PZI Teacher Archives

You Can’t Cage a Koan – Make It a Raft!


In the Blue Dragon’s cave, everything is there. If you think you haven’t seen a dragon, you may be wrong. In fact, who says you’re not a dragon? And if you think you don’t know about koans, you may be wrong, too. Who says you’re not a koan? Transcript of a dharma talk in Summer Sesshin 2020.

Listen to the Original Audio


It is great to be in sesshin. I feel I’m really in sesshin. We didn’t know that we’d feel we were really in sesshin, but here we are, and we are. And that’s a grand thing. We can do it and it’s a nice thing, and Oh, there’s not a problem. What if there’s not a problem? What if we can do it this way? So, thank you. Thanks for doing this together.

Blue Dragon’s Cave

So, the koan, so far, has been the poem from the great old Tang Dynasty master who wrote, 

How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?
For twenty years I struggled grimly, I struggled bitterly, I struggled fiercely.

However you struggled, for twenty years it was hard, hard going. How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you? 

And then it introduces us to the Blue Dragon’s cave. And in the Blue Dragon’s cave, well—everything is there. The koan is what you already know. I say “the koan” again because dragons can change their shape and so can koans. So, if you think you haven’t seen a dragon, you may be wrong. In fact, who says you’re not a dragon? And if you think you don’t know about koans, you may be wrong, too. Who says you’re not a koan? 

So, the koan begins with the Great Ancestor Ma, whose name actually means horse-master.

The horse ancestor was in the courtyard and the temple superintendent said,
“How are you feeling? How is your venerable health? How are you feeling today?”
And the Great Master said, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.” 

The Moon Face Buddha lives a day and a night and the Sun Face Buddha lives for eighteen hundred years, give or take a few months. And Ancestor Ma is dying, give or take a few days or hours. So, here we are in the world, in the Blue Dragon’s cave.

I want to say something about the journey—the journey through and the journey into the Blue Dragon’s cave. 

But first, I want to say a couple of other things associated with this koan in the great Blue Cliff Record, because the Blue Cliff Record is probably the greatest of the great koan texts—I guess it was the first. It’s an impossible book because it’s full of poems and quotations and koans which don’t necessarily make much sense, and poems which don’t explain anything—things like that. It’s helpful in that way. So, I want to continue in that tradition of its helpfulness here. 

Here’s another thing from Yuanwu, who collected the book. 

If you know what this koan comes down to, you walk alone through the red sky.

You walk on the red sky. It’s that sense that we are always walking in eternity. There is no moment when you’re not walking in the vastness. And there’s no moment when there’s really anything supporting you, or that there’s any foundation. The red sky is a good enough foundation. So, there is that. 

Master Ma

And then there are some other things Ma said:

When the mind of a person of the Way encounters any kind of thing that’s painful or pleasant, agreeable or disagreeable, it does not recede.

We’re just here, we’re just here—painful, unpleasant, painful, pleasant, unpleasant. And somebody asked, “What is the fundamental meaning of the Way? What’s the meaning? What is Buddhism about?” And Ma said, 

What is the meaning of this moment? 

And he also said, 

Each matter you encounter constitutes the meaning of your life.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it? Like, what’s going on right now, this is what I came here to be born for, this is what I was born to do and to have. This is what I came here for. This, this, this. And he said, 

To advance from where you can no longer advance, and to do what can no longer be done, you make yourself into a raft or a ferry boat for others.

That’s the notion of the bodhisattva as the person who ferries people across to the other side, beyond the world of suffering, and into freedom, awakening. And it’s rather great, isn’t it? Because it’s like, Oh, it’s just what you do. It’s just what opens in the path; it is not because you are feeling a particular way. It’s just the path. What happens is that you contribute. You offer something to the world. It’s kind of a cool thing. You offer it. 

You know, every night I try to sum things up. And I think, Well, what’s going on? I should know what’s going on. I don’t have a clue! When something like that comes over me, I say, Well, let me think, what is going on? Well, there’s the virus. There’s a crisis in democracy. Really cool things are happening too—Black Lives Matter. Then there’s gay rights just getting settled by the Supreme Court, and then there’s … and then I realized I didn’t have a clue what’s going on. 

Then there’s what’s happening to me, you know—what’s going on with me? And Mazu said this great thing. He said,

It’s been twenty years of temporary getting by, but I’ve never lacked for salt and sauce.

Twenty years of temporary getting by—he was in his eighties, I think. He actually means, eighty years of temporary getting by. There isn’t any other way of getting by except temporary getting by, and you never actually lacked salt and sauce. So, you know, it’s delicious, this life, and it just doesn’t make any sense. 

And if you want to go further, you make yourself a raft or a ferry boat for others. It’s kind of grand. I think, in a way, that the raft or ferry boat thing, it too is something that just appears and takes you over. And it takes many shapes. People have many different shapes, you know. People here have many different shapes and you’re being a raft in many different ways, but there’s no thought of “walking the path.” It’s just that the path keeps appearing and you keep walking. And you never lack salt and sauce, according to Grand Master Ma. And, remember that he did not live in tranquil times.

The other great thing he said was, 

This very heart-mind is Buddha.

And that’s kind of puzzling. I mean, it’s puzzling until it’s not, until you realize that you, too—I, too— have a part in the mystery. And not only do I have a part in the mystery, I am not separate from that. I, too, am carried by the great forces, the great winds of life. The great current is perhaps a better way to put it.

This very heart-mind is Buddha. 

Don’t Cage a Koan

I was telling somebody today about that thing where you’re working with a koan, and at a certain stage you realize, “I don’t have to work out what the koan means, because anything it means is smaller than the vastness of being me, the vastness of this life.” So, I don’t want to put the koan in a cage and say, “Oh, look! I got it.” It is not going to be happy there, or I’m not going to be happy. And one morning you wake up and the koan is not in the cage, anyway. It digs out of cages.

I remember discovering that the koan was something to do rather than to think about, which was kind of a good discovery, I thought. Then, I thought I could be an expert in doing it. And then I realized it wasn’t even something to do. It was something that did me, carried me. 

How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you? 

So yeah, it does you and it’s with you and it just arises in your heart and carries you. And, you have to make out that it’s not your business that you’re being carried. You can’t stop that process to get an outside view of it. 

I noticed this when I was talking to somebody who’s going through a similar thing—not quite the same, but similar. I noticed that I actually got better after I just kept meditating without thinking about why I was meditating. And it was kind of frustrating—I didn’t really have answers and I wanted answers. I was the kind of person who approved of answers. I was for answers. I like answers, like that perfect, Oh, CLICK! that happens when you get a response from life. 

I realized I didn’t have an answer, and that was hard, but I could tell something was happening because I kept working with the koan. It was like the Blue Dragon’s cave, you know? And every time I thought something, instead of thinking, Oh my god, what am I thinking about? I just noticed that I‘m just working with the Blue Dragon—the Blue Dragon’s cave—good enough. And suddenly, you’re there. And you don’t have to feel like you’re there. Because if you think, Oh, am I there? That’s another thought, and just—Blue Dragon’s cave. So the koan gradually holds your consciousness; it’s kind of like the raft or the ferry boat.

A Long Expedition

I noticed that my mind went through all these stages of vivid memories and dreams and waking dreams. And then, eventually, after a few years of this, my mind sometimes became pretty still—still for me—and I could tell that I was in a deep place. But I could also tell that I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t understand it, in some way. 

And then I felt there was something more, you know. But I kind of could tell that something was shifting in my heart. Then I realized that’s what meditation is for. So, it’s no longer completely mysterious. Because I know that I’m freer than I was, and I have those “Oh, this is it!” moments. You look at something, and realize that’s it. And then you forget, you know—so, that kind of thing. Or, you start noticing lots of things, even the things that I think are not it, are it. That’s just kind of nice. Nice work when you get it. 

Then I had various experiences of the plainness of things being utterly, stunningly beautiful and overwhelming. And I started to understand the koans. But, there was still something else I didn’t get. Then I was deep in a retreat, like this one, and my mind got very still. And I thought, Oh, I’m really close. And I kept trying to force myself through the gate—actually, my image was jumping off a cliff, forcing myself to step off that cliff. And I just couldn’t. And I was ashamed of being so afraid, unable to do this. 

Then at some stage, I thought, Well, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being afraid, or what’s wrong with being ashamed? In other words, “Oh!” and then all this stuff came up in my mind, a complete flood of things—thoughts I’d had, thoughts I’d never had, presumably thoughts other people had—and I realized they’re all pure, they’re all free. I sat there feeling this for a while, and then I realized I could see through the koans and I could see that everything had it. Everything started to glow with that light.

This very heart-mind is not some other heart-mind, when I stopped—it was this very heart-mind. So said Mazu:

This very heart-mind is Buddha. 

It’s been a long expedition into this very heart-mind.

So, whatever you’re feeling and thinking, if you notice right now what you’re feeling and thinking, you could be Buddha, right? Why didn’t somebody tell me? Well, actually, they told me all the time. [laughs]

It didn’t make any difference until I could get it. But it’s  lovely when it starts to blossom, and you feel, Oh it’s here. Then it becomes a matter of some sort of karmic working out, because you’re still you—the shape of you—you’re good at this and bad at that, good at language and bad at engineering or vice versa, or whatever it is. 

And you’ll find things, as Mazu said, are disagreeable or agreeable. But, in some way, instead of fleeing them, they will be gates. So, you might start to turn towards things. Even the things you think are difficult might be, “Oh, this, this …”  and you’ll start to feel the excitement of that as your heart opens and you turn into the difficulty. It’s kind of nice. So, it’s not that you’re not afraid. It’s not in that category, but you don’t think that what you meet is not your own heart-mind. And you don’t think it’s not Buddha. It’s kind of cool. 

Trusting Your Own Life

So, you can start to trust your own life, which is the big thing. Like, we think, Oh, I shouldn’t have done this or I shouldn’t have done that. Well, you know, good luck with having a different childhood or a different adolescence or a different breakfast from the one you had, you know? It’s always here. Yeah. And, in a way, we can find, Oh even the pain of, Oh my god, whatever it is that happened—did I do that? Or, “if only …” If we turn into that and that starts to flower too—the very worst thing comes alive. 

You’ll notice that that’s a common thing. It happens in life, where people realize, Oh, I had something I couldn’t forgive, and suddenly they forgave it. It wasn’t an action. They suddenly stopped making their life about that. Then, it is just unfolding and you’re walking on the red sky. So, it’s not about the unforgivable thing that happened anymore. And that’s a touching, beautiful moment of tenderness. So, there’s that.

Another way to look at it is that in the Blue Dragon’s cave there might be what’s frightening, if that’s what you need, or there might be what’s soothing, if that’s what you need. So, perhaps you can trust your own life. It might be an image. For me, in the Blue Dragon’s cave, I’ve had a feeling of being helped and guarded and guided and touched. But some other time, I might be terrified. I might think that I might do it wrong.

What if I give the wrong answer to the dragon?
What if the whole universe is the dragon?
What if I give the wrong answer to the universe? 

You’ll see how the most elementary meditation is based on this understanding of the Blue Dragon’s cave. 

It’s like the idea that perhaps you can’t do it wrong when you meditate. What if you can’t do it wrong? Because every time any thought comes up, if you don’t make it wrong, you’re not doing it wrong. If you don’t add the wrongness, it’s not there. If you don’t pick it up and insert it, it’s not there. And if you do pick it up and insert it, and you don’t make that wrong, it’s still not there. 

You don’t get there by disapproving and judging your life. You get there through your life, the life you have. It is the one you have and you can’t swap it. I don’t think you can swap it out. I’m sure there’s some sort of demonic magic in which you can try to, but you probably end up in the same place. I was going to say it’d be a bad idea, but probably nothing much would happen. 

We could say that everybody always wants a method or a tool and technique. A couple of us today were talking about people wanting tools—“Give me some tools.” And one person was saying, “Well, actually, I don’t have any. I don’t do tools.” If you try to cultivate a particular attitude—even kindness, loving kindness, or anything you try to cultivate—you’re kind of stuck with trying to achieve that and failing. Nothing wrong with that. 

But you are more vast than that. If you’re as large as the Blue Dragon and you’re trying to fit the Blue Dragon into the small little cage that is called “what you approve of and think is loving and kind,” you’re probably going to really be secretly bad-tempered.

Koan As Tool?

You can describe a koan as a tool, but it’s not a tool in the normal sense because it changes shape and it changes according to circumstances. A koan is something you do, and through doing the koan and hanging out with it and keeping company with it, it starts keeping company with you. So, you get that reversal of everything I really wanted, I don’t have to want, because the universe is starting to express itself through me. The universe is being me and revealing itself. 

And then you realize, Oh, I don’t have to work so hard. And I don’t have to think that this very heart-mind is not it. I don’t even have to refer to Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha. If I’m sick, I’m sick. If I’m well, I’m well. Mazu is dying. Who is he to disapprove of his own life? It brought him here. If he has three seconds more of life, it’d be kind of fun to have it, instead of disapproving of dying. Yeah. And that’s kind of cool. And you can realize that that’s true. 

You know, often people can die really well who just can’t deal with the merest frustration in life, because they keep thinking life has different rules. But actually, we’re all dying all the time. That’s the rule. And the intimacy of life is that we’re in the changes, and in the transformations, and we’re being carried. 

My daughter is in the UK right now. She was trying to explain about a friend who was really caught in repetitive thoughts. Her friend was blaming herself a lot, for things. I said to her, “Did you ask her if she finds that [self-blame] useful and helpful?” And she said, “Oh, that’s just way too Zen for her.” She said, “I’m used to thinking, I don’t even care if it’s true or not—none of my thoughts are true. I just don’t have to know. I’ve got to start simply with my friend. I just have to ask my friend, ‘Is it true?’ you know.” It’s sort of sweet. 

And the truth is that it doesn’t matter. The koan doesn’t really mind what thoughts we’re having, because it doesn’t approve or disapprove. It just doesn’t make a world out of them. And you can feel that. When you make the world, then you’re in that cage and you’ve tried to put the dragon in the cage, or you in a cage.

That’s like only having approved thoughts. And if you only have approved thoughts, you can’t really awaken, because you can’t work with what is, you can’t work with who you are. That’s why you need this Moon Face as well as the Sun Face.

I don’t know if in your scheme the Moon Face is painful and the Sun Face is wonderful, or the other way around. And it doesn’t really matter, right? It’s all life. And as you do the koan more and more, you’re not really answering a question in the terms you thought you were going to answer the question—which was very important to me when I set off. 

But you realize, Oh, you’re answering it with your life, your life is answering the question. You’re answering it by living. It’s revealing itself in your own heart and mind, and you know?—it’s pretty good. It reveals itself with what you see, and what’s beautiful, and what you love. And how even with what is difficult, somehow you start turning to it and it starts to awaken you and free you.

Glory, by Gbenga Adesina

Glory of plums, femur of Glory.

Glory of ferns
on a dark platter.

Glory of willows, Glory of stag beetles
Glory of the long obedience
of the kingfisher.

Glory of waterbirds, Glory
of thirst.

Glory of the Latin
of the dead and their grammar
composed entirely of decay.

Glory of the eyes of my father,
Which, when he died, closed
inside his grave, 

and opened even more brightly
inside me. 

Glory of dark horses
running furiously inside their own
dark horses. 

So, there you have it—my father’s eyes closing in the grave and opening inside me. It’s kind of cool. The glory of it, including his father’s death. 

Elephant in the Zendo

There’s one other thing I want to read to you, which was a dream I had a while ago.

I had a dream that an elephant joined us in the zendo. We were in sesshin, and an elephant joined us in the zendo. You know, it’s kind of nice when you can get that. And he looked just like this one that I have on my altar. I have a Ganesh—it’s an old folk Ganesh, actually. I don’t know if you can see that. It’s Ganesh with the little fat tummy. It’s the eyes that have it, you know.

And this elephant had a face kind of like Ganesh, although he didn’t have the fat tummy. And he was working very, very hard at his koan work, or her koan work. 

I didn’t know if it was him or her, but the elephant was working very hard at koan work, and was very concentrated. He was a very good, diligent koan student, and he had a broken tusk like Ganesh. Although in the dream, I didn’t think, I just—Oh, there’s an elephant sitting with us. And he’s just meditating—meditate, meditate, meditate. And then he goes off into the dining room, and he’s very concentrated while he’s eating. He’s very quiet and intense. He helps clean up and is very quiet and intense, and then he goes straight back to the meditation hall—meditate, meditate, meditate. Elephant meditation. 

And then somebody asked me, “Why have we got an elephant meditating with us?” And then somebody else in the meditation hall said, “Well, if you really listen to him, you can understand the sounds he’s making. He’s actually talking.” And so I decided, Okay, I’ll really listen to the elephant. And so, I’m really listening to the elephant. 

It turns out I can tell he’s really interesting and smart. He’s saying these great Dharma things, you know, like Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha, saying these great Dharma things. But it’s hard to understand because he has to use his elephant sounds—his voice is full of elephant sounds.

Then somebody asked me, again, “Why is an elephant sitting and meditating with us?”
And I say, “If you really listen to him, you’ll find out that he has totality of being.”

And that’s the end of my dream. 

And if you really listen to your own meditation, you’ll find that you have totality of being, and you’re like that elephant. You have a real wisdom in you, that just comes out of you.

Everything Is Possible in the Blue Dragon’s Cave

And you just start to regard things differently. You don’t make them wrong. He didn’t make being an elephant wrong, because there’s a lot to be said for being an elephant. There you go. So, I guess I offer that to you, that in the Blue Dragon’s cave everything you can imagine, everything you might think is an obstacle, perhaps it’s all alright. Perhaps when you turn into that, it’s the very awakening. If you’re tired, go into the tiredness, and you’ll have the tired. 

And that’s the kind of noble and beautiful thing, right? Be truly tired. Or be truly sad if the grief comes up and you’re sad. Then you have that and you don’t make it, Oh, my new religion is tiredness or grief. It’s just that you turned towards it. If you’re full of longing, that’s your piece of the totality. But it’s not your fate forever. It’s just what you have today. And that, too, is Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha. Somehow there’s something in the elephant about genuine Dharma.

We all have genuine Dharma like the elephant—a genuine path. You know we have it.
And we
already have it. So, thank you.


I think what I’m going to do is have a shot at taking a few questions … nobody wants to ask a question, because either the Blue Dragon might eat you, or you’re already enlightened, so why bother! [laughs]

Going in with Buckets

Christy: I have a thing.

John: Very good. Hi, Christy. Nice to see you.

Christy: Nice to see you, too. So far, my favorite thing about this koan is an image that I received when, I guess, I put down my tools and techniques. I was sort of nodding off in meditation, starting to fall asleep, and then had this image of going down to the Blue Dragon’s cave. It was kind of a scary thing to do, and I had buckets. And what I got from the Blue Dragon’s cave was that all the blue sky and all the weather and all the ocean was in the cave. 

So, I got buckets of that and brought it back, and threw it on the person who was struggling, which I think was also me. But it wasn’t dramatic enough for the struggling person to be like, “Oh, that’s it!” But when I kind of woke up again, I realized, Oh, there’s something about the blue sky. That’s it. And I’m looking out my own window, at the sky coming through these leaves, that I’ve looked at for thirty years but I never really saw them in that way. So, there’s some subtle thing that’s just a nice gift. That’s my image for the night.

John: Thanks, you know, those images are touching. A trip into the Blue Dragon’s cave is never wasted. It was good enough. And we’re judging it by one criterion—the person who doesn’t think it’s enough, or whatever. But then the sky is blue, the leaves are here. That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Whose Tools?

Amy: Yeah, hi. I appreciate what you said about but not providing tools. Certainly, when I’ve been in situations where I’ve been provided tools too early or without context, I kind of end up arguing with the tools rather than engaging with the real issue. But it also seems that if you don’t have some sort of guidance, you can end up developing some really unskillful means, shall we say. So, how do you balance that tension between, I guess, helping people find their own tools, without being too prescriptive?

John: It’s your tools. It’s you. Can you bear to step into life as it is? Can we bear to be the person we are? What about your Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha? And, you’ll find that Oh, maybe you’re more trustworthy than you thought you were. 

A lot of my anxiety took various forms. One of the forms my anxiety took was that I just absolutely couldn’t sit still. Actually, you may notice it’s still something of an issue for me. After a while, I said, “Well, I’m the ‘can’t-sit-still bodhisattva.’” 

There’s a great koan that goes, 

There was a particular buddha who meditated on the very seat the Buddha sat on for eons, through universes, one universe to the next, and still didn’t get enlightened. Why was that? The teacher said, “Well, that was a non-attained Buddha.”

Sometimes you’re a frightened Buddha who wants tools and longs for tools. There’s nothing wrong with that. I had a mentor once, and I asked for tools. And he said, “Well, it’s either shamanism or plumbing, what do you think it really is?” And he was obviously not on the side of plumbing. 

But the problem with the tools is that if you grab something to get something for a particular purpose, you might get it, but you’re more vast than that. But it’s about you—it’s not helping others. At that moment, with that question, it’s about you. What about you? Can you bear what comes up in your heart and not disapprove? Feel free to say something back. Keep objecting!

Amy: No, no, no, thank you. I get it. Thank you.

John: Well, there’s nothing wrong with the request for tools. There’s an interesting koan that says, 

Buddha had explanations and reasons; Bodhidharma had devices.

So, it’s not like there isn’t anything like a vessel. We pay a lot of attention to having a vessel that’s pretty solid, you may notice. And the koan creates its own vessel, you know. It’s not really a tool, but it does create an environment.

The PZI Project

I think your question goes to a deep place, because one of the things we’re doing in Zen, that has been a long forty-year project, really, is that we realized that a certain way of understanding life and culture was wearing out. A lot of people realized that some time ago, before I was born. We realized it wasn’t going to get us through the kind of changes we were going to have to face. 

So, we thought, we would take a system that didn’t require you to believe observed things, and gave a transformational possibility, and we had to make it native. That’s what our whole project is, here. That’s why we include the arts and things like that. Actually, we include the arts because we like them. They make things, songs and music and they’ve bring soul. So your question is a really deep question that I think is actually about culture, the transformation of culture, as well as transformation of my own heart.

Amy: That was something I actually asked about, early on in my practice. Are we taking over somebody else’s culture? I feel like we are, you know, bringing this into our own culture.

John: Yeah. Well, at first we were. One of my images, when I first was in temples, was that everybody wore kimonos and would use Japanese phrases to talk to each other. And that was fine because we didn’t know what was essential. There wasn’t any shame in that, I think, because you just do the best you can. 

And then gradually we realized a lot of that stuff wasn’t essential. Kimonos are a really cool kind of drag but not essential for enlightenment. And things like that. And you can tell that you have to let the transformation itself teach you. Then you realize a lot of koans like, “What is this?” are not very culturally bound. So, thanks. 

Amy: Thank you.


Lonnie: Hi, John, thanks. I was sort of blissfully floating along there with you. And then I got snagged on something. So, I was wondering if you could just clarify it—the difference between making yourself a raft or a ferry boat for others versus when you try to cultivate something. I think you sort of partly answered that, but I wondered—is cultivation making an effort to be something you might not really be authentically feeling, or … ?

John: No, I just think it’s more that “let me cultivate not having a self” is a very project of the self, right? It’s more like that. I really respect the Tibetans—and they do that. This probably addresses Amy’s question a bit, too. They really have the same fundamental notion of transformation that we have. In fact, some Tibetan friends have thought of us as, Oh we do kind of a kind of “vajra Zen” because of our emphasis on the totality, and on including all the materials of the psyche.

The Tibetans teach and do a lot of mind-training teaching. That’s a kind of cool thing. There’s nothing really wrong with that—and they call that the antidote. But then they have the stage where they have to antidote the antidote, because it’s kind of stuck to you. So, their methods are good, but they do get stuck to you. They start blinkering your point of view.

I noticed that when I was really trying to hold the zendo—I realized fairly early that it was good to have a strong container so people could relax and not worry about when to sit. So, we have times to sit and things like that. We don’t say, “Go off for three days and come back and give us a report.” We have times to sit together. So, that’s a vessel, together. 

But I found myself worrying about whether people were turning up to zazen on time, and things like that. And I just didn’t like my consciousness very much when I was doing that. So, I thought, Well, we’ll just encourage people to have a really solid container, but trust them to be grownups and do it. And then the koans will teach them because they’ll be trusting themselves. 

I’m probably not answering your question at all by the puzzled look on your face.

Lonnie: I’m hearing “trust yourself,” which is a big thing. 

John: What’s your alternative, really? 

Lonnie: Efforting, maybe, is what I was doing.

John: Try, but the thing is, you can’t do meditation wrong. Try trying really hard, try trying too hard. See if there is a “too hard,” you know, so go for it. Rock it out. I used to sit all night. Actually I was trying, and then it got interesting. And then, it became a bad habit, not sitting all night, but I still wake up at night and sit. It wasn’t anything I intended to do, but it does well by me.

Blue Buddha

Sandra: Hi, thank you. A couple of things. First of all, I want to say that I received this [holds up card] in the mail. It’s really beautiful. And it was from Jesse, announcing the retreat. So, I just want to say thank you. And looking at this image, I was noticing it sort of seemed like the birth canal. I don’t know who did this, but I’ve been looking at it and it’s really been helpful for me. 

I am feeling stuck with this koan because I have listened to it repeatedly—for about twenty years, I’ve struggled. And at first this reminded me of listening to my mother, feeling that I didn’t appreciate her. It was pretty heavy for me because it’s true. I didn’t for a long time. 

But my stuckness, I think, is feeling that a cave is sort of a western tomb, womb, gap—you know, Plato. I think I’m thinking about all this too much. I’m also feeling the blue—you know, depression, sky, and water—but I haven’t really connected that much with a dragon other than it being a really fierce scary serpent. Yeah, it’s just myself. It’s just my ego. So, I’m just sitting with all this and I’m not engaged yet with it.

John: This very you who has not engaged with it and is puzzled and is working with it and is blue. Who do you think is Buddha?

Sandra: Buddha is oftentimes blue, too, yes?

John: And also Buddha’s wondering, “Who is Buddha?” This very you: there’s no other you in the universe. Corey, can you tell me about the card? 

Sandra: I was wondering—I thought it was Corey’s, but it came from Jesse. Okay. Go ahead.

Corey: I’m the culprit. Yes. Well, I think what you were saying is kind of the way that I was thinking about that dragon. And so that’s been great. You know, I didn’t want it to be too small.

John: This is beautiful, Sandra. And Jesse, as you know, just had a baby today, which was great, really touching and beautiful. David has more news about that. But he wanted to be part of it, so he worked with Tess on some of the design. And he decided to take over the mailing for us, as his contribution to being in sesshin. It was really very touching. Thank you. 

Dave, do you have anything to say about Jesse? Is David even on here? I think he is, yes.

David W: Yeah. Thank you. Well, I asked him what the baby’s name was, and they said it was either Elliot or Everett. That’s the latest news I have from San Antonio. Everybody seems to be happy. And the picture he sent was interesting, because it looked like the baby was standing on its head. And I thought that’s rather advanced for just being born, and promising for its future.

John: And I noticed the mom had a mask on too, which is really touching.

David W: Yeah. And those eyes.

John: Very good. Thank you. Okay, who’s the next question?

Good Demons

Harvey: Thanks, John. I really enjoyed your talk. It was almost like a stand-up comedy routine; I was laughing so much. Thank you for that. And I was thinking about the koan. I’ve been thinking about it for days. And I think I got it wrong. Yeah. I mean, because my view of it, my interpretation of it, was that a dragon is a scary character—deadly—and I don’t see how there could be anything good inside that cave. So, for me, it was that the cave was a place where all my demons lived. And for twenty years, I’ve been going, I’ve been schlepping down there for you. So many good things are happening down there. It wouldn’t have been a big deal, right?

John: I don’t know, maybe if you were deluded. It was always good.

Harvey: Yeah, maybe my demons are really good.

John: Thanks. So, that’s the transformation process we’re talking about, though, isn’t it? Because we think all these things are hard or difficult. And we realize, Oh, they’re sort of native, in a way. We know we’re a native child. We realize, Oh, I’m good. You know, it’s good. Yeah. Nice. Thank you. And yeah—keep going.

Harvey: Well, I was also thinking about trying to get someplace, trying to learn how to do something, trying to get enlightened. And I’m really kind of lazy—I’ve been lazy my whole life. I don’t really like to do work. So, knowing that it’s okay to meditate and not have to do anything is perfect for me. Right? So, I welcome that part of it. 

I was also thinking one more thing about tools: the koan being a tool and not being a tool. And how for me, and I know for a lot of people, the koan is something that enters me, kind of a virus. And if the koan is entering me and I’m benefiting from its presence, then I’m actually the koan’s tool. The koan is using me as a tool. And what the koan wants to do is turn me into a bodhisattva. So that was another way I looked at it.

John: Yeah, good. Promising material. You can tell that there’s a certain kind of effort we do that gets in the way of our goals, and everybody knows that. It’s like thinking about putting the basketball through the hoop. 

But there’s a deeper kind of way in which we start to see the laziness of Zen or the no-effort of Zen. There is something very free about it. Mostly we’ve added trying to change our circumstance, change our thoughts. And the mind just does that. When we think we’re being lazy, we’re not really being lazy, actually. We’re sort of running out this little “This is what I think and feel” tape. Gradually, I’ve become a lot less interested in it. It’s there, but I’m not so interested in it. It’s not so compelling and the universe carries me more. It doesn’t always do things that I would approve of, but, none of my business—it is the universe. Thanks Harvey, nice to see you.

The dragon mythology is interesting. We’re in a dragon line. If you can see David W Weinstein’s dragon. Say something, David—that’s a dragon behind him. David Parks was here and he had a dragon calligraphy behind him at one stage.  

David W: The dragon is back behind the door, back there. 

John: Yeah, that scroll—and that’s the moon and the wings and stuff on the side there. So that’s what you got, Harvey. You’ve gotten mixed up with terrible people like this. 

There is a funny story. In Sydney, there’s a big Chinese community and there are also a lot of calligraphers. Susan Murphy, a teacher in Sydney, took me out to meet one of the Chinese calligraphers and to get some wood calligraphy brushes. I asked her if there were a lot of these calligraphers around and she said this great thing, “Yes, invisible dragons and tigers lying about.” It’s that arts and wisdom have a sort of image for us—and every person that holds our lineage has a dragon calligraphy of some kind. They don’t necessarily have a dragon name, they might, but they have a dragon calligraphy.

Tess: It looks like we have a couple more little comments if you’re game, John.

John: I’m game. I can stand if you can stand.

Stoking the Fire

Corey: I just wanted to say that the koan kind of snuck up on me and gave me an image of my discomfort. I was just feeling a kind of unbearable heat, you know—real, but unreal. And in the meditation, this image kept appearing of a dragon-person stoking a fire. And then I realized that I was the fire. They were banking me—there were coals being put up on me. It was just such a great image of how I was feeling—that I had to get away. 

But it was also the image of what it is like to turn toward it, you know, to turn toward it in a sort of a unique way, to just go. It was even more heat. In other words, it’s like the “darken further” thing, you know. It was to just keep on. That’s all I have. I just thought it was very interesting to me how the koan snuck up on me—the dragon, in that way.

John: Nice. Thanks, Corey.

The Koan Catches You

Judy: I guess I keep tripping on that “for you” in this statement about the master who says he has been going down into the cave for twenty years, “for you.” He sounds so angry and pissed off about it. And I just wondered—and I’m almost hearing you say that that was causing him a problem—why was it that he needed to do this painful thing over and over and over again. And he was blaming it on the student, it seemed to me. It was something I just tripped over and I was having a little trouble with it. And I think there were some other people who were also having that, just listening to the conversations, but maybe I’m wrong. That’s what’s going through my mind.

John: Yeah, well, you wouldn’t believe an old Zen master when he tries to blame you, would you? That’s one of the beauties of koans. They’ll have this thing that sticks—and that is your thing that sticks. Koans are not going to try and make you feel bad or worse or something, but it might change your point of view. 

Who’s going down to the Blue Dragon’s cave? It’s you. You’re going down. 

And the “for you” is like when somebody says, “I did that for you.” Well, maybe, maybe not. You know, maybe I’m not different from you, or maybe this is the bodhisattva thing about becoming the raft. So in that sense, that’s just practice, too—you’re doing it for you. 

I think there are those places where the koan catches—and then we start fighting with it—that are kind of delicate and beautiful places. It allows you to go into, Oh, who’s fighting the koan, who’s arguing with this? And it’s not that I need to believe the koan, but I am believing something. That’s not a kind of Zen thing, really. So, you have an obligation of guilt because your teacher trained very hard? I don’t know. Does that really sound right? 

You’ll notice that the issue of improbability is often there, because imagination gets into the koans. And the issue of there being something disturbing is often valuable in the koans. There’s a famous predicament koan that goes,

You’re hanging from a branch by your teeth. Your feet can’t reach the trunk, your hands can’t find a branch.

In other words, it’s meant to evoke your imagination. 

Also, the thing that’s disturbing about the koan is that koans are like dreams, in that they evoke parts of ourselves without prior approval, without going through customs. That’s why some people just reject koans completely. So I’m glad you noticed that, and you go into, “Well, oh, do I take that responsibility, in any way?” That’s just a little piece of what the koan might be freeing up for you—taking on other people’s stuff, you know, because definitely, Xuedou couldn’t care less.

I just noticed a couple of other women dragons. Michelle Riddle, could you come on and show us your dragon, which is a different one? And Allison has a dragon, too.

Michelle: Yeah. There it is.

John: Allison has a dragon.

Allison A: There it is, a beautiful dragon.

John: There we are. So them’s the dragons for you. You know, at the beginning of the universe there was nothing, and nothing eventually became things: protons, walls of fire, and stuff. But there were dragons living through that time between the universes, according to the legend. So, they have just always been here.

Trusting Your Own Depth

Susan: I just wanted to say that I’m a very new Zen student who was just introduced to it through the Sunday talks. And being Jewish, I finally found a church I can go to on Sundays. 

John: Excellent. A lot of other Jews, too. 

Susan: So, I just wanted to be brave, and step out and say that I’m here as a first time student and that the koan was confusing for me because the cave was confusing. It was cold, it was in the rocks. Nothing was there. The dragon was sort of dormant and a beautiful blue, but not really demonic in any way or scary. And I wasn’t sure what I was doing there.

I just kept saying, “Cave, dragon, cave, dragon, cave, dragon.” And then at the next sitting, the cave turned into incredible crystals in all different colors of blue, lit from within. And the dragon was still very quiescent, and the confusion of, “What am I doing here?” I just felt like that’s the point. Okay, just say, “Dragon, cave, dragon, cave.”

John: That’s like in the amusement park: I’ll give you the token, then I get the ride, but something is different. What we just have to do is trust our own depth. 

And as it appears, then there are the two manifestations—cold and scary and wet, fair enough. Consciousness can be like that. But then, also, there’s this beauty in the crystalline universe—the beauty of the universe is there, and the crystals in each of the eternal. The beauty in things. And so, that’s pretty good. Not bad, in retreat, you know.

You’ll notice that gradually the usual kind of thoughts and judgments we have settle down, or we’re not as impressed by them, I think. Maybe your food tastes different, things like that. And then gradually the heart opens and changes. So, you know—so far, so good. Thanks.

No Need to Bear It

Alison M: I don’t know if I got stuck. Well, after I met with the teacher, I made a note that I no longer know what there is to talk about. And I had this moment of seeing that when problems are no longer the topic, what is there? I had a moment of something feeling more open. Then it kind of turned into a freefall. Like the image of that branch. 

Like where we had a break, and I kind of watched myself go downstairs and I had a glass of wine, got very kind of sleepy, and I lost half of your talk because I was half asleep. And that question, “Can I bear this?” I guess I’m feeling that sense of it. Can I go back to finding a problem? I mean, without the problems, it’s got that feeling of freefall. And I guess I’ve got this question, “Can I bear that?” I don’t know.

John: Well, it is beautiful hearing you express it, just to say. Your Buddha nature is coming out of your mouth in every second. So lovely, really. Everybody’s got their thing. Dragon thinks it’s a dragon, and dog thinks it’s a dog, and you think you need your problem. And I don’t think we should judge that. Like, my problem is that I need a problem—doesn’t seem any different from any other kind of problem. It’s very sophisticated and poetic. And so, the thing is, what if I don’t have a problem? What if you don’t have a problem right now, if you look inside. So let’s say I’ll just magically solve your problem for just five nanoseconds, then you can have it right back. So what’s it like? Look inside, just be.

Alison M: Well, in that moment, there’s suddenly space, you know.

John: So, one moment of space is all of space. One moment of enlightenment is all of enlightenment. That’s your raft, the bodhisattva raft, and you start carrying other people who feel like, Oh god, I’m too anxious without my problem. They’ll think, Oh, but Alison can do that. And they’re right. And because she could put up with herself, I can put up with myself. 

The other thing is when somebody said, “How do I bear myself?” And I said, “No need to bear it.”

We’re imagining these vast things—and they’re intricate and interesting and even beautiful. And we’re full of reservations about stepping into the vastness, really. One second, and you step into it. You missed half the talk—that means you got half, that’s more than most people get, you know. 

Look inside, how’re you doing?

Alison M: It took a lot to raise my hand. I waited a lot.

John: It was good to raise that hand. And you’ll see that we aren’t solving a problem here, we’re doing an inquiry into what it is to be human and what a great thing and vast thing it is. And also, to discover how we can accord with the universe in some way and let it help us, let it carry us.

Thank you very much. Why don’t I remember what we do now? I think I’ll hand it over to Jan. Thank you, Jan.

It Has Always Been Here

HOP Jan Brogan: Restore the hall. We’ll just sit a little bit and finish with our vows and music.

John: How many times have I gone down to the Blue Dragon’s cave for you?

What if it’s alright being here in these circumstances, with these people, this heart-mind, these feelings? Loving the people we love, being loved by the people who love us. This very heart-mind is Buddha.

In meditation, there’s no need to disapprove of what we have. No need to disapprove of here. This is the here that we have. This moment is the totality of our life. 

And if you really examine it every time you look inside, you’ll see the vastness start to open. In a way, when we disapprove of what we have, it’s like vertigo or something, and we try to put ourselves in a smaller container because “Who would I be if I didn’t have what I’m disapproving of?”—my problem or my objection. 

But every time we look inside, there’s the vastness, and we all share that, and it’s always been here.

Amaryllis: [sings]

Peacefully humbly, the ship stars travel, the grass hunches down to earth, the demons take their rest.
And we ask the protectors to smile over us, as the work in darkness goes on until dawn.

The Four Boundless Vows …

Ryan: [guitar, sings]

I vow to wake all the beings of the world …

Evening Words from Allison Atwill

Allison: I just got a little message on my screen saying the host would like you to unmute, and I thought, What is this? And then it dawned on me. Oh no. The Blue Dragon is roaring. They want me to give the evening words. So, over and over again, there will be a continual, unexpected call from the Blue Dragon. And we don’t know what it’s going to ask. And we don’t know how we’ll respond. How tremendously moving and beautiful it is to be here.


Summer Sesshin 2020
Dharma Talk: June 26, 2020
John Tarrant 

Listen to the Original Audio