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John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

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John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Carol on Tue May 21, 2013 4:22 am

Here's an article about koan practice by John Tarrant as he teaches it at Pacific Zen Institute, excerpts (I've left out the best parts, you'll have to read for yourself to get them)

Count the Stars in the Sky

Tonight I want to talk about a boring koan– “Count the stars in the sky.” There are some passages in life that are like airports. You’re there not because you want to be there but because you’re on your way to somewhere else. They’re antechambers or vestibules. And there are some passages in meditation that seem like that, too. They seem to not have particular value, but somehow you need to get through them to get somewhere else. People have their different lists of what these occasions are, but being in a traffic jam might be one, or waiting in line for the DMV might be another.

Waiting for someone else to do something, waiting for someone else to change their mind, waiting for someone else to be impressed by you, waiting for someone else to die, waiting for someone else to fall in love with you, waiting for someone else to pass sentence on you, there’s a whole list. But they’re all times when you might think this is a time between other times.
[...]

I did the koan “Count the stars in the sky,” a long time ago now, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ and I just did it. The way koans are set up, there are two ways to do it, there’s the orthodox Hakuin response–Hakuin was a medieval Japanese master who set down a whole list of suggested responses that came down the oral tradition, and that’s interesting, because you can test what your own inner feel is. But since we’re reimagining koans in a different culture, what your own inner feel is and where the koan might be leading you is actually more important. It’s like the brown bird in the garden, it makes it alive for you. So anyway, I just sort of walked outside and there were the stars and it was kind of fun. I started counting them and it was sort of impossible, but not in a very interesting way. It was impossible, but not wildly so, to count the stars in the sky, because counting is such a familiar idea, and numbering the stars is something you do.

[...]

Over the years, my big question was ‘What are koans for?’ I don’t know why, but I was the only person I ever knew in my own training situation who was interested in that question. I’m still interested in it. What do they do, anyway? Which means, what do koans do in terms other than internally, in the koan system? And as far as I can tell, they do two things. One is that they get you in touch with the vast background, they take away everything else, and they do that by making all your stories about who you are and what the world is like irrelevant. All your stories get thrown overboard.

[...]

So that’s one thing koans are for, and then there’s another, perhaps even weirder, thing that koans do, which is, that when you’re keeping company with a koan, when you’re in the field of a koan, the delusion that for you is attached to that koan will come up and seize you. I notice, for example, if you’re into comparison or envy in any way, I can think of a couple of koans that would bring them up a lot. In one of those examples, a great teacher went up to give a talk and pointed to the blinds. There are two blinds, and two people go and roll them both up exactly the same way, and he says, “One’s right, one’s wrong.” Some people just go insane with that koan. If you’re into being right and wrong, any right and wrong program you’ve got will get hooked. You think, I hate this koan, it’s wrong. Or I hate this koan, I can’t understand it, I’m wrong. Or I hate this whole Zen scene, its completely wrong. Meanwhile the old teacher is just laughing.

Another example is “The great way is not difficult, it just avoids picking and choosing.” If you don’t pick and choose, every part of you that picks and chooses will start quivering, shaking, salivating and thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be picking and choosing, maybe I shouldn’t want things, but I do want things and what wrong with that? Maybe picking something wholeheartedly without thought is not picking and choosing, maybe I’m hopeless at this’ and so on. And you’ll pick and choose about whether or not you pick and choose, and you’ll lie to yourself about how you do it, and all that.

I think from the point of the view of the transformation process of the koan, this struggle is just as valuable as connecting with the great background, the vastness. Because you get to see how you do things. You get to see the delusions of your mind and the interesting ways they work, and from the koan’s point of view, it doesn’t mind, there’s nothing wrong with your delusions, they’re just life. That’s called you. Your delusions are what you call you. Nothing wrong with that. However, if you find that you suffer, then you might want to investigate those delusions and you might want to throw a few of them overboard.

[...]

When a koan starts coming alive for you, it will make parts of your life alive that, previously, were not. It will make parts of you alive that may not have been before. A small thing, an interesting thing. And so then you’ll find that there really isn’t any DMV line, or airport security line where life isn’t happening. We might often think that there is, but that’s our own way of making ourselves small. I think one reason people are so shocked when something goes wrong on an airliner is that we have the fantasy that nothing ever happens on an airliner, really. An airliner is a vessel in which you get from San Francisco to Sydney without anything happening.

But really there isn’t a place in life where nothing happens, and there isn’t a place in life where the beauty and power of the great background doesn’t come through like light, a fountain of light pouring through everything, through your own heart and through everything you see and hear and touch.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Guo Gu on Sun Jun 02, 2013 2:58 am

thanks for sharing. it would be interesting to hear him elaborate more about this "vast background" that takes away everything else.... sounds like oneness experience.
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Carol on Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:24 am

Guo Gu wrote:thanks for sharing. it would be interesting to hear him elaborate more about this "vast background" that takes away everything else.... sounds like oneness experience.


Reminds me of Linji's "solitary brightness."
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Guo Gu on Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:45 am

it's the taking away of everything else that's peculiar.
the solitary brightness is the illumination in silent illumination, but that doesn't preclude everything else.
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Carol on Sun Jun 02, 2013 6:19 am

Guo Gu wrote:it's the taking away of everything else that's peculiar.
the solitary brightness is the illumination in silent illumination, but that doesn't preclude everything else.


I think he's talking about a process here. It's a bit like the huatou practice with What is Wu? Not this, not this, boring down through the phenomena we cling to.
One is that they get you in touch with the vast background, they take away everything else, and they do that by making all your stories about who you are and what the world is like irrelevant. All your stories get thrown overboard.


Then he goes on to say:

there isn’t a place in life where nothing happens, and there isn’t a place in life where the beauty and power of the great background doesn’t come through like light, a fountain of light pouring through everything, through your own heart and through everything you see and hear and touch.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Linda Anderson on Sun Jun 02, 2013 7:38 am

count the stars stopped me cold beyond happening and not happening where something speaks to me, no counting
Not last night,
not this morning;
Melon flowers bloomed.
~ Bassho
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Chrisd on Sun Jun 02, 2013 10:26 am

Koans are used in different ways by different schools from what I understand.
Apparently some schools use it as a tool to trigger kensho experience or something similar.
I don't understand the value of such an approach. I hope somebody can explain.

Others go for the 1 breaking through koan big bang satori experience, and then other koans to verify, refine the original insight derived from that. That makes more sense to me.

Wasn't that the origin of the koan? A person has a religious question, nagging doubt that he or she needs to solve, comes to the teacher and the teacher tells him or her to work on it.
Using other people's questions, that seems a bit weird. Who cares whether or not a dog has buddha nature? I don't.
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Linda Anderson on Sun Jun 02, 2013 3:15 pm

fwiw, the answer about the dog is not the point... who is asking and why and how, etc. and who would spend years looking for the answer when it's right at the end of my nose. I don't know their purpose, I sometimes think of them as conversations among colleagues, like in a college dorm, a way of communicating the unspeakable, often humorous and individual in style. A good koan drops me below my mind and something else arises, but I can find that in other ways, like meditation and stirring soup and walking in the woods, which is why one size doesn't fit all. I have to say, I particularly dislike reminiscences about one's dog. This may not be orthodox, but I think sometimes we are presented with our own personal koan by our thoughts and dreams.
Not last night,
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Melon flowers bloomed.
~ Bassho
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Carol on Sun Jun 02, 2013 4:15 pm

Linda Anderson wrote:count the stars stopped me cold beyond happening and not happening where something speaks to me, no counting


It does that!
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby desert_woodworker on Wed Jun 12, 2013 11:44 pm

John is OK as far as he goes. I tried to teach him about the (true) stars, but, oh, well.

Mine is the second oldest profession, so I think he gave me only so much credence. About that.

John (Roshi) is still jake with me. Until further notice.

--Joe
"The abundance of Nature is not a matter of its 'providing' ". -- William James, c. 1901.
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Carol on Thu Jun 13, 2013 10:05 pm

Here's another blog post from John Tarrant, this one from his The Zenosaurus Course In Koans: 3.2 When Something Confronts You Don't Believe It

He discusses fear, but I leave it to you to read it. Here's the intro:


Don't Believe It

We live knowing little about where we come from or what our tasks are, we use only a portion of our gifts, we perceive just a fraction of the immensity that every day carries us along. The greater part of our existence is unclaimed and orphaned, seldom visited or visible. We have intimations of this unclaimed life, hints that inside or beneath the tasks that press upon us is a more expansive life, and these hints make a difference to our outlook, we remember them and we hope for them.


A Chinese sage [Linji] said this about the mind:

Whatever confronts you, don’t believe it.
When something appears shine your light on it.
Have confidence in the light that is always working inside you.


Gateways to the larger life are usually to be found where I don’t look, otherwise I would be walking through them already. I like to imagine these openings as concealed, written in runes visible only by moonlight, but they are often in plain sight guarded merely by No Trespassing signs. The signs don’t say “Avoid this Place’; they say ‘Forget that you noticed this place, these are not the droids you are looking for’.

Continued here
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby desert_woodworker on Thu Jun 13, 2013 11:36 pm

Carol,

Your posting of this in the "Sanbo Kyodan" area gives me pause to smile or smirk, Moderator. ;-)

Tarrant Roshi is twice removed from the Sanbo Kyodan:

Once, by his teacher Robert Aitken Roshi parting ways and removing himself from the Sanbo Kyodan (and founding the Diamond Sangha);
and once by John Tarrant removing himself from the Diamond Sangha, under encouragement from the Diamond Sangha Teachers' Circle (and founding the California Zen Institute).

His first book is fine: THE LIGHT INSIDE THE DARK. He writes fine things about koan practice. All his commentary elsewhere in teisho or newsletters to me seems like commentary on the topics in that book. His, BRING ME THE RHINOCEROS is also fine.

I'm not sophisticated in western psychology/psychiatry as John is, and I don't much care for this part of John's teaching and orientation as a teacher. Call me a traditionalist. Yes, I know, the tradition is changing, and always changes to suit where it lives. I enjoyed greatly my several times serving as John's Jisha on 7-day sesshin here in Tucson, one occasion of which was when James Ford served as Tanto: a famous sesshin! Outdoors in a large tent, 28 participating full-time, in the (hot!) month of May in the desert, in a member's backyard in central Tucson, when we were "between-zendos", and were about to buy our first permanent zendo property and develop it, after 15 years or so of rental, temporary situations. This was an important sesshin. And, as I say, famous. And the amazingly bright comet Hale-Bopp shone in the evening sky the whole sesshin. Our sangha teacher, Pat Hawk Roshi, was indisposed, being treated for cancer, that entire year, and was not with us; John graciously filled-in, with Joan Sutherland, to teach, for about 11 months.

Too bad John had to leave the D.S. I was sad about that.

Oops, all; pardon this chatty partially off-topic reply. Or maybe the whole thing is. I'll delete if requested.

--Joe
"The abundance of Nature is not a matter of its 'providing' ". -- William James, c. 1901.
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Carol on Fri Jun 14, 2013 1:05 am

Yeah, I don't agree with calling this the "Sanbo Kyodan Zen" section -- as a catch all for all Sanbo Kyodan derived Zen schools ... which include Maeuzumi and the White Plum Asanga, Diamond Sangha, Pacific Zen School, Kapleau lineage, and maybe some others.

It's meant to include all those branching streams that followed from the Harada-Yasutani departure from Soto Zen and incorporation of Hakuin and Rinzai koan introspection.

~Carol
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby desert_woodworker on Fri Jun 14, 2013 1:21 am

Thanks!, Carol!

Let's roll with it as it is.

A hearty "Howdy", from our warm desert, ...not a degree over a hundred and six, in the Half-Mile High City. ;-)

--Joe

Carol wrote:
Yeah, I don't agree with calling this the "Sanbo Kyodan Zen" section -- as a catch all for all Sanbo Kyodan derived Zen schools ... which include Maeuzumi and the White Plum Asanga, Diamond Sangha, Pacific Zen School, Kapleau lineage, and maybe some others.

It's meant to include all those branching streams that followed from the Harada-Yasutani departure from Soto Zen and incorporation of Hakuin and Rinzai koan introspection.

~Carol

"The abundance of Nature is not a matter of its 'providing' ". -- William James, c. 1901.
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Sevidal on Fri Jun 14, 2013 6:29 am

Wondering what is the "vast background" John Tarrant is talking about.
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Michaeljc on Fri Jun 14, 2013 9:16 am

Its home

m
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Sevidal on Sat Jun 15, 2013 6:47 am

Michaeljc wrote:Its home

m


If it is home how could it be a background.
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Re: John Tarrant - Koan practice articles

Postby Michaeljc on Sat Jun 15, 2013 11:00 am

Sevidal wrote:
Michaeljc wrote:Its home

m


If it is home how could it be a background.


Nice koan

m
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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Pedestrian on Mon Jun 17, 2013 4:59 pm

Indeed. Here's another from up-topic:

Chrisd wrote:Who cares whether or not a dog has buddha nature?
"Buddha, to liberate beings, cultivates practices everywhere." Avatamsaka Sutra.

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Re: Count the Stars in the Sky

Postby Chrisd on Mon Jun 17, 2013 9:56 pm

Pedestrian wrote:Indeed. Here's another from up-topic:

Chrisd wrote:Who cares whether or not a dog has buddha nature?


That one's more relevant aint it! :peace:
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