Attaining the Light and Dark John Tarrant, Roshi
Today's talk is about attaining the light and attaining the dark.
Please sit comfortably.
Everybody wants to attain the light, have it shining and radiant
and to see the connection with all beings at all times. And in
your zazen that does not happen by clinging to the light.
Ultimately what happens is that you start letting things go.
Even letting things go is doing too much. When you start letting
things go, the lake begins to settle and the water clarifies
itself. There is nothing you can do to clarify the Tao; it is
already clear. And so, it doesn't really matter what happens to
you. If you get thrown in prison, this might not be considered a
good idea, but who knows? Some people have a child and they
didn't expect to; some people lose a child and they didn't expect
to. All these ups and downs of the way. Getting thrown out of
work; having a job you can't stand. Many things. They are all
openings and gates of the way. And the light is just as bright
there as in the sweet things, looking at narcissus flowers
blooming in the rain, that's easy.
Bodhidharma was considered--or somewhat considered--the founder
of Chan or Zen in China and there are many different legends
about him. He seems to have been Indian and to have come,
perhaps, by sea to China to spread the dharma. He speaks of two
major ways of entering the practice. Many roads lead to the
path, but basically there are only two. This translator calls it
"reason," but I think it's prajna and practice. " To enter by
reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to
understand that all living things share the same true nature
which isn't apparent because it's shrouded by sensation and
delusion. Those who turn back to reality, who meditate, who know
the absence of self and other, the oneness of ordinary people and
wise people, and remain unmoved even by sutras," (especially by
sutras) "they are in unspoken agreement with the Tao. Without
moving, without effort they enter, we say, in that way."
One old Chinese teacher had a particularly promising student.
Nobody else knew he was promising, but the teacher thought he was
He said, "You know, I can help you if you want, but you have
to want it."
The student said, "Well, I'm willing to do anything."
The teacher said, "Well, I'll give you the medicine that
veterinarians use to bring dead horses back to life."
The student said, "Okay."
The teacher said, "So don't bother coming to dokusan and all
that nonsense trying to give me responses to my questions.
Just let your mind become empty and pure like an old tree in
the mountains. Then, if you're slow, in ten years something
will happen; if you're medium, maybe seven years; if you're
fast, maybe three." Just like that complete instructions.
That's it. Off you go.
The student went through his day eating, working, cooking,
whatever, meditating, and one night he was sitting up meditating
late at night and I think he rolled up the blinds and suddenly
the whole light of the universe dawned over him. He was so
excited. He went to see the teacher--he couldn't tell whether it
was day or night and he realized when he got there it was the
middle of the night and the teacher was sleeping. He rested his
head up against a pillar and he couldn't help laughing.
The teacher came out. "Who's laughing outside my door at
midnight?" And he knew immediately what it was.
Eventually, that student became a great teacher.
So that is entering the way directly. No props, no handles. And
you can tell that sesshin, in a way, encourages this way. Just
enter; just now. And that's what we usually call the insight
path. And it's very deep and very profound.
But then the insight path, I think, is maybe half of our work.
The other side of the path is something the Chinese are also very
much interested in which I keep calling the character side of the
path. Some people develop the insight side and then have to go
back and to fill in the character work. If our character is not
deep enough and we do not have patience and we do not have a kind
of grace of just flowing with circumstances, then the insight is
like this marvelous water but we put it in a vessel that just
leaks all the time and it flows through. So then you get people
who actually have a genuine insight, but it doesn't stay--it's
patchy--and can be dangerous to themselves and others.
Bodhidharma, so long ago, speaks about the other side, and he
says, "This is entering by practice." And this has four all-
inclusive methods. Suffering injustice is the first, you'll be
glad to know. Adapting to conditions is the second. The third
is seeking nothing. And the fourth is practicing the dharma,
just in case you missed that along the way.
Suffering injustice. "When those who search for the path
encounter adversity they should think to themselves. In
countless ages gone by I have turned from the essential to the
trivial and wandered through all manner of diversion. All manner
of existence, often angry without cause and guilty of numberless
transgressions, now that I do no wrong I am punished by my past.
Neither gods nor human beings can foresee when an evil being will
bear its fruit. I accept it with an open heart and without
complaint of injustice."
This is finding the darkness. You know, it has taken me a long,
long time to come to terms with the Purification gatha that we
always chant at the beginning of our sutra service. There is
something repulsive about it to me. "All the evil karma ever
created by me since of old." There was something repulsive about
it to me for a long time. I always thought it should be in there
and I never knew why. I just knew there was something that
seemed necessary, but it was also repulsive. I think that is the
intractable difficulty in us it refers to. That the darkness,
too, is here. Injustices will occur--small ones, like running
out of food because you're at the end of the line in the meal, or
great ones, being thrown into prison when you didn't do anything.
Somebody leaves you, even though you love them well. Things like
that. So I think of the evil karma as the material, the great
matters of earth that we work with, the circumstances of our
lives. Everybody has their own difficulty that they come to the
dharma with. Some loss, perhaps, brought people to the dharma.
Who knows what it is? Everybody has his or her own story and
part of that story is always the sorrow that has brought us, but
that sorrow is itself a kind of gate. That evil karma is itself
primal stuff that gets converted. And when we actually walk into
the light, see the light, then we realize we would not change the
darkness of the past. Here we are everything just as it is light
and dark. Sunlight and shadow.
The last thing on injustice. Bodhidharma says, "The sutras say
when you meet with adversity, don't be upset; it makes sense.
Second, adapting to conditions. "As mortals we are ruled by
conditions, not by ourselves. If we should be blessed by some
great rewards, such as fame or fortune, it is the fruit of the
seed planted by us in the past. When conditions change it ends.
Why delight in its existence? But while success and failure
depend on conditions, the mind neither waxes nor wanes." So we
cannot be attached to these things.
I was talking to my friend Stephen Mitchell, who's a dharma
student and a writer, recently. Through no real fault of his own
he's become quite well-known and successful. He was talking
about an issue that was coming up in his practice. He has the
idea that if you happen to have success come upon you, then you
have to practice harder to survive. He had this change going on
in his practice and he said, "Maybe it means that I'll just stop
writing now." It didn't mean that for him, but that willingness
to be unattached to what is important is a very important part
and a very freeing part of the practice. Since writing has been
his whole life--writing and other practices as well, but
certainly has been a core practice for him.
So that willingness to let go of something. If it is in the Tao
to let it go; and to grasp something if it is in the Tao is very
important. Adapting to conditions. Silently following the path
like a thief in the night, sneaking around corners, following it
wherever it leads, invisible.
Third, according to Bodhidharma, is seeking nothing. People are
always lying (?) for something, they're always seeking something
out here. And we know that things out here don't always have a
good taste even when we get them. We are not happy when we get
what we want. If you get a new car, all you got was a car. It
doesn't matter whatever you change. Get a new city; all you get
is a city. And that will not change you. "Everything is empty.
Calamity always alternates with prosperity and the wise person is
unmoved in the midst of this." Just flowing. "Peacefully
living in a burning house."
Fourth, is practicing the dharma. "The dharma is the truth that
all natures are pure." The dark and the light that come to us in
circumstances. All are pure. The most irritating person in your
life is your teacher. That person, too, is pure. "Since that
which is real is also empty." He says, "Those who are wise give
their body, their life, and their property without regret,
without the vanity of giver, gift or recipient, without bias or
attachment. To spread the light they teach others but without
becoming attached to form. Through their own practice they are
able to benefit others and glorify the way. While practicing all
the virtues to eliminate delusion, they practice nothing at all.
This is what is meant by practicing the dharma."
So I think that Bodhidharma is the very early form our way. And
you can tell that it is already vigorous and cuts to the bone.
He's already not too interested in piety and much more interested
in the sacred. Later on as this became established, this point
of view, it, too, became something that was a veil in front of
people's minds. So people walk around saying silly things. One
of you told me about a man who said, "I'm a Buddhist, therefore I
have no ego, therefore I do not have to negotiate with you about
my feelings because I do not have them." That sort of thing--a
perversion of the way, but it is very common. I have some
compassion for this person. I think we all have a little bit of
that longing for that sort of desolate place that has nothing to
do with Nirvana. It's a place where nothing stirs--a place of
death, really. But that is to assume that there is no mystery;
that everything is known at this moment. It's also to assume our
own virtue which is always a mistake. Since anything we cling to
is just something we cling to. It just becomes another object
that we are stuck on.
In later times these sayings then started to get used as koans--
as pithy little jewel-like devices to help enlighten us. And
they start to use the scriptures in this way. Here's a koan
from the Enlightenment Scripture. This is from the Book of
Serenity, Case 45.
"The scripture of "Perfect Enlightenment" says at all times
do not produce delusive thoughts."
That's easy, just stop producing delusive thoughts. It's easier
than you might think. Just don't do it.
"Also, don't stop and annihilate delusive states of mind."
Don't annihilate delusive thoughts--that's harder.
"In realms of false conception don't add knowledge. Don't
find reality in no knowledge."
So, great Master Nanquan (sp?)--then we move into the Fu-on (sp?)
koan realm where there is no help; there are no ropes and ladders
for you. But if you can just absorb it with yourselves, you
know. It is much better than being able to recite scriptures.
He was teaching a governor and the governor came to say goodbye
to him because he'd been called away on state business.
Nanquan said to him, "How will you lead the people?"
The governor said, "I will lead them with the wisdom you
have taught me."
Nanquan said, "They will suffer horribly."
So yes, in realms of false conception don't add knowledge. Lao-
Tse says, "When people fall away from the Tao, virtue and
Nanquan also was very aware of the ways in which we try to
discriminate between darkness and light--value one and dislike
the other. He thought even death was interesting. Somebody
asked him when he was dying,
"Where will you go after you die, Master?
He said, "I shall be a water buffalo at the foot of the
The student said, "I'll follow you, Master."
Nanquan said, "If you do, you must bring some grass in your
His great student was Chao-chou. He was a marvelous teacher and
had more than one great student, but Chao-chou was one of his
great students who gave us the curse and blessing of Chao-chou's
Mu. One of his students asked him,
"Where will you go when you die, Master?"
Chao-chou said, "I shall go straight to hell."
The student said, "Oh, how virtuous. Your reverence doesn't
deserve to go to hell."
Chao-chou said, "If I don't, who will teach you?"
So you see even in hell you know--there are Tantric paintings of
even in hell there are these little red buddhas with demon horns
and fangs and scowls around them, sort of preaching the dharma in
accessible form--adopting the custom of the country.
Nanquan also said to his assembly, "Buddhas of the past, present
and future do not know it is. Cats and cows know it is."
As Chan developed, these kinds of dialogue became a very
characteristic thing and people lost no opportunity to turn
something into the dharma. So there was a slight air of danger
about being around these teachers because you never knew when the
conversation would turn on you and change into something quite
else. And so there is that giddy feeling sometimes of not quite
standing where you thought you were standing.
Here's a nice case, too.
The Emperor Suzong asked National Teacher Zhong, "After
passing away, what will you need?"
When you die, what will you need?
The teacher said, "Oh, please make me a seamless monument."
The emperor said, "Oh please tell me the design of the
So, the conversation is beginning to go in two different
directions here. The teacher starts to move in.
The teacher sits there in silence and after a moment he
says, "Do you understand?"
The emperor says, "I don't understand."
Yasutani Roshi used to say that there is more than one kind of
not knowing. There is the not knowing that is in touch with the
mystery of all things. There is the don't know which is a kind
of playing for time in a dharma dialogue. Then there is just
plain ignorance. So make up your mind which this is.
And the teacher said, "I have a disciple to whom I have
transmitted the teaching, named Danyuan (Tongan (sp?)
Japanese): he knows about this matter."
Then later, after the National Teacher died, the emperor
summoned Danyuan and asked him about the meaning of this.
Danyuan was very helpful, he said:
South of Xiang, north of Tan:
Within it there is gold that fills the land
Under the shadowless tree, the community ferryboat:
What is that shadowless tree and who's on the community
ferryboat? Are you on the community ferryboat?
In the crystal palace, there is no one who knows.
I'll tell you the verse here because it touches something in the
Solitary and transcendent,
Round and full:
Where the power of the eye ends, it towers high.
The moon descends, the pond is empty, the color of night is
When the clouds recede, the mountain is thin, the faces of
autumn are many.
The positions of the eight trigrams are right,
The eight trigrams of the I Ching.
The energies of the five elements are all in harmony.
The body is there before--have you seen it?
It has always been there.
Nanyang, father and son, (mother and child), seem to know it
The buddhas and ancestors can't do a thing about it.
So when you are willing to suffer injustice; when you are willing
to seek nothing; when you are willing to practice the dharma; and
when you are willing to adapt to conditions, one thing just
follows another naturally. The emperor asks and the teacher just
naturally replies. He uses whatever comes at hand. He grabs a
hammer because it is beside him and hits the emperor.
Another National Teacher, I'm not sure if it was the same one or
not, called his attendant three times.
He said, "Attendant."
The attendant said, "Yes," and nothing more happened.
Then a little later he said, "Attendant."
The attendant said, "Yes," and again nothing more happened.
Then later he said, "Attendant."
The attendant said, "Yes," and again nothing happened.
Then the National Teacher said, "I thought I was ungrateful
to you, but I find that you are ungrateful to me."
So this is a saying of great appreciation for his student. A
student is so ungrateful no one can find him. He is hidden in
the universe. That freshness each time the attendant comes out,
what a great teacher he is, each time he just says, "Yes,"
without a cloud. He doesn't say, "You know, this is the third
time you've called me. I'm a little tired of walking all the way
down form the hall and saying, "Yes."
A woman once told me that this koan helped her with her children.
I feel it helps me with mine. And it's kind of a moving story
because she said that no matter how hard she tried she would lose
her temper and hit her children. She walked in coming home from
work and was really tired and a little sick and her little boy
was beating on her little girl and so she told him to stop and
then the little girl immediately broke something and so in a sort
of crazy sequence of events the little boy starts hitting the
little girl again, hitting his sister and she slapped him.
Slapped him very hard and frightened herself. And she said,
"What it was, was I didn't say, yes." Her practice is to answer,
yes. Yes, teacher. When you suffer injustice say, oh yes. Very
And this goes in the inner world. We often think of this in the
outer world and work on resignation and patience and things like
that, but that's not nearly as good as just saying, yes. And in
the inner world when whatever comes up--I remember one sesshin
having--wondering--just getting through it by telling myself I
would wait till next period before I put my fist through the
wall. And somehow I got through it. It was very helpful for me.
And I didn't have to put my fist through the wall which was also
helpful for me and the wall. And so to somehow just to say yes
to what comes up. To say yes is not to actually enact the anger
or the sorrow, necessarily, but "ah yes, now anger, now sorrow,
now that feeling of complete frustration. I have been working
for twenty years on my koan and still I feel like a donkey." Or
just as bad, "I have passed 125 koans and still I feel like a
donkey. And now I know I am a donkey." But you are truly not
enough of a donkey is the problem. You're not just looking in
the well and seeing a donkey. A donkey is a very handsome thing.
Purely reflected back by the well. So it is that consciousness
which is when the teacher said, "Attendant," and the other
teacher said, "Yes," who is the donkey and who is the well? One
well looking at another well.
So that is the kind of mind that allows us to just naturally meet
circumstances. When somebody slammed a door on Yun-men's (Jap. Unmon)
foot and broke his leg so that he limped his whole life, at that
moment he didn't get a lawyer, he got enlightened. And it was
the better choice. And he got enlightened because he was already
open and deeply sunk in his zazen, deeply sunk in the way of the
Tao. So whatever visits you do not be too concerned whether it
is hot or cold. You can appreciate it and love it for what it
is--the darkness and the light. And sometimes you cannot find
how to love it, then that is your koan at that moment. I cannot
find anyway that it is unassailable. It's just like a cliff.
But you know every cliff that you come to eventually will
disappear. The cliff has been erected by your own mind. So your
own mind can take it away.
So, now that we are here in sesshin let us use this wonderful
time. It goes on and on and on. You are in eternal time.
Please settle into it doing nothing while the grass grows and the