This document was originally distributed on Internet as a part of the
Electronic Buddhist Archives, available via anonymous FTP and/or
COOMBSQUEST gopher on the node COOMBS.ANU.EDU.AU
The document's ftp filename and the full directory path are given in the
coombspapers top level INDEX file.
This version of the document has been reformatted by Barry Kapke and is
being distributed, with permission, via the DharmaNet Buddhist File
[Last updated: 26 April 1993]
POISON AND JOY
This text addresses some of the most fundamental and delicate religious
issues. Therefore, it should be read, quoted and analysed in a mindful
All copyrights to this document belong to John Tarrant, California
Diamond Sangha, Santa Rosa, Cal., USA
Enquiries: The Editor, "Mind Moon Circle", Sydney Zen Centre, 251 Young
St., Annandale, Sydney, NSW 2038, Australia. Tel: + 61 2 660 2993
John Tarrant Roshi
POISON AND JOY
October 17, 1992
Center for Seven Generations
The title of today's talk is "Poison and Joy". Please sit comfortably.
In the great work that we do what eventually appears is a great fire or
light in us that we realize was always there and touches all things with
its joy, but we always begin the work in darkness, I think. Buddha, I'm
sure, was not the first to observe that there is something very
unsatisfactory about life a lot of the time. He made it the first
principle of his teaching saying that you cannot escape from suffering.
But then he said, "But there is an end to suffering." So already we are
getting into paradox very quickly here. And then there is a method.
There is a cause of suffering, and an end to suffering, and a method.
What we must do, I think, is to attend so closely to our lives that they
start to open. We spend a great deal of time skirting around the edges
of anything that's painful. Diligently walking the circumference of our
difficulty. And in zen really the way is through. We just go through
the middle of it. We don't need to walk around the edges any longer
like an ox in an old-fashioned mill grinding corn, walking around and
around in circles.
So, the darkness in life appears immediately when we sit down to do
zazen because immediately we'll find out that our best intentions to do
zazen well don't come off. Usually we don't do zazen quite as well as
we want to. And we also find out a curious thing that even when we are
very sincere, unbidden thoughts arise, unbidden feelings. Things come
out of nowhere that we had no intention of summoning. And usually we
spend some time fighting with these. I certainly did. A lot of time
fighting with these. And I think some fighting can be good because we
can feel our strength and our sincerity, but in the long run you just
feed the demon when you fight it. You give it energy. In the long run
what happens is that if we just attend, things settle. In that way, I
think, we go into the poison. We darken the darkness.
Tung-shan was asked, "How do we deal with cold in winter and heat in
summer when they visit us? How do we deal with them? He said to go
where there is neither cold nor heat. And naturally the student said,
"Well, where is that?" So he said, "When it is hot, kill yourself with
heat. When it is cold, kill yourself with cold."
This is a very famous story and I'm sure everyone here has heard this
before, but if you think about doing it, it becomes a great thing. Even
though it is well known, it still has enormous power.
So that when you are sleepy, kill yourself with sleepiness. When you
are in despair, that despair, too, is something that has appeared. It,
too, has Buddha nature. When your knees hurt, kill yourself with pain
in the knees.
So when we stop avoiding and holding back from life, then we will find
the joy will open. And there is a way in which it opens. I think it
only opens when we have been willing to suffer some. Nobody seems to
come to meditation without having suffered something. My personal
observation. Something that was true for me. But then everybody
suffers. We are drawn by the natural course of life to zazen, to seek
some simplicity and to find a natural, authentic way. And I think that
one of the important things about the difficulty and suffering generally
is to allow ourselves to be in it without to much complaint. There is a
very strong, sort of addictive longing in humanity. It's very strong in
our culture, but it's in others, too, of course, but I think it's just a
human thing. Where we have this great longing for life and very little
patience in cultivating it. So that we want magic and we want it now.
And there is a great, powerful magic in zen, but the strangeness of the
magic is after awhile the least interesting thing, I think. So you will
get attended by synchronistic events, perhaps. Many people are. You
know what people are thinking and things like that, but that's not very
interesting. The great magical event of zen is the joy that comes out
of the simplest and most natural thing. The joy that comes out of just
standing up and sitting down. Everything. "Walking is zen; sitting is
zen." Eating, drinking, making love, sleeping, being miserable on your
cushion is zen. Having your knees hurt in the long, hot afternoon is
Darkness is a kind of foundation, actually, the darkness that we find
arising in us. When Bodhidharma was asked, "What is the first principle
of the holy teaching", the emperor asked him, Emperor Wu, he didn't say
suffering. He said, "Vast emptiness. Nothing holy." This is what the
Heart Sutra says, too. The Heart Sutra says, "Things are founded on
emptiness." This means really that things don't truly have a cause.
Things have a virtue in themselves beyond anything we can say that
causes them. So you have a virtue in yourself beyond anything that
brought it about. Any suffering that arises in you because of your
history, any gifts you have because of your history, these are strong
things, yet they are also just a pure appearance of Buddha nature. Even
your suffering and also your joy. I think in some sense we can't take
credit for either. We just have to learn to love our lives so deeply
that we welcome whatever comes. Zazen teaches us that love.
Different people had different kinds of difficulty, I think. You will
find various kinds of fragmentation of attention, I think, perhaps that
deepest kind of difficulty that we have. You will notice that when you
are suffering, your attention suffers, too, and you don't have a lot of
it. And that if you are complaining about yourself or others, which is
easy to do, if you begin to turn your attention inward, to go against
that easy current of complaint, you will then find that your attention
has not been very good. And that way you go into the darkness. You
begin to attend to your situation. You begin to notice what is going
on. This is the great lesson of zazen. Is to do nothing. To stop doing
things and then you notice what is going on. And as you begin to
notice, you'll find that the suffering transforms and you do not suffer
the way you did. Because the suffering is something added to it.
Torei-Zenji with his poem, "Bodhisattva's Vow", talks about the nature
of this inner transformation, I think. He talks about the right
attitude to have to bring about this inner transformation. I never much
liked "Bodhisattva's Vow" for many years. I still think it's kind of
over written, but it's very beautiful and powerful, too. I always
thought it was kind of sentimental. I came out of a rather fierce
political-activist tradition. Wasn't inclined to blame myself when
somebody blamed me. But the enormous value of looking at our own part
in a difficulty in our lives is so wonderful. Sometimes your own part
might be that you're being a wimp and you're not standing up to
somebody. So it's not just a matter of a sort of overly sweet
compliance with life. You can fight with life, too, if you want. But
to look at our own part is so valuable and powerful. He talks about the
great virtue of abusive words. Think about that next time you run up
against some petty office tyranny or you're jerked around by somebody
you trusted and feel betrayed. The virtue of abusive words.
There is a koan in the Book of Serenity, "The Diamond-Cutter Sutra's
Revilement", Number 58.
The Diamond-Cutter Sutra says, "If someone is reviled by others, this
person has done wicked acts in previous ages and should fall into evil
ways (will probably fall into evil ways), but because of the scorn and
revilement of people in the present age, the wicked deeds of the past
So, on the face of it this is a fairly simple karmic atonement kind of
thing. If you're being reviled, if you're having a difficulty, it's
because you were a schmuck in a previous life in some way. You did
something, you committed some sort of wrong against the universe and
you're just reaping the karma now. And normally because of your bad
karma you would fall into evil ways, but because you suffer you do not
fall into evil ways. The suffering somehow balances that out and atones
In zen we regard this in a more immediate and less philosophical
fashion. But I think there are two ways to hold this. In zen
everything that appears we treat as Buddha nature. And it really
doesn't matter. Whatever appears has that shocking, profound light of
the Buddha nature. So if somebody comes up and gives you a present,
that is Buddha nature. The great Lin-chi (Jap. Rinzai) used to yell,
"Kaatz!" all the time. Someone would come up and say something very
wise to him and he'd go, "Kaatz!" and hit them. Or he'd say something
stupid and he'd yell, "Kaatz!" and hit them. And that way he really
encouraged people to go deeper and deeper. And the people that stayed
around him did get wiser. So when somebody comes up and abuses you, it
is Lin-chi saying, "Kaatz!" without an intention of harming you here.
The universe is encouraging you, deepening you.
From a personal point of view, there is a way in which when we get
immersed in darkness and life just overwhelms us and overtakes us, we
either go under or we become wise. If you have a solid meditation
practice, you will become wise and you can trust that. So you can trust
yourself in the most extremely difficult situations. And I know zen
students often choose to work in difficult kinds of work. And so again,
I want to reiterate, you can trust the practice to hold you through the
greatest difficulty, and it will.
The I Ching puts it in a more descriptive way. It says, essentially,
the same thing. That what is happening to us in the darkness is that
our character is transforming. We are building the great foundation
which the joy can inhabit. And without that foundation there is nothing
to hold the joy when it comes. And you must know this. Almost
everybody who has come to zen has had some experiences of eternity being
present. When you are a child, children have these experiences. And
suddenly everything is alive and interconnected and you see the
compassion in a leaf, in a hillside, in the ants crawling up the vine
stem. And we lose it because there is nothing to hold it. When we go
into the darkness, one thing that poison in our lives does for us is it
makes our foundation so that the joy can be held.
The I Ching has a wonderful hexagram called jen (sp??) or obstruction
which is No. 39. It says, as it often does, "perseverance brings good
fortune." Well, there are some situations in which perseverance
doesn't, and you just need to stop everything. You broke your leg and
walking on it really won't help. You need to stop. So when we're
obstructed, when we're in darkness and difficulty, perseverance does
help. The image is, "Water on the mountain. The image of obstruction.
Thus the superior person turns her attention to herself and molds her
character." So that when you are blocked in the outer world, you need
"an unswerving inner purpose to bring good fortune in the end," it says.
"An obstruction that lasts for a time is useful for self-development.
This is the value of adversity. Difficulties and obstructions throw a
person back on herself. While inferior people seek to put the blame on
others, bewailing their fate; the superior people seek the error within
themselves and through this introspection the external obstacle becomes
an occasion for inner enrichment and education."
Well this is the deepest kind of inner transformation that is going on
here. And what kind of introspection do you have. I don't think
there's much point in those kind of listing of faults that some
spiritual traditions do. Maybe we can learn something from it. I'm not
sure. I think the greatest kind of introspection is when we just stop,
and we look, and we notice what is. If you're working with a koan, if
you put the koan at the center of the whole universe, then you'll find
that everything becomes the koan. And when you notice the koan, you
notice what is. You are the koan and you notice what is. And we stop
having so many opinions about what is. We are so full of those opinions
about what is. And then we notice that those, too, the opinions, too,
are just something else that rises in the mind. There is no need to
When we surrender to the truth that we can't control everything, we need
to allow what is within us and without us to arise, there is a kind of
relief and you'll find that your practice can become rather comfortable
even in the darkness, even though it is full of mystery and you don't
know what on earth you are doing. It can still be rather sweet at that
time. This is one of the deeper levels of the imagery of Kuan Yin as
the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Healing. The figure who hears the
sounds of the world, hears the suffering of the world. And in hearing
that darkness and allowing that darkness in, there is a kind of grace
that appears, that is symbolized by the form of Kuan Yin. There is a
cabalistic legend that the shekinah (sp??), who is the feminine, Kuan
Yin aspect of god, follows us in our exile from god, our exile from the
divine. We are warmed by that feminine divine force. I think we do
experience this when we are willing to just let go and be in our
meditation no matter how difficult it is. But sometimes that's a minute
by minute thing. When some people walk in in such pain or it interacts
with me in some way, I realize well I have to take this session minute
by minute. And just walk through each minute, each second, really. And
other times I don't need that attentional discipline, but it's good to
have it. And when you have that force of attention there is a kind of
warmth that will come attend you. I don't think it's a great fruit of
the practice or anything, but you will notice it then.
So while this is going on character is something that is being built,
really unconsciously in the darkness. It's like the temple is being
built when we are not attending to building the temple. We're just
attending to what is. We're just washing the dishes and getting through
the next hour sitting quietly loving the world, really.
So it's a kind of initiation, I think, our difficulty in zen. And
initiations always come with an ordeal. You know some tribal people
have very severe initiations where there bodies are mutilated in various
ways. What the ordeal part of an initiation does, I think, is it
overwhelms our previous ideas about the world. When you find that you
haven't sat a sesshin for awhile or you've gotten far away from the
practice and you've come back to the practice, you'll often find that
the first day of sesshin can be kind of hard or you'll have a really
hard day there in a retreat. This is just the ordeal part of the
initiation. It's a kind of purifying going on, but also we don't let go
of those ideas and the way we see the world easily. And so it's sort of
extracted from us with dental equipment. And sometimes it's painful.
The great trust and truth of the practice is that it really is worth it.
That if you endure that, and if you don't give up just before the joy
comes, the joy really will come. The grace and the light will be all
about you and you'll see it in the faces of your companions. You'll see
it in the gardens. You will see it all around you and you'll find it in
your own heart. And it is the great reason, really, that we sit. And it
is the source of all that is creative in us. All that we do that heals
and helps each other. It is that great fire in life that appears when
we just attend to what is.
So this is why a retreat as well as being difficult can also be rather
simple and sweet and joyful. And I encourage you to relax into it. To
truly be simple and relaxed actually requires more discipline in some
ways than struggling. So please enjoy the rest of this retreat. Taste
each moment. Don't sit there waiting for it to pass. If you are just
willing to taste each moment, then the sun will rise all on its own
without the help of human hands.
Thank you very much.
end of record