PZI Teacher Archives

How Many Times Have I Gone There for You?


Just at this moment, the whole universe is holding us up. It’s nice for it to have a good job like that. That’s the thing that Master Ma said, the great master Mazu, “At a certain stage you have to make yourself a raft and a ferry for others if you want to go forward from the place you cannot go forward from.” This letting yourself feel—feel the moment and how it spreads out. There is no other moment. There is this, this, this, the Blue Dragon moment. It goes out through the galaxies.

Listen to the Original Audio: How Many Times Have I Gone There for You?


We are here, which is the best place to be—so, welcome! Let’s start with a bit of sitting, while I can hear doves and July weekend motorcycles outside. Just to begin sitting and feeling the time, and being here. You know what to do—nothing. Because it’s easier to do something than nothing—but we can do nothing. Just feeling being alive, feeling “being here.” If we’re here, we are alive. If we are alive, we are here. So we can just sink into it, and let the world carry us for a bit.


So here we are.

I’ve been away for a week, doing Blue Dragon’s Cave Sesshin. We were meditating a lot, and experimenting with what’s it like to do a retreat inside a digital universe. We had people from all over—like Tokyo, Nairobi, and Santiago, and exotic places, like the UK. The person from Nairobi said she would do walking meditation among giraffes, I’d go outside and have woodpeckers and a fox, someone was sitting in a trailer in Arizona. Everybody’s got their own individual temple, so it made us very conscious of what a beautiful thing it is—your house becomes an extension of a vast temple. It made me understand what we’re doing on Sundays as well. It makes me happy to be here, in this vast international temple with you! And thank you for coming.

I’ve been thinking about, “What are we doing when we meditate?”

I found myself reading a lot about the old Chinese teachers in the Tang Dynasty—which was in the 700s and 800s—and meditation is one of the things they did. Well, if I’m steady and those around me are steady—that opens gates that just weren’t there before. When a situation feels completely uncertain or impossible, in a way we have to submit ourselves to the current of life, and be at ease as much as we can—and the decisions we make will just follow from that. They won’t follow from being more anxious. That’s a known thing. 

If you’re trying to do even elementary things—like shoot a basketball—worrying about it probably won’t help, but practicing might. And so, having a practice—it’s something we do in meditation here.  So we have a practice, and in a practice the other cool thing is that you don’t fuss too much about what your results are. You don’t worry too much about that, because the result is you—not something you might do. It’s a “you” that the universe is expressing itself through, being you. When you begin to notice that, you realize how wonderful it is that we are carried by something more vast, but also how we can relish everything that comes to us—that we can be interested in whatever comes.

One of the great old teachers lived at this time of civil war and upheaval. They’d have to go into hiding because Chan people were being persecuted and killed. And then, they’d come out of hiding because suddenly, they were in favour again, and the new emperor was funding them—and things like that. So it was crazy, and you couldn’t take it seriously, really. So one of the great teachers said, “To advance from where you can no longer advance, to do what can no longer be done, you make yourself into a raft or ferry boat for others.” I think that’s what we’re doing when we meditate. We’re doing it, in a way, not just for ourselves—we become the whole world.

I found this great quote from Toni Morrison, “The function of freedom is to free someone else”— a pretty succinct way of saying the same thing. It’s not that our motives are “looking after others” so much as, we’re not so caught up in the small things that happen. Everything happens against the vastness.

I’ll read a little poem. This is a great Turkish poet who had everything happen—he got great awards, he has an autobiography poem, in which he says, “I‘ve stayed in grand hotels and I’ve stayed in prison.” That’s what his life was like. This is part of a longer poem on the living.

Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because, although you fear death, you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

—Nazim Hikmet

“I mean, living must be your whole occupation.” That’s a good description of meditation.

And which moment are we living in? Now. You look at the clock—it’s now, again! Once again, it’s now—excellent! That’s Nazim Hikmet, one of the great 20th century poets. Now, let’s meditate together, and we’ll take a journey of meditation. [bell]

Just enter with the bell. A bell is a gate, and as soon as you notice the bell, you’re already through the gate. It stops everything. There’s nothing to do, and no one to do it with—just a bell. Feeling the time, feeling the now—not finding fault with anything that rises in your mind or any moves you make. It’s none of your business what your mind is doing. Very, kind of, refreshing thoughts. What have my thoughts got to do with me? There’ll be another one along pretty soon! So, without criticizing—in other words, without adding to what’s already here— without criticizing, without narrowing things and putting yourself in prison, without finding fault.  And then, you’ll notice that the heart just opens by itself. So, just waiting—although we’re not really waiting for anything. We’re just here, being here.


And you find yourself taking a walk in a park—it’s mid-summer. It might even be July, in the Northern Hemisphere. You’re passing—from the heat in the field—under trees. You have a feeling you might’ve been here before, perhaps long ago. Perhaps in childhood—a time when you were happy—with the feeling of happiness that has nothing to do with circumstances, and whether things are going with your approval of things. Going the way they are. Just happy because you’re here. So, you’re walking. 

You come under trees in a dappled light, just the same light the Buddha used to walk under.  You just keep wandering through the forest. It feels familiar, but there’s nothing specific. And the forest thickens, and the canopy overhead filters more light, and the path narrows—but it’s still easy to follow, and you feel kind of alone in a solitary and royal way. You hear Hermit Thrashers calling a sweet repetitive song. The path dips a bit, and there’s a fountain that you certainly don’t remember coming across— it looks very, very old. There are dragons carved into the edge of it, and moss. Birds come to drink out of it, and the water is clean and fresh. The sunlight strikes through, when you notice there’s a kind of a blue glaze on some of the carvings—and there are roses piled up high. 

And out of the corner of your eye, you see an animal move. It seems very large but you’re not worried and you feel at peace. Steps appear and you go down old stone steps. They’re worn in the middle from the many feet going down. You keep going down, and you wonder about having to climb back up—but it feels alright and welcoming. There’s a glow ahead, and it turns out to be glowworms. You feel a light coming to you, and you realize you’re in a cave—and there’s light coming from the floor. It’s like starlight coming from the floor, and coming from the ceiling too. Moonlight and starlight—even though outside it’s a summer’s day. 

The light pours into you, and a line from an old koan comes to you, ”How many times have I gone down into the Blue Dragon’s cave, for you?” It just repeats itself in your mind, “the Blue Dragon’s cave.” “How many times a day, how many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?” And you just let that line, that koan repeat itself. “How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave?” 

And don’t try to work it out—because you can tell, wherever you are, that it’s not the sort of place you can work out—as in dream time. “How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?” And anything might be in the Blue Dragon’s cave: awakening, memories, sorrows, dance moves—all the possibilities of your life might be there. You just fall into meditation in the Blue Dragon’s cave.

And when you wonder what to do, you realize, “Oh the lion just comes” and you repeat it to yourself no matter what you think. You don’t put too much weight on what you think and feel, because you’re not trying to solve a situation. You’re according with the flow of things in the universe—according with the Dao. “How many times have I gone down into the Blue Dragon’s cave for you.” Your mind will do things, “Oh my God, it’s what my mother used to say, ‘How many times have I done this for you?’” Or you think, “Oh, I go down—my whole efforts of my life—and I realize, everything I’ve struggled for, it’s beautiful. Or I realize, I get caught and obsess and I go back over things. So, whatever is there, whatever arises in the heart, it was just the koan. You’re in the Blue Dragon’s cave where different things are possible, and things are possible even if you do nothing. 

“How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?”

What’s it like in the Blue Dragon’s cave, if your whole life is there? Perhaps your whole life is blessed—every struggle and confusion itself. “For twenty years I’ve struggled fiercely. How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you? For twenty years I’ve struggled bitterly, grimly, fiercely. How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave?”

Letting the time deepen, knowing that everything that arises is meditation, is in the Blue Dragon’s cave. 

Just at this moment, the whole universe is holding us up. It’s nice for it to have a good job like that. That’s the thing that Master Ma said, the great master Mazu, “At a certain stage you have to make yourself a raft and a ferry for others if you want to go forward from the place you cannot go forward from.” This letting yourself feel—feel the moment and how it spreads out. There is no other moment. There is this, this, this, the Blue Dragon moment. It goes out through the galaxies.


Thank you. The good thing about meditation is that we can keep doing it, and we don’t have to explain life to ourselves. The mind thinks that’s its job, in explaining things. But mostly the explanations are, “This is it,”  “It’s not quite …” “This isn’t it,”  “It’s not quite …” 

I had a friend who’s kind of really busy. He used to run a pretty big company, and I was supposed to call him, but I didn’t, because I’ve been really busy—like one of those deities with many arms—and I said, “I didn’t call you because I was busy being an eight-armed, eleven-headed deity.” And he said, “Of all the explanations people have given me for not being on time to a meeting, that’s the best.” Nobody believes their explanations anyways. You might as well explain, that actually you’re an eight-armed deity, and that’s why you couldn’t turn up for the meeting. And we realize that my explanations of my own life—my life is more magical. There’s that, and there’s the whole business of dragons. 

I noticed that in the legend of the Buddha, there’s a moment when he’s given a bowl of rice milk to drink, and it’s incredibly rich. He’s been fasting and being an ascetic—all skin and bones and the light shines through him—but this wonderful woman has a dream, and out of the dream brings him this bowl of milk and cream and rice. He drinks it, and he feels wonderful, so he throws this golden ball into the stream—and it travels upstream and it comes to rest—and there’s a pool where there’s a dragon living. It sinks down into the pool and goes, “clink,” and the dragon hears it. The king says to himself, “Hmmm.” It joins eleven other bowls of previous Buddhas, previous universes. And Dragon says, “So soon—another Buddha here.  I felt the last universe was just yesterday.” And so, the idea is that in between the universes, The Blue Dragon’s cave is just still here. And I find it rather wonderful that even between the universes, the dragon is here. And so, when you go into the deep places, it’s before the universes. It’s before you became you, and you don’t have to carry around the burden of going around explaining yourself, and those kinds of things. And also, it becomes easier, I think. 

The koan here is in the Blue Cliff Record, and it’s a koan that just stuck with me. I first heard it long ago, when I was studying koans for the first time—and it became a sort of earworm for me, “How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?” And I don’t know who’s even talking. It‘s me, it’s the dragon, it’s the universe, my mother, my friends who are so patient with me. It’s also our whole lives—all the things, all the moves we make and all the journeys, the obstacles, things that we thought went well, and things that that we thought went badly—they’re all in the Blue Dragon’s cave. It’s nice to know there’s somewhere that holds our whole lives and the totality of things. And so I’m going to read you a couple of things Mazu said about this:


“To advance from where you can no longer advance, and to do what can no longer be done…” That’s a really great explanation of what life is really like. And in the Blue Dragon universe, if you just don’t panic, there’s nothing wrong with that—when there’s an impasse or an obstacle or a predicament. In fact, the whole koan tradition rests on the notion that predicaments are friendly. They stop us from running around and being ourselves in the old way. They break us out of prison. “And to advance from where you can no longer advance, and to do what can  longer be done, you make yourself into a raft or a ferry boat for others.” If you’re really in what it is to be human, what it is to live as Hikmet says, “as seriously as a squirrel,” then you make yourself a raft or a ferry boat for others. In a way, you don’t consult yourself. So, you don’t know why if you’re helpful, you don’t know why, but you try not to make more noise and madness. So when you’re possessed, you immediately want to send that email straight back, that you’re enraged about—make yourself a raft or ferry boat for others. 

And in a sentence, there comes a certain stage in meditation where doors really do open and you understand. My favourite story about that is, you know: This guy was living with one of the great, great teachers. Every day the teacher would ask him, “How are you doing? How is it? What are you up to?” And he would say these eloquent things about Zen and the Buddha and the cosmos. And the teacher would say, “Hmmm, I don’t think so.” He was the teacher’s personal attendant, so he would get a chance to ask questions all day, and they clearly had a very intimate, close relationship. And the teacher said such wise things that his attendant used to write them down. The teacher forbade anyone from writing down his words because he wanted people to take the words in, rather than having them pass from his mouth to the teachers’ papers, without having passed through anyone’s mind. So he wanted people to really be open, opened by the words.

The student didn’t believe him, so he wore a paper robe and he’d rush off into the next room and write on the paper robe. And every day for eighteen years, the teacher would ask him a question, and then one day, the student said, “I got it!” And the teacher said, “Well, tell me about it.” And he couldn’t. But he did get it, but he understood it only for himself at that moment. The gate had opened, but he couldn’t yet express it. So he hung around for three more years, and after that he could make himself a raft for others, and he went off and taught. The idea that sometimes, it just appears—the gate opens and it just appears. The Blue Dragon’s cave opens, and everything you’re afraid of might be there, but you’re not afraid of it anymore. Everything you remember might be there, and the difficult things—they’re just part of your journey rather than some distorting, damaging thing. And the joyful things—they are not really credentials, they’re just joy.

So, I want to read another poem. This is about an old thing. This is Lucille Clifton, “Poem to my Yellow Coat:”

today i mourn my coat.Make my old potato.
my yellow mother.
my horse with buttons.
my rind.

today she split her skin
like a snake,
refusing to excuse my back
for being big
for being old
for reaching towards other
cuffs and sleeves.

she cracked like a whip and
fell apart,
my terrible teacher to the end;
to hell with the arms you want
she hissed,
be glad when you’re cold
for the arms you have.

The domesticity of the old coat that you can’t give up, that just completely splits. And here is this other kind of nice thing, about things breaking and mending. Somebody put this out in our Pacific Zen list. I’d like to thank them but I can’t remember quite who it was now. It’s Chana Bloch, who’s dead now, but used to sit with us sometimes. A really wonderful poet and a great translator too—she translated a lot of Amichai. This is called “The Joins.” And she explains, “Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending precious pottery with gold.” You know, those bowls that have gold or they use silver too. They are beautiful, in a way more beautiful than if nothing had happened to them.

What’s between us
seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.
Seems flexible but isn’t;

what’s between us
is made of clay
like any cup on the shelf.

It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.

Scar tissue is visible history
and the cup is precious to us
we saved it.

In the art of kintsugi
a potter repairing a broken cup
would sprinkle the resin
with powdered gold.

Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite
they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.

So that’s what the Blue Dragon thinks about your life—the Blue Dragon’s cave. Mazu was called the great ancestor, because he was great and he said cool things. He was the first person to say “Ordinary mind is the way.” In other words, if you’re looking for Buddha, notice what you are now. “Ordinary mind is the way.” If you’re looking for freedom, it could be here. If you’re looking for love, it could be here. 

He said another great thing. This poem is associated with a great koan, “The sun-faced Buddha lives 1800 years…” Not as long as a Blue Dragon, but still a respectable vintage. “A moon-faced Buddha lives for a day and a night,” like a little mayfly or something. Great Master Ma was actually dying, but you’re never quite sure necessarily when it’s going to be—but he was a day or so from dying. He’s out in the courtyard taking in the sun, and the treasurer of the temple ran into him and said, “How are you feeling? How are you?” That’s one of those great questions, “How are you?” “How are you, how are you feeling?” And it goes down to the bottom of the universe. “How are you?” And Ma said, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.” “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.” Yesterday I was feeling pretty sick, today I’m feeling a bit better, you know. But you know—the idea that it’s all in the Blue Dragon’s cave; sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.

And he said some other things. A lot of great teachers studied with Mazu, and one of them sent a student to ask Ma, “How are you?” knowing that Ma always said something interesting like, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.” Even when he was dying, he made himself a raft or a ferry boat for others. What else are you going to do? You’re not going to change just because you’re dying. This person said, “How are you?” And Mazu said, “It’s been twenty years of getting by, but I’ve never lacked for salt and sauce.” “Twenty years of getting by…” It’s been four months of getting by with Covid. It’s been getting on to four years of getting by since the last election. It’s been a long time of getting by since we realized weirdness—the climate was in trouble.

And so, we have to live. We can change what we can change, but also, we have to live in and make a raft and a ferry boat for others—for the children to come, we have to do what we can, here. Here.  And where are we? We are here, today.

—John Tarrant
Sunday Dharma Talk
July 5, 2020

Listen to the Original Audio: How Many Times Have I Gone There for You?