PZI Teacher Archives

Koans in Your Life


To turn toward the difficult thing is usually a move of compassion. We think it’ll be a fierce warrior move, but it’s not, actually. And when we turn toward what’s difficult, it becomes mysterious and unknown and strange and interesting. Whatever it is, your dilemma—if you turn toward that, it’s to let the koan be there. So we stop trying to flee. And suddenly we’re at peace, and instead of it being the thing that we don’t want to do, it’s the gateway into freedom.


Hi. So here we are, all understanding the mysteries of the dharma, so that there’s nothing to explain! 

So the koan that has been entertaining us is: 

A buffalo—a bison—a buffalo passes through a lattice window. The head, horns and hooves all pass through. Why won’t the tail go through? 

This koan has a lot of history and a lot of jokes around it. Hakuin, the great medieval Japanese master, he thought there were eight koans that were extremely difficult to pass through—hard to pass through koans—and he kind of put this at the top of the hit parade. Someone asked another teacher why did Hakuin think this was one of the most difficult —why did he classify it that way? And the other teacher said. “Oh, it was hard for Hakuin.” [laughter] Which kind of tells you all about what Zen thinks about typology and putting things on shelves. So it’s—just because it’s hard for Hakuin, what’s that got to do with you?

So, a couple of things to say about it. One is the aspect of the kind of deep life underneath everything, like a big beast moving that carries us. Something carries us along in spite of our opinions about life, and in spite of how busy we are, and in spite of all the ways we get our own way and tie our shoelaces together. Nonetheless, we manage to fall asleep and get up and eat when we’re hungry and drink when we’re thirsty, and things like that. So that’s the deep life that carries us along. 

And that’s one of the profound aspects of meditation, that we start out reaching for something, and we end up realizing that we have it already. That the problem we’re trying to solve wasn’t really a problem in the first place, and that somehow if we stop believing our prejudices, stop believing our beliefs, then life simplifies itself for us and we don’t have to do this big operation. We don’t have to have a belief about simplifying our beliefs, which is just another belief. And it does it for us. 

One place you’ll notice that operation of meditation, is if you’re working with a koan, you might often have a feeling that you just don’t get it and you’re kind of stuck, which is the buffalo passing through the window. For no good reason it seems to be stuck there. Everybody has that experience sometimes. And the mind will worry about it being stuck, or try and unstick itself, or try and solve its problems. But in the meditation tradition you just keep company with the koan, and you hang out with the koan. Sooner or later you feel yourself being carried along. 

It really doesn’t matter at first whether you have a sense that something good is happening to you, because something good is happening to you, and it’s none of your business! So that’s the deep life. It’s not something that you even need to have an opinion about. You’ll notice that happens in sesshin—in spite of your efforts to learn to meditate, nonetheless you find yourself meditating. 

And even your attempts to do better really don’t wreck it for you, and that’s kind of nice to know—that somehow the universe ends up being on our side, and we end up being on our own side. So we can start to trust the things that happen to us, and start to trust our own moves. 

And as for trusting the things that happen to us, and trusting the big buffalo carrying us along, we might say the big bison carrying us along, then it’s just the only choice, really. We can have the life we have, or we can be dead, or we can object to the life we have. Being dead isn’t an option at the moment, because you’re alive, and so that counts that one out. Objecting to the life we have somehow seems sort of ungrateful, no matter what’s going on, and also there’s something helpless and futile about it. That’s the whole notion, suffering is the thought, “This can’t be it.” But indeed, this is it.

And so, there’s the sense of having to trust the gates that are opening for us. The window we happen to be jumping through is our window. It may seem crazy, or it may seem “I did this, but now I’m way over here doing that.” Yeah, that’s right! So that even if we don’t make sense to ourselves, we don’t even need an opinion about that, any more than when life doesn’t make sense to us. And we have the life we have. 

So that’s the sense—in that sense the koan is like a dream. It might be on our side, but we can’t pull it into a world that makes sense according to the ways we’ve preconceived the world. We have to trust its dream life, and then we’ll find that if you just hang out with the koan, your own moves start to change, your life starts to change. The kinds of decisions you make start to change. And there’s absolutely no point in objecting to them. You just ride that particular bison, ride that buffalo, and get carried by it. Okay, so there’s that.

One of my things I notice—in autumn, a little after harvest time, some things happen. I notice the birds disappear and they didn’t bother taking the last tomatoes on the vine, or the last grapes on the vine, they just went. They were just carried away by life. And that I have this wonderful sense of being carried too. 

Part of that is remembering things that happened, differently. I’ve noticed that everything that I remember is something that’s a story I made up about something, and I kind of like that. So things that seem to make sense, don’t, or the sense I made of things starts to get bigger and more generous, because I’m not holding it so tightly.

One of my favorite stories at the moment is my story about how I came to the teaching. How I got interested in meditation was by actually trying to invent it myself, without knowing what meditation was. The world I lived in was not one where people were clued in to meditation, actually it was working on fishing boats and mines and things. And even if I’d heard of it, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take it seriously. 

So instead of learning about meditation, I would sort of go out into the woods and try not  thinking what I always thought, and things like that. I’d try noticing things. What I noticed was that I wasn’t noticing things very well, that I wasn’t participating in life—I was outside of life. I noticed that if I went out in the woods and started paying attention, I was with the woods more, and they were more in me and I was more in them. So there was a kind of invention thing going on. 

Then somebody told me about some Tibetans who were coming to the town I was in. And I didn’t know what they were, I didn’t know what a Tibetan was, I didn’t know what a Lama was—a large herding animal, like a buffalo. I didn’t know what a Lama was, a Tibetan was, what meditation was, and they were doing a month-long silent retreat, which I had no interest in, and immediately I signed up. [laughter] 

Not only that, it was really weird—because I had this thought, because I wonder why I did that—when I arrived, they had asked me to bring a cushion, and I’d brought a cushion, one of those absurd throw cushions with tiny little bits of foam, and when you sat on it, it went like this. [hands clap] And it hadn’t occurred to me what a cushion was for. They’d meant like a meditation cushion to sit on. And so I was so ignorant—I ended up sitting on books, actually, which was heretical but sensible. And I thought, “Why did I do that?” Then I realized “Oh!” They’d had a night or two of orientation where they told you what to expect, and I hadn’t gone, because I didn’t want to be talked out of it. I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t want to find out, because then I might not do it. 

So I think that’s the deep life that carries us into things. And really—there’s some deep light that we’re following, or intelligence that’s carrying us. It doesn’t make sense, and we’re a little frightened of it, I think, so there are a lot of ways to avoid being carried, like “do your email.” That will usually do it. Send a few texts, get on Twitter, follow your Facebook feed, there’s lots of ways. But even those things, in the middle of them suddenly the clues are there. So the peace and the beauty of life is ineradicable, and keeps appearing, the animal life. So there’s that. 

Then the other thing is the bit about the tail. What is it that won’t go through? I think the first thing in meditation would be that we discover that all the things we thought were important aren’t, and it’s a tremendous relief. We move beyond all the explanations we had about things, and we realize that the part of the mind that’s always explaining itself to itself—it’s sort of like Coyote, when Coyote’s chasing Roadrunner and steps off the cliff but doesn’t realize yet that he’s not standing on anything—that part of the mind is just always at work like that. When it falls because it stepped off a cliff, it’s actually a relief. Because we’re no longer supporting ourselves with things that we know somehow are not true for us. So that’s a nice thing. 

So there’s that. But then the tail, we discover then that we’re making the world up and it’s a kind of interesting, amusing joke in a way, and our problems were not true problems. But we don’t really know what all that means, and then immediately we start believing in our problems again. And the tail in that sense is anything that we get stuck to, anything that is difficult for us that we think is hard. So if there’s something in your life that you think is hard, one way to look at that is that’s the tail. Another way to look at it is that it’s the important, precious thing, because at least it’s got the mule’s attention. That very thing that you think is that tremendous dilemma and the impediment and the predicament that you want to get out of, the imprisoning situation, that itself is the way to go. So the other big move in meditation is to turn toward the difficult thing, because the difficulty is just a story, and in some sense we haven’t really looked. We haven’t really asked ourselves about the situation so we can look at it. If we think something’s hard, then I could let the koan into that.

One of the classic meditation strategies is to have a lot of peace and keep everything really still, which is good at first, and then to sort of try and keep life out of the meditation, because meditation feels so cool, so why would I want to let life into it. I was feeling so good. And we all know that the problem with that, of course, is that then you walk out of the meditation hall and immediately you’re in a fight with someone, or usually you’re in a fight with yourself, actually. 

So, to turn toward the difficult thing is usually a move of compassion. We think it’ll be a fierce warrior move, but it’s not actually. It’s a lot easier than not turning toward what’s difficult. And when we turn toward what’s difficult, it becomes mysterious and unknown, and strange and interesting. So if the difficult thing for you is leaving behind your life that you came from, your work, your problem in your relationship, whatever it is, your dilemma—if you turn toward that, it’s to let the koan be there, so we stop trying to flee. And suddenly we’re at peace, and instead of it being the thing that we don’t want to do, it’s the gateway into freedom. 

So in that sense the tail is everything you look at, which after a while starts to glow—becomes illuminated—because our eyes become fresh. We look at a leaf, “Oh!”  and the whole world is in that leaf. We look at somebody’s eyes, and the whole world is in their eyes. That’s the tail too. There’s a Chinese poem that says, “This tiny little tail, what a wonderful thing it is.” The whole universe is in that tail. Like that movie the Men in Black, there’s a cat that’s got a little jewel on its neck, and the jewel is actually the Milky Way, like that. It’s actually the Andromeda Galaxy. In other words, we thought life was weird, but actually it’s much weirder than that, and the tail shows us everything about it. 

People had a lot of fun in the tradition with the notion of buffalos and bison. One of the other great teachers said—people asked him what happens to you when you die—and he said, “I will become a buffalo at the foot of the hill, and I will have my name, John Tarrant, written on me.” And then people would say, “Well, why would you become a buffalo?” And no one could answer. Another teacher said, “That’s not the important point. The important point is, what will a buffalo say?” What will a buffalo say? So the joke starts to become funny, and goes on and on and on. 

So what else to say about the buffalo passing through the window? Well, the other thing is that—the thing that seems backwards or upside down might be the interesting thing too, because you really look at the thing that seems backwards or upside down or impossible. Because you think all sorts of other things are possible. But that just means you’ve put them in the department of “Something I won’t really notice or pay attention to.” That’s something known. So this is a kind of exercise you can do with a friend, really, or anyone you love. You can do it with an enemy, too, but it might be harder with someone you love—is to look at them as if you don’t know them, and then suddenly you realize how amazing they are, which you hadn’t noticed before because you were so sick of the kind of thing they say about their family, or whatever it is. 

And then you would discover that you don’t really look at so many things you love in your life, and therefore they become unavailable to you and they move away, because you’re not noticing. But when    we’re open to them, we don’t move toward them, they move toward us—so that’s the other thing about the tail. I think you notice that. In retreat, you notice how suddenly the voice of the ravens or the crows, we have both here, suddenly it fills everything—that’s the tail. Or the siren. There were great car alarms and sirens this afternoon. We were talking about koans [siren sound] and you can think, “This is terrible, we’ve got to stop the universe from being the universe,” or you can think, “Koan [siren sound] koan. Wow. Koan.” And it’s all the tail. Somebody came in and said this great thing: “I’ve always tried to hold the traffic off, but I stopped holding the traffic off and it was great.” Why not? It’s here. It’s our life. We can say this isn’t it, or we can say basically it’s [siren sound] and we’re at peace. 

So what’s the other thing? Oh, the other thing to say about the tail as part of the stuckness, is that there’s that part of life that always escapes our predictions about it and always escapes our plans. There’s a joke that if you want to suffer, make a plan. And to trust that part of life that escapes our plans. That’s the cool thing. I mean, it’s nice to plan to cook dinner and not burn it, that’s nice. Let’s have it that way. But there’s so many things in life—like we’ve heard the sort of crazy thing today, of the toilets stopping up and the plumber not understanding, and telling us not to use any toilets—and in a way, it’s kind of cool when things like that happen, because we notice it’s not very important. It just flows along, the sewage just flows along, life just flows along, and it’s alright. And you notice that that peace and that illumination starts to come over any situation, you don’t need to be wishing the universe were different. It’s just how it is, it’s just here, and isn’t that grand? Lucky we’re here, listening to each other. Lucky we’re here, listening to the sirens and the ravens and the plumber. 

So, then that comes into the thing that we didn’t appreciate. The dilemma is the thing we need to trust in our lives, the question that we can’t yet answer. Maybe we can be grateful for that. We try to rush through it, but when you rush through it, it just means you’ll have another question, so enjoy the one you’ve got. You rush through your cancer, you’re either dead or cured, and then you’ll have some other problem. So enjoy the cancer you have. Enjoy whatever you have. Enjoy the dilemma, the predicament, and then you’ll be enjoying how much the universe carries you and how much you love the universe, and how much, really, you are that love that the universe has for you. 

Large Hadron Collider

So let me stop there, and I’ll take comments, questions, farm animals, non-farm animals. One of our old time students is a physics professor who—I was searching my hard drive for “bison,” and I found a whole riff he did on the Higgs boson and how it was very hard to get. The Large Hadron Collider had to be very large to get the boson out of it. It just goes to show. So who knows what you can find in a Large Hadron Collider. 

So how’s it going? Any comments? I think you know, my read on things is that people are just floating along, or the koan is just floating along.

S: The koan raises all kinds of things. Even the question of whether the buffalo was even meant to go through the window to begin with… 

John: What does that bring up in you? One of the things that a koan does is sort of tip our mind upside down. Usually something rises in my life to meet the koan. And we might say that that’s the thing the koan is for, in that dimension, for me at the moment. That’s how the koan is like a dream or fairy tale. Something rises to meet it in my life, and then “Oh, I hadn’t thought that was relevant,” perhaps, or I thought it was in the too-hard basket, or something like that. And I don’t know if you have anything like that?

S: Yeah. It’s mortality for me. There’s the buffalo marching on, but all of a sudden it gets stuck. So what goes through my head, is it’s clawing at the ground trying to break through—maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It raises issues of, “I’m getting older and there are parts of my body that don’t work.” And I work very hard to make them work better, and maybe they will, maybe they won’t. 

John: And eventually they won’t.

S: Yeah, and that’s the other part. The buffalo doesn’t get through to some degree.

John: Well, that’s a way of getting through. We don’t stop the traffic, we’re peaceful with the traffic, we are the whole of it. We keep focusing on this bit that we’re calling John or Boris or whatever we’re calling ourselves—Natasha, or buffalo. We think all that’s “out there.” The trees, or these other people, what are they doing here? It’s like—they’re not out there either. We’re all this galaxy engine, whatever we call it! We’re all this vast universe, and each of us is at the center of the universe, and are the bits of the universe. 

The ocean metaphor’s easy and feels a bit cliché, but I’ll try it: You know, that the wave is ocean, and the wave rises and falls and it’s still ocean, from the ocean’s point of view. It was a very nice wave and now it’s a different one. That doesn’t feel quite right to me, it’s more incomprehensible than that. But really we start seeing each other as—the reason we have love, the reason love and compassion and helpfulness appears, is not because we’re nice people— it’s because we can’t help it. It wasn’t a good intention, it wasn’t ethical, love isn’t an ethical position. It’s like the love of each other is love of our own life. It’s what’s revealed about the structure of being, which was a great discovery for me. It was very consoling for me, because I thought I had to be nicer and I just knew I wasn’t going to be very good at that. I’m a marsupial. We’re not nice. Or bad-tempered when we are—or whatever. 

But the loving quality is just genuine, deep down in, partly because we recognize it’s all—we recognize each other. So that’s the thing about mortality. Yup. This particular shape will be gone. Great! Onward. Next? Fortunately we’re going to die. Everybody we can’t stand is going to die, and everybody we love is going to die. There we are. Agreed. Fair enough! Want a drink? Like some chocolate? Want a kiss? Mortality. 

But it’s nice, it’s lovely to start hanging out with it. And something starts to reveal itself that maybe if we turn toward mortality it’s kind of, “What a beautiful and noble thing. Oh, I’ll be interested in that. I’ll start loving it and see if I can make it my friend and see what happens.” What would happen then? Then I think “Oh, my heart’s skipping a rhythm again.” Great! 

And somehow the whole thing becomes—we’re not at war with whatever’s going on. We always do have the recourse that it’s vast. And the part of our mind that really tries to fix things doesn’t understand, but we know that. So let the buffalo take care of it. It’s like the part of us that catches a ball doesn’t think about it, or the part of us that paints.

The story about drawing school from this morning—koans really are like that. You didn’t really know how to meditate. You really learned how to meditate, you learned all the technique, and then suddenly one day you’re meditating while you forgot the technique—you were meditating. That’s why I don’t teach technique. I may not be right, but I don’t. Because it never works for me! [laughter] Koans work for me. But technique can be good for giving up technique. Some people need to learn twenty-five methods so they get beyond method. It’s all right. Twenty-five ways to be immortal and live for a really long time. 

What else? Who else?

S: It reminds me of a video I saw the other night about a dog that these people have, that if you give it a bone, its leg slowly starts to sneak up on it and then its tail comes around, and the dog attacks its tail and attacks its leg, over and over again. It’s hysterical in a way, but at the same time if I think about it being a fearful thing, that the dog is seeing something that’s attacking it, in a way that’s the way that I get stuck— with the tail “out there” because I don’t observe it as being part of myself.

John: Thank you. The final thing to say might be—for me, learning the art of meditation was turning toward the thing that I thought I wasn’t doing right. Like, “This can’t be working, I’m bored. This can’t be working, my legs hurt, my mind is out of control.” Well, my mind is always out of control. What’s different now? I don’t control my mind. It doesn’t ask me what it thinks and feels, so it’s fine. I don’t regard what my mind thinks and feels as any of my business. That’s what meditation is, right? And then there’s the trees, the crows, the traffic, the faces, the shining feet. 

Thank you very much.

—John Tarrant Roshi

Dharma Talk in Fall Sesshin
October 14, 2013