“I like to find instances of Zen in pop culture where people have never heard of Zen. Along these lines, it’s always nice to have what you think is going on, turn out to be not what is going on. This is particularly so when what you think is going on is embarrassing or sad. This is the basic Buddhist enlightenment story: that what is going on is more interesting than you think.”
John Tarrant introduces a modern bodhisattva of compassion found in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky. How does the bodhisattva of great compassion use all those hands and eyes? It’s like reaching behind you for a pillow in the night.
Buddhism is based in reality. When we lose what we thought we had, our panic asks, “What will happen to little me?” and any answer to that question is likely to be overwhelming and shadowed. It is human to panic out of habit, without asking ourselves what is really going on and what our true, deep reaction is. But the gods in disguise show that sudden change can happen in a positive direction. The path out of suffering is closely related to accuracy, to noticing what really is, as opposed to what we first thought.
Escape arts disassemble the walls or, as in dreams, allow us to step right through them. We can also think of escape arts as practices that appear in moments of natural clarity. They are often similar to the moves you make if you are interested in Zen and koans, but the world teaches escape arts to us; they just appear in a situation without any conscious feeling that you are entering spiritual territory.
Politics belongs in the general realm of imperfection, self-deception, desperate hope, and congenial affection we call civilization. That’s where the bodhisattva, who is interested in the fate of others, hangs out. Also, if you indulge in politics, certain personal implications accompany you; you don’t get away without being transformed by the material you are working with.
“I like finding features of popular culture that point the way out of the mind’s prison. It is as if a trail of breadcrumbs had been left where least expected.”
The thusness of our reactions — the old teachers called all of these responses Buddha Nature. That’s what we recognize in each other.
I’m getting used to the thought that many things that seem as if they belong in the realm of the body are also influenced by the mind. Placebo studies indicate that even surgery can be a placebo. In medical school the faculty will sometimes say to students that they should use a drug a lot when it first comes out while people still believe in it. There is a Zen koan that goes “The whole world is medicine,” and the joke is that it could go, “The whole world is placebo.”
In forty years, the earth itself, beyond our control, and human violence, also beyond our control, will have changed all our assumptions. Even so, what do I want the teachings to be?
Distraction can have a long arc, and until the end of the story, you can’t say what’s a distraction and what’s a calling.
It is natural to look for the things you want outside of where you are now. That is the whole point of a journey. Yet this moment is all anyone has. So if freedom, love, beauty, grace, and whatever else is desirable are to appear, they must appear in a now.
The desire for a more beautiful life is ancient and enduring. In medieval times it meant dressing in bright silks and having long and colorful processions; the desire was poured into objects, too, into paintings and cathedrals with stained glass windows. Inside the desire for a more beautiful life is the desire for a more beautiful character.
It’s easy to forget to be curious, and to grab an off-the-shelf knowledge, something like “This is awful.” Not reaching for off-the-shelf understandings, though, is an important skill.
“Gratitude is something that I haven’t planned on—either to receive or to give—it takes me by surprise. It arrives out of nowhere. It’s the part of happiness that is beyond selfishness. My gratitude doesn’t have a lot of discrimination, and I like that.”
“Mostly, if a method for achieving happiness is not successful, people think something like, She should have loved me more. Or, I wasn’t trying hard enough. Or, I wasn’t holding my mouth right. Whether the needle on the blame meter points to yourself or to others, that particular machine will always seem to be malfunctioning. You try to do the method better, rather than looking at whether the method works. So let’s look at the method.”
Love is an enlightenment story available to everyone, and that story includes being attacked by demons as well as being showered with roses. If we widen our gaze, in love, we discover what we like about ourselves and how we want to live our lives.
In even the simplest life, pain and disappointment accumulate—and at some moment everyone longs to walk through a gate and leave the past behind, perhaps for an earlier time when the colors were bright and the heart carried no weight. The quest for a fresh start is so fundamental that it defines the shape of the stories we tell each other. Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine on July 1, 2007.
Conversation is itself a kind of meditation, a way we can accompany each other through life. We can share errors, painful mistakes, dreams, losses, discoveries, or just the ordinary glowing things. That’s a good day. Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine February 18, 2014.
Turning your thoughts upside down is almost always progress, especially with conflicts that seem old and full of certainty. Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine June 9, 2009.
Australia’s ancient forests were burning in September 2020. In the face of unfathomable loss John Tarrant writes, “It’s too early to despair, it’s always too early to despair. The world itself is a mystery school and teaches us what it needs. It gives us impossible tasks and impossible journeys, and all we can say is that we love the world without knowing outcomes, because it is the only world we have, and because we never do know outcomes.” Article for Lion’s Roar magazine, published September 14, 2020.
I began my meditation practice four years prior to arriving in Honolulu, first in Nepal, then in India and Korea. All of my teachers had been Asian. Without really knowing it, I had projected a certain mystique onto them.
“How to meet the times we are in is a real question, and everybody feels the force of it. It is an ancient question. It comes with being human.” Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine, November 2, 2016.
A koan is a little healing story, a conversation, an image, a fragment of a song. It’s something to keep you company, whatever you are doing. There’s a tradition of koan study to transform your heart and the way you move in the world. Article by John Tarrant published in Lion’s Roar magazine, March 2016 and September 2018.