PZI Teacher Archives

Predicament Koans – John Tarrant 2013


So, rather than thinking a predicament is something we’ve got to get rid of, it’s just life—and it has its own dynamism. Maybe we have to walk through it, not run the other way. It’s all right to weep about it, or be frustrated and angry. You can’t be someone else, you are who you are. The gateway is yours, not someone else’s. From recording at Summer Sesshin, July 11 2013, Santa Sabina.


A retreat is a journey—you embark waving hankies, but then you might get a storm at sea. Or you’re going through the dark forest, then you get a view, and you think that’s great—and then you’re back in the valley of despair.

Tonight I’d like to talk about one of the consistent features of the meditation terrain, which are predicaments. An example of a predicament koan, which is at the heart of koan tradition, is this well-known story by Kafka—The Metamorphosis. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect.” So, just in case you think you have a predicament! [laughter]

Predicament comes form the Latin word, predicare. A predicament is sort of like a dire straight—you are in a bad spot but it’s that you don’t know how to get out of it, and any decision you make might make it worse. There’s a quality of uncertainty, and in a sense it is delightful to not know what to do, like having become a giant insect, for example.

Another quality of a predicament, is that it has its own liveliness—a sense of strange, unusual, un-categorizable possibility. Gregor Samsa was very encouraging to Gabrielle Marquez; he loved literature but never thought he would be good at it. A friend gave him Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and after reading the story of awakening to find oneself transformed into a giant insect he said, “I never knew you could do things like that” —and decided to become a novelist. So you can see, the notion that a predicament is also a gate, is because there is some way we have constrained ourselves, and therefore there is the possibility of liberation.

That’s enough preambles for now. What I’d like you to do now is consider something you think of as a predicament or a problem and write about it. What it is, the texture, the flavor of it, etc?  My predicament is having to teach you, what is your predicament? [laughter]

Participant: If I could usually think about it this clearly, it wouldn’t be a problem. After writing about it, it seems less of an issue.

John: In the context of a retreat, of course, we are in a special vessel. The notion of emptiness comes into play.

Participant: (Found her predicament to be funny and she has more compassion for her situation and herself after writing about it.)

John: The notion of emptiness comes in and often those things go together.

Participant: (Her predicament transformed itself even though she didn’t want it to transform.) I am going to have to spend so much money to do this thing, but maybe it’s worth it and symbolic to do this thing. It’s really great.

John: It un-predicamented itself! When we look at something fresh, without preparing to look at it, like what we’ve just done, the natural ways of putting it in a box are disarmed. The prison, the iron bars, are not quite together yet. So there’s that! I might also find there is a voluntary aspect—it does things for me, and I can see it’s not really a predicament after all. Another thing you might notice, which can happen with a koan—it can wind you up tighter, and you see the walls of your prison. Or sometimes it might be a predicament, which unravels lots of other predicaments. A lot of koan work is about not assembling the universe in the way we are used to doing. You can be in a prison, but you haven’t locked the door. You can decorate the prison walls or wonder what happens next. Or it might get tighter and you might not be able to breathe.

Participant: (Student noticed that while writing the predicament everything was fine until he stopped writing and then his mind came into create a problem.)

John: When we are free and have had a couple days of meditation, we can have an “Oh!” moment, and see it’s no longer a problem. Simply by asking yourself, “Is this really a problem, or maybe a gate?” At times the act of writing—just seeing the words—creates a sense of space between the words. Or, my predicament is, I believe I can’t get out of my predicament. But if I ask, “Is that true?”—I might get free.

Often we haven’t really been open to the true questions of our lives. This is my problem and it is stopping me from “X.” There is no compassion in that; it leaves us no room to move. That can’t be true, because there is always room to move. We’d like to have a different situation, but we’d rather someone else changed rather than oneself. The question becomes, would I rather have a different life than the one I have? To look at a predicament begins to open it up, and it becomes mysterious and noble. Perhaps that predicament has a virtue to it we hadn’t noticed, or some of them undo themselves. You can’t undo your predicament—but it might undo itself.  That’s like koans, after awhile you don’t do koans, koans do you. The ways we make meaning of the world— like a mystery novel, or a depressing existential European novel.

Sharing our problem is often accompanied by shame, grief, delight and the nakedness that comes with that. A predicament gives us something to be, is an old saying. I am worried about not knowing who I am, Bodhidharma doesn’t seem to know, but I know, because I have this predicament, and it’s a great source of security. We all write our own fiction of our lives.

Participant: (Student shared about her feeling more and more depressed, there is no way out and while flying was thinking, maybe the plane will go down.)

John: The way to deal with that, is to challenge your thinking—and maybe you’re not an expert on your problem. Despair is knowing more than any human being can know! You can feel there is no compassion in that knowing. Knowing is a kind of tyranny, and doesn’t allow the wisdom of your own life to come through. Some predicaments are just human fate. My kid is suffering, I’ve got cancer, and my spouse wants a divorce, whatever—it is yours, and face it with kindness. Like, “I am a marsupial or a cockroach”— it could be worse.

If you are familiar with the I Ching, there are 64 verses—situations—which cover human life. Each situation has six other possibilities or combinations, and koans are like that. There are lots of possibilities, and it’s a diagnosis—in a way—when a koan touches me, or disturbs me. Once you become one with it and inhabit it—you’re solving other predicaments as well. It will often unravel a problem in your life without consulting you. I like that. Like, good music doesn’t ask my permission if it makes me weep or something like that—it just happens. It’s a world that is changing dynamically; it has that quality to it.

Here are a few samples of miscellaneous predicaments.:

You’re born in a place far from the center of the galaxy, and you do not know who your father is.

You’re in exile from where you were in a world before you were born.

You’re body is a prison, with pains, longings and old age.

You’re in the center of a labyrinth, some visitors want to kill you, your job is to kill them, and in addition you have the head of a bull.

You’re trapped on an island after your boat sank, you’re mind is tormented by desire, fear, plans and memories from your childhood. At odd moments during the day you think you may have killed people, even though you know you haven’t.

You find yourself inside a whale.

You’re part machine.

You jump out of plane but your backpack you’re wearing has your computer and games in it, instead of a parachute.

You have to jump from a tall building on fire, you notice that you’re walking on air and only then do you start to fall.

You’re in a dream, in a war; you’re busted flat in mobile waiting for a train, your stuck inside a mobile with the Memphis blues again.

Your trying to get home to your Greek island, your ship is sinking.

You’ve run out of water in a desert.

You’re freezing in the snow.

You’re in a cyclone

You bring flowers, you play guitar under her windows for months until she agrees to marry you. After five years and two kids she divorces you. I never was convinced, she says.

You marry someone and then find out you don’t like him or her.

Fire roars toward you.

Midway through your life you’re lost in dark woods.

You’re condemned to die. This happened to another person who was in his prison cell the night prior to when he would die. He thought,” I can sleep once I’m dead”, so he was walking around his prison cell and suddenly he realized everything was perfect. He’s been carried by life, looked after and everything had been a tremendous gift. His whole life was perfect. In the end his lawyers who were fighting freed him for his release.

You’re having an examination.

You’re a loner.

You’re a great theologian—as you lay dying you have an epiphany, and realize everything you thought was like straw. Thomas Equinas had this experience.

You have an epiphany, and are thrown out of your synagogue. Espinoza had this happen to him.

You’re starving.

There’s a koan that goes, the student says to the teacher, “I have a problem.” The teacher says, “Bring it up here, and we’ll talk about it.” So the student comes up and says, “Teacher, I have a problem.” He takes the student by his shoulders and says, “Everybody, he has a problem.” He helps the student by driving him further into his despair. And finally, after a night of dreams, he awakes to find he’s been transformed into a giant cockroach. There is a promise in a predicament. I thought I was a machine but I’m not, there is life in this situation. It’s soulful. You realize you don’t need hammers to bang down the walls—or the prison door was never locked.

Here are some examples of classic predicament koans:

You’re hanging from a branch by your teeth—your feet cannot find the trunk, your hands cannot find any branch. Someone beneath the tree comes by and asks you, “What is the meaning of life?” You’re obliged to answer, otherwise you will fail in your duty. But if you do answer, you lose your life. What will you do?

You’re swinging from a vine on a cliff,—above, a mountain lion; below, a bear—a black mouse and a white mouse come out of the cliff face, and begin eating at the vine—you see a delicious strawberry on the vine.

You’re born into the body of a fox 500 times.

You broke the teacher’s rhinoceros horn fan—the teacher asks you then to “Bring the rhinoceros.”

“Stop the war.”

You’re asleep and somebody in the dream asks you the meaning of life.

You’re in love.

You’re a young person of the opposite sex.

You’re a ghost.

You’re in a stone grave, a crypt. The door is barred from the outside. No one can hear you cry out for help. There is no cell phone reception.

You have to pick up a stone at the bottom of the ocean, without getting your hands wet.

You can see, there is a tremendous empathy for the notion of predicament in the Zen tradition. So rather than thinking a predicament is something we’ve got to get rid of—it’s just life, and it has its own dynamism. Maybe we have to walk through it, not run the other way. It’s all right to weep about it, or be frustrated and angry. You can’t be someone else—you are who you are. The gateway is yours, not someone else’s. The thing you’re ashamed of, that is for you. The foolish mistake you made, are still making or planning to make, that’s for you. Everything is for you, Honored One! The possibility of a koan, is that it keeps opening out and out. You start to feel connected to the vast universe. The tears are for you, the stars, the bird, joy—is for you.

If this was the last three days of my life, I can spend that time thinking how unfair it is, or I can be here. There was a woman I met while working at the University of Arizona. She was writing very interesting poems, and she would send them to me. At some point she wrote, and said she wouldn’t be sending any more poems to me because her life had become way too interesting. Two weeks later, she died.

I think we did it, thank you very much.