PZI Teacher Archives

Ikkyu’s Well & The Miscellaneous Koans


Images of water are deep in the meditation tradition. There is the notion that water nourishes us and holds us, and that the Dao flows like water and always finds the Way. Whatever blocks the river, the Dao dissolves it or will move around it. That’s the quality of meditation.

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I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad I’m here. I’m just looking around and seeing your faces. It’s a great thing to meet each other. 

What we come for is this: 

The world comes to meet us, and we meet each other. And to feel that, deeply, changes everything. To know that, and to have it enter your heart, it’s not too bad when that happens. It’s called awakening.

So, I want to talk about—really just an artificial category—the Miscellaneous Koans.  

I’m fond of the category. They’re really the koans that got left out of the other collections—that nobody could bear not to use. Yeah, we could not bear to not use them. And they have the special purpose that we’ve been speaking of, which is that somehow they help you. In some way, they open a path through the heart of the world. So you don’t have to get away from the world, you know. It’s nice to sit still and shut up sometimes—you and everyone else might find that to be a relief! But there’s this touching thing—that even when we’re silent, we’re in the world and the world comes to us. 

One of the many koans that we have in the miscellaneous collection (the metamorphosis collection) is a Japanese koan:

In a well that has not been dug, water from no source is rippling.
Someone with no shadow or form is drawing that water.

So let’s take it in a bit. 

In a well that has not been dug, water from no source is rippling.
Someone with no shadow or form is drawing that water.

Ikkyu Sojun

This is a kind of poem. But it’s really about what it [awakening] looks like to the person who’s writing, and that was Ikkyu Sojun. You probably know who he is. He was the illegitimate son of the Emperor, and he became a monk—that was one way he could stay alive. So he was alive during the sixth century wars when nobody had a huge incentive to assassinate you. And for the same reason [his illegitimacy] his mother was thrown out of court, and Ikkyu felt great sorrow about her plight, and there’s always a great depth of feeling, of many kinds, in his work.

And he did actually meditate and sincerely became a monk, yet he is also well known for his wild ways, you know, mainly of sex and drinking, but surely other things as well. His love poems are pretty much all the same, and actually his non-love poems also! The non-love poems all go something like: “You know, you’re feasting and drinking, and pretty soon all this will end, and what will you do then?” Then, “Geez, we cannot stay here long.” And then his love poems: his erotic poems are pretty much the genre of, “I lick your scented flower and that is nirvana, and my willow tree then stands up.” Some people think he’s a great poet, but pretty much that’s it for his poetry. 

But you can tell he’s an interesting character, because he’s holding both the world and transience together. But there’s no insight in it yet, that we can tell. And he meditated in the way that we do. He meditated really hard. And, you know, it’s a beautiful thing to do. You can feel the tradition sort of carrying you, and sometimes pressing on you, and you’re enclosed in the alembic of the vessel. 

So he had all those sorts of things happen to him. But he used to feel that, “God, I still don’t get it, it’s not enough, not enough yet.” And a [noble?] being is somebody who’s just trying right now. 

And he had a friend who was a fisherman, which is very typical of him, to have friends like that. He would borrow his friend’s boat and go out on Lake Bua at night, and lie down in the boat and meditate with his koan. And it’s a rather lovely thing, isn’t it? You can see the boat, gradually turning on the lake, silently turning with the stars above. And you can tell that after a while, “the stars are inside me and I’m inside the stars”—that kind of thing starts to happen. And then he heard a crow call, and he just woke up and started weeping and laughing and doing the kind of things you do. He’s this full-on kind of creature. He spoke about how he’d been enlightened by a crow with no mouth. You see, he just became one with the caw and the sound, like the temple bell. And then, one of the poems he wrote out of that experience was: 

In a well that has not been dug water from no source is rippling.
Someone with no shadow or form is drawing that water.

Perhaps if you just let that koan in, you start to take the plunge yourself, into the vastness with him. Perhaps you are not born, perhaps you have no shadow or form. And you’re drawing water or you’re gardening. Someone with no shadow form is cooking, someone with no shadow or form is meditating. This is a kind of spaciousness, and we could call it light: illumination that’s inside everything. And when we meditate, at first we’ll just notice the consequences—you know, “I meditated and I didn’t think I did anything, but afterwards my senses are washed and cleansed.” So, we’ll take that! 

But there’s a deeper thing yet, where something else opens up and there’s a kind of change of point of view that’s a change in who you are. It’s not really that you see things differently—which is what we all set out for—but there’s a different you seeing things, and you’ll start to notice that because you start to not believe the stories in your head quite so much. Or you’ll believe them and then you’ll get bored with them. Or you’ll believe them and then find that painful, but you won’t be siding with them quite so much, you know. “How dare she, how dare he?” And you’ll notice that and think, “Oh, that’s kind of boring,” and you stop doing it. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re right or not. It’s your life, and you’re giving it away. 

So Ikkyu’s poem became part of the Miscellaneous Collection. He lived quite a lot earlier than Hakuin, but his poem got into the collection because it’s sort of interesting—it does “that thing.” When you sit with it, there’s some chance you might open up too. 

Images of water

And images of water are really deep in meditation: the idea that water nourishes us and holds us, and that the Dao flows like water and always finds the Way. Whatever blocks the river, it dissolves it or will move around it. So that quality—that’s the quality of meditation. And I thought I should give you an example. 

I want to do two things: I want to give you an example of the water flowing in life, and the person with no shadow or form doing things—sitting in a talk in an electronic temple, things like that. People now share on their phone, do all sorts of things! And you can tell that the emptiness and vastness is there, that quality of “no shadow or form,” where you’re at ease with things and you’re not fighting with the current of things. And somebody was talking about it today—a quality of equality in things: this is equal, that’s equal. And one of the old images is that the whole of life and the whole of the universe is like one strip of white silk. 

So, some years ago, quite a while ago, I had a friend who was sick. And I was traveling, and he was very sick but he was sort of dolphining. He would be very sick and then get a little better, the way people do sometimes, late in life. And I’d been spending quite a lot of time with him because he was a very close friend and a student. And then I had to go off overseas, teaching. So I went off and taught.

And I checked in on how he was doing, occasionally. And I came back, but I was out often with no phone or anything, out in the bush, sort of thing. One night I had gotten back in the wee hours and just went to bed, and was planning to go visit him the next night. But the next night I was just exhausted, and thought ‘I can’t, I can’t get my body into the car to go to the hospital.’ And so I just went to bed and thought, ‘I’ll visit him in the morning.’ And then at about five in the morning, I got a call from his boyfriend, his lover, who told me that his partner had just died. 

So I went round to the hospital to be with him, and I got there within twenty minutes or something. At first there were just the two of us. And then gradually a few other friends started coming in, and the hospital was very gracious about allowing us time, allowing us a big room. They didn’t need the room and there was a lot of space in that wing of the hospital. And so he was very fond of the Heart Sutra, and I had agreed that I would chant it as he was crossing over. And I thought, ‘I can do that.’

And so I went in and I started. I probably had a kimono on, a rakusu, and things. He liked drag. [laughs] And so I started off with the Heart Sutra, and in English it goes,

The noble bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, (Guanyinthat’s also you,) while practicing deep prajna paramita, 

(The deepest meditation where someone with no shadow or form is drawing that water,) 

clearly saw that all the five ways of knowing the world are empty, transforming suffering and distress.

In the sutra, Avalokitesvara is talking to the Buddha’s disciple, Shariputra, who doesn’t quite get it. They say, “Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness, no other than form,” and so on. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form, just in case you didn’t get the point! And so it goes on and on like that, as you know, because you chant it when Amaryllis does the sutras. And I was doing it in sino-Japanese. But I like it in English, because it means something and you’re supposed to get the meaning. But it’s also true that the old, original, kind of Chinese-y Japanese is also very beautiful. And he knew that.




That KU, that empty word— 


And so on, like that! [laughs]

So he’s lying there, and it’s pretty warm, and you have the feeling that he’s in the room with us. And, you know, the Tibetans actually say you should keep [grieving] family away from people when they die, because they just enjoy hanging around. And it seemed to me that he was still here. And the room felt warm, and it was, ‘Oh, he always liked a party!’ It was that kind of quality. And also, you wouldn’t have noticed it, but there was hannya haramita, which is prajnaparamita in that Japanesey-Chinesey Heart Sutra thing. 

And I got through to about the third “hannya haramita,” and I’d looped, not knowing, and honestly it was really like feeling [the presence of] my friend. I noticed, ‘Hang on, I just started again!’ And I thought, ‘Oh, never mind!’ And then I got to another “hannya haramita,” and looped again, and I just couldn’t get out of the hannya! [laughs] 

And I thought it was just really funny. It wasn’t funny—it was just what it was. It was just so warm and deep and strange, and someone with no shadow or form was chanting the Heart Sutra. People were [now] coming in, and with me chanting—it felt right, you know. I was chanting, there was incense burning. After another half an hour or so, I switched into the Kannon Gyo sutra, which is what you’re supposed to actually do—it’s the “crossing over” sutra for people who have died: Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo.

So I just switched seamlessly from the next  “hannya haramita” straight into the Kannon Gyo, which was kind of fun. 

You can tell that the vastness is present and the light is here, and the equality is here—that everybody dies. And this is how my friend died. And when anyone had a funeral, this is how we gave them the funeral, and there’s a great peace in that. That’s what it’s like when someone with no shadow or form is drawing the water. And that’s the thing about water that’s so nice, because it’s life.

And in the I Ching, “The Well” is one of only two hexagrams where humans have had a part in making the object. The Well, you know, has stones or bricks around it. And in this case, you’re pulling a rope up, or you’re winding a windlass to pull Ikkyu’s water as someone with no shadow or form. The other hexagram is “The Cauldron,” which is what we’re all cooking in. There’s a great line in the I Ching which says that “You can move the town, but you cannot move the well.”

So it’s that thing that we’re all connected to—the water that we’re all connected to—that Ikkyu was talking about. That he first discovered when he’s lying on a lake, in a boat, you know, just looking at the stars. But those waters, that’s the water of the Dao, that’s that which sustains us.

Someone with no shadow or form is drawing that water. 

And the idea that we weren’t born and we don’t die is a very old Chan idea, really. One of the great Japanese teachers—people would come to him and ask him, “How do you meditate?” and he’d say, “Unborn.” Pretty much that was it. [laughs] I mean, he was an intelligent guy and he said other things too, but that was the gist of it. Unborn…. when you see that you are unborn, you will not be afraid and you will be at peace.

And it’s not just peace, it’s joy—the deepest thing in life is to experience life. You’ll notice that then you love your life. And that people are easy to love because it’s not something you do as an intention, or to get something, or achieve something—it’s something you can’t help. And then you find yourself doing whatever you do, but you do it with love. So that’s the flavor of that …


The Heart Sutra sliding into the Kannon Gyo, that’s Guanyin, who is also Avalokitevasara, in another manifestation. So the two sutras belong together.

So in the meditation you can tell that if you’ve got no shadow or form and you’re drawing the water, then you’re not gonna be thinking, ‘Am I there yet? How am I doing? I don’t know that person across the road. Are they doing better than me or worse than me?’ and burst out crying. So, is that good or bad? That stuff becomes part of the play of being alive. 

You can tell we’re at play when there’s a joyous quality to it. I spoke about this yesterday, about happiness. You know, when the mind is at rest, happiness just comes and we can’t help it. And we feel full of delight. 

Right now, you might notice: What if you have no shadow or form and you’re drawing the water? Right now. You’re doing it right now. What if right here, you’re happy. What if the whole meaning of your life is culminating in this moment, as grand master Ma used to say: “The whole purpose of your life is in the current matter.” Like that. 

And you might be able to feel—if you just let emptiness have you—you might be able to feel how you expand in your consciousness and there’s this feeling of vastness in things. Yantou, when he was trying to prod his older friend Xuefeng into awakening, said, “Don’t you know it comes out of your own breast and covers heaven and earth?” Occasionally I write for a magazine, and the editor calls me up and says, “Wow, your piece was really good—it was poetic.” And I know from that that he means he doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, because it’s not poetic at all. “He’s not being poetic, he’s describing how you can truly experience reality, that joy rising in you!” [laughs]

So yeah, there we are. So let’s hear it for poetry. Poetry is also wonderful. You can tell that people are trying to explain things, like that [true experience of reality.]

There’s another saying, in one of those old stories that comes to mind, about when people used to work in the temples, and they’d go round and round, or work treadmills to either draw water or grind grain. It was done manually. Water wheels were obviously the best. But sometimes, if you went round and round near a stream… Someone became lost in their walking, walking round and round, just like we do in walking meditation. And he forgot his hands and feet, he forgot who he was. And someone later asked one of the teachers, “Well, what happened to him?” [laughs] That’s what happened to him! What happened to him? The teacher said, “Drowned in a deep spring.” And that’s what we are, drowned in that deep spring.

Not knowing

Most of our efforts and strivings, really, if we’re moving into awakening, we’re moving into what we do not know. And it’s not because we’re stupid or it’s obscure, it’s because the person who knows doesn’t come with us. Which is kind of fun when you think about it! ‘Oh, I can forget all that. I can forget my expertise.’ Shunryu Suzuki said in Beginner’s Mind, “The expert’s mind has few possibilities, the beginner’s mind has many.” So we’re moving into that not-knowing, and that vastness, into drawing that water. And clearly, since we’re becoming a different person, the ways in which the person we’ve cultivated and improved—him or herself, or themself—they aren’t going to help, because you’ve been improving the person who can’t get enlightened—because they’re the person who can’t get enlightened, and they’re pretty sure about that! 

So, if you just forget about that, [claps] it’s right here. [claps] Like that! And that’s why there’s this whole thing about how natural and easy it is, because it’s like you just step through a gate. And perhaps you can feel it as I’m talking right now, because it’s here, it’s with us. Every time a temple is formed, it’s with us, it’s not somewhere else. 

I remember when I was first meditating it was really hard for me, and I thought, ‘I’m supposed to do it every day.’ And then later I found I was supposed to do the koan all day, every day. Then I fall among dark and sinister people, and I notice that I’m working really hard to be deluded every day—and that’s like 25/8. So maybe I’ll just hang out with my koan, my koan doesn’t seem to demand very much. 

So you can have ‘Someone with no shadow or form is drawing the water—I wonder how the baseball’s going, feeling a bit peckish now, oh, someone with no shadow or form…’ like that. ‘And that person has better flowers than me—someone with no shadow or form… it really doesn’t matter.’

And you can tell it really doesn’t matter. The universe is just expressing stuff through you. And it’s kind of allowed to, don’t you think? I mean, seems fair. [laughs] And because it expressed you, you are a manifestation of the universe. And then through you, it didn’t know when to stop. And so, those thoughts and feelings are just endlessly [appearing.] The endless appearances, the five ways of knowing the world. So there’s something beautiful about that. And when you begin to get free, there’s nothing really wrong. 

Let’s say somebody’s dying, a friend of yours. I couldn’t make my friend wrong for dying. I’m not with him, I’m not experiencing his dying. I can’t make my father wrong for the things I disapproved of, the sometimes violent things he did when I was a child, because I wouldn’t be with myself or even with him, then. I’m not meeting myself—I’m not meeting life. 

And the hereness of things is so vast and overwhelming. And you can feel it. You can feel yourself turning in that small boat on the lake, in Lake Bua in Japan, with the stars above in the moonlight. And you can feel all those. You can feel yourself drawing water from the well. And what an ancient and beautiful thing to be drawing water. And you can feel it, the way your sitting in here is just the way the ancestors sat, and we used to think, ‘Oh god, we’ve got to work out what these dudes are  saying, because it seems to be clever.’ We don’t actually have to work that out now because we are there ourselves. 

And it’s a gate you’ve stepped through. And they’re all there, happy to meet you, saying “What took you so long? We knew you could do it!” So it’s like that.

And you know, the awakening experiences are there, and then you find some places like, “God, I’m really messed up right now, and it doesn’t seem to apply here.” And it is there too. And so you have to just look into that, and the gold is there. The gold is everywhere. The light is everywhere. You look into “I feel sick, I got pissed off, I lost my temper again when I promised myself I wouldn’t.” Well, the gold is in there too. “Lucy told me she’d hold the football for me, and I trusted her again. And I keep saying I won’t.” Anyway, whatever it is—all those kinds of silly things we do. And we realize, ‘Oh they’re too the manifestations.’ 

So there’s nothing really wrong with them. And then you’ll notice some people say, “Well, won’t you just behave badly?” Well, you probably won’t, actually. Because you’re listening to the Dao, you know, you’re listening to some deeper thing than the rules of your life.

Now, I want to take a slight move back out of “enlightenment is here,” into another way of saying enlightenment is here, which is describing the terrain we’re moving through. The real terrain is the vastness, and the strip of white silk. 

Working with koans

David Weinstein, this morning gave a talk about his koan path through the Miscellaneous Koans. And I really enjoyed the talk, and there is something that I just want to bring up, which is that many of us have worked with Japanese teachers, or in the Japanese style, or both. 

And the Japanese teachers really did want you to become the koan. And that’s really good. Like, if it’s a mountain, you become the mountain. If it’s a young girl, you become the young girl. And, so it’s sort of rather good when your notion of who you are gets disturbed and thrown up by that. You thought you were a guy, but actually you become a fox. Things like that. And that’s one of the marvelous things. But we did find that to give roots, and shadow, and nourishment, and leaves to the Dharma, it had to be in our lives here, not the ancient lives. 

And so David told a story about working with one of the Miscellaneous Koans, which is:

How is it that the enlightened person is sitting on top of a needle?

It’s a fairly well known koan. David was walking in San Francisco, that classic situation where he was without a job, and traipsing around through the homeless people to the unemployment bureau. And he realized, “This is the needle!” And you can correct me if I got it wrong, David. And then we talked about it. And I remember that moment, too, because that was the beginning of the moment when I felt I could ask everybody to find the koan in their life. 

And so that’s what integrates it. 

You will get the vastness, you really will, promise. Cross my heart and spirit. 

And then it’s a matter of not thinking it’s not here. The definition of suffering is, “it could be this.” But inside here is the light, too. And so the thing is, where did it come from? Well, maybe it’s like it was after this [moment] with David. And then we developed a whole style. And actually, that was one of the first glimmers of it when David and I had that meeting and talked about [integration] and I thought, ‘Well, I’m secretly doing that with myself, but I’m not asking my students yet, so what am I thinking?’

So I’m go to work in this new style, where the ancient clarity and purity allows you to have equanimity while screwing up (well, actually, not screwing up!), doing a funeral for a really dear friend, and being at peace with that, and actually even having the joy with that. That’s the vastness, and it supports us. 

But then there are these other things, you know, “What do you do when X happens?” And I had had a sort of naughty idea. My daughter was really young. She was really a baby when I thought ‘Well, I’m not gonna be one of those teachers who travels around and leaves his kid behind,’ so I took my kid along, even when her mom couldn’t come sometimes. So therefore, childcare was included. Things like that. 

And then I’d be giving a talk like this, and she naturally escaped from [zendo] childcare and would come dashing into the dojo and jump on my lap, you know—while I’m saying the profundities of the Dharma. [laughs] And I realize, ‘Well, this is it, this is it too, this is the living Dharma.’ And so that was great. And I noticed that people had kensho—enlightenment—at those retreats just as much as at other retreats, and arguably more. 

So I think that’s really just an appreciation of that way of working. If you really experience the vastness and the one strip of white silk and someone with no shadow or form drawing the water, you can really experience everything in your life. You experience the most difficult things: Turmoil, you know, people being violent around you, all sorts of things. And you know, you’re gonna look after yourself and get away from violent people if you can, but that’s not always possible and so you’re in the midst of your life and the beauty and remarkableness of it.

So I guess that’s what I want to say. I had a friend who after she got awake used to call herself “She.” She’d say, “Well, that’s what she wants to say.” She realized she wasn’t the same person, that she couldn’t really claim credit for what she said any more. It’s kind of fun. 

And that’s what he wants to say! 

So how are we doing here? Dave Weinstein, do you have anything else to say about that?

David W: Actually, no, thank you for asking.

John: I feel like letting the peace just be here. And the peace that goes out … the whole … all the kingdoms and the mountains and the oceans are at peace. Let’s just have that. Let’s rest in that and let it carry us. 

We’ll just sit for a couple of minutes. 

Amaryllis: [sings]

Peacefully, humbly,
the ship stars travel, the grass hunches down to earth,
the demons take their rest,
and we call the protectors to smile over us,
as the work in darkness goes on until dawn.

Amaryllis: [plays violin intro to the Four Vows]

Amanda: [plays ukelele and sings]

The Four Boundless Vows

I vow to wake all the beings of the world
I vow to set endless heartache to rest
I vow to walk through every wisdom gate
I vow to live the Great Buddha Way 

Evening words with Tess Beasley

I had a dream, recently, that I was sitting in the dark with a man who was speaking as the zendo itself. And I just sat on the empty cushions, and listened to him for a long time. 

So tonight, when you go to bed, whether you come back and sit or wander outside, I invite you to listen to him, wherever he might find you. 

Good night. 


—John Tarrant

Dharma Talk in Fall Sesshin 2021
PZI Online Temple
October 20th, 2021

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