PZI Teacher Archives

Spirit of Love, Joy & Play in Koans


Value a sort of play and see if you can break the koan—the koan will be amused. And see it and let it into your heart, and see what comes, or follow it around, or have it follow you. And finally you’ll realize, “Oh, I’m here. I’m free.”


Hi. Here we are. 

So tonight, I’d like to talk a little about the mind of sesshin, a little about koans, a little bit about the “Medicine” koan. The Medicine koan goes, as you’re probably aware by now: 

Sickness and medicine
are in accord with each other.
The whole world is medicine.
What am I?

The first thing to say is, sometimes it seems like there’s not a lot to say about the koan, because it’s already shifted things. At the moment, my mind gets, as yours does, very wide. I can tell there are things in there, but when I look there’s nothing there. [laughter]

And, especially if I put a talk in earlier, not visible. [laughter] And doesn’t seem to be needed. So there’s that sense of, it’s not necessary that the noise level of the mind quiet down, because what’s really necessary is that we are not stuck to the noises in the mind, that we don’t identify with them, we don’t think they’re us. What am I? That’s the “What am I?” part of the koan. But sometimes, whether it’s necessary or not, the mind just dies—it gets quiet. Then what happens, is everything else comes forward, and we realize, “Oh, there’s nothing special about this, this is how it really is.” But I forget, because I’m putting my thoughts in the way, for some absurd reason that I can’t remember now. You know. [laughter]  Probably, I thought they were important or something. [laughter] My thoughts thought something about my thoughts, but now I’m not having them. And so then the trees, other people’s faces, are beautiful. Not only are they beautiful, but they’re everything. Everything we look at is everything. So, any piece of the world is the whole of the universe. Okay, so far so good! [laughter] So we could stop there.

But I’m going to talk a little bit about—because we are not always there, and what happens, is we, one of the metaphors is—we step through a door, or through a gate. And when we’re through the gate, there’s not really a problem, and we can’t even find any walls or anything. But then suddenly we realize, we’re not that side of the gate anymore, and we’re in a prison, or a very confined kind of cell of some kind. And then we may not remember that there’s a gate, or we may be banging on the wall, but actually the gate disappears [laughter] behind us. So that sort of thing.  And we’re all familiar with that kind of the way the mind does that. 

The first question is, “Can you step into, can you have some experience of the spaciousness?” And mainly the answer is, “Sure.”  In sesshin, put people in a retreat with a koan—pretty much most people are going to have some experience of that. Then the next question is, “Well, where did it go?” [laughter] And most people have some experience of that. So, then the whole thing about integration and what are the implications of being able to see things clearly, that kind of question comes up. Okay?

So I want to talk a bit about that tonight. And I think I’d like to go in with what’s interesting about koans, why we use koans. Koans are the form that came originally out of conversation and poetry, where people would ask a teacher—well, they’d ask them something. And it really wasn’t important what you asked, you just had to sort of get in the game. And people would ask all these questions, that often for us don’t have a lot of meaning now. But our own dopey questions do. So just put in your dopey question for their dopey question sort of thing. 

So instead of, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” which was a popular dopey question a thousand years ago, your dopey question would be —I don’t know, what is it—“Why am I sad? Why do I hit my leg all the time as if I’m an animal in a trap trying to chew off my leg?” [laughter] Why did Bodhidharma come from the West? It’s the same thing. Okay. [laughter]  So we have this tradition of questions, like this koan has a question—and responses. But you can tell there’s something more going on, there’s a kind of dance happening, there’s an art form involved here, and so, poetry, images – there’s a physical quality to it.

“Sickness and medicine”, as soon as you say that, the body gets sick and then it gets well—it’s sickness and medicine. The medieval sculptors in Europe knew very well, that if you show a hideous face on a gargoyle, you’ll remember it. You remember “vomiting zombie” [laughter]—things like that, so sorry about that. [laughter] And not only that, it sticks to you—you can sort of taste it and all that sort of thing. So koans have some of that physicality to them. They go into your body, and so they’re not something you have to hold at arm’s length or work out up in the attic. They’re something to let into your body, and to live. And in fact, to let it live in you. So you’re not managing it anymore.

So having gone through that introduction, I’ll talk a little bit about the way we’ve seen koans. Koans in the West at first were seen as a kind of device, which in a way they are, I suppose. But a sort of thing that you just concentrated on it—and that simplified your mind, and that concentrated your mind, and that got you very calm or clear mental states from which you might wake up—was the model. And if you read the early western Buddhist texts, and some of the old Song Dynasty texts, they say that often. There is just one thought—you become completely concentrated. One sheet of ice stretching for a thousand miles, images like that. Which is fine. The problem is, that when you hold out that sort of possibility, people spend a lot of time striving and desperate, and it’s got nothing to do with “one thought” or simplicity or anything. The mind is full of striving and desperation, which is probably not “one thought existing for a thousand miles.” [laughter] Desperation is desperation. We know and love it well.

So, it then came to be seen as maybe a koan is a kind of puzzle, because there is often a peculiar aspect to a koan that people are familiar with. And the peculiar aspect is—it doesn’t completely make sense. And it might not make sense in a very—you know. One teacher said, “The East Mountain walks on the water.” Well, it’s probably not going to make sense in a simple way. Or the famous “Rhinoceros Fan” koan. The rhinoceros. Bring me the Rhinoceros Fan. The fan. The fan made of rhinoceros horn.

“Bring me the Rhinoceros Fan.”

—”It’s broken.”

“Then bring me the rhinoceros.”

So, that’s not making a lot of sense. But it’s sort of really interesting and strange, and does something to you, and you can start to feel the rhino in your body. Right? And it doesn’t have to be an irritable rhino. Maybe it is lying on its back, giggling, or something like that. You can feel the physicality of the koan getting into you, which is part of the strangeness really. And part of the way the koan seduces us into participating with the world and being immersed in the world—when we were actually intending to get away from the world. Which is why we took up meditation in the first place, to stop it all. [laughter] Stop the pain. That sort of thing.

So, just to say there’s a sort of dance move that the koans do. So, it was seen as a kind of puzzle, and the idea was you un-puzzled the puzzling quality of it. A key in a lock was another image, and that seemed somehow still to be holding at a distance. And so, a couple of other interesting metaphors for the koan that have come seem valuable to me. One, it’s more like an animal – or a familiar—that follows you and stays with you wherever you are. There’s your dog, or your giraffe—wherever you are—your donkey. And then you realize, the animal is really part of you. And so wherever you are, in a certain sense, you’re there, and the koan really. So you think you’re doing your life, but you realize, oh, you become the animal. The animal becomes you. The koan that you’re trying to hold onto, you realize, is starting to change you and express itself through you. There’s a process where it doesn’t ask your permission to do that. But you started hanging around with it, and it started changing you and it’s a very interesting change, because through that change you become—you get access to—that vastness I spoke of, the spaciousness. And it’s just there, and it’s not this weird miraculous thing, although it’s wonderful and amazing. But it’s just there. It’s just life. It’s just how the world is, you know. So, that happens.

Another metaphor that I like, that’s implied in that one, the animal, is the landscape. You can tell with a big koan like the “Medicine” koan. You walk into here, and there’s a glade, then there’s a forest path, and there’s another glade. And then there’s a little house and maybe there’s a witch in the house, I don’t know. Whoever it is, who is it in the house? Maybe there’s a wizard in the house, whoever it is in the house. And so you’re walking, and you notice that as you walk through the terrain of the koan, pieces of your life rise to meet you. And if you have a fundamental kind of stance in life, you’ll start noticing—it’s everywhere.  And you start noticing, it’s not really the koan, but that’s what the koan is drawing to the surface. 

So, “the sickness and medicine correspond with each other.” If the image for you is whether or not you’re ever included, the whole issue of inclusion will be everywhere you look—with the koan on it. Instead of just you suffering then, and thinking, “Oh my god, I’m not being included again,” or “I wish I was at the party, I wish you were at the party,”—then you notice, “Oh, this is something my mind does.” It’s got nothing to do with whether or not I’m included. It’s a huge thought form that’s all over me. Or, “I should be doing it differently,” which is very popular among meditation people. [laughter] “I’m doing it wrong.” And you’ll find that’s everywhere too.  

It’s not just the surface kind of thoughts, busyness—but whatever’s deep, the filters that you run the surface business through, will start to become visible. So it’s not just your thoughts, but the deep, deep sources of those thoughts become visible to you, and that’s the landscape you’re walking through.

And so, one of the strangest things the koan does is—as well as giving you this experience of the vastness and spaciousness which usually it will give you—it then gives you the experience of what it’s really like, to be immersed in your deep stories, your deep fictions, the things you’re living by. And not only that, you’ll think, “I am not doing the koan!”

“Oh man, I’m really worried about what she thinks of me, or whatever it is.” But actually, that’s your deep, that’s the very part of the koan, that’s the sickness and medicine coming up to meet you. So, in a certain sense it becomes funny, or perhaps it just becomes a little bit more spacious and you see it, and instead of thinking this is terrible, you have some kindness for it. 

So that would be the landscape. That would be a glade in the forest where you can heal and rest by a stream. [laughter] Like that, see? That’s it. You get it—and you see. And so the koan has led you there. It’s really your own true nature has led you there. You’re actually walking through your own true nature. You’re just beginning to see it, perhaps for the first time, but probably you will remember seeing it at other times. So it’s probably not new, but we forget it. Why do we forget? I don’t know, “What was it I was supposed to remember?” Oh, it’s like that. So, we forget it, but then when we see it, we recognize it, and that’s really lovely.

And so the other way to put the thing is—is that the koan is a mirror, it has the mirror function, but then you realize the whole landscape. Just as we might say when the koan seems like an animal, you realize that animal is you. The landscape you’re walking through is you. That everything you see reflects back. And we see, oh—the leaf, the person’s glowing face, the person’s scowling face, the person who’s better than me, the person who’s worse than me, and all those judgments and assessments—that’s me. Okay. Okay?  

So, you can see how this koan, which is one of the koans by the great master of the image-style koans, more than the inquiry-style koans, Yun Men. He’s the “East Mountain walks on the water” bloke. You can see —he leads you through sickness, medicine, big things. Everyone’s fascinated with sickness and healing, right? Because our existence as beings depends on it. And also we feel, even when our mind’s out of sorts—it’s a kind of delusion, it’s a kind of sickness, right? Unhappiness. Feeling at odds with the world, separated from things—is a kind of sickness. And then medicine is something we’re fascinated with.  

So then the koan, ah, evokes the sickness, but it’s also the healing and the medicine. And then he leads us from that into, well—isn’t everything medicine? So, you’re getting deep in the forest when you start thinking, “My broken leg is medicine”, my cancer, whatever it is. The person who left me, just when I was falling in love with them, the person—whatever it is—the loss of the person I loved, who died—that sort of thing. And oh, it’s all for us in some way. It’s all part of the glowing, illuminated quality of living— it’s for me. Then he leads into an inquiry at the end of this koan, where he says well, “What am I?” you know, or “Who am I?” You can hold that either way.  

I like that question, because what I notice with that question is, if I want to answer it, it’s hopeless, it’s sort of miserable really— forget it, don’t need it. But there’s a certain sense, if I just let it carry me, the whole world becomes really spacious, and you enter the world where it’s full of space and full of sparkling and alive—and it really doesn’t matter what you are doing at the time. You can wake up in the middle of the night, not know you’re in retreat, have a headache, you had that dream that you can’t stand, but what was it again? “I know I can’t stand it, I feel bad… what am I?” And then suddenly, oh, there’s a light starts to appear, and it’s your light.

That is another image for the koan, a lantern that you can carry through the forest. That’s more in the “device” notion of the koan, and we sort of know where the question is going at the level of logic and reason.  

The first great koan collection was called the Blue Cliff Record, and the first great koan in that was the barbarian—the blue-eyed, tattooed, earring’d barbarian from India, from the West came to visit—and the emperor had an audience with the barbarian, and said, “What is the first principle of the holy teaching?” and the barbarian said, “Vast emptiness, and it’s not holy.” 

So, it’s not something to hold onto, a “thought dot”— it’s not. You know the bumper sticker you want to put on, at the end of your thoughts? It’s not that. [laughter] So, the lesson is, I just be “mindful”, right? No, that’s not the lesson. The lesson is, I just, whatever it is… no, it’s not that. Vast emptiness. It’s bigger than that. The bumper sticker, we know, how they sort of distance us—and they push life off a bit. The conclusions we come to are the enemy of life, living.  

Okay. So vast emptiness—that’s the spaciousness, the way it just opens out. And then the emperor said, “Well, who are you?”, and he said, “I do not know.” I mean, he could have gotten out his union card, “I am a tattooed sage from India, see—it’s a picture of me.” But somehow, he gave a deeper response than that. So, he was inviting the emperor outside the gates, and we don’t really know what happened there, but we just know that Bodhidharma left. In the legend, Bodhidharma left and went elsewhere. And the story goes on.  

But that’s the vastness, and when you ask, “What am I?” or, “Who am I?” you’re stepping into that vastness with Bodhidharma. When you’re asking that, it’s hard to believe you’re all the things you held onto. “I’m my—I don’t know, what is it—my degree.” “I’m a mother, I’m a father. I’m a child. I’m a partner, I’m a wife, a husband. I’m an abandoned wife, an abandoned husband. I am disappointed. I am terrific, but other people don’t understand it.” [laughter] You know, all those things I am. Well, kind of, you don’t even care, none of you. We don’t care, right?  

Here we are. What about this beautiful twilight? Here we are. And the vastness.  We’re always moving to and fro, in and out of the vastness, and it’s always in us.  We don’t really care about all that other stuff. “I am…” I can’t think of what I am, whatever I am supposed to be, I am not that, because it’s not true, and it doesn’t have any power for living. And it doesn’t really inhabit me like the rhinoceros, or like the other koan, the “East Mountain walking on the water” starts to inhabit me. So the “What am I?” will lead you into that openness, and then you’ll notice that you close around it, and think, “Oh, I’ve got to keep this open so I can explain it to my friend”—and where did it go? [laughter] 

That’s fine, and then the really, really important thing, you notice, it’s easy to notice in retreat, instead of thinking, “Oh god, I shouldn’t have done that”, which is just to close off more, you think, “Oh, isn’t that great.” In other words, have an appreciation for your own moves, especially the dopey ones, because it’s sort of fun. 

The Border Collie that I live with, she gets so excited, she hurtles around corners, and she crashes and she starts flailing, and she wipes out. It’s like going over the top in a motorcycle, but it’s a lot simpler. She just flies off and rolls, and it’s so great. She doesn’t seem to blame herself for doing that at all. She just gets up and barks, and is thrilled and jumps, and gets back into it. I appreciate the way she deludedly thought she could take that corner at top speed. And so we’re like that too, and we can enjoy that part. You thought you could drive that koan faster than you could. You know? [laughter] And you wiped out, and isn’t that great! 

So the final bit of it is, it’s for you. “What am I?” It’s for, it’s all for you. Right, so see if you can wipe out the koan. Let’s see if you can crash it, see if you can—it’s not precious, like the whole, it’s A-and-B testing. If I drive it 150 miles-an-hour, what will happen? If I just drive it one mile-an-hour, what will happen? And you start seeing, “Well, if I do the koan this way, oh, but that’s not what the book says!” So, who cares who said what! “Oh, I’ll drive it this way, and if it’s not working, I’ll find out”—right. You’ll notice, because you’re there, because it’s for you—because “What am I?” is for you. Right?  

And so you can play with it and think, “Oh, so what if I spend a day when I tell the koan, look, follow me around?”—I’m sick of following you around. I keep hanging onto you, and it’s like a helium balloon—you’re always escaping, you’re always somewhere else. And so follow me around. See if maybe the koan will listen. Who knows? Or try, “I’m going to really concentrate with this koan, just say, “Medicine medicine medicine—I’m not going to have a thought that’s not medicine medicine medicine medicine medicine medicine medicine medicine!” Anyway, whatever you want. That’s the old “samadhi trace induction” kind of method. 

You know, it’s not that it doesn’t matter what you try, it’s that, try things—and you can see, there’s a spirit of love and play and joy in koans, because it’s life and you want to have it. You want to be here for your life. This is your life, it’s not some other life. It’s not a practice life, [laughter] for when you get enlightened.  This is you here, full of the vastness. Look, it’s in that sound of the birds right now. You can hear it, right? It just comes through, they’re just really in it. You know. The twilight. You know. The room.

So yeah, the final thing is, don’t be too precious about “I’ll do it wrong.” Of course you’ll do it wrong! What is wrong with you? You think you could—how can you learn without learning? Of course we do it wrong! What do you think it’s like being a teacher? It’s one mistake after another. [laughter] So, value the sort of play, and as I said, see if you can break the koan—the koan will be amused. And see it, and let it—let it into your heart. And see what comes, or follow it around, or have it follow you. And finally you’ll find, you’ll realize—”Oh, I’m here. I’m free.” And it’s your love. So let me stop there. I’ll take any questions or comments. I mean, sometimes in meditation, who has a question? I can’t find one. “What? What’s my name?” You know.  

Participant: I haven’t done formal koan stuff, but in sitting, the core beliefs or those stories that are underlying everything, they come up. I mean, they just follow you around too. So I guess, I don’t know what the question is, but it happens both ways, right? I guess that is the question. 

John: This is a bit linear, a bit engineered, the way that I’m saying this, but it’s sort of in the direction is—that the koan will open a spaciousness but it’ll also open your delusion for you to see. And not only that, but you’ll realize, oh, there’s that old thing about when they say, “delusion is enlightenment” —they are clearly full of it. But wait! Maybe they’re right! You know? [laughter] That. Oh, I can enter there, through the very thing I thought I needed to get rid of—that itself is a gate, and when I come up to it, it’s more than a gate. It’s light. It’s illumination itself is right there. Okay? 

Participant: Okay!

John: You see that, don’t you?  

Participant: Yeah.

John: Sometimes you see that, kind of like, [clapping sound] like, “Woah!”, it’s kind of amazing. Like, why wasn’t I informed? [laughter] If I had known, I would have made more use of my delusion! [laughter] But yeah, it’s kind of amazing like that. Oh, I keep getting rid of this, and all I have to do is, “Oh, it’s all right, you can come in”—the demon has your face. That’s good, I like the way-—did you notice the way that you stumbled into the question, “Why is this even a question that’s here?” That’s “not-knowing mind.” “Oh, I don’t even know who’s asking this question.” Is it my question, or somebody else’s?

Participant 2: There is something about speaking whatever is “up”, and not speaking. That not-speaking has a lot of power to protect that secret that I have—you know, my special shtick. [laughter] And if I speak it, it’s interesting. And I was telling you that I notice—that so much of what goes on that I notice in my mind—is about something to do with early attachment wounding. So it’s either wanting to shore up security, or defend. So I would say, I notice every thought is somewhere around that, and so I don’t know what I am trying to say, but I just think, I could draw out more really what my sorts of delusions are, and then by doing that, they are no longer that. Don’t we all do that?

John: Yeah, what you say, “I am clueless,” and just by saying that, suddenly you get a clue. It’s so nice, right? [laughter] Just confess it all, suddenly, oh, wow—the spaciousness and joy in that, if that’s what you’re saying. 

Participant 2: Yeah.

John: “Yeah”—it’s kind of nice, just like you just declare yourself guilty immediately. There’s a funny little koan poem like that, “You are hiding the loot in your pocket, and calling yourself innocent.” But, it’s a flip of that, it’s like everybody’s got the jewel, and they’re pretending they don’t have it. But it’s even in that thing, whatever it was, “I have this problem,” but even in that, and if we say it, and you’re right, I think, if we start exploring it, it changes—and we change. 

Participant 3: You said something at the very end about making mistakes. What did you say? Something about making mistakes. And what I noticed, was that my idea about making a mistake is torture—but the actual experience of making a mistake is kind of fun. It’s full of, I don’t know, unknown, it’s un-knowing what’s going to happen when you actually make the mistake. But the mind has an opinion, and played out a whole scenario, and so that whole mind game around…

John: Well, the mind does another thing. It says, “Oh god, this is a mistake I always make.”  

Participant 3: Yeah. 

John: Which is probably true, [laughter] and if you can get space in that, it’s kind of gorgeous, because that’s for you, that’s clearly for you, that’s the one. “Oh my god, I did it again, and everybody saw it, and they are all thinking, ‘da da da.’” Actually, they are not thinking about you, they are thinking about their mistakes. [laughter] But you know how it is. Someone says to you, “When I did this, I know that you were thinking this”, and actually most of the time, I’m not thinking anything at all. [laughter] “I’m sorry if I was thinking something, because it was probably boring for both of us.”

Participant 3: And somehow, the thinking holds life—my life, away. So instead of just having it stay—for whatever it is, which is my life, in that moment—I’m holding it over there, so I don’t do it, or someone doesn’t think that I do it, and then my life is like, in this limbo place, so actually having that physicality that you’re talking about…

John: Yeah. One of the interesting things is, why? That’s the question of, “Why the delusionary fiction that I’m calling ‘me’ does the delusional fictional things it does.” And the answer is, “I don’t know.” But it could be that it sometimes looks as if we are trying to hold off life, you know, because, sort of, the fiction of being—of knowing, the knowing thing—“I know, I’m John, I’m disappointed, I always do this mistake”, or whatever I do…  “I’m smart, I’m impressive, or I’ve loved,” or whatever it is I want. “I’ve always loved,” “Everybody loves me,” whatever it is. If it is attachment, or status, or whatever it is—we all have our thing. Then, if we didn’t have that, you know who would we be? And the answer is, we’re back in Bodhidharma’s territory, which is exhilarating—which for some reason, we’re frightened to go there when we’re frightened to go there.  So, in other words, I think the delusions, it’s not like, “Oh, my delusions are stopping me from having reality.” Yes, my delusions—that’s why I have my delusions. I have this artificial sort of personality I’m walking around.  

There was this great thing. I became a U.S. citizen in this year, in January. One of my stories, is that I am bad at paperwork. It only took me 35 years to do the paperwork, [laughter] but who’s counting? It was sort of fun to stumble through, and at the end of the ceremony, there is a cardboard cutout of the President and the presidential First Lady, so you can get a photo with Barack or Michelle, and they are beaming, and it’s so fun. And it seems so hokey and wonderful, [laughter] so clueless. Anyway, I must have some somewhere [sic] of that. But there’s a way that we are always pushing around this cardboard cutout of ourselves, for people. But, mainly we are pushing it around for ourselves. We’re perfectly wonderful. We’re perfectly wonderful, and then a friend says something, and then suddenly they’re blaming themselves for some mistake that you always knew they make, that you kind of find endearing. It’s like my Collie dog tumbling when she goes round the corner. 

“See, it’s my childhood’s fault!” Oh, actually, I kind of like it. You know what I mean? [laughter] It’s that kind of thing. It’s a little bit embarrassing to realize how much bad money we threw after that particular cardboard cutout. So that’s probably the embarrassing thing, if anything’s embarrassing. How much we supported it and defended it, and when the truth comes—I don’t really care.

So, “I wasted my life.” So, yeah, great! [laughter] And that’s a life. That’s what a life is. But then we notice that whole thing. If you “realize” in the morning, you can die in the evening. It’s really—that’s it. Right? 

And we can tell that. This evening itself is enough. It’s all of life. It’s here, in this warmth here, and the slight sound of the insects, and our faces, the bright faces we all have. How gorgeous, all the buddha faces in the room. Look at all the buddha faces! Look around. [laughter] Meet somebody’s eyes, break the sesshin rule. Pretty cool, huh? People are pretty cool. They are kind of weird and beautiful. [laughter]


Thank you very much.

Link to Video: The Spirit of Love, Joy, and Play in Koans