John Tarrant is a Zen master and koan teacher. He has a PhD in Psychology and is a poet and the author of two groundbreaking books on consciousness and its transformation, Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans that will Save Your Life, and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, and the Spiritual Life. As a Zen teacher and the founder of Pacific Zen Institute in Santa Rosa, CA he has been one of the most important innovators in bringing the ancient koan tradition to the West today. He leads meditation retreats in California and around the country and works for Duke University Integrative Medicine where he teaches physicians and executives. He is currently developing a curriculum at Duke to train medical residents in the art of medicine. His next book will be about epiphanies. John also blogs at his own website, TarrantWorks.


Practices of Gratitude: An exploration for Thanksgiving

tarrant-gratitudeBy John Tarrant

We are what we think,
all that we are arises with our thoughts,
with our thoughts we make the world.

–Buddha (Dhammapada)

Gratitude is something that I haven’t planned on—either to receive or to give—it takes me by surprise. It arrives out of nowhere. It’s the part of happiness that is beyond selfishness. My gratitude doesn’t have a lot of discrimination and I like that. I’m watching a hippy girl at the check out, she’s wearing a shirt with an animal tail, she has all the codes stored in her head and is witty and helpful and I’m grateful for this moment with her. Later I’m planting bulbs for late spring and I see the crows teasing a hawk and I’m grateful for them too. Continued »

John Tarrant on “Placebo, chronic fatigue and dormitive principles”

tarrant-sunspaceicon-108x108Buddhism is a technology of the mind as well as a religion and I’m familiar with the idea that the mind has untapped powers, since anyone who meditates starts noticing this, and I do a lot of meditation.

I’m getting used to the thought that many things that seem as if they belonged in the realm of the body are also influenced by the mind. Placebo studies indicate that even surgery can be a placebo. Continued »

John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville” — The Way of Flirting

happygoluckyIn this new installment of his Shambhala SunSpace blog, John Tarrant introduces a modern Bodhisattva of Compassion, as found in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky.

“Her way of not judging others and not judging herself comes down to a complete practice for living effectively and joyfully,” writes Tarrant,  “and flirting seems to be an essential part of the package.” Continued »

John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville”: How to defeat the enemy

tankimagesThe teaching is upside down. – Zen koan

People stumble upon escape arts in the course of life. An escape art frees you to be in greater harmony with what passes for reality. One of the simplest of escape arts is to notice that every thought you have could benefit from a question mark. The upsidedownness or reversibility of everything the mind is doing is a crucial discovery. Continued »

John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville”: My Average Life

Q: “What is the Way?”

A: “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

I like finding features of popular culture that point the way out of the mind’s prison. It is as if a trail of breadcrumbs had been left where least expected.

Sometimes these features are influenced by Buddhism, sometimes they are just rhymes. I find the rhymes intriguing because they indicate that someone has found a method for hacking the mind, and that the mind likes to hack the mind, which is where Buddhism came from.

Viedemerde.fr (VDM) is a French site devoted to the truth that life is suffering. Vie de merde means — well, use the Babel translator. In the French way, VDM is devoted to offering the truth of suffering as short, tight exemplary narratives that are classified by subject — Amour, Argent, Enfants, Sexe, Travail and my favorite, Unclassable.

Viedemerde often has a rueful or droll touch:

Today I brought my lingerie home from my boyfriend’s place and found some that did not belong to me.

Today I had a big argument with my girlfriend who accused me of being narcissistic. Leaving home, I decided to write a text message to get her to forgive me. Lapse or inattention? I signed off with “I love myself.”

When you post on VDM it is rated with a little benediction: “It’s true it’s a VDM, it’s confirmed.”

Since Americans wanted to celebrate the Buddha’s dark diagnosis of the human condition in their own language, FMyLife.com arose. FMyLifes are postcards from Delusionville, narratives of failed hope, more emo and histrionic than Viedemerde.

Sometimes FMyLife is a miscellany of simple complaints, but the ideal post depends on a mapping problem, an irretrievable misreading of a situation:

Today, I was waiting in the car while my mom went into a store to get beer. A few minutes later, some random guy was knocking on my window telling me to open the door. I started cursing him out, thinking I was getting attacked. Turns out he worked there and was putting the beer in the car.

Today, my brother came out to our family as being gay. My mother starting crying because “She wanted grandchildren.” I told her that I was planning on having children. She started crying harder.

Today, I was on the bus home and on the phone with my best friend discussing my sex life with this new guy I’m seeing. I was telling her all sorts of raunchy sex things we’ve done until someone taps my shoulder and says “I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate you saying this in public.” It was his mom. Continued »

John Tarrant’s Escape Arts in Delusionville: “Sam the Cyborg”

The true traveler has no fixed destination
and is not intent on arrival.
–Laozi

Escape arts are moves that break out of the walls in the mind. I think of a wall in the mind as a map that is preferred over reality. There are many reasons for the existence of such walls — fear, obsession, neurological shortcuts the brain makes.

Escape arts disassemble the walls or, as in dreams, allow us to step right through them. We can also think of escape arts as practices that appear in moments of natural clarity. They are often similar to the moves you make if you are interested in Zen and koans, but the world teaches escape arts to us; they just appear in a situation without any conscious feeling that you are entering spiritual territory.

Escape Art du jour: Not trying to control the agenda.

Usually when we want an outcome we worry, scheme, and plot to manufacture that outcome. Job interviews would be the classic example. It’s fairly well known that job interviews are more fun if you let go of the thought of winning or losing, of getting hired or not getting hired. All meetings, from first dates to spiritual conversations are likely to be more interesting if we are not trying to prove that we know something or to impress each other. Then a pure event is happening, something like art, play, exploration, or bird call.

A couple of years ago I was staying in Sydney with some friends who are family. My god-daughter, who is an actress, was just back from a film shoot in which she spent her time up a tree in a mangrove swamp evading a giant crocodile. She was somewhat gloomy about it, but it sounded like fun. “If,” I wondered to myself “you actually wanted to spend your time up a tree at night in a mangrove swap being attacked by a giant crocodile, how would you go about achieving that? How would you get a life that was interesting and surprising like that?”

Her then boyfriend, Sam, an actor barely known outside of Australia, was there, mending a wooden chair. He came from a place south of Perth on the Indian Ocean in Western Australia, a place into which people imported palm trees so that they could pretend it was somewhere else.

He was just back from California where he had been staying with James Cameron in Malibu. Cameron was preparing to make Avatar – Cameron has an interesting idea about changing the ways movies are made. You just wear gym clothes and run towards someone and on the screen it comes up in full costume and a battle scene. Or you wave sticks and it appears as a banshee flying; the technology is a step up from Gollum and his harness in Lord of the Rings. This might change our experience of movies too — to make them more like games that we take as a metaphor for life, like World of Warcraft for example.

Jake Gyllenhaal, fresh from Brokeback Mountain, was said to be the first choice for the lead but to have turned the gig down. Cameron, who has a reputation for working with unknown actors, defaulted to Sam. The producers, considering a couple of hundred million dollars to make the movie, wanted a name star. So Sam went to LA for an audition, to convince them otherwise.

“How was that?”

“They brought in some leading men, so I didn’t play it safe or think about getting the job. I didn’t hold anything back. I just went all out. It wasn’t really a question.” The implication was that leading men are the kind of people who play it safe.

I thought that it seemed like the sort of situation where you could have a lot of complicated thoughts about what people wanted and how to please them or, conversely, just step into the space that was there and occupy it fully.

Sam went back to mending the chair.

Now, two and a half years later, Terminator: Salvation is coming out as a summer blockbuster, and Sam is a cyborg who thinks he’s human and is pictured 150 feet high all over LA.

So that’s how you get to be up a tree in a mangrove swamp, being attacked by giant crocodiles, or this case by cyborgs bent on eliminating humanity.

And that’s the escape art, not having a thought of the outcome, not holding anything back, not even being in an interview. And I think of it as an escape art for every day — having nothing to lose, being no one who could lose anything, stepping into a freedom that is always waiting.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, & The Spiritual Life. He directs The Pacific Zen Institute, devoted to koan study and the arts.

John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville” — Haven’t we all been Susan Boyle?

I like to find instances of Zen in pop culture where people have never heard of Zen; I think it shows that in Buddhism we are interested in a basic capacity of the mind, of all minds, a tendency to deconstruct delusion.

Along these lines, it’s always nice to have what you think is going on, turn out to be not what is going on. This is particularly so when what you think is going on is embarrassing or sad. This is the basic Buddhist enlightenment story: that what is going on is more interesting than you think.

So, I am not my thoughts and it’s good to be skeptical of what I think. Changing my mind or my heart is usually a movement towards freedom. One of the big things to be skeptical of is social approval: A lot of great teachers have been outsiders and spent their time being embarrassing or embarrassed.

boylegetsstandingoHere is a nice pop culture turn-around from Britain. Everyone knows about the Scots spinster Susan Boyle winning “Britain’s Got Talent,” or at least making it to the next round and going viral on Youtube. (Here’s the famous video.)

Her story hits all these notes — there is embarrassment, outsider status, and also the experience that what is really happening is much more interesting than what you think.

Susan Boyle lives with her cat, is unemployed, a church volunteer, has a high dowdiness quotient, no hairdo except gray and wild. She tries to get accepted by the judges in a clueless, embarrassing way. When they ask about her age, she wiggles her hips, pretending she’s sexy when she isn’t really about that, because she thinks that’s what they want, when they don’t; they are just hazing her. It’s an amazing, make-you-squirm-and-break-your-heart depiction of outsider status. She is the person whose efforts to fit in are the thing that fatally excludes them — something I haven’t seen as thoroughly performed since high school.

And then she sings, and you want her to keep singing. I want to listen and also to savor the wrongness of my first reaction, and my enjoyment in being wrong, my relief in being free from having such a silly opinion of another person in the first place.

As in a cartoon, Susan Boyle blows everyone away and they all vow to be kinder to awkward people in future. She seemed so confident and modest and even oblivious in the social obstacle course that the judges set up, that I grew curious and did more research. It turns out that she is handicapped — birth trauma, anoxia. And not trained to sing like that. So her story starts to deconstruct again, to drift toward the way we, as humans, can be beautiful under all sorts of adverse conditions while nonetheless the adverse conditions persist. Another Zen point — that adverse conditions do not detract from the fact of you.

I wonder if being recognized will ruin her perfectly good life. It has already gotten her a hairdo and new leather jacket and perhaps she is now in danger of being acceptable. Meanwhile it’s a lot of fun.

Have you had experiences about having your beliefs or prejudices punctured?