PZI Teacher Archives

Goblins Q & A


Hakuin would paint that as a demon. This is demon number three. Which number demon is that? And the other things is that thing about how the thing we thought was the problem can transform, there is that real sense of what’s wrong with being a demon? If I think there’s a demon obviously I’m it.

John: What if we approached it in that stripped down way? So what do you notice?

S: I notice that I’m confused about what the word “problem” and “wrong” mean when you say that. When I look at it and I say: what if it’s not a problem? it’s like: what’s a problem?

John: Yeah, it’s like I wonder, who am I? Who am I today? So there’s just a reaching there. What’s going on in your mind is just a reaching. Is there anything wrong with that reaching? What comes up for you is what’s a problem?

S: I don’t know what that even means.

John: Well is there anything wrong with that? She doesn’t know that either. And if you have to know and have a fundamental explanation for what is the problem of life, what is this, demon # 25 or #26, then it’s a problem. But you can tell that what the mind’s doing is making these artificial problems which it then worries about and tries to solve. Like will Amazon take back the camera that doesn’t work? You’ll just find out by sending it back. You don’t have to solve it first before the event. Will he marry me, will she marry me? Well, you won’t find out until he or she does.

S: I notice that when you say those words and then I bring that into my mind that maybe there’s not a problem, then it seems to begin to open up into: oh, there really isn’t a  problem. I don’t know if the word is, something begins to fall away, peel away, just with that. That’s what I’m noticing.John: For me a couple of things happen, just in what I notice. There seems to be more space and things are more vivid. I’m not pressing in wanting them to be a certain way. They are how they are. It’s fairly well known that if you take your agenda off an interaction – like you do better at a job interview if you don’t mind whether you get the job or not, right? Pretty known thing. So you do better at basketball if you’re not all pressing about I’ve got to make the free throw. So then there’s a kind of freedom starts to happen. It also feels kinder somehow. Because probably the thing we experience as unkindness is thinking somehow that what we are is wrong, finding fault with what’s happening for us. And what’s happening for us is the totality that we’re aware of. So then I feel like when you lift off all the filters there’s this experience of warmth starts to happen.

S: I get a lot of gratitude.

John: That’s got to be a problem [laughter].

S: Oh yeah it’s a big problem. I think that vividness for me occurs because I’m just running around in my head so much that everything is gray. I’m just in there doing all these little things and then I stop doing that just for a bit, like you said you just notice something other than the demons. I guess I’m just describing what you just described. Stuff starts to rise up, which is such a great gift that I’m not responsible for it in that normal way of the little thinking about things that just comes up.

John: So what I guess we’d like to describe, the non-problem that is occurring right now for all of us, for me, from my point of view, I think it helps us to… when we explore and say how we experience this, just the way you did, and then we can realize: well the way one person doesn’t experience it as a problem is theirs, and the way I don’t experience it a problem is mine. And the way I experience that, if I experience warmth or light or bells and whistles or no bells and whistles, is okay. We do make our experience wrong, and as long as we don’t make our experience wrong, it’s a path we’re walking through and we’ll be fine. And not only we’ll be fine, you’ll notice that the joy and the kindness will rise of themselves. Whereas trying to make joy and kindness rise, for me, is ineffective. That’s finding fault with what’s here. It’s so incredibly simple in that way. It’s like why didn’t I think of that before? Well, that wasn’t a problem either. 

S: I kind of see not so much problems as obstacles, or clashes. And to me they’re like food. They’re nourishing, to be digested and passed through.

John: Okay. Well then – I think the thing is once we start noticing this is a possibility it’s like we were in a wheelchair but we started to learn about dancing but suddenly we find ourselves in a wheelchair again, or we were in prison and we get free but suddenly we find ourselves in prison again. But what then becomes interesting is, is it really a problem that we’re in a wheelchair or we’re in prison, and then we’re not in prison anymore. We’re free. 

Then the whole idea is really kind of a technical idea I suppose about – we have a thing on our email about – long ago our webmaster put on about what if obstacles are gates. But it’s really for us and it’s our situation. So if it’s an apparent problem or something. Maybe it’s food. The question is what do you do when you think you’re really in trouble. I notice one of the things is the mind starts explaining and obsessing, well how much trouble, and whose fault is it? And so that’s like fixing a false problem. Am I even in trouble? Is this even it yet? 

S: I’m curious because as you call out to us and we share what’s in our minds, you know it’s two thirds of the way through sesshin, that’s a pretty good bet that a lot of us might be calm, but…

John: Well your demons might be thick by now, I don’t know. They’ve had time to breed.

S: If you were to call me up at work last month…

John: You would have thought there was a problem. 

S: And the thoughts arise so quickly that for you to say look in your mind is there really a problem, it’s like yeah, there’s really a problem, and then there’s 24 stacked behind that. It’s much more of a challenge to find that space.

John: I don’t contest the thought that delusion is thick. [laughter] That’s the nature of mind. But the idea I found incredibly kind and merciful… but there might be a method – if we have a method that allows us to get non-thick, and allows the mind to become transparent at any time, that’s an incredibly strange and interesting revelation. That if we have any moment when there’s not a problem, since that moment is now, it starts to reverse our experience of the universe. 

A really funny thing happened here. There’s a kind of thing that happens in a retreat where our head chef couldn’t find the clappers to call people for the meal and had the bright idea of using two robust looking ceramic cups which, banged together, immediately shattered. Good idea number one. [laughter] It’s one of those things where you think only in retreat would I think of that. But hearing the breakage, somebody else’s mind, all the forms and problems fell off them. And so then you start thinking well was that a good idea or a bad idea? And then I found a piece of the cup – I found out about this because I found a piece of the cup in my foot. [laughter] Is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

And so there’s this way in which when we get the spaciousness, it’s all the unfolding of this marvelous thing. And then we do something else and suddenly a whole ward of prisoners and anguish and demons has assembled itself and I’m believing it very densely. Without even consulting me! But to know that it’s possible not to have it is a tremendous understanding. When people talk about kensho, seeing reality, I think that’s where that understanding is heading. 

S: I was just going to say when you asked whatever you asked, like what if there’s not a problem, or what does it mean, what came to me is there’s nothing to fix and there’s nothing to do if there’s not a problem, which then means oh yeah that’s what I’m usually doing is fixing problems, that runs my life…

John: I’m out of work, right?

S: It’s like oh, you could do anything, because there’s nothing you have to do, because there’s nothing to fix.

John: Right. Yeah. So that goes in a lot of directions, like we can learn anything, probably, because we don’t have the prejudice that it’s unlearnable, things like that. You can be happy in situations that you thought you couldn’t be happy in, because you weren’t really in them, so you thought you couldn’t be happy with them. A lot of the predicament koans are little stories about situations you can be happy in, that you thought you couldn’t be in, like hanging from a branch by your teeth, locked in a stone crypt. Substitute your situation: my kid’s sick, I’m sick, I’ve got cancer, my cat’s sick, I lose my job, whatever it is. But that profoundness… we think of those moments of scientific discovery that change our understanding of the world, just one discover like the constancy of the speed of light. And the discovery of the constancy of the speed of light meant the old way of seeing the world had to change and nobody yet knew how. 

So the discovery of any moment of reality that is not a problem and is free, changes our reference point. So the Newtonian prison of the mind is fundamentally not as solid as it seemed to be. The discontent that we need to have an identity really is not reliable. Identity is not reliable because we may not have to fix things and therefore who are we going to be. That’s why the old teachers talk about how the thing you can really rely on is the not knowing. The uncertainty is what you can rely on. Not because it’s a desperate last-ditch attempt, but because you can actually rely on it. If you’re relying on your non-knowing, your not-knowing, you’re not relying on a false explanation of things and so you can turn any way and things can just unfold.

S: I was just noticing that there’s a way in which life feels mysterious in that place where there’s not a problem. And it’s interesting; Jan and I had an experience today. Jan was backing up the car and a woman walked right behind the car, and our car is a Prius and it doesn’t make any noise. So she turns to me and she says that woman just walked right behind the car. So stupid to do, because you can’t hear the car. The windows were rolled down and this woman heard it. And she turns to Jan and she says, “Fuck you!” And Jan and I just went: What? And she flipped us off, and Jan said something like I think you should put that someplace else.

S: I said I think you should put that away.

S: And with that, this woman turned around and came at us. It was just one of those incredibly fascinating moments, like wow she’s coming toward us. [laughter] I wonder what she’s going to do? There was no problem, it was just like this is amazing, and this whole chaos started to happen with this woman. I just had this great big smile on my face and I turned to her and I said: all you had to do was just say thank you, thank you was an option. I don’t know what she did. She was insanely furious. 

S: Thank you SO much, and she walked away.

S: We had very different reactions. For me I was just in the complete Wow of that whole experience.

S: You were on the other side of the car from where she was walking up. [laughter]

S: Yeah, and I watched her walk up the street and turn around. It was just an I don’t know kind of moment where there isn’t really a problem here. It’s fascinating and interesting to me. It’s captured in my being. Jan kind of broke into tears. She felt really vulnerable from the experience. What I notice, and Jan would have to say about herself, what I notice for myself is in that place where I didn’t really see this as a problem, it was incredibly interesting and mysterious and big, spacious.

S: When I feel like there’s not a problem, my body feels more relaxed… more 3-D, more dimensional.

John: Yeah, that’s good, isn’t it? There’s a flat quality to suffering, a flattened quality. We have a repertoire of responses that becomes sort of narrow. The thing about the woman yelling at us or something… there’s a whole thing of scorn is such a powerful thing, in humans. In dogs you can see the same, in animals, chickens, even. There is that thing about the purity of the moment there that can be free. 

There’s a funny story I put in one of my koan courses. There’s a koan about scorn. A friend was telling me, he was walking through Berkeley, and there was this big, somewhat unkempt black guy was yelling, jumping out at passersby yelling “Nigger! Nigger!” at people. White people, walking by. This is like somewhere, Shattuck Avenue. He just gave me this chat. I’m up at midnight and suddenly this chat comes over like “I’ve just met a koan,” or something like that. He can’t hear what the guy’s saying but as he comes closer the guy says it to him, and Joe turns to the guy and says, “Thank you!” and the guy has this beatific smile, comes over and just sort of puts his arm around him. And our Zen friend walks on and that’s it. So that funny space in which we think something’s happening but we don’t know what’s happening yet. And you feel tenderness for everybody on earth at that moment. 

S: So what if the here this from me right now for me is the guy yells “nigger” at me and I get freaked out.

John: Is that a problem?

S: Well that’s my point, because a lot of the examples that are often cited are ones that are pretty equanimous about outrageous things. So I notice that I can get trapped if I begin to think I should be at ease with this, when I’m not.

John: When in fact it’s fine to cross the street.

S: Yeah! Exactly.

John: Our particular Zen friend likes racing motorcycles so he probably enjoyed it anyway. What if you go into the doctor and the doctor says: well you know that lump, it’s melanoma, or something like that, and there are a lot of other lumps in your body too, which happened to a friend. Which might happen to somebody you know. And then you’re going to feel what you feel. That’s not a problem. That’s the freedom; the freedom is not what I had a minute ago before the diagnosis or before somebody yelled at me or before somebody was chasing me with a stick. I think that’s where you’re going.

S: Yeah, and I notice also over time, my response to things has changed. Places where I would normally get plugged in, in a certain way, I’m just not anymore, and yet there are still moments where the fear of – is there, is developing. And I may even say to myself well you know I’m not believing the story about it, but there’s the fear. Then I know I have to use whatever strategies I would normally use to work with that however I can.

John: Yeah, yeah, so that’s when method, and that’s – in some situations they become worthy of our interest because they’ve constituted themselves as problems to us. And they’re not just a quick dance move, they’re walking through this one. And I think the sweetness of the method is that it’s pretty simple. If you can possibly let the method rise, it will tow you through. But then exactly what form does the method take with this particular problem; the method keeps shifting too. 

Sometimes I feel like when I’m working with a koan it feels like it’s this wonderful companion; other times it’s the person who went missing, like where is it now and why isn’t it helping and aren’t I supposed to be feeling something different. Oh, that’s what’s going on. Then if I don’t need that to be different, it’s already becoming different. The thing about, no matter what the shape of the goblin or demon or whatever we’re calling it, comes up, it comes up I’m the source of it, I’m the host for that. And when I understand that it’s enormously freeing. It’s my life, it is for me and I’m walking through it. I think again that’s implied by what you’re saying. It’s good not to be sentimental about; it stops us from getting in arguments with crazy people, or even stops us from whatever it is we’d rather not do, we could still well do it. But we have a method now, and that’s a noble thing to have. And the thing is we always think if something really constitutes itself as a problem, I think the main problem is thinking I don’t have a method that will work with this, that will get me to be at rest with this. But that again is another thought-form: this is the one I can’t solve. And different people have different ones. The one you think you can’t solve is X, but it’s different for everybody, and people seem quite successfully to do all sorts of things, from jumping out of airplanes to dying.

S: I think eventually the body says: I’ll eat anything.

John: I guess so.

S: I’m wondering if you would speak to things like global warming. I have a friend who’s always thinking about global warming and the problem of global warming and ways to fix it and this and that. I said well, maybe part of the problem is you’re focusing on it as a problem. So I was wondering if you could speak to big things like that. Is it about where we individually meet our thoughts about global warming? Or?

John: Well, it’s whatever is happening is what’s happening, right? It’s true, it looks like the earth’s getting warmer. Sure looks like the majority of scientists think it’s something to do with us. So it could be that we could do something or stop doing some things that would have some impact, or it could be too late. Then we get into the dizzying complexity of climate systems and ocean currents and then we get distracted because there’s a nuclear meltdown in Japan and then we get distracted because they’re killing each other in the Congo, and then we get distracted because oh my god somebody was murdered next to my apartment (as a friend told me today) in San Francisco the other night. 

So I think the world is always offering us things like this to walk through as issues. You work with what you care about. Some people feel they’ll drive a Prius but then they get into these problem with backing up, which they wouldn’t have if they had a big car. [laughter] And so sometimes worry is its own solution for people. It tells us who we are. I had a friend, a brilliant woman whose solution to getting old was to become a sort of general activist for the environment, good causes. But she became a lot less interesting friend. If she wasn’t outraged she wasn’t having a good time. It tells us who we are. That’s not really a problem unless you want to have dinner with the person because it’s hard to concentrate on your food. But maybe that’s not really a problem either, because you don’t need to eat very much today. It’s a weight loss program. That could be good.

S: I run into that a lot, about global climate change. The fact is we’re putting more energy in and things are going to change. That can be rather a dark hole to look in, but what I find is interesting, maybe because I’m on a college campus, is I have the sense that we’re in this together. The young people, twenty-some-year-old folks, there’s a lot – the practice is doing where I don’t feel pessimistic. We won’t be driving and it’s going to be really different, but there’s something about the radicalness of that difference… the practice makes me… we’re together, we’re working on this together. So that’s just some response I have that I feel is coming out of my practice that before this it wouldn’t have. I would have just been: well what about this and what about this, rather than looking around at the people I’m with and feeling that we’re in this together. We’re all together. And we’re going to be more together as time goes on.


John: Well there’s always smart people trying to solve any problem that occurs at the physical level, and they’re always … every culture is walking its cliff edge, and that has ever been thus. The koan tradition, as you know, came out of civil war in Asia long ago, modern-style warfare, cities being burned and things like that. In general the world does that, and I think the practice doesn’t say that you’re going to stop a meteor from hitting the earth or… the great freedom of the practice is to discover that we can walk through this. It doesn’t mean that people we love won’t die, but if they’re dying, somehow we’ll have the courage to be intimate with them as they are. And if we’re the ones dying, the courage to be intimate with ourselves as we are. Or if we’re the one just living and breathing, we’ll have the courage to be intimate with our own life while we’re living and breathing. That’s it, really. It’s for itself, really. The beauty of living is for living.

S: What you were just saying, I’ve spent the last few years going through this feeling of wanting, having, wanting, having, moments of freedom, moments of connection, and thinking that’s how I should be is always in that space and why can’t I be there. How come I’m not there when I’m not. And this sesshin I’ve arrived at this place where okay sometimes I’ll be there and sometimes I won’t, and that’s actually a really good thing. So I don’t have any sort of anticipatory sense of when I leave sesshin how long will it last. It feels really like that’s a gift not to be in that place, the same as it’s a gift to be in that place.  

The other thing that happened about when Allison was talking about those moments in your life when you can’t breathe and you just want to jump out of your body… I was talking to her a little bit about it and I think what you were starting to say was that those are the most interesting to you, that you find those moments really interesting. That really touched me, because I always want to get out of those moments, how can I move away from those moments. How many times have people talked about turn into those moments, but it feels like somehow hearing it in that way, this is interesting for her and her life, so why do I want to give up a moment like that in my own life.

John: Yeah, exactly, that’s beautifully put. I’m here, and if this is where I am, if I can be here – I think the practice just allows us to be here where I am. And if where I am is thinking oh my god I wish I didn’t have to do this, then I can be with that, and then after awhile somehow I’m doing it. It’s not a matter of what I think about where I’m walking. I’m walking through it. 

One of the odd things for me, and perhaps the final thing to say about this is there is a feeling of a bigger trust and being carried, that we get carried. I was talking about this a little bit with a friend today, that we don’t notice we’re pushing things around a bit until we stop and we get carried more. And then who knows how much I’m still pushing things around not noticing, but I notice I’m letting things carry me more than I used to, except when I’m not. But then when I’m not, that’s what’s carrying me. That’s fine too.

S: So this walking through… it feels to me like taking refuge in awakening, the way and my companions. And I think it’s related to what you just said. We’re all in it together but I think it’s an even bigger together than you and me and people working on this problem together. But part of the universe carrying us is us together. I meet myself on this path and make it through, and whatever happens, no problem. 

John: I’m kind of for that, what you’re saying. One of our projects here was discovering how can we both access awakening and transform the mind, and how can we create a culture that makes that a lot easier, so everybody’s not having to reinvent the wheel. Because if it’s a natural human capacity, that’s what culture does, it holds and helps develop natural human capacity. So then the kind of conversations that we can have – I think it’s got to be collaborative in some way, which is where you’re going.

S: So when I come in late to sesshin that container is already here, and awakening is, I stumble upon it.

John: And then I think that leadership gets more distributed, because whoever’s speaking and discovering something right now, we’re all going to be listening to. Also one of the criteria, I thought one of the criteria – I was sort of made a teacher by surprise, under the old systems. Somebody said: well, you’ll teach now. And that was fine, but then I thought I had to suddenly know things I didn’t know. So it was an expertise model. But if you have a discovery model, then whoever’s discovering and being willing to rest in the not knowing. It’s not an expertise model; it’s a wisdom model. 

So leadership gets a lot more distributed in that way, and collaboration gets valued rather than I have a better description of reality and that’s why I’m a leader, because we’re not looking for a perfect description of reality, because you know that that’s a handle and handles always break.

S: And reality’s popping out all over the place

John: Damn thing. It doesn’t sit still. It moved again! So in a certain sense as a community, building a culture that’s what we’re doing. And I think the sense of humor in the meditation hall is part of that. There’s a lot of features, symptoms of that discovery. What was this great thing the head of practice said today? If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the baby seals. I can just see one of the great old Chinese masters saying something as absurd. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the baby seals. It’s great. It’s funny, and why it’s funny is because fundamentally we all know in our hearts that there’s this shining – I suppose we could call it anything – purity or ground or foundation that we all have access to, everybody’s got access to, nobody doesn’t have access to it. Everybody’s got that capacity of freedom.

S: That’s a great way to look at all the people around me everywhere I go.

John: Yeah, maybe they’re not so bad after all. You notice that, the thing is everything you’re seeing is it. Who is hearing? Everything you’re seeing is hearing. Who is hearing? Everything you smell, everything you taste is hearing. As the filter fall off everyone starts looking beautiful and there’s an appreciation of somebody snoring, whatever it is we appreciate.

S: I think the reason I keep coming back to sesshin is because it’s the only place that I don’t feel that everything is it. I feel like in my normal, regular life I’ve sort of gotten to the point where I move pretty calmly through it and I do see everything as it, or most… it has gotten easier over time. I just wonder if it’s like that for anybody else here. Being here sort of triggers my early childhood wiring. In my particular case it’s feeling I can’t really regroup unless I’m by myself, unless I can withdraw and hide in my studio and do my art for twenty-four hours and don’t have to talk to anybody or look at anybody.  

So that’s why I come here, because I feel if I just push my envelope a little bit, and this time in particular it’s been difficult, because I just spent a week with my mother before I came here, and talking about primary relationship, where all this started. There definitely have been times this week where I felt that this wasn’t it. And I keep coming back because I see how the calm spreads into the rest of my life more and more, and it’s sort of a gradual thing, and I sort of trust that this too will become easier, moving in and out of my difficulties.

John: Let’s hope so. Where my mind goes with that is that one of the good things about a good practice is it doesn’t try to purify things quickly. The dark material of life has to be included too. If everything’s pure it’s got to be pure too in some way. If I’m not to have a problem I have to have it in the midst of the thing I’m most convinced is my problem. Although then I notice I become rather skeptical of what my chosen idea of what’s the most important problem at a given time. You get a historical, the most important problem is… this, but another time it’ll be something else.

S: I just know it’s a very strong tendency, coming out strongly and then having to retreat strongly, and so some things like that are just really strong. 

John: Hakuin would paint that as a demon. This is demon number three. Which number demon is that? And the other things is that thing about how the thing we thought was the problem can transform, there is that real sense of what’s wrong with being a demon? If I think there’s a demon obviously I’m it. But what’s wrong with having horns and doing whatever it is, doing meditation in hell in my fires? So sometimes we’re doing that, and there can be a blessing on that. This goes to your point about we don’t have to succeed at not yelling at the  person who, or whatever it is, not being afraid. We have what we have, but then that might be all right. Fundamentally, having what we have, the practice gives us the ability to walk through it, and we find that more and more things do open. I suppose that’s the bottom line. And I’m thinking of closing it up now. Is that a problem?

Thank you very much.

2011 Summer Sesshin

062311 John Tarrant