PZI Teacher Archives

Hosting the Life You Have – Koans for Hard Times


..one of the things we can be skeptical about is that division. This is meditation, this is not meditation, and the question is always, how do you know it’s not meditation? How do you know what’s happening now isn’t it?

So tonight I’d like to talk along the lines we’ve been talking
with these koans, and I’d like to talk about the stuff that just goes along
in the mind and the heart during meditation and how there’s a way in which
one tends, we all tend 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 is
always, how do you know it’s not meditation? How do you know what’s
happening now isn’t it? So the poet Tony Hoagland said: We’d give anything
for the life we have. [laughter] I thought that was pretty good, you know?
Even for a Zen student that was pretty good. So I want to talk about the
life we have a little bit.
The grand old master 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.
So that is what I’m going to talk about tonight. I noticed this
morning when I was in the talk, when anybody said something I kept losing
it, so I’m gonna do this thing – can we move in closer? Then everyone will
hear what everyone says.
S: John, could you repeat that last quote?
John: If you just take the position of host, is that the one? It’s kind of
cool isn’t it? You’re collecting these, aren’t you?
S: Yeah.
John: That’s great. 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. It’s oh,
right, he’s talking to me. There’s something genuine going on here. How’s
that? Can you breathe? Is it cool? All right? One koan goes:
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, and
all together they cried out: This subtle touch reveals the light that is in
everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the
Buddha live.
So just by moving in you did that, see? Here we are in the bath
together. So no special undertakings. You know what that’s like. You know
how there’s a lot of ways we can do the special undertakings. If I just held
my mouth differently basically. The one that comes to mind at the moment is
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: [breath] and stop a bit, like you do and stop a bit, like you do
with a brush when you’re painting. A bit more and stop a bit. A bit more and
stop a bit. And the theory was you couldn’t get enlightened if you didn’t do
bamboo breathing. And you can see how anything you do that’s a concentration
device will help your concentration, but that’s still not yet waking up.
Helping your concentration’s a kind of cool thing, particularly in my case
[laughter], but you can tell that wisdom is a different thing. And so no
special undertakings in that way. But there are other special undertakings.
I think I drank too much coffee this morning, that kind of thing. I should
have drunk coffee this morning, all that stuff. Then just be ordinary.
So you have your notebooks, I believe. So write down something that’s
ordinary to you, 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.
S: …got duct tape wrapped around my chest, you know pulling tighter and
tighter, and then I started getting close – I drew a picture of my problem,
which is actually in this room – so it’s either draw these windows right
there, and that started to be kind of … I started feeling a sort of
affection 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 started
looking around to see how can I open the window.
John: Rocks. [laughter]
S: And then I want to smash the windows, and then I want to find the
architect and string him up.
John: And how’s all that?
S: Oh it’s just complete – turbulent inside and I just feel more and more
agitated like an animal in a zoo pacing in a cage is what it feels like.
John: Okay, so that’s one thing that can happen. We get recruited by: Oh my
god, what if Donald Trump…! [laughter] that sort of thing, right? Or:
Orlando! And it’s not like there isn’t a reality in the world about things.
And then if you – here’s the other way to go. Write this down. What are some
of the advantages of my problem? What are some of the advantages of my

Give me some advantages. The problem could be I have cancer. It could be
many things. It’s not always an opinion really, although I suppose “I have
cancer” is an opinion. I’m dying is an opinion. But still, some of them are
stickier than others. There’s a man who likes a sticky problem out there.
Did you want to say something about it?

S: I have cancer, and that one didn’t even occur to me. [laughter]
John: Another clueless Zen student. It’s great isn’t it? But I have real
problems! It’s wonderful isn’t it? We start getting skeptical about it. Then
we start taking the role of the host. Taking the role of the host would be I
don’t know, I have cancer but I seem to be alive. I’ll take that. That’s the
story about eating the strawberry. The other thing I wanted to say, I
noticed this morning in the talk, somebody I think it was Roger, said
something about regret, and the whole room, I became extremely interested.
And we were in this oh I should I shouldn’t whatever like that, and that
seemed very opaque and imprisoning. But something you regret, oh that’s
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 – disapproving of your cancer, or approving of your
cancer – who cares. It’s like I think I’ll enjoy this sunset. So it’s like
that. 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. And probably
if you get on the internet and start looking for hit men in the dark,
probably that might be identifying too much. But there’s a certain way in
which we notice oh, I get really annoyed about the environment, my
environment or – do you mind sharing with us what your problem was?
S: Sure. Reality demands my attention.
John: Ah, okay, and what are the advantages of that?
S: It gives me something to do.
John: Okay. [laughter] Fair enough. God I hate reality. I’ve got to have
breakfast, I’ve got to get out of bed, all that shit. So tiresome, when I
could be having breakfast and getting out of bed. [laughter] So we see the
dance move that happens where move away from life, but life is there anyway
even in the move away from life. So that’s being the host. And in a certain
sense when we really get being a host, which is a little easier in retreat
sometimes because things slither off us more, but when we really get the
thing about being the host, or the hostess if you wish, if we get that
thing, we realize oh, we’re at peace and these things are arising. The
architecture sucks or whatever it is. 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. So that’s what we have, and so then reality becomes our friend
and we’re the host to it all… So…
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.

There’s nothing wrong with the part of the mind that does that. 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, is there a difference? Who else objects to something?
S: Sure. Our entire political system.
John: I object to the political system. Right. That also tells us something
about who we are in the world, what stance we’re taking.
S: There’s an [old?] phrase for what you’re talking about – looking for the
beautiful source in whatever the problem or that negative opinion or
reference is.
John: That’s one path, which is the famous strawberry story, you know, which
is 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
starts 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’ve got a
strawberry. There can be a transformative – if we notice that, if we stumble
on it, that’s good. But the way to stumble on it is to fully be there
hanging while the vine’s starting to shred and so on. I mean I would say the
way to stumble on the freedom about the architecture is really: well, what
is it like to want to kill the architect, and it sort of becomes
interesting. It’s not about killing the architect, but it’s about what makes
me enraged and what frees me and how I can go through my rage and get freed,
like that.
S: Did you want us to be a good host?
John: I don’t care what kind of host, I don’t know good is in that context,
but if you –
S: I don’t understand the pejorative on that word (?) but I could be a bad
host to my problem and I could continue telling it how good(?) it is.
John: Yeah you could. You could, but I think that the metaphor is probably
about being in some way welcoming and saying yeah – there’s a lot about that
in the old wisdom traditions, to welcome… This is current: When times of
great difficulty visit us, how should we treat them? Question during a time
of civil war, old koan question. Welcome! said the teacher, because what
else are you going to do? Also, that’s what else are you going to do and the
other thing is well 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, and that reminds me I was going to do that, so I’ll read some.
Here’s… This is the great Anna Swir, great Polish poet. This is translated
by Czeslaw Milosz, the great, Nobel-prize-winning Polish poet from Berkeley,
local guy while he was here, and somebody else. It says, this is her – she
was at the Warsaw ghetto as a 14-year-old nurse’s aide. “I Carried Bedpans”
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.
So you can tell the bedpan’s become the magical thing for her. And also 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 there’s an intelligence
and awakened quality about everything she writes. That was the gift of that
terrible time for her. And she’s dead now.
And so the other thing she did was, one of the interesting things she did
that’s relevant so I’ll read it here, too, is that she stopped kind of
believing in herself as a construction. This is called “A Double Rapture,”
very short poem.
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.
S: Can you read that again?

John: I’ll have to find it again won’t I?
S: Because there is no me…
S: And how much I feel there is no me…
John: Let’s get it right. The thing is that you know that thing we did with

the koan yesterday where we thought we’d show you how the koan drifts and
changes and fragments and any piece of the koan is the whole of the koan.
Any piece of eternity and awakening is all of eternity and awakening, you
know. So already it’s starting to drift… because there is no search
function… here we are…
Because there is no me.
And because I feel how much there is no me.
I still can’t find the file. That’s a problem, right? Quirks of
my – I blame Steve Jobs. To go back to the – you normally think of this as a
hard thing, right, and it was. I’m sure it was devastating. On the other
hand, it’s alive, and that’s what we have. And so that’s the high drama of
it, 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. But 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 feces and piss… in a certain way if we’re open to that, and
the koan from last night says then we’re the host. She’s the host for that.
And it’s also her movement through life. This is her journey. She’s on a
path. She’s not just doing something, it becomes a path. And she’s not doing
it because it’s a rule, it just comes out of her being.
So kindness and being loving is actually something that comes our of our
being. It’s not a rule. It’s an offering of the universe that comes through
us like that and then you can feel that. And then also she doesn’t take
herself so seriously: Because there is no me. Because I feel how much there
is not me. We like that. That’s when we see through something, we see
through our delusion, we think well I’m enraged with architecture, or I
forgot [?] – whatever it is, and it’s kind of cool and isn’t it great. We
start to enjoy the dance movements that life makes through us, and that’s
being a host. And you’ll see again, you’ll see how everything Lin-ji says is
sort of related, like the things about: When the heart is not anxious the
ten thousand things are without blame.
So you can feel like, she’s not assigning blame. There was 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, and 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 in the mud of whatever it is. Before that,
you realize it’s already here, in your, in what you think of, the very thing
you reject, it’s in here. Can somebody else give me an example of a problem?
S: 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?

S: Well, 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
S: Sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating, sometimes it’s grief-inducing, but
they’re not going to go back to doing what they used to do.
John: Right.
S: And it takes away from the… [?]… I’ll just work on this a little and
it’ll get better.
John: I’ll do a little aikido and it’ll all work out. [laughter] But then
there’s something else that comes. The question would be: I wonder what
comes to the foreground when I’m here with this? Like injuries for athletes
are always fascinating, because you have this impeccable strategy that
completely fails, being an athlete. I’m an old jock myself, so… there’s
something interesting about that.
S: It’s an incredible price to pay for not being with what is when…
John: Well the price for not being with what is, is that you don’t get much
John: Yeah, probably.
S: The one (?) thing that’s interesting is, I’ve got a weird nodule on my
biceps, and what comes out of it, I’ve gotten to know my …[inaudible]…
because most of the time I like my body when it disappears, but I can’t do
that because it’ll grab me. And yet my leg’s more mine than it’s ever been,
even though I can’t trust it. It’s kind of neat. [laughter]
John: Yeah and the other thing – somebody said to me – some of you saw at
retreat last summer some of you saw when my back went waah like that, and it
took me while to work out… Friends worked on me, it was a lot of shooting
pain. My internist looked at the imaging and said well, I don’t usually
recommend surgery, but… I said, oh shit it’s getting serious. So this
funny thing happens where it’s: Oh but it’s just pain. And it’s not a
problem yet. And it was great. So I suppose that’s the thing about being a
host is – it’s here someone goes – (?). And I wasn’t of the opinion that
surgery would help. And it’s kind of nice. I kind of like it. It’s a

different – I’m listening to my body differently and it’s kind of nice.
S: Um, what it brought to my mind when I was looking at that was – the
problem in life for me are my reactions to things, not the things
themselves. It’s always my reaction. If I like it, then it’s a good thing
and if I don’t like it then it’s not so good a thing, and the advantage that
I’ve discovered in it – it really shows me what the problem is.
John: So I’ll say it because not everyone can hear, I think. That the
problem is my reaction to things, not things, and if I like it I think it’s
a good thing, and if I don’t… when I think something’s a problem it shows
me how narrow my view is – I don’t know what you’re saying there. How I
divide the universe –
S: The advantage of that which I’ve been discovering is it’s not anything.
It’s not the cancer or the injury or the loss of function, it’s my reaction,
and when I can become host to that, when I can stay with that, then there is
really no problem, but you’re also learning in the process.
John: Yeah, for me then the problem disappears and I can’t actually honestly
say it’s a good or bad thing, it’s just oh I had a problem with my back – I
forgot about that. Then when we die we think oh I used to be alive, I forgot
about that. [laughter] Yeah, I remember that. We used to gather in rooms and
talk about being the host.
S: It could be worse. You could say oh I wish I had been alive.
John: Yeah, exactly. That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the thing of – 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. And I’ll go
into the whole self thing in another talk, but 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
teaching Zen. Anything’s possible. And then we do find that we have our own
feelings and tendencies and styles, things we love, and 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’s 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. So then really it’s in here. So one of the
things a good meditation practice does is it takes that inner conflict out
of us, because we’re not fighting with our heart and mind state so much.
Let’s see what else I have here, if I have a nice… Here’s another subtle,

more interesting Anna Swir poem from the same period of her life. It’s
called “In Which You See the Dreamy Nature of a Child in a War Zone.” It’s
interesting, because you see kids in war zones all over the world as you
know. It’s a very articulate one.
Thoughts of a Fourteen-year-old Nurse
If all the bullets in the world
hit me,
then they couldn’t hit anybody else.
You know the tonglen meditation in Tibetan stuff? You can see
how all the meditations that could ever be invented are these natural things
that arise.
Thoughts of a Fourteen-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.
S: What’s her name again?
John: Anna Swir. Who speaks Polish? How do you pronounce her name? Swir.
So you can see she’s talking about even in that environment she
was full of longing and a kind of bodhisattva impulse for a better world, a
kind of I’ll take the pain on for myself. And it’s not like she should do
that, but you can see her life is in that generosity and loving quality –
it’s just in her. Oh 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 all my life?
Now I understand those old ladies walking
their Chihuahuas in the dusk, plastic bags 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 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
could be so easily met
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
about being human?
S: What was the name of that poem?
John: Fetch.
S: The poet?
John: Tony Hoagland. So that’s a little bit of the strawberry thing, walking
the dog. But you can tell how then he sees oh wait, the dog is teaching me
how to live and changing my life. It’s not that the dog is consoling me for

something. The dog is changing my me. I thought I was a person who disdained
those things, but actually they’re great. So that’s part of being a host is
you see what you love. Or you’re next to the crying baby on the airplane and
you think: oh, healthy lungs. [laughter] Like that. There’s life in the
Okay. So to be the host, to be ordinary. And you’ll notice if
you say that acting ordinary is it then there can’t be anything that you’re
experiencing as out of the range of the illumination, that light that we’re
carrying inside us. It’s really the light of the universe that we’re in,
really, that’s carrying us, you know. Inside, outside, that’s one of the
things about meditation – oh, is that bird call in here or out there? So
then we start… to oppose… our situation doesn’t become, it’s not so
interesting, right? 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
are its tastes, does it like vegemite for breakfast, what does it want. Does
it eat the plate as well as the food like an Edward Gorey kind of cartoon,
what does it do? What kind of guest do I have here? And then we realize, oh,
this is the life that life has given me, and you know Rilke said life is
always right. And whatever I think about that saying, this is the life I
have and I can’t have another life, and really and fundamentally I don’t
want one, because this one is so rich and compelling no matter what’s going
down right now. There’s all sorts of ways I can distract myself and so on
and that’s fine, too, that’s part of life too, but Lin-ji’s coaching about
maybe if I can be the host I’ll really get to know it and I’ll be a good,
generous friend to this moment of life.
So what do you think? I’ll stop there for a bit. You may have completely
other concerns. How do I be a good guest? But how – well let me run at it
that way and then I’ll –  Being a good guest means I’m always wanting life
to do something different, right? Could I have marmalade 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. And
you can realize that there’s something sort of, I don’t know, helpless about
that, and untrue, really. Being the host is really I’m the host of this,
this has come, now this, now this.
S: Being a host also implies taking responsibility for seeing that things
get done that…
John: Need to be done, yeah, to the extent that’s possible.
S: It’s not just a welcoming attitude, isn’t there more to it?

John: Well, I mean, ask yourself. Like 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 I just needed – I blink and it’s different
and I’m starting to be interested instead of rejecting. And even shit I
can’t do this is a kind of… I can be host to that. So don’t object even to
my objections, and then suddenly I start to get free because it’s funny that
I’m objecting to reality, it’s like good luck John. So I think it goes like
that. The action will naturally appear I think, or not I suppose. And by all
means, tell your friends to vote. Not a problem in California really.
S: I was thinking the dog was a good host for Tony.
John: Oh, that’s nice.
S: He wasn’t trying to please Tony, he was just wanting to go after that
stick and wanting to go for a walk, and attuned to him.
John: Yeah, I’ve noticed with some of the dogs I’ve loved, I thought they
wanted me to do something for them, but they wanted me to do something for
me. Yeah? Everybody who’s been close to an animal has noticed how animals
start to dance with you like that. Other animals do it too.
S: I’ve had just recently, my husband had muscular dystrophy and he has
heart failure and he just broke his finger when we were in Hawaii, which
basically took away what independence he had left, and 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 just said, darling, I’m 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 these last three weeks it
has been this most excruciating closeness. A deeper intimacy than I ever
could have imagined in marriage. So deep that I finally said to him you know
I think when this is over I’m going to have to get a sex therapist to bring
us back apart so I’ll have a reason to try to get close together again.
Because it’s so opened my heart just by – you say we’re the host, but to me
the condition itself is the host that invites for something in me that I
don’t even know is there and then it’s there.
John: Thank you… I suppose the final thing I want to say here is that when
you’re in the territory of the great koans, they’re always actually trying
to be accurate rather than telling what to do or an attitude to take or some
– 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
tonglen meditation with bedpans or 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, so
that saying that there’s a natural kindness inside that’s fundamental to
consciousness is one of the great discoveries, and it’s not – I mean

cultivating it doesn’t hurt and that’s fine, but it’s fundamentally there,
and so the koans just try to give us… in a way disturb the delusions so we
see and experience how we really are that way. Or how it is, what the true
nature of the heart and mind is, and so it’s like that, and one of the
things is to be the host in that way. Well, thank you very much for your
patience, and… onward.



Rockridge Meditation Community