We have such a passion to know and to be certain but, in practice, much of what we think of as knowledge is just untested thoughts. As the Heart Sutra says, even thoughts are empty, and if we are willing not to know, willing to walk through life without believing every thought that rises, then we’ll find a path out of suffering.
A Talk by John Tarrant
Given during a retreat at St. Dorothy’s Rest, Meeker, CA
Poem by William Stafford:
Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.
Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless or careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.
Tonight I am going to talk about methods. This Stafford poem speaks about the method of not knowing, which is a crucial human discovery. We have such a passion to know and to be certain but, in practice, much of what we think of as knowledge is just untested thoughts. As the Heart Sutra says, even thoughts are empty, and if we are willing not to know, willing to walk through life without believing every thought that rises, then we’ll find a path out of suffering.
There’s a koan that begins when a teacher says:
“If you get it the first time you hear it, you will be the teacher of Buddhas and ancestors. If you get it the second time around, you will be the teacher of humans and gods. If you get it the third time you won’t be able to save even yourself.”
Do you recognize that kind of thinking? It’s the usual nonsense that goes on in the mind all day. Which level do I belong in? How do I rate in your eyes? This koan immediately offers an experience of the mind’s pain—it makes my fillings hurt as soon as I hear it. It does this on the principle that if you notice the problem, you might be able to deal with it.
In this story, what happens next counts. Someone follows his curiosity and asks the teacher, “Well then, when did you get it?”
The teacher replies, “The moon sets at midnight. I walk alone through the town.”
This teacher was called Shoushan and the story is from The Book of Serenity.
Human beings are always afraid of being alone, yet sometimes when you are alone, you can be your own good company. The darkness contains all your thoughts, opinions, judgments, and views: Whether other people approve of you, what you think of them, which level you’ve achieved. But if you are willing to be alone really, not looking outside yourself, not looking even to your own thoughts for validation, then you will find that the whole world keeps you company.
Our lives depend on many huge interconnected events and processes, and every now and then we become aware of that and think, Oh my god, what if an asteroid hits the earth, what will happen to my mutual fund then? That sudden anxiety is just the whoosh of everything you expect disappearing. It’s also a door into a vastness beyond what you have conceived of. If an asteroid hits the earth, maybe you’ll be freed from worrying about your mutual fund. Maybe the asteroid is just a middle man and you can bypass him and walk on that vastness, now.
If you get it the first time, you get this; if you get it the second time, you get that—how many levels are there? And where am I? And maybe she is ahead of me and how fair is that? We can step from that consciousness directly into, The moon sets at midnight. I walk alone through the town. Then trees and buildings flow backwards past you. An owl calls and you feel it come from inside you. The darkness wraps you like blanket. Everyone is sleeping and innocent. A mistake has not yet occurred in the universe.
If we think we are our thoughts, we’ll be afraid to challenge or abandon them. Our obsession with safety and how we rank against others doesn’t make us safer; it’s a kind of hopeless bulwark against the vastness. We’ve learned to run little mental routines and we believe that they are real—that they match something in the world. But when we are curious and really look at our thoughts, it’s easy see that they’re not real. They are full of space and strangeness and unexpected transparency and this is what is interesting about them. Their emptiness is just not something that occurs to us until it does.
One way to be good company for yourself, as you stroll through the town after midnight, is to check whether you agree with your thoughts. When you try this it’s good not to be squeamish. If there’s something that you are convinced is true, that’s probably the most untrue thing. That’s a good place to look, a place where you are most likely to find freedom.
A koan will evoke two scenarios for you, it will show you what your life is like with and without the world you construct out of what you believe. That koan of walking through the town will show you freedom and it will show you what it’s like to live with the thoughts that haunt you: I’ll never be good enough; I need something to make me happy; Without your love, I’ll die; I can’t bear this darkness, or this loneliness. When you are miserable you you will be able to see that this is the world of your thoughts.
Here is an example, a popular opinion: People shouldn’t cut me off on the freeway. When you’re holding that thought, your passenger is probably getting the brunt of it. They are confined in a tin box with an angry person at 60 miles an hour. Also when you hold that thought you’re trapped with an angry person in an even smaller space, which is your mind, and which has become unsafe territory. The person who cut you off is, of course, not affected by this. He can get his wife to hospital so she can have her baby.
Usually people believe in their thoughts, and if you do, the trick is not to talk yourself out of them, just to look at them for a bit. You might be thinking something like, Here is an awful person, or I was right after all, this is hopeless. Then if you look at the scenarios that you are running, you can find the consequences of what you believe. In other words, you begin to notice the way you live. There is compassion in that. And you can also begin to notice if your thoughts are useful to you, if they help you to act.
Athletes are trained to not get interrupted by their scenarios. Otherwise if someone insults you on the field, you lose your game, and what’s the use of that? Another example would be for a disabled person to say, “I am disabled so I can’t do anything, my life is over.” Even though you may have plenty of data points to back it up, that is a scenario that won’t help you. Without that thought world you might find that you can be disabled and develop plenty of very satisfactory vices and live a rich, complicated and difficult life.
The side of the koan that demonstrates freedom is, The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town. What’s it like if you don’t believe what you’re thinking? It can be beautiful, walking alone through the town, hearing the owls call. You can feel the eternal in things, feel that you are accompanied, that you always have a friend and are never lost. Then when thoughts come, like heralds in the mind, offering their palaces and hovels, you don’t have to live inside them. You know that you could be walking alone through the town, after the moon has set. That is a precious thing to discover. This can be a deliberate process—an inquiry, or it can be something that the koan does for you without your awareness of how you are transforming.
The koan path doesn’t ask you to replace the wrong thought with the right thought. Meditation offers you a choice; you can notice what you are thinking and see if you agree with it. It’s OK either way, you are just trying to find out—hypothesis testing. If you don’t believe what you are thinking, it’s not necessary to scrabble around to find new thoughts. They’ll come by themselves and, if they make you suffer, you can check them out, too. The koan tradition also doesn’t encourage people to do active exercises in compassion. The reason is that when you take away all the thoughts about how hard it is, how unlovable you are, or how somebody else isn’t kind enough, you’ll find that you are full of appreciation for the world. This is not because you are a better person than you were; you are just more accurate. Then compassion and love are easy, part of the natural shape of the mind.
This talk was given during a retreat and followed by questions and answers:
S: But my question is about emotions, not about thoughts. I developed a dread of going to school board meetings. This went on for months and months and months. There are no thoughts. There was just a dread of these meetings and of dealing with the people’s energy toward me, because they were mad at what I had done. To me this scenario is about the emotion of dread. I find that really hard to work with. I know how to throw my ideas away and to try to talk myself down. But once the emotion is there I can’t do it.
John: That’s a great question. I’ll tell you what I would do. It might or might not be of use to you. Dread is a fairly cognitive experience because, although it’s very much in the body, you’re anticipating something, so you’re full of thoughts.
S: Even if there is no intellectualizing?
John: Find the thought. It’s going to be there. I’ll go to the meeting and they’re going to hate me. I’m going to have to go through it all over again. They’re going to slash my tires. People hate me when I tell the truth. You will have thoughts.
I’d find the thoughts and then ask myself if I agree with them. If somebody is chasing me with an axe, I just run. That’s a simple decision. The question of wanting something doesn’t arise. If I think I’m being attacked with words, I might have the impulse to explain and defend myself. But a smart way to go in that case might be to ask myself, well do I agree with that? If they tell me, You don’t listen, you disrupt the board meetings, you disagree with us, and you can’t see reason. I might think: It’s true. I do disrupt their board meetings. I am disagreeable. I can be that way. Anyway, I’d find out what I really thought. I’d look into myself to see if, upon consideration, I actually agree with them.
Joan Sutherland has a great story about Allen Ginsberg. John O’Hara was giving a reading, and when he was done Ginsberg jumped up and started ranting:
“My god, what are you doing, how could you possibly do this? You are ruining modern American poetry.” O’Hara looked at him benignly and said, “That’s more than you’ve ever done for it.” O’Hara agreed completely. He could find it: Yes, I can see that.
If somebody calls me a mass murderer, I could agree. I can imagine getting angry enough to kill somebody. I’m glad I don’t do that. Yet to see such things about ourselves does a lot for our dread, because then it’s clear that we’re all idiots together, and this idiot disagrees with those idiots, and then the meeting becomes theatrical and fun. When it’s no longer fun, then you might want to get out of the situation. Some things wear on you, and you need not be in them. But if I’m just feeling an emotion, that’s not a problem. If I’m sad, the sequence could go: Somebody dies, I love them, I am sad. I am sad is not complicated. If I think, How dare they leave me! then insanity is setting in and the koan could help take that away. The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town.
S: I want to illustrate my question with a trivial example. I get on the treadmill and I’m having a pretty good time, and the thought comes into my head, I’ll have to do this for another person, and all of a sudden I’m very tired. It’s really difficult, even though I’m aware that that was just a thought going past. So I’m amazed how at how easily I get caught even after I’ve clarified that it was just an idea. Somehow it takes hold emotionally as well. And just noticing is not always enough. I know it’s the beginning, but it is not always enough.
John: I agree. We’re carrying vast, unexamined novels around in our bodies. You bring up some story about your body, but it may not be about your body. You may just be having thoughts and they may be wearing you out. Fatigue can be a sign that you are having thoughts.
Once when I was struggling with a book, I remember telling a friend about it. “How is it going?” he asked, innocently.
“It’s awful, I just cannot do it. It scares me. I’m afraid of letting everyone down.”
I was complaining merrily, when he said,
“Maybe you are not afraid of writing.”
And I noticed, “Hmmm, maybe I am not afraid.” Then I wasn’t afraid anymore, it was great. He helped me to notice that I didn’t believe myself. I just went back home and wrote.
And in the treadmill example, if you’re doing something for another person you’re really doing it for yourself. You think it’s in your interest to please them or to please your idea of who you are. Whether it’s really possible or desirable to win another person over and control them by what you do is another question.
S: It seems that when you get through these situations, it always comes around to compassion. Whenever I get stuck, there’s some moment of compassion that gets me to the other side. I don’t know how it comes and it always seems mysterious, and occasionally it comes to me: The key to this would be compassion, if only I could find it.
John: That’s a beginning. We remember. To be compassionate is always to find that being here is good. Just to witness what’s happening brings that goodness. Bill said something yesterday that touched me. He said that sometimes if you tell about a ghost, it softens. To tell about it is to have compassion and to acknowledge its existence. To observe reality is compassionate. That’s what’s good about the koan path and Zen: You are willing to observe reality. You don’t need to make a phony reality and work hard to support it. You don’t have to go around saying, “I am kind and gracious.” You can say: “Actually I was a bit of a pig yesterday.” But then things soften and you also notice that you are not a pig.
S: Do you have any suggestions? You told us how we ask ourselves a question: Is this true? And follow the scenario. But when somebody attacks us with words and says, you do xyz, you have not done xyz and you say, “No, I didn’t, I’m not that way.”
John: But usually I am. Usually they are right. And in their world they’re always right. People do this to me all the time. People generally think I need improvement, and that is painful to me only if I agree with it but haven’t really examined it. So if someone says: “John, you are too fat. You are ruining my life because you are so fat, and John you get up too late also.” Do I ever agree with that? Do I ever feel like I get up too late or I am too fat? If I agree with the person, it does not mean that their opinion is true, it just means that I agree with it. And if I don’t like myself as well, their comment will hurt me. I could agree with it and not care at all: I’m exactly fat enough for me and I like getting up late. Isn’t it great that such simple things make me happy?
If somebody says, John, you’re a cannibal, I don’t know—maybe I am, but I can’t see it. If somebody says, John, you are cruel to me, well, I have been cruel in the past. I might not be able to find it with that incident, but I could say, I can be cruel. It’s not my job to make the other person more in consensus with me about reality, because they aren’t asking for my help.
Who really started the problem with the Israelis and the Palestinians? And when? Can they fix each other’s view of things? I’m not immune from the impulse to improve people, particularly people I love, and sometimes people I can’t stand. But it’s always wrong. I’m not good at it and people don’t want to be improved in the way I think they should be improved. I’m treating the person like a child. I might be angry about the way you are yelling at me, but you do think that about me. It’s true for you. In your world I’m a cannibal.
I have often used the cannibal example as something I couldn’t extend to. There are things people do that you cannot find in yourself. But, then I had a serious fever awhile ago and I dreamed I was eating medicinal food. We were sitting around an oil drum with a charcoal fire in it and a shaman was cooking little rounds of meat. He was fishing this meat out of the pot and feeding me, and as I ate more I wanted more and it turned out that it was a human being I was eating. I woke with a sense of healing and nourishment, and the conviction that I would pull through the fever. So I suppose I can be a cannibal.
S: Whenever people direct criticism toward you, is it more the tone by which they do it, than the content itself? That seems to be my experience, that sometimes I can accept the criticism if it isn’t an attack. I can stop and I can do that whole little process: Are they right?
John: I don’t know where thoughts come from. That’s the Heart Sutra: They come out of emptiness. You could give me something I have no expertise in, trapeze, for example, which I tried because my daughter was interested in it. I thought, I can’t do that, and then I thought, Who says I can’t? I wasn’t very good at it. But what is good at it? It’s an ability dependent on special conditions. The issue is that your thoughts are limiting you in all sorts of unnecessary ways.
We want other people to fix their act so that we don’t have to adapt. You can confront me, but don’t attack me. I’ll define carefully what the difference is, and, That tone of voice was attacking, right? I grew up in a culture sensitive to tone of voice. There was an extra level of communication that people used all the time. But, so what? Somebody comes at me the way they come at me. Do I think people I love shouldn’t attack me? No, I don’t think they shouldn’t attack me. People do what they do. It doesn’t stop me loving them.
S: What Rachel was saying about compassion, struck me. It is less in the conscious thought process and less about strategies.
John: Compassion is just what’s there when we stop believing in ghosts. It’s true that we can believe things and not be aware of it. Then the body might give you symptoms instead of thoughts. Your knees shake or you throw up before a performance. Chances are that there’s a thought or two there—about failure or letting people down. If I can’t get access to the thought that makes that world, I can guess what it’s likely to be. I can guess, and then I can look at whether I believe it. Fritz Pearls said a great thing about anxiety. He said: It’s also just excitement. So sometimes even fear isn’t fear.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret: to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide what it is. Then, secure in where you have been, you turn to the open sea and let go.
John: Thank you.