Perhaps like many people, you are puzzled by the Zen koans, and while you suspect that being puzzled is the whole purpose, you still aren’t quite sure how koans are used in the service of awakening. Zen teacher John Tarrant has worked with koans for over thirty years and last year published a book about them entitled Bring Me the Rhinoceros (Harmony Books, 2004). We asked him to enlighten us.
He is also the author of The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life (Harper Perennial, 1999). He has a Ph.D. in psychology, teaches koans in organizations, and is director of Pacific Zen Institute, a venture in meditation and the arts.
Inquiring Mind: The subtitle of your book is “Zen Koans to Bring You Joy,” but our understanding is that koans are a way to frustrate the rational mind. Shouldn’t the subtitle be “Zen Koans to Bring You Frustration”?
John Tarrant: Well, which do you think would sell more books? [Laughter] But you are right, the traditional mythology of koans is that they torment you, make you suffer, and it’s all very dark until finally you have an explosive insight. But it seems to me that the suffering occurs as people try to fit themselves into that narrative about koans. Meanwhile, one of the few markers of enlightenment that everybody seems to agree upon is that there’s a kind of joy when you are free. It doesn’t have to be a blissed out, ecstatic samadhi state; you just look out at the fields and you’re happy or you’re not prejudiced about life at that moment. There’s no barrier between you and what you’re looking at. I found that the koans were very good at getting at that, and perhaps if you took them less seriously, they would be even more useful.
IM: So do you now find it joyous to sit and work with a koan?
JT: Yes. But not if I’m trying too hard to discover what I already know. It’s not a bad thing to try, but the trying comes from thinking you’re a long way from enlightenment, you’re a long way from now. So instead of trying to solve a koan by taking an anti-koan sort of stance, like “I need to purify,” you could just trust more in yourself and less in that traditional narrative about koans. I wrote this book to show how koans might work in life and help people to take things more lightly. One of the worst things you can do in a disaster is take things too seriously.
IM: In the beginning of vipassana practice, people often go through a process of sifting through the mind and being frustrated by it. Does that happen also in koan practice?
JT: Yes, for sure. And I think the solution to frustration is probably similar in most spiritual practices. Where the frustration lies, that’s where you enter. There’s a koan that says, “Enter there,” which can mean wherever you are. A Zen teacher asked, “Can you hear the sound of the stream?” “Yes,” said the student. And the teacher said, “Enter there.” Do you hear the sound of your own frustration? Enter there.
No matter which meditation tradition you practice, through concentration you will get a quieter mind. Yet you’re still a victim of what comes up as soon as you stop concentrating. So in vipassana, you talk about gaining insight, seeing through the phenomenon, which is a different tendency in the mind, one which is aided by concentration but for which concentration is not a substitute. It’s the same with koans. The koans teach you to see through any phenomenon. They teach you that you can get to anywhere from anywhere else in the mind. Joy and freedom are always possible.
A woman I know suddenly and unexpectedly lost her husband. She called me up a year later because she said her grief was starting to go away and she didn’t want to make herself small and unhappy again, the way she had been before she lost her husband. There’s such an unpredictable quality about life—you think something would be terrible, but then the unexpected happens. This woman didn’t want to lose her husband, but it freed her in some important way.
The lesson is in the koan that gave my book its title: “One day, Yanguan called to his assistant, ‘Bring me the rhinoceros fan.’ The assistant said, ‘It is broken.’ Yanguan said, ‘In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.’”
Every time we’re frustrated, we’re trying to mend our broken fan, but really it’s a lot easier to just bring a rhinoceros. The koan says that right there inside of the dilemma, it might be funnier than you think, it might be happier than you think. In other words, just skip taking everything so seriously and literally. Koan work is creative. Ask yourself, “If I weren’t suffering right now, what would I be doing?”
IM: Where do koans come from originally?
JT: The koan system was formalized by people who had to cope with Genghis Khan. The Chinese Buddhists decided to go out to the yurts to convince the generals not to burn the cities. They studied the koans in order to free themselves for the task. That story is relevant to our American situation. In retreat you can find out what life is all about without delusion, and you can learn about freedom and happiness. But if we truly embody the dharma, then we take it out into the currents of the world. Wisdom is wisdom, and whether you’ve got two squalling kids or you’re working as a stockbroker, it’s just as available as it is in the temple.
IM: Most koans don’t seem to have a logical answer, and the classic ones seem to get answered by the masters in either ambiguous or completely nonsensical ways.
JT: A koan shows you the power of resting in unpredictability and uncertainty. You don’t know what the outcome of working with a koan will be, and great wisdom lies in that truth. Suffering and despair always rest in certainty: you have already decided what the outcome is or what it should be. So when I know what the outcome should be with my teenage daughter, I’m never quite present with her, and I’m never finding out what freedom is possible in the situation. Instead, I’m just giving her a lecture.
When koans remove our certainty, it feels as though we have just escaped from prison. When we are not bound by the story of our lives—the fictions, really—and not bound by the effort of knowing what everything is and where it’s going and what it should be, then a new kind of freedom appears. The body feels that and becomes at ease. Then anything you look at—the walls, a tree, your friends, even somebody you thought you didn’t like—is suddenly full of possibility. You experience the wonder and beauty of just being here in the world of consciousness.
IM: So how does the puzzle or story within the koan bring you to that state? Why not just say to people, “Live with uncertainty,” or “Don’t land on anything”?
JT: Because then you are adding a prescription, a judgment, and immediately you are striving and struggling. There’s a real genius in the koan system, and in all of Zen really, and that genius is also what makes it hard to understand. It’s like poetry. When I first wrote poetry I didn’t understand it very well. I was kind of a barbarian, a football player, doing laboring jobs, but I’d sneak off when work was quiet and read poetry. I noticed that poetry started to change something in my mind without my understanding it. Koans are like that. They are different from standard inquiry in that they change you at some deep level: they work with the views underneath the thoughts.
Koans are also like paintings, and you have to put yourself in the field of the art so that it can act upon you. I remember going to a Richard Diebenkorn exhibit and seeing his Ocean Park series. When I walked in, I thought “Oh, that’s pretty.” Then I walked through again and thought, “Okay, but what’s the big fuss?” Then I walked through again, and suddenly the whole space was open and dazzling, full of golden light and ocean. Everything was there.
That’s a metaphor for what you’re doing with a koan. You just expose yourself to it and don’t pick and choose so much about what you’re experiencing. It brings up your delusions so you can see them and see through them. Or it shows you what your life is like without your delusions. You see that it wasn’t just terrible that somebody died or that your kid got into a certain difficulty. There’s a deeper truth.
Like poetry or art, a koan doesn’t follow a linear progression such as one, two, three, four, five. In linear thinking, a creative leap is one, two, three, four, seven. In koan thinking, a creative leap is one, two, three, four, rhinoceros.