PZI Teacher Archives

Front Foot & Back Foot Walking


One of the metaphors for awakening is spring. And don’t be afraid of how marvelous and powerful this thing is that’s carrying us, because it’s your nature and it’s a precious thing. And if we came here for anything, it’s that.

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So, today we are working with a great old poem,

The darkness is inside the bright, but don’t look only with the eyes of the dark.
The brightness is inside the dark, but don’t look only through the eyes of the bright.
Bright and dark are a pair, like front foot and back foot walking. 

And this is Su Dongpo, who was one of the great Chinese poets of the late Song period. I wasn’t intending to read this, but it asked to be read. This is from 1080,

On First Arriving at Hangzhou

Funny—I never could keep my mouth shut;
it gets worse the older I get.   

He is in exile for not keeping his mouth shut.

The long river loops the town—fish must be tasty;
good bamboo lines the hills— and smell the fragrant shoots!
In exile, why mind being a minor bureaucrat.
Other poets have worked for the water bureau.
Too bad I was no help to the government
but they still pay me in old wine sacks. 

So, this was the great Su Dongpo.

Spring Night 

Spring night—one hour, worth a thousand gold coins.
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon
songs and flutes upstairs—threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing where night is deep and still.

Written on the Wall at West Forest Temple

(1084—not that long ago) 

From the side, a whole range; from the end, a single peak:
Far, near, high, low, no two parts alike
Why can’t I tell the true shape of Blue Mountain?
Because I myself am in the mountain. 

Su Dongpo—the front foot and the back foot walking. He was in the court and then he got fired, and then he got exiled far away to the south coast, where people were expected to die of malaria if you were exiled and you weren’t used to it. But then he got half un-exiled and he came back to the river town—”the bamboo looks good on the hills,” like that. So, front foot and back foot walking. 

Respecting the Quality of Being Here

So, we are in this vast vessel, really. We’re being carried. We start to be aware that there’s something different about mind when we’ve been doing this for almost a week. You’ll start noticing things that you don’t normally notice, like—I don’t know what you notice. 

What do you notice that you don’t normally notice? Hey, ask the horse. What do you notice that you don’t normally notice? What are you noticing? 

Student: The bathroom floor is sparkly.

John: That’s a very good example, because of the dark and bright working together. 

That’s the only thing we noticed—forty people, a week—the bathroom floor! Well, good enough.

The elm tree looks like Pele. Okay, very good! What else? The curling of the eucalyptus bark. It’s one of those complete things isn’t it? It’s like thusness, the Tatagatha quality of eucalyptus bark. What do you notice about you and your mind? There’s no right answer. I’m just asking what you notice. Come on, give me a break here. Yes? 

Eleanor: I notice that it’s very clear, but when I say or do something … 

John: When you do something unusual, or what? 

Eleanor: Just that it’s not genuine. 

John: What’s not genuine? 

Eleanor: What I say or do—I notice that when I say something, that it is not what I really mean. 

John: Then what happens? 

Eleanor: It’s just jarring. 

John: Ah, yeah, good—you notice that. Excellent. It’s a marvelous thing, isn’t it. We notice that it’s harder to lie to ourselves when we’re doing zazen. Ah, I don’t know, it’s always easy to lie to yourself. But, in a way, it doesn’t taste good, you know? 

I remember the stories that Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French writer, wrote about. He learned to bicycle and he had that kind of blindsight. As soon as he got pissed off or started arguing with someone, WHOOM! he’d run into a tree. 

When we’re in zazen, there’s too much “us” in it when we’re manipulating things by saying something that is not true, even if it’s a harmless kind of thing. So, it’s not a matter of right or wrong, but it’s a matter of being here and of respecting the quality of being here. We’re showing up and we can actually meet each other if we really show up, which is good—before that. Okay, so that’s one thing.

The Front Foot and the Back Foot

Do you notice that when you complain, you run into a tree if you’re riding a bicycle, and you happen to be blind? You’ll notice the front foot and the back foot. You’ll notice how you have these moments where the universe is marvelous and you’re caught up in the vast extent of it. Could happen! Could happen to you, could have happened many times this week—could be happening as we are speaking. And then you’ll notice that there’s something else. I don’t know, you fall out of it, or something. 

In some way, it’s like stubbing your toe. You start worrying about someone else’s opinion and you say something that is not true. Not that it’s a lie or anything like that, but it’s not coming from a deep place. Or it could be that you are worried about someone else’s opinion. You know, you’re not even saying anything, you’re not even lying or anything but just wondering about somebody’s opinion, and that takes you out of the true world. 

So, the front foot and back foot walking—there’s something about that. 

And then you’ve got to deal with, “Oh my god, I was meditating perfectly and then something happened and I’m not now and I did go wrong.” Somehow, that’s not it, either—you can tell it’s not. It’s not the dualism of things that isn’t right. 

Somebody said to me, “Well, I was working on my koan, and it was so great. And I felt awakened. And then the next day, I was really happy, then miserable—I need a new koan.” It’s a natural movement of the mind, you know. It’s outside circumstances. Somebody said to me, “I’ve been meditating with this koan for about six months’ time, and, you know, I’m leaving it to you, but don’t you think it’s time for me to have a new koan?” “No.” In the old days, I had a bell, and I’d just ring the bell and the person would leave. It’s a sort of harmless thing we do, but we’re always reaching out there for things. 


So, I wanted to talk about the word kensho, which encompasses the front foot and the back foot and the bright and the dark. It just means, “seeing your true nature.” It’s not a big deal—it’s a word. But it’s a good thing. And I would say that it’s a real thing. Or, it’s not not a real thing. And there are many accounts of people having awakening experiences but you’ll notice that they don’t ever describe it very well, because when your way of being is shifted, you can’t really hang it on the wall and say, “It’s that.” 

There are all the old stories, like the one person who is completely stumped—a difficult person—and then suddenly, he wakes up. His teacher hands him a candle so he can go to bed, and then the teacher blows it out—and suddenly he wakes up; the candle gets blown out. 

Deshan says, “It’s dark outside,” and the teacher hands him a candle and then blows it out. Suddenly, it’s now dark inside, too. And suddenly, this very opinionated intellectual person has this awakening. He bows, and the teacher says,

“Well, why do you bow, what do you see?”
And he says, “From now on, I will not doubt the words of an old master
renowned everywhere under the sun.” 

It doesn’t really tell you a lot about what he experienced. But you can feel something has really happened. Some of them are sort of like that—they’re very sudden. For other people, it’s just like it opens and opens and opens. 

One Shoe Drops and then the Other

Sometimes the teacher would say, “Go away and teach. It’s good enough.” There was a symbolic thing—this is Dongshan who is in the Shitou lineage: “Do I have my teacher’s portrait or not?” It was a symbol of transmission. 

But Dongshan just wasn’t at ease in his mind. His teacher said, “Piss off, someone else is going to have to help you there.” And sometimes it’s true that you get handed to someone else. It happened with Linji—his teacher kept refusing him entry, and he went to someone else. And then, suddenly, everything opened. And his teacher’s refusal, his teacher holding him to the difficulty, helped him come open. 

And with the portrait thing, the teacher wasn’t unkind, but he sent Dongshan away: “I’ve done what I can. Go away and find out.” And then Dongshan was obsessing about whether he had the portrait or not, and he looks into the stream as he’s crossing and sees his face. And suddenly that’s the next piece of awakening. It wasn’t that he didn’t have an awakening beforehand, but you can get one shoe and then the other one drops. 

Somebody told me they kind of got emptiness, but they didn’t really—it felt kind of chilly. Robert Aitken’s partner Anne Aitken was a pretty serious Zen student. She said, “One shoe dropped, and then the other.” She had the sense of the vastness but it wasn’t, like, alive. And then, a couple of weeks later, it was. 

When an awakening actually is a real thing, it’s not like, “I’m feeling good today.” It is like, “The world has changed for me.” And it doesn’t mean that you won’t be an idiot afterwards. Very likely you will, and possibly quite soon. It’s more like there’s a kind of inner freedom and peace and acceptance of what happens. 

Not Your Business

When you’re in sesshin, everybody is going to have some moments of joy and becoming one with the environment, unless you are fighting really hard not to, which you might be. But I think you’ll see, “Oh, I don’t really need to leave here.” I can understand what it’s like for those people who spend lots of their life in retreat, in this kind of retreat, having interviews and doing the koans. They don’t ever want to leave. You can feel the truth of that, the expansiveness of that. The old technical term for that is samadhi. It’s a mind state, really, but it sort of overlaps with awakening. It’s not unhelpful. But samadhi comes and goes. 

And then you’ll find that the next day you are worried about, you know, “I opened the door for someone and they didn’t smile.” You can tell we are caught in something that’s none of our business. Even if they can’t stand you, who cares? You’re trying to do your koan, so do your koan instead of worrying about what they think of you. Let them worry about what they think of you. That’s their problem, not yours. And that’s a profound thing in Zen—don’t mind other people’s business. 

It’s a human thing, because we’re all tied in with mirror neurons. Somebody eats a banana, and our hand raises—mirror neurons to raise a hand start working and we start thinking about yellow. So you can tell what I mean: just keep it in.

It’s a big thing for teaching. I think we have a really good teaching faculty here. One of the big things to teach people is: Don’t be dependent on the quality of your students—don’t be dependent on your students’ getting it. There are teachers who bring students through with a tiny bit of awakening, but that’s not doing anybody any favors. If somebody is holding you to a koan or topic, they’re doing you a favor, so respect that. 

I remember one of the people who was a sensei here, who got sick and doesn’t teach with us anymore. She studied with a teacher who was pretty new. She’d had this little experience and the teacher would say, “Yes, that’s it, that’s awakening,” and then drag her through a few koan answers and stuff. It was very painful for her. So, you don’t want to go through things where you’re not long-term going to really understand reality and have the joy of that—meeting reality, truly meeting reality.

Reality Will Look After You

Reality will look after you pretty well then, if you’re not interfering. I feel that’s true. I feel like you’ll always be safe because your true nature is that you’re in the Dao. So, you won’t need to be afraid of things and grasping for things. And if you catch yourself doing that, there’ll be sort of more of, “Oh yeah, I don’t need to do that.” Like that, you know. You’ll catch yourself doing that—thinking, or whatever it is.

A physician friend of mine, whom I like a lot and who was hanging out with me doing a project, said, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of my body.” You can just tell his body’s got a lot of miles on it—good living. So that sort of thing comes up but it’s not really a regret, it’s just an amusing observation. And we don’t know if he would have lived longer, if he would have done better taking better care of his body, anyway. He might have gotten run over by a bus if he wasn’t in a bar. You can’t know those things. “Don’t stop smoking; you’ll be an ax-murderer!”

So, we notice how the mind tries to control life by its theories—and we don’t need them. One of the things is when the awakening starts to happen is that you start seeing your communion with your participation in the world. 

I’ve been very smitten by the way the wind and the leaves talk to each other, this retreat. It’s very nice, the way the wind and the waves talk.

Confidence in the Path

The other thing is that if you really put yourself on the path, have confidence in that. When Linji said, “Have confidence in the light that’s always working inside you,” he meant, have confidence in the light that is always working inside you and don’t pretend it’s not there. And if you’ve done some sesshins, you will notice that “Oh, I noticed this is a real thing, even if I don’t have much access to it,” right? And don’t whine about “Oh, it was real, but at breakfast, I didn’t feel good.” Well, ask me if I care! We’re doing something deep here. And it’s alright. 

And if you don’t feel good, that might be the back foot walking. And you have got to allow it. You’ve got to allow that, to be kind to that part of life. And it’s not like it’s heartless, it’s just that, Oh, it’s the great matter we’re interested in. We’re not heartless to each other, or things like that. There’s something real going on.

And we don’t have to please people over it. Because if you’re really sitting in the Dao and holding the great work, well, people will notice and they’ll accept you. And if they don’t, well, what business is that of yours? So don’t be minding other people’s business, because you don’t even need to be minding your own business; you don’t have a mind anyway. So, you know, knock it off. I think you know what I mean.

The Past Is Not Your Zen Master

We are fascinated by what we are thinking. “Man, I’m not working on my koan in the right way.” Well, what are you doing that you’re not working? My physician friend said, “People come to me and say they’re sick. And I say, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And they say, “I do this and I get sick.’ You know the thing you do and you get sick—don’t do that thing.” “But I really want to think about breakfast and also have my mind be completely free. I want to yearn after lost loves and have my mind be completely free.” If you pull that off, let me know. 

There’s nothing wrong with what comes up in your mind. Your mind doesn’t have to be free of what the ancients called “the flows.” It’s not a bad way of looking at it, right? There are these currents and waves running through the mind, peaks and troughs, and that’s all right. But you’ll notice it quiets a lot. You notice in sesshin that even when there’s stuff flowing through your mind, that in a way it’s got nothing to do with you. And that’s a profound, important thing, is to not do it. You’ll feel that you don’t have to be the servant of the material running through your mind. 

Then, after a while, some of it just falls away. “Oh yeah, I used to have this thing that happened in my childhood and I can’t get it back.” But if you’re free, you’re not living by that. Even if it was terrible, even if you’re absolutely right to have the opinions you have, you’re not living by it. That’s not your Zen master. So, nothing in your history is your Zen master. And the Dao will hold you. 

When You Can’t Feel It

Bright and dark are a pair, front foot and back foot walking. You know, the kensho thing. Some of you have noticed that you can feel the koan sort of gathering around you, and being in you and outside you, and coming and going. It’s in the trees, and things like that. I don’t know—I wouldn’t call this enlightenment, but I can feel that some great river current is carrying me. And then you can’t feel it, and then that’s alright. What do you do when you can’t feel it?

Student: Feel that.

John: Good, who said that? Who said “feel that?” Oh, was that you? You can feel that.

And also, there’s something called a koan you could be doing, you know? I mean, just to inform you. Let’s say your koan is, What is the light? Who am I? What is the light? And you think, Oh god, I’m really messed up and I don’t think this was—Who am I? What’s the light? Whatever comes up, you think, “Let the koan in,” but that feels artificial. What is the light? Afterwards you will find ways to do it sweetly and softly without just hammering at life, and you won’t be stuck in trying to stop things arising. It’s a well-known thing that you can kind of sort of stop stuff from arising, but it’s like you’ve gone into winter but you can’t have spring, and spring is worthwhile.

Do you find clear waters ranging to the vast blue skies in autumn? You know, the complete emptiness? How can that compare with a hazy moon on a spring night? Where, you know, you’re bumping into trees, probably, but there’s a liveliness and a scent in the air, and things like that? 

One of the metaphors for awakening is spring. And don’t be afraid of it—don’t be afraid of how marvelous and powerful this thing that’s carrying us is, because it’s your nature. It’s in human nature to have this. And it’s a precious thing. And if we came here for anything, it’s that. I mean, destroy the climate and things like that as well. But while we’re doing that, we could get enlightened.

Bodhisattva Impulses

And the other thing that Mazu said is “Make a way out of no way.” And that’s kind of encouraging. When you can’t go forward, “Make yourself a raft to ferry others across the stream.” There’s something about the bodhisattva impulses—they are a real thing, too. And I don’t think you have to sit around thinking, “How can I help others?” so much, because, in a way—just do your koan and it will come out of you. 

And you realize, Oh, everybody in this room is doing this for the world. And everybody in this room is doing—you’re doing—this great, deep, inward thing. The freedom of that will then affect everybody you touch and know. It’s a weird thing, and nonlinear. Who knows how helpful that might be. So, it’s not a selfish thing that you’re going to feel better. And if you don’t feel better on a given day, it’s not important to you, like, you don’t really mind. I’m fine when people come in and ask, “How are you?” “I don’t know, I haven’t looked. I feel fine, actually,” and people say, “But weren’t you really sick?” “Well, yeah.” I feel fine. So you can get that it’s okay, the dark and the bright are okay, and we’re doing something valuable here. 

So, just respect your own capacity to be awake and to be enlightened. And if you don’t feel you’re enlightened enough, well, go and get enlightened enough! That’s not that hard, you know? And then, don’t be selfish about it. You know, you’re not doing it for you.

In Australia, the telephone booths are red, actually, but they’re the same glass thing. And they all smell of pee and cigarette smoke and desire murmured by young teenagers into phones and things. Here they are blue. They’re the same thing, but you can’t live in a telephone booth. Exciting things happen in telephone booths sometimes, but you don’t want to live there. And so, that’s the self. So, you let go of that, and then naturally you’re serving others and, in a way, kind of enjoying yourself doing that. You don’t have to choose how you serve others, out of your own heart it will come. 

My thing is that I teach Zen, but there are many ways to serve, to do the bodhisattva path. And I am not snobbish about what they are. Do the one that draws you. If you’re an artist—do your art and you will touch people, because the deeper you’re in the path, the more the art will be visible, the more that will be visible to people. 

The Koan Can Do It for You

If you look at the calligraphy of Gempo’s, on the wall, it says “Barrier!” which he thought was the most helpful thing he could offer you. When you say, “This koan is hard,” think of Gempo Yamamoto, think of him and you can see the pure mind doing that big thing. You know, it’s going to be alright. It says, “Barrier!” which is like “No!”—the one behind me. 

Then it’s really interesting, and you’ll notice that when you meet something you find unpleasant or difficult and you just don’t know what to do with it—that’s your Barrier, that’s your No, that’s the dark, that’s the back foot, and you can turn into it. Often we’ll spend time trying to bear it and wait it out, or something, or we run screaming from the room—I don’t know—pick a fight with someone. That’s a time-honored strategy. 

But you’ll notice that if you turn in to the difficult material, your koan will be there. You’ll have your koan, and don’t worry about it. It’s the koan’s business to do something with your mind and yourself and you. It’s just all too much for you, but the koan can do it for you. That’s a profound thing. Let the koan carry you, and it will. What is your light? We will carry you. There’s a thing with awakening, if it’s a small awakening, that’s fine, too. But if you have an awakening, a large awakening—even that’s allowed, you know—if you have an awakening, you’ll notice it starts to … you can feel it. It’s like a mycelium. It just goes through your life. 

There will be things you still don’t know how to deal with. You haven’t learned to let the koan into them yet. You’ve thought, “I have to do this on my own, outside of my practice,” but actually, it’s all in the practice, living and dying and loving and being an idiot, and all that.

So, just let your koan into that and you’ll find it a transformative thing. You are not trying to heal the problem. The koan will tell you this problem is itself gold. The fire that runs through everything isn’t a problem. What you’re calling a problem? The problem doesn’t think it’s a problem. It just thinks it’s life, which it actually is. 

Front and back foot, the bright and the dark—and they’re all interwoven and not interwoven. And that all goes on endlessly. We are all part of an endless process here. We’re always involved in it. Remember the water cycle? That was amazing to me when I was a kid. Wow, oceans, raindrops and clouds and trees and rivers?

That’s us! We are that cycle.


Any questions? I’m like Lucy—I’ll charge you five cents. The Zen teacher is IN. I have this hermit sign, so the hermit is in, don’t bother the hermit. Yes? 

Student: Can you tell us a little bit about this song we were just hearing? 

John: [chants] Kanzeon, namu butsu, yo butsu u in … 

Kanzeon just means “hears sounds.” Kanzeon. It’s a marvelous thing. Like, let’s listen right now and hear the sounds. 

And then it hears the sounds of each other. There is something about the kindness that’s in the awakened mind. It’s like, Oh, we hear each other and we try to listen to each other. We care. It is not that you don’t work at the compassion thing because you can’t get away from it. It doesn’t stop you from being whatever character you have. If you are fierce, you’ll still be fierce but there’ll be a kindness inside it, a warmth inside. 

There are forms of Kanzeon that have fire coming out of the middle, like Pele behind me, you know, with swords and skulls around the neck. “What is that?” “That’s the deity of compassion!” We can tell that, can’t we. If something really hard and difficult happens, it might liberate you. 

So, Kanzeon namu butsu … 

It says, “Thought after thought,” you know, so it’s Kanzeon, basically. Thought after thought is Kanzeon. That’s really just Dharma, you know? I mean it’s just boring old Dharma. Your thoughts are all Kanzeon. The thought you didn’t like, the thought you love—it arises in the mind. It is the mind. There is no other mind than the thought arising in the mind.

It’s a nice thing, the tradition of the Kanzeon, the Ten-Verse Kannon Sutra for Eternal Life that also gives you eternal life. You can tell there is that koan-like teaching inside. If you can only chant one thing at a funeral, chant that, because it’s the crossing-over sutra. You cross over onto the other side, through the bardos and enlightened realms. 

I had an old sheep that died. I chanted the Kanzeon for her to help her cross and be reborn as a bigger sheep next time. I actually kind of liked her but she wasn’t a sociable creature. She did have very impressive horns. I’ve done it often for friends, for people who have died. The Heart Sutra is a very good thing to chant, too. But if you can only have one thing, the Kanzeon has everything in it, just like the koan No has everything in it. Maybe you can just go up to the coffin and say, “NO!” A sufficient sutra and a very Zen attitude. If it appears that they want a little more,  give them the Kanzeon

It also can be used for joyous occasions, like baby namings and weddings, but it’s especially effective for crossing over. If I find I’m missing a friend who died, the Kanzeon will help me through—and that’s what ritual is for. It’s not superstition; it’s something that helps hold the soul while we’re going through transformations. That’s why we do that ritual. It’s an old custom in our universe. 

If you sing a line close together, you start hearing each other and notice my voice or your voice and actually it’s Kanzeon’s voice. Thought after thought is the mind, which is interesting. You can’t resist a little philosophy in the sutra as well. You think you have a mind? No. You just have all this scramble of things. 

Chris G: Is that the same as the heart-mind? Thought after thought is the heart-mind.

John: Yeah, yeah. It is that shin character. And doing it to you not to me. It’s the four-chambered heart, actually, if you look at the old seal characters—it’s a four-chambered heart. The ancient two-thousand-year-old characters, but then it got shortened until it’s gotten a little, you know, atrial fibrillation—a modern character. But yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. 

Oh, DP’s got it on there. There’s a seal character. Show that seal character, there. That’s the ancient seal character. You can see the heart.

Chris G: So, if we and everything we perceive is that, how is perception linked to thought?

John: Well, it kind of is, isn’t it? It’s saying that it’s intermingled. Thought is just one of those things that we perceive. 

Chris G: Percept after percept is the mind. 

John: I think thought is more or less clinically attempting to take you away from things, rather than being in it, you know—thought after thought. A thought-moment is Nen [claps twice]—the thought, the thought-moment. Nen is the thought-moment. It’s really the thing that happens too quickly for you to grasp, actually. I think you understand that. 

The two figures who could always be in a Zen temple—one is actually often not a Buddha, but you’ve always got Kanzeon. Kanzeon would be a nice person to have, or Manjushri, who’s the emptiness dude in the palace of the empty world. But Kanzeon is really important. So we have a Tara on the altar who is a Kanzeon. I always try to make sure to have her at sesshin. It’s good to have the lady around. And Avalokiteshvara, of course, has both masculine and feminine forms.

People do deity yoga with Avalokiteshvara: You visualize and then you become—it melts into your mind in deity yoga. And then you are Kanzeon. But you don’t have to do the exercise. You just are Kanzeon. Just look at your hands. Whose hands do you think they belong to? Who do they belong to? The expressions of the Dao.  

I’m not very good at answering questions. I feel that it’s probably okay. You say something and I talk for a while. Just trust that it’s all the unfolding. The interweaving is happening as we talk. You can feel it’s a real thing—we can feel it. Notice what it’s like right now to have your heart-mind. You can feel the cool air, and inside that, Avalokiteshvara is here, in Kanzeon. 

So, you have to be respectful toward your own life. You know, even your crazy times. You have crazy times when you’re not respectful, but don’t cling to that. That does not define you. Then the awakening mind will appear, and that’s Kanzeon rescuing you, dragging you out of hell. And after a while, you get bored with hell when you go there. There’s the legend about Kanzeon—hell and flowers and green things started appearing, so the demons asked her to leave because … “We love having you, but I can’t really fulfill my duties. Make yourself suffer and purify, you know.” 

You’ll be able to walk into your own hell but don’t choose to. But when you’re there, it’s alright—you’ll be Kanzeon, you’ll see the flowers.

Thank you very much.


Summer Sesshin: Taking Part in the Gathering
June 17, 2022
John Tarrant 

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