PZI Teacher Archives

Hosting the Life You Have – Koans for Hard Times


Rilke said, “Life is always right.” Whatever I think about that saying, this is the life I have and I can’t have another life. And really, fundamentally, I don’t want another one because this one is so rich and compelling no matter what’s going down right now.


So tonight I’d like to talk along the lines we’ve already been talking about with these koans. I’d like to talk about the kind of stuff that goes along in the mind and the heart during meditation. And how there’s a way in which one tends to think, “This stuff in the mind is good, and this stuff ain’t good”—and one of the things we can be skeptical about is that division. “This is meditation, this is not meditation.”

And the question always is, “How do you know it’s not meditation? How do you know that what’s happening now isn’t it?” The poet Tony Hoagland said, “We’d give anything for the life we have.” That’s pretty good. Even for a Zen student, that was pretty good. 

So I want to talk about the life we have for a little bit. The grand old master, he instructed everyone saying,

Followers of the way, the teaching of the Buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary. No need to try to do anything in particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your meal, and when you’re tired, sleep. People who try to do something about what is outside themselves are nothing but blockheads. If wherever you are, you take the role of host, then whatever spot you stand in will be a true one.

Okay, so that is what I‘m going to talk about tonight.

Participant: Can you repeat that koan?

John: You’re collecting these, aren’t you?

If wherever you are, you take the role of host, then whatever spot you stand in will be a true one. You can feel that. “Oh wait, he’s talking to me.” There’s something genuine going on here.

In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas, and when the time came, they all got into the bath together. They realized the cause of water. All together they cried out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We’ve reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”

Here we are, in the bath together—no special undertakings. You know what that’s like. You know how there’s a lot of ways we can do this special undertaking. You know, if I just held my mouth differently. The one that comes to mind at the moment is that there was a Japanese teacher who used to teach this method of breathing called “bamboo breathing,” where you breathe in and then you breathe out and you go, “haaaaah” and then you stop a bit, like you do with a brush when you’re painting. A bit more and stop. A bit more and stop. The theory was you couldn’t get enlightened if you didn’t do bamboo breathing.

You can see how actually anything you do that’s a concentration device will in some way help your concentration, but that’s still not yet waking up. Having concentration is kind of a cool thing, particularly in my case. But you can tell that wisdom is a different thing. So, no special undertakings in that way. But there are other special undertakings we have: “I think I drank too much coffee this morning”—that kind of thing. Or, “I should have drunk coffee this morning.”

And then, just the ordinary.

You have your notebooks, I believe. So write down something that’s ordinary to you, something that you do that’s ordinary. The most ordinary thing you can find. Go for it. Do it up. Especially, extraordinarily, glamorously ordinary. “My ordinary is more ordinary than your ordinary.”

Participant: I had duct tape wrapped around my chest, pulling it tighter and tighter. And then I started getting closer, and drew a picture of my problem, which actually is in this room—it’s these windows, right there. That started to be an introduction for the problem, and then you asked us, “How does it make you feel?” and the first thing I wanted to do, was solve the problem. So I start looking around how to open the windows. 

John: Rocks.

Participant: And then, I want to smash the windows! And then I want to find the architect and strike him off—look for someone to blame.

John: How is all that?

Participant: Completely turbulent inside and I just feel more and more agitated, like an animal pacing in the Zoo in a cage.

John: That’s one thing that can happen, right? Then we get recruited, like—”Oh my god, what if Donald Trump?” Or, you know—Orlando? It’s not like there’s not a reality in the world about things. Here’s the other way to go—write this down: “What are some of the advantages of my problem?”

[Participants writing, quiet talking, John laughs, “That’s great, isn’t it?”]

Yes, give me some advantages, and the problem could be, “I have cancer.” It can be many things. It’s not always an opinion, really, although I suppose “I have cancer” is an opinion. “I am dying” is an opinion. But still, some of them are stickier than others. There’s a man who likes a sticky problem up there. Did you want to say something?

Participant: I have cancer and that didn’t even occur to me.

John: Another clueless Zen student. That’s great, isn’t it. “But I have real problems.” It’s so wonderful isn’t it? So we start getting skeptical about it—then we start taking the role of the host. Taking the role of the host is, “I have cancer, but I seem to be alive and so I’ll take that.” That’s the story about the strawberry, eating the strawberry. 

I noticed this morning in the talk that somebody said something about regret. The whole room became—I became—extremely interested. We were in this, “I should, I shouldn’t whatever”—like that—and that seems very opaque and imprisoning. But sowing regret—Oh!— that’s life. So if you go into what you have, it doesn’t even matter if it’s something you approve of or not. Because approving is irrelevant or disapproving is irrelevant. Even cancer, if you have cancer—approving or disapproving of your cancer—you know, who cares?

“I think I’ll enjoy this sunset.” So it’s like that. So there’s a profound beauty about, “Oh, I don’t have to think this isn’t it.” I don’t have to think this is wrong. I have a violent thought towards architects because I have a prejudice about windows or beauty.

Probably if you get on the Internet and start looking for hit men on the darknet, probably that might be identifying too much. But there’s a certain way in which, “Oh, I get really annoyed about the environment,” or my environment, or whatever. Do you mind sharing what your problem was?

Participant: Reality demands my attention.

John: What are the advantages of that?

Participant: It gives me something to do.

John: Yup, fair enough. “I hate reality, I’ve got to have breakfast, I’ve got to get out of bed”—all that shit, it’s so tiresome. I could be having breakfast and getting out of bed. 

You see what the dance moves are when we move away from life, but life is there anyway, even when we move away. So that’s being the host. So, in a certain sense, when we really “get” being the host—which is a little easier in retreat sometimes because things slither off us more—if we get that thing, we realize, Oh, we’re at peace, and these things are arising: “The architecture sucks,” or whatever it is, or, “I’m terribly sad about people getting killed.” And then we have that, and that is life too. Would we want not to be sad about people getting killed? Did anybody ask us before anybody got killed? No. That’s what we have and so then reality becomes our friend, and we’re the host to it all. 

At the moment, I‘m just trying to get the texture of the heart-mind and how we keep erecting theories and opinions and legends and stories about it—and there’s nothing wrong with the part of the mind that does that—but at the same time, those opinions move things back, you know. But also, they’re kind of how we think we know who we are. “I object to reality, I object to architecture, I object…”—is there a difference? Who else objects to something?

Participant: I object to the entire political system.

John: “I object to the entire political system.” Right. But that also tells us something about who we are, who we are in the world. What stance we’re taking.

Participant: There’s another phrase for what you’re talking about—”looking for the beautiful source” in whatever the problem or that negative opinion or preference is.

John: That’s one path, which is the famous “Strawberry Story”:

You’re hanging off a cliff, and there’s a tiger above and a grizzly bear below, and you’re hanging from a vine—and the white mouse and the black mouse start to nibble on the vine. This is a precarious situation. But you see a strawberry on the vine and you eat it—and how delicious it tastes.

That’s a kind of story about showing up for ordinary mind. “Hey, I got a strawberry.” There can be a transformative moment—if we notice that, if we stumble on that, it’s good. But the way to stumble on it is to fully be there, hanging while the vine is starting to shred. The way to stumble on the freedom about the architecture is really, “What’s it like to want to kill the architect?” So it becomes interesting. It’s not about killing the architect. It’s about what makes me enraged and what frees me, and how can I go through my rage and get freed?

Participant: Did you want us to be a good host?

John: I don’t care what kind of host you are. I don’t know what “good” is in that context. 

Participant: I can be a bad host to my problem.

John: Yeah, I think that the metaphor is about being in some way welcoming. There’s a lot about that in the old wisdom traditions: to welcome. Well, this is current: “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we greet them?”—this question came during a time of Civil War, an old koan question. “’Welcome,’ said the teacher.” Because what else are you going to do? This is ours, it’s not ours to decide what time we’re in. It’s ours to be in the time we’re in.

So I thought it would warm us up a bit in the bath if I read some poetry tonight, so I’ll read some. The great Anna Swir, the Polish poet—this is translated by Czeslaw Milosz, the great Nobel prize-winning Polish poet. She was at the Warsaw Ghetto as a 14-year-old nurse’s aid. “I Carried Bedpans,” is what it’s called:

I worked as an orderly at the hospital
without medicine and water.
I carried bedpans
filled with pus, blood and feces.

I loved pus, blood and feces—
they were alive like life,
and there was less and less
life around.

When the world was dying,
I was only two hands, handing
the wounded a bedpan.

You can tell the bedpan’s become the strawberry, the magical thing. It’s not a thing, it’s the gesture, it’s the being there, it’s the showing up. She was fourteen, and it changed her. You can tell the intelligence and awakened quality about everything she writes. That was the gift of that terrible time for her, and she’s dead now. The other interesting thing she did that’s relevant, and so I’ll read it here too—she stopped kind of believing in herself as a construction. This is called, “A Double Rapture”:

Because there is no me
And because I feel how much there is no me

It’s sort of that freedom from my idea, about who I am and who I have to be. I don’t have to be that because I carried bedpans in the ghetto in Warsaw. 

You know that thing that we did with the koan yesterday, where we thought we’d show you how a koan drifts and changes and fragments? Any piece of the koan is the whole of the koan, any piece of eternity and awakening is all of eternity and awakening. So already it’s starting to drift. You can only think of this as a hard thing. And it was, I’m sure it was devastating. On the other hand, it’s life and that’s what we have. That’s the high drama of that moment. Or when you’re really in danger and you get held up and everything stops, and you feel free. That sort of thing.

Really, what she did with serving and caring for life by handing people a bedpan is what we’re doing in meditation. Whatever you’re rejecting, whatever in ourselves—the blood, and the feces, and the piss—in a certain way if we’re open to that, as the koan from last night says, then we’re the host for that. She’s the host for that. It’s also a whole movement through life. This is her journey; she’s on a path. She’s not just doing something—it becomes a path. She’s not doing it because of a rule, she’s doing it because it’s just coming out of her being. Kindness and being loving actually is something that comes out of our being. It’s not a rule, it’s something that is an offering of the universe, that comes through us. You can feel that.

And then she also doesn’t take herself so seriously, because there is no “me” —and it’s because I feel how much there is no me. We’re like that, too. That’s when we see through something, we see through our delusion. We think we’re enraged with architects, or, “I forgot I have cancer.” It’s kind of cool. Isn’t that great? We start to enjoy the dance movements that life makes through us. That’s being the host. 

And you’ll see how everything Linji says, is related. “When the heart is not anxious, the ten thousand things are without blame.” You can feel she’s not assigning blame. There’s plenty of blame to go around in the second World War, but that’s not her job. Her job is to carry a bedpan, her job is to look after the people who are here. She doesn’t even care what cause they were fighting for— there’s something touching about that. And I think that’s primary, before you go to grabbing for “finding the silver lining in the cloud or the jewel.” Before that, you realize it’s already here. In what you think of, the very thing we reject, it’s in here. 

Somebody else give me an example of a problem!

Participant: My joints don’t behave themselves. My body doesn’t perform the way I would like it to do.

John: “My joints don’t behave themselves. My body doesn’t perform the way I would like it to do.” What are the advantages of that?

Participant: The advantage is, it brings me into contact with the way things are in the moment. 

John: And what’s that like, being in contact with the way things are in the moment?

Participant: Sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating, sometimes it’s grief-inducing, because they’re not going to go back to doing what they used to do. It takes away from the old coping mechanism of, “Well, I’ll just work on this a little more, and it will get better.”

John:  “I’ll do a little more Aikido and it’ll all work out.”But then there’s something else. The question would be, “I wonder what comes to the foreground when I’m here with this?” Injuries for athletes are always fascinating, because there’s this impeccable strategy that completely fails—being an athlete. I’m an old jock myself. So there’s something interesting about that.

Participant: There’s an incredible price to pay for not being with what is.

John: Well, the price for not being with what is, is that you don’t get as much life.

Participant: [indistinct]

John: Yeah, probably.

Participant: [indistinct] What is interesting is, I’ve got a weird nodule on my biceps. And what comes out of it is that I’ve gotten to know my body in a way I’ve never known it before. My body disappears. I can’t do that now, because it will grab me. But in a weird way, I can trust it.

John: At last summer’s retreat, suddenly my back went “yaaah.” It took a while to work out, friends worked on me. There was a lot of shooting pain. My internist looked at the imaging and said, “I don’t usually recommend surgery, but…”—oh shit, it’s getting serious! This funny thing happens—Oh, but it’s just pain and it’s not a problem. That’s great. That’s the thing about becoming the host. Now it’s here, and then something goes, “I don’t know.” I wasn’t of the opinion that surgery would improve it. It’s alright. I kind of like it. I’m listening to my body differently. It’s kind of nice.

Participant: What came to mind when I was looking at that is the problem in my life for me is my reactions to things, not the things themselves. If I like it, it’s a good thing. If I don’t like it, it’s a bad thing. The advantage of that, what I’ve been discovering, is it really shows me what the problem is. It’s not the injury, not the cancer, or the loss of function—it’s my reaction to that. When I can become host to that, when I can stay with that, then there is really no problem. But you also learn in the process. 

John: Yeah, and then it disappears—for me, the problem disappears. I can’t honestly say it’s a good or bad thing. It’s just, “Oh, I remember I had a problem with my back—I forgot about that.” And then when we die, we think, “Oh, I used to be alive—I forgot about that.” “Yeah, I remember that, you know. We used to gather in rooms and talk about being the host.”

Participant: It could be worse. You could say, “Oh, I wish I had been alive.”

John: Yeah, exactly. Well that’s it, isn’t it. That’s the thing you can tell with that “Double Rapture,” because there is no “me.” She’s starting to play with the ways we construct ourselves. Basho’s got a wonderful New Year’s Haiku that goes, “New Year’s Day, the monkey wears a monkey mask.” Basho’s good at that kind of move. I’m wearing my me. We wear our me. I’ll go into the whole “self” thing in another talk. You can tell how the creation of a problem is useful to think that “I’m a me” in some way.

But I can be a me without a problem. I can be quite happy pretending “I’m Australian,” or “I’m teaching Zen,” or something like that. Anything’s possible. Then we do find that we have our own feelings and tendencies and things we love. So in a certain sense, listening to that becomes the path. So I don’t know that I have a me, so much as I have a path. And the path keeps unfolding, and we know when the direction is untrue or inaccurate in that way. So, that thing about going to war, the problem with going to war, is that we’re always opposed to it in ourselves. It’s hard for us. Really, it’s in here. One of the things a good meditation practice does is that it takes that inner conflict out of us because we’re not fighting with our heart-and mind-states so much.

Here’s another, more subtle, interesting Anna Swir poem from the same period of her life, in which you see the dreamy nature of a child in a war zone. It’s interesting because there are kids in war zones all over the world. This is a very articulate one, “Thoughts of a 14-Year-Old Nurse:”

If all the bullets in the world
hit me,
then they couldn’t hit anybody else.

And let me die as many times
as there are people in the world,
so that they wouldn’t have to die,
even the Germans.

And let nobody know
that I died for them,
so that they wouldn’t be sad.

Isn’t that great? You can see that even in that environment she was full of longing with that kind of “bodhisattva impulse” for a better world. “I’ll take the pain on for myself.” And it’s not like she should do that, but you can see in her life that sort of generosity and that loving quality. It’s just in her.

Here’s another thing about life. Tony Hoagland, a wonderful poet, has been corresponding with me for awhile. He’s got a very serious cancer and he’s got this very interesting approach to it. This poem is called “Fetch”:

Who knew that the sweetest pleasure of my fifty-eighth year
would turn out to be my friendship with the dog?

That his trembling, bow-legged bliss at seeing me stand there with the leash
would give me a feeling I had sought throughout my life?

Now I understand those old ladies walking
their Chihuahuas in the dusk, plastic bag wrapped around one hand,

content with a companionship that, whatever
else you think of it, is totally reliable.

And in the evening, at cocktail hour,
I think tenderly of them

in all of those apartments on the fourteenth floor
holding out a little hotdog on a toothpick

to bestow a luxury on a friend
who knows more about uncomplicated pleasure
than any famous lobbyist for the mortal condition.

These barricades and bulwarks against human loneliness,
they used to fill me with disdain,

but that was before I found out my metaphysical needs

by the wet gaze of a brown-and-white Retriever
with a slight infection of the outer ear
and a tail like a windshield wiper.

I did not guess that love would be returned to me
as simply as a stick returned when it was thrown

again and again and again—
In fact, I still don’t exactly comprehend.

What could that possibly have to teach me

So that’s a little bit of the “strawberry” thing in walking the dog. You can tell how he then sees, “Now wait, the dog is teaching me how to live and changing my life.” It’s not, “The dog is consoling me.” The dog is changing my me. I thought I was a person who disdained these things but actually, they’re great. That’s part of being a host. You see—Oh!—what you love. Or you’re next to the crying baby on the airplane and you think, “Well, healthy lungs.” Like that, you know. There’s life in the world.

So to be the host, to be ordinary. And you notice, that if you say that acting ordinary is it, then there can’t be anything you’re experiencing that is out of the range of the illumination—that light that we’re carrying inside us. Or, it’s really the light of the universe we’re in, it’s carrying us. Inside, outside. It’s one of the things about meditation—Oh, the bird call, in here or out there? So then we start to oppose our situation, and it’s not so interesting. Because if I’m to be the host then I’m not going to oppose my situation, I’m going to learn about it, find out about it. What is its taste? Does it like Vegemite for breakfast? What does it want? Does it eat the plate as well as the food? What does it do? Like an Edward Gory cartoon. What kind of guest do I have here?

Then we realize this is the life that life has given me. Rilke said, “Life is always right.” Whatever I think about that saying, this is the life I have, and I can’t have another life. And really, fundamentally, I don’t want another one because this one is so rich and compelling, no matter what’s going down right now. There are all sorts of ways I can distract myself and so on, and that’s fine too. That’s part of life too. Linji’s coaching about maybe if I can be the host, I can really get to know it and I can be a good generous friend to this moment of life.

How do I be a good guest? Being a good guest means that I’m always wanting life to do something different. Could I have Marmite for breakfast instead of scrambled eggs? Could I have a different feeling when my partner does that thing that he or she always does? Could I—whatever it is? You can realize that there’s something sort of helpless about that, and untrue. Being the host is, “Oh, I’m the host of this that’s come.” Now this, now this.

Participant: Being the host also implies taking responsibility for seeing that things get done, that need to be done.

John: To the extent that’s possible.

Participant: It’s not just the welcoming attitude. Isn’t there more in it, maybe?

John: Well, I mean, ask yourself, what’s it like for you? If you have something that seems very difficult to be a host to, then a welcoming attitude will start. I think, “What happens is for me”—different things might happen. “Shit, I can’t do this” or, “Oh, I just need…” I blink, and it’s different and I’m starting to be interested, instead of rejecting. And even,”Shit, I can’t do this”—I can be host to that. Don’t object even to my objections, and then suddenly I start to get fre, because it’s funny that I’m objecting to reality. “Good luck, John.” So I think it goes like that. Then the action will naturally appear. Or not, I suppose.

Participant: I was thinking the dog was a good host for Tony. He wasn’t trying to please Tony. He was just wanting to go after that stick, and wanting to go for a walk—attuned to him.

John: I’ve noticed with some of the dogs I‘ve loved, I thought they wanted me to do something for them, but really they wanted to do something for me. Everyone who’s been close to an animal knows that animals start to dance with you like that. Other animals do too.

Participant: My husband has Muscular Dystrophy, and he has heart failure, and he just broke his femur over in Hawaii, which basically took away what independence he had left. We had made this commitment, that every time this disease took something from us, we would respond in a way that would enrich our lives. And we had gotten pretty good at it along the way, but finally with this one I said, “Darling, I’m just not seeing it here.” And I was doing the bedpans and all of that stuff, and then just realizing, “This is it, this is what it is.” In those last three weeks, there’s been this excruciating closeness, a deeper intimacy than I ever could have imagined. So deep that I finally said to him, “You know, I think when this is over, I’ll have to get a sex therapist to bring us back apart so I’ll have a reason to try and get close together again.” Because it has so opened my heart. You say we’re the host, but to me, the condition itself is the host that invites, or something in me that I don’t even know is there—and then it’s there.

John: Thank you.

The final thing I want to say here, is that when you’re dealing in the territory of the great koans, we’re always actually trying to be accurate rather than telling you what to do, or an attitude to take or something. I found I could trust them because they weren’t telling me what to think.

They were just saying, “This is what you’re already doing,” like that kid doing her tonglen meditation with bedpans or with bullets or something like that. She knew nothing about what the Dalai Lama teaches, but it’s a natural thing that comes out of our pure being when we’re not all caught in our delusions. There’s a natural kindness inside that’s fundamental to consciousness. It’s one of the great discoveries. I mean cultivating it doesn’t hurt, and that’s fine, but it’s fundamentally there

So one of the things is that the koans just try to disturb the delusions so that we see and experience how we really are—how it is. What the true nature of the heart and mind is. It’s like that. One of the things is to be the host in that way.


John Tarrant
Dharma Talk
Summer Sesshin 2016

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