Pacific Zen Institute—something that matters: John’s Video Message

Hi Friends,

 Koan Zen is a mystery path: When we walk it, we step into what we cannot conceive of, into unexpected gifts that the world is offering us every day.

Because our time is difficult, and even crazy, people realize that more is required of a spiritual practice than trying calm the mind and having the mind fill with disturbing thoughts again. People are more interested in koans now, since imaginative paths are needed to walk in the world. With all the darkness around us, it’s too early to despair, it’s always too early to despair. Our koan path leads to unforeseen possibilities and unlooked for help in the world. The only way open is through the mystery and the unknown; we must love the world without knowing the outcomes. because it is the only world we have, and because we never really know outcomes, just our own hopes and fears.

When I wanted to find my place in the order of things, and truly to enter life, I took up spending the night in the ancient, remnant forests left over from Gondwana, when Australia was connected to Antarctica. Some of those trees were very old beings, ancient root systems with various boles emerging upwards, deciduous beeches and myrtles. It was a mysterious place.

I would take a little blanket, but mainly sit and watch, and sometimes fall asleep leaning against a tree. There were glow worms, luminous beetles and fungi, and the calls of unknown birds, the occasional thump of a wallaby. It might be raining hard in the high canopy and I could still be fairly dry sitting beneath. As the night progressed, the forest came alive and I accompanied it in a lazy, sleepy way, not thinking my usual thoughts. Gradually my mind became open to what was around me.

It was a taste of what the old Chinese teachers called ‘emptiness.’ Later, when I realized, that what I had been doing was meditating, I thought, ‘Oh, I taught myself to meditate there in the old forest.’ Now, more  modestly, I think, ‘The forest taught me to meditate.’ I was watching the forest, but it was watching me too, and educating me and taking me in. When the thoughts fell out of my mind, I became part of the flow of things and was carried and welcomed. I found that we participate in a world that notices us and responds to us.

Those forests are burning now. Many creatures are dying here too, birds, fish, and animals, and this is a time of such crisis that everyone is touched. All over the world, our leadership is inadequate and exacerbating the crisis. That is a source of sorrow too, but this is the world we have. We shall preserve what we can of those forest paths, but the world is changing, and the good, mysterious things will also have to be in our hearts now and in what we care about and choose to love.

The taste of that awe is still with me. I sit at night now in California, and great horned owls call and the geese call on the wing (what are they doing up at this time of night, so late in the season?). In the alternative universe of night sitting, surprises can happen, and the ancient light is still a great force.

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So that is the taste of the mystery.

What are the practical ways we embody this at Pacific Zen Institute? If you donate, what are you supporting?

Well, enlightenment happens in a culture, so that’s the first thing. Teaching, writing, developing that culture, is the path of my whole life.

We offer Retreats—long, deep dives and short explorations of myth and art and story and koans. People find that their lives transform when they attend.

Investing in leadership: We train leaders of koan groups for our school; leaders from other schools are joining us. We think about this a lot—what we can offer that goes out beyond us.

We offer KALPA, a huge, online archive of koan talks and transcripts—all of John Tarrant’s talks for 30 years are here and other talks too. We fund this offering through membership and donations. Our big push now is to improve the technical quality so that the talks are easier to access. We serve people all over the world. We also plan to offer regular, streamed talks.

We have an amazingly rich online discussion community. People talk about their dying mother, and about taking homeless people fishing, and translating ancient koans, and painting koans, and about a wild fox who comes every morning to get an egg to take back to her kits, and about where new ideas come from.

We have a couple of major centers in California and koan groups all over the country and indeed in other countries too.

I’m deep into writing a new book of 64 koans. It’s a kind of cathedral, and a set of doors into the ancient koan curriculum. In it you can find out where you are located and the direction for your life’s awakening. The idea has some resemblances to the 64 situations of the I Ching, another ancient Chinese wisdom tradition closely associated with koans. I plan to take time to write as well as teach.

So here’s your part:

Just for this moment, think of what the teachings mean to you, and give your whole attention and heart to the question. If you’re so moved, make a donation, or join us as a member. Consider how generous you can be, because this is what makes it possible for us to do what we do. Your contributions keep us going. It’s a way to embody the Dharma. We are grateful to be able to do this work, and we’re very grateful for whatever you can give.

Gathered at the thistle seed

Finches say, ‘we’ll be your flowers

this season.’


John Tarrant

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