your faces. So, each of these stars appearing. And also we can see each other. It’s a nice thing. You can meditate with your eyes open and you can see the beautiful faces. And you realize, all the faces are beautiful when you meditate. There’s no face that isn’t beautiful. And isn’t that grand, you know? It’s like all the time we worry about whether we’re appealing or attractive, but we realize, “Oh, it’s here right now.” And if they have that, you must have that. Even your hand has that. Your cheeks have that. And the marks of life on your face are beautiful. The marks of life on your heart, which means your sorrows as well as your joys. And that we don’t say “No” to anything. There’s nothing in our life we have to refuse, because here we are. To refuse anything in our life is to refuse to be here right now. You know, it ain’t so bad being here now, looking at all your faces. Meditating together. Music in the silence. You know, it could be worse. 

For a while I knew this woman I really liked. She wore Tibetan robes and she was a Westerner, but she was a Tibetan nun. She kind of had a lively spirit of fun about her, and was really one of those people who was a wanderer and just wanders through life. So she wandered in through my meditation world at some stage and then wandered out again. She was talking about this famous mad, genius Tibetan meditation teacher, a Rinpoche, and she said, “Oh well, I was his driver for a long time.” And I said, “Oh, well did you ask him questions?” And she said, “No, I didn’t.” And I said, “Ok.” Sometimes we don’t have any questions, you know. And I said, “Well, did you talk to him?” And she said, “Sometimes.” And I said, “Well, what do you remember that was notable?” She said, “Every now and again he could tell I was working really hard to be a good meditator and practitioner and serve well and improve the world. Every now and again he’d pat my shoulder and say, ’Enjoy yourself.’” 

So that’s what we can do together, and that’s what we’re doing when we’re meditating. We enjoy ourselves. Because there is nothing needed to enjoy ourselves—we’re just here, and the hereness carries everything. “Hereness” is beauty and it’s music, and it’s everything we wanted when we came into this, when we were born. It’s in the here of things. 

And so what I’d like to do now, I think, I’d like to sit again. Just a little bit more, okay? Think you’ll survive? Just nod if you think… if you disapprove, that’s okay too. So, we’ll sit a bit more. [bell] 

And again, listen to the sound of the bell go through your body and your heart, and notice how you are another bell. The bell is you, just like the birds, just like the faces you see. 

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

And here’s another koan that might help the mind understand. It’s the same koan, really, and it goes: [recites]

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

[—from Trust In Mind, Sengcan’s Xinxin Ming]

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. 

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. 

And you can feel the wings of the Way open. “The Great Way is not difficult,” this teacher said, and he was quoting another old poem. And then he said something interesting, he said, [reads]

“But even as I say that, your mind will say, but isn’t that picking and choosing? Or, wow! That’s clear.” And then he said, “But I don’t identify with clarity. Do you have the courage to live like this?”  

The Great Way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing. But as soon as I say that you might think—the mind just thinks on its own—you might think, “Isn’t that picking and choosing?” Or, “That’s very clear!” 

But I don’t identify with clarity. Do you have the courage to live like this? 

So there are so many things we can’t know and don’t know, and so many explanations. Will a cure come? Who will get sick? Will I get sick? Will those I love get sick? And it can’t be clear, and even if we want it to be clear, then we can be at peace with the wanting, and we don’t pick and choose about that. It’s alright. We’re here in this beautiful moment full of poignancy and darkness and light and sorrow and joy and music and silence. 

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. [bell]

I would kind of like to hear from some people, but it’s not going to work if we all put our voices in the room. So I’m just going to, with your forgiveness, I’m just going to call on some people in a rather arbitrary kind of way. I’ll start with Allison. Allison Atwill Roshi? [of PZI]

Allison: One thing—I was very struck when you said “the silence between words.” That became the whole of the koan for me. It’s raining up here in Northern California, and the silence between the raindrops—the skylights in the room I’m in, I can hear the rain falling on them. And I’m very struck, in this period, by the quality of silence. The way it seems not to be the absence of sound. It seems to be a sound itself, like the sound of the original silence, before the universe was born. And whenever I feel that silence, like you said—the silence between words or between the raindrops—it’s also my original silence. What a beautiful thing to feel during this time. That’s it.

John: Great, thanks. Jon Joseph, I know you’re out there. Another [PZI] Roshi. Do you have anything to say

Jon Joseph: Just lovely. I was sitting before the [Zoom] call started, then got on the call and we’re sitting again, and it’s continuity. Listening to Jordan’s guitar, I just felt I was diving into that river, into a river and through the clear water, and I was just swimming through his music. And there was a fish and here was stone, and there was a Coronavirus. Everything swimming through that river that runs through it, that runs through all of us. And it was just very beautiful. Touching.

John: Thanks, Jon. Dave Weinstein’s camera is not working but I noticed he’s on the call. Another [PZI] Roshi, another person doing our teachings this week. Do you want to say anything, David?

David: Yah, thanks John. Yes, Jordan’s music, wow! And when Jordan started playing music, wow. It highlighted something I’ve been noticing, which was that the first thing that came to my mind was, “Wrong, he’s supposed to be muted, what is he doing? How is this happening?” All of those things went through my mind, and then something kicked in, rationality kicked in and I could relax into the music. It reminded me of my fear that I’m not in touch with, particularly about the virus and the situation in my body. I don’t notice it, but I do notice that I’m making myself and others wrong a lot. It feels very young, and like a child who just doesn’t want to do what they’re being told, and it’s because they’re not being loved somehow, a very young kind of feeling, it’s interesting. 

I’ve been experimenting with the way I feel uncomfortable sitting in front of a screen with 20-something faces looking at me, multiplied by five. And noticing how on page five there aren’t any faces. Flicking back and forth from page four to page five, and trying to notice, what is it that feels different? Because I don’t like page five either. I don’t like a page that’s just names. I feel like I want to know what the faces look like. Then I see the faces and I feel something in the pit of my stomach that makes me want to run and hide, kind of. 

I’m noticing how I have the impulse, conflicting impulses, to come here now and feel connected to all you folks. Which feels great and challenging. And to yearn for the connection for the smaller group that I’m part of on a regular basis. Where there are people peppered through this five page mosaic who are members of that smaller group, and I’m missing the more intimate contact with them. Looking forward to that perhaps later today. 

Jordan’s music carried me like those birds that were flying through the sky of the koan. But when the music stopped that’s when I started flying myself. And I noticed there was more freedom in the silence, interesting. I loved the music. And yet in the silence I was soaring. And I noticed that.

John: Thanks. Sarah Bender, [PZI] Roshi from Colorado is also on the call. Do you have anything to say, Sarah?

Sarah: Thank you, first of all. I sat with a feeling of gratitude. Of this being so much what helps. And noticing that one thing that came up for me was a feeling of water running through me, of a kind of waterfall coming through. The way that just sitting with everything as it is can be like that for me. I thought, “Huh, maybe it’s just that the birds are flying through me and it feels like water.” So that was there. 

And I noticed when Jordan was playing, how the music can connect me with old, old memories that are very comforting right now. I was remembering how I was kneeling on the couch looking back into the woods with my little brother when we were probably five and three. When a storm would come, and a creek down in the woods would overflow its banks. And just kneeling there, and watching the creek overflow its banks. So, just noticing how odd it is what can appear in the space of the meditation. That’s it, for me.

John: Thanks, Sarah. Sarah’s going to be teaching this Friday, time will be announced. Look out for it—it’s a new gig. Tess—Tess is going to be teaching on Tuesday, I believe. [PZI Sensei] Tess Beasley?

Tess: I think first, just to say thank you for the love that you have poured into this room. Something I’ve been noticing that’s kind of a refrain in my mind, is the thing that we say so many times when we do a refuge ceremony with all the precepts. That things are mysterious and hard to see. And this feeling, of kind of drifting farther and farther away from shore from whatever was before. This feeling of being together in this thing that we have no idea of where it’s going, which is always true—but that’s just been a feeling that’s been very strong in me. 

And also the thing that you said during the fires—which was “the little magpie who’s doing what she can.” I’ve noticed I’ve also been someone for whom things feel almost like retreat now, and I think, “Oh, I feel lucky.” But I notice the people I come into contact with who are on the front lines, or the people who—my mom called me this morning, who’s going through a radical change in her life, and they’re cancelling all the flights, and she’s trying to get to her new home all the way across the country. And she was just hysterical, because she didn’t know—”What do I do? How do I change [my plans]? What if there are no flights?” And I could tell, whatever space I’ve been tending, whatever silence we’ve been tending, became available to her in a way that was touching for me. Because it sort of felt like, “Oh, for a second she gets to be part of…anybody gets to be part of what we’re doing when we tend it and make it available.” So, thank you John, for making it so available to us, and I just feel touched to be here. Thanks.

John: Thank you, Tess. Tuesday for Tess. Jon Joseph’s teaching Monday. I think these guys are great and you should hear them all. Allison’s teaching alternative Tuesdays with Tess, Sarah on Friday. Okay. 

Sarah: I wanted to plant something for anybody who might be, well for anybody—and that is about dreams. The dreams that are appearing, that people are speaking, are incredibly beautiful, and so much a vehicle for—well they’re so much like the tracks of birds in the sky. So I’m going to be inviting dreams in on Friday, so welcome your dreams and write them down. 

John: Yah, that’s great. I think one of the things, the tracks of the flying birds—It’s an image and it’s one of those great old, profound… it’s like a poem in our hearts. So those things will help us through. There is that. 

So, I’m just going to sit a tiny bit more, and we’re going to go out with the four vows. And one person’s going to sing and give us some music, too. So, I’ll just sit some more and hit a bell and if you can bear with us, this is a way to get out of here. So, same time next week. Show up for whatever part of the meditations you can because this is a time when, if we can keep our hearts open, we’ll get through this okay. We’ll do the best we can. Like the magpie during the fires in Australia singing, imitating the fire engine sirens. So we’re doing the best we can too. Okay. [bell] Just sit for a couple moments. 

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds. [four boundless vows with music]

Thank you everyone. Amaryllis in Denver, and Jordan, you’re in Winnipeg is that right? Thank you. And everyone else…you know we’re all over the world and we can come together like this. 

It touches my heart and we can see the beauty in everyone’s faces. Thank you.

—John Tarrant Roshi
The Green Glade of Meditation: Freely I Watch the Tracks of the Flying Birds
Sunday Meditation & Dharma Talk March 29 2020

Listen to original Audio of this talk