John Tarrant

One of the Zen teachers I was most eager to meet when I undertook my pilgrimage was John Tarrant.

I had been taking a medication for osteoporosis – Fosamax – which had this peculiar side effect: it resulted in spontaneous femur breaks. One didn’t fall and break one’s leg; one’s leg broke and then one fell. In my case, it took 25 months and three surgeries—each to implant a stronger bar down the middle of the bone—before the leg was finally declared healed. The book I took with me to the hospital for the first surgery was one that had been sitting on my shelf for some time but I hadn’t got around to reading, Tarrant’s The Light Inside the Dark. When, at last, I did open it, I enjoyed it so much that I brought it with me for the next two surgeries as well.

It is a study of the interplay of Spirit and Soul in human life. Spirit, in Tarrant’s terminology, is what connects us to the Source from which all of Being comes—call it the Void, Dao, or God. Soul is what links us to and relishes the world of time and the particulars of both enjoyment and the inevitability of suffering. It is a distinction I first encountered many years earlier in Lin Yutang’s translation of the opening poem of what I still think of as the Tao Te Ching:

Oftentimes, one strips oneself of passion
In order to see the Secret of Life;
Oftentimes, one regards with passion,
In order to see its manifest forms.

Zen is generally considered a spiritual activity, but Tarrant stresses the importance of both Spirit and Soul. Spirit without Soul can become cold, ascetic, and subject to that sudden upsurge of the denied elements which Jung called the Shadow. That, in turn, can result in “a fall into appetites swollen because so long suppressed—this is why we find scandals in the lives of so many religious figures.” [The Light Inside the Dark, p. 19] Conversely, Soul without Spirit may become base and prone to despair.

It was as much the book’s style as its content that made it a satisfying recovery room companion. The author was obviously intelligent and well-read and had a poet’s facility with language and imagery which made it enjoyable to read his work slowly. As I prepared for my trip to the west coast, I brought along my copy in the hope of having it autographed.

Some writers, when met, prove be very different from their literary personas. John Tarrant, however, turns out to be much as I had imagined he would be. He’s Australian—his ancestors “transported in chains to the desolation of Botany Bay”—and his accent would cause me occasional difficulty when I worked on the transcript of the interview although it was a pleasure at the time. There was the same irreverent sense of humor I found in the book. He grinned mischievously throughout the interview, and his frequent chuckles easily burst into a chest-heaving belly laugh.

He is the first of Robert Aitken’s heirs, which places him very early in the process of the transference of Zen to the West.

After he was authorized to teach, he established a zendo in California which, at first, he ran fairly traditionally. But over time he began to wonder how many of the Japanese elements were really central to the practice. Did it matter if people wore Buddhist robes? Did it matter if they had shaved heads? Slowly the forms began to fall away; what remained central, however, were the koans. These formed, he felt, a “designed learning system” which transcended the culture in which they had been developed.

He worked with students who wanted to go through traditional koan training, but he felt it was more interesting to work in less formal structures. A student who comes to his Pacific Zen Institute may not necessarily be taught formal meditation posture and sitting. They can sit in chairs and then, even at their first meeting, after a few minutes of becoming aware of what’s going on their mind, be given a koan to think about. It could be any koan—a monk asks the Zen master, what’s the meaning of Zen? The master answers, “The cypress tree in the garden.”  Tarrant asks the students to just reflect on the koan and then to share, in a group setting, what it means to them.

I remark that that is very different from other centers where students are specifically told not to discuss their koans with others. “Oh, they lie about it then do they?” he says with a grin. “We’re Americans; we discuss everything. Of course we’re going to discuss our koans.”

He did autograph the copy of The Light in the Dark I’d brought and, as a parting gift, gave me several cards with art work by students on one side and commentaries written by him on the back: “OK. Here is one koan method for happiness in all its simplicity. Just find a relationship with the koan. You don’t have to get ready or settle yourself down. You just start living inside your own life and let the koan keep you company like a good dog or a friend. The koan doesn’t go anywhere else or ever leave you . . . You can keep company with a koan without assessing, criticizing or judging yourself. The koan doesn’t find fault. And even if you do criticize yourself, don’t criticize that. Compassion finds an entry. This is important.”

Cypress Trees in the Garden: pp: 146, 155-72, 173-74, 175, 178-79, 182, 184, 191, 196, 197, 198, 212, 213, 231, 390, 417-18, 423, 468, 487.

The Story of Zen: 196

Zen Conversations: 86-87

Other links:

Pacific Zen Institute


Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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