Jump to content
  • ENA

    Working with the Koan

    Excerpted from
    Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
    By John Tarrant

    Zhaozhou was a minimalist. He must have expected his one-word reply to be enough to open the gates of the heart. "The thought that he knew what he was doing," I reasoned, "is more interesting than the opposite." So, what to do with this one word? It is said that once, when Robert Creeley gave a reading as part of a class he was teaching, one of the students asked, "Is that a real poem, or did you make it up yourself?" I had to make up how to work with a koan. The books I read said that you needed a teacher and who knows what mental dangers you would face if you didn't have a teacher and so on. Given that I was in Australia, that sort of advice would have limited me to playing cricket in the bush with kangaroos. Naturally I ignored it.

    The dog part of the koan didn't catch me. Cattle dogs of respectable demeanor are welcome in my personal heaven, and Buddha nature just seemed another word for nature, something already sacred. I took the question as, "Does a dog have worth? Do I have worth?-When I'm sick, when I'm ashamed, when I'm bored, when I have no money. Does my friend have worth, and what about my enemy-can I love the whole of life?" I knew that I couldn't love the whole of my life, so that was a promising place to start. Also I didn't mind if my own, hardly coherent wonderings were rolled up into the dog question from a person in his own painful doubt twelve hundred years before. My questions were not any better than his. This made him my comrade.

    The one word reply, "No," was easy to concentrate on. One way to work with a koan seemed to be to become completely absorbed in it. This was hard for me at first. The tension of wanting to break through the koan was frustrating, like the tension a child might feel over wanting to ride a bicycle. My face itched and I felt like a failure. I meditated-trying to be unobtrusive-in parks, churches, mountains, trains, the Queensland Parliamentary Library, and the Senate dining room in Canberra. When I sat outside, bush flies (the Australian national bird) crawled into my eye corners, seeking moisture.

    Koans required a humility that is really a kind of plainness in approaching life without drama and ulterior motives. I had no great reserves of such humility; it was something that had to appear by itself because I didn't know that it was needed. Gradually I stopped expecting the kinds of things I usually expected. I didn't know what scale of difficulty was appropriate for my problem, and after a while it didn't seem hard or easy. When I resolved, or rather noticed, that even if I got nowhere with the koan, I would keep with it for the rest of my not-very-important life, that softened my heart a little. It allowed me to just have the meditation I happened to be having, without complaint. I was lobbying for Aboriginal land rights at the time and meetings were often held in pubs, so I learned to meditate drunk and then learned how boring my mind was when I was drunk. My idea was to meditate no matter what.

    A few years later found me at dawn whacking a large Japanese hanging bell with a wooden mallet. Down its sides the bell had bronze resonating knobs like an avant-garde hairdo, and it gave loud, slightly clanging notes with the wah-wak fluttering of overtones that guitarists call butterflies. From where I stood I had a short view of guavas, papayas, and rose apple trees, and a long view to the ocean on Maui.

    We had a little cargo cult going in which we had learned how Zen Buddhism was done in a more or less Japanese way. In the original cargo cults, people in New Guinea saw airplanes landing and disgorging stuff-food, clothing, medicine, typewriters, Margaret Mead. So the New Guineans adopted a hunting metaphor; they cleared airstrips and built their own airplanes out of plywood and scrap. They were decoys to attract other airplanes with their cargo. In Hawaii, we were pretending to be Japanese to attract a change of heart. Black robes, incense, bowing, a Berlitz phrase-book of Japanese phrases. We had every kind of person, from Pulitzer Prize-winning poets and business types at the high end, tapering off into riff-raff -dope growers, psychotherapists, Australians-at the other end. We may have been riff-raff, but we were sincere riff-raff.

    The teacher had a terrific story himself; he had been interned in Japan during the Second World War and learned about koans from the poet and translator R. H. Blyth. I'd gone to him for the excellent reason that he was the only person who answered letters from Australia. He hadn't had an enlightenment experience himself, he said, but he had a kind of cookbook from his teacher that allowed him to guide people through koans. The whole thing was best approached with a sense of humor, and the strange thing was that, for me, it was working.

    My new thing was concentration. It wasn't a change of heart, yet it was something I could work on directly. It was like the fellow who lost his car keys in the dark alley but was looking for them under the streetlight. "There's more light here," he explained. I hoped that if I sat very, very still and didn't have thoughts, then lightning would strike. Tricky. Gradually things became clearer though. I would drive myself and, at the end of a retreat, fall into despair, having missed another opportunity to understand something beyond my small and miserable personality Of course, it was my small and miserable personality that was in despair, too, and on good days I began to be amused by it. A grand Japanese teacher came to visit and I went in to see him, full of hope that somehow, perhaps now, indeed, why not now, if I were completely attentive, an experience would be triggered in me. He took one look at me, eager and overwrought, and patiently explained the beginning steps of meditation. "Just take this koan and keep it with you day and night..."

    Then I went into a seven-day retreat for which I was well prepared. While my friends went to the beach I stayed in at night and meditated. I thought I would be completely diligent and do the retreat without a moments distraction. After a day or two, my mind was deep and clear, and then, suddenly, it wasn't. Wild and senseless thoughts zoomed by -images, songs, memories of earliest childhood, and memories I couldn't possibly have had. There was no pattern to my mind, and I could not begin to control my thoughts. I had done everything right and this was the result. I had failed. A tiny thought appeared, "Then this must be right." I just let my mind be whatever it wished to be, and immediately it calmed down. I had the sense of standing on the brink of a vast chasm and that I must have the courage to throw myself off. Yet I couldn't, I didn't know how. I was stuck there for a day or two, trying to overcome fear. Then I said to myself, "Okay, so you are afraid," and instantly the fear disappeared. Another tiny thought appeared, that I was the koan "No." I began to feel a connection to the universe. It seemed very funny that I had struggled so long to find a place in the universe when I couldn't fall out of the universe. It was as if a wave were struggling to understand what the sea was. I began laughing.

    The teacher had a nice set of questions to test if you were really having some sort of profound experience. These questions, along with likely answers, had been handed down orally from Hakuin, an eighteenth-century Japanese teacher. I was very touched that Hakuin would have thought of this, thought of us across the centuries and oceans, and I found that the questions helped me find a language for my experience. They were odd but not random: questions such as "How high is No?" and "Explain No to a baby." The questions pushed me to see that a spiritual experience takes place in the life I actually live. So I laughed secretly to myself because life was so obviously tender and intimate. This laughter went on for months. The experience I had wasn't something to believe in; it was more a noticing, and a way of seeing. Also I found that I was at no risk of becoming saintly or of knowing all the answers. It was just that something in my heart was at rest and the world seemed a much kinder place. Other people seemed kinder than I and I was grateful to them for waiting for me to discover this. The world bubbled with light just under the surface, even when difficulties arose. I was beginning to love the whole of life.

    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    There are no comments to display.

    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now

  • Create New...