John Tarrant’s home in Santa Rosa is in the midst of vineyards. This is the Sonoma Valley, one of the two great wine producing regions of California. He keeps a few chardonnay vines. There is a red barn in front of us when we pull into the drive. It now has an art studio on the second level which had been an apartment where Shunryu Suzuki’s biographer, David Chatwick, stayed for a while. There is a Tibetan mask on one of the roof posts over the porch, and a wooden Buddha—given to him by Robert Aitken—now missing one hand (what would be the sound thereof?) on an outside table.
Tarrant is Australian, though there is only a hint of an accent remaining. He has a delightful smile when something strikes him as amusing, and one gets the feeling he finds many things amusing.
When he first became interested in Zen, he and a group of friends tried to develop a practice in Australia by sitting together and yelling at one another, as took place in the stories they had read. Eventually he decided to find a genuine Zen community and wrote letters to several. The only person to reply was Robert Aitken, who was not actually a fully qualified teacher at the time but who had put together a place where various disaffected youth of the 70s came together on the island of Maui. Tarrant described it as a “cargo cult.” The group hoped that by imitating the Japanese forms they would somehow also achieve the Japanese experience of awakening.
Tarrant’s own awakening—the feeling, as he put it, that he had passed through a door—took place during a retreat on Long Island with the Korean teacher, Seung Sahn. Later he worked through the traditional koan training with Aitken, who followed the Hakuin system which holds that there is a single correct answer to each koan. Because Tarrant showed up regularly and had been around for a while, he was assigned the position of head monk during sesshin. At one sesshin, Aitken—whose health had always been poor after the time he had spent in a Japanese prisoner of war camp—was barely able to speak. Tarrant and Aitken’s wife, Anne, told him he was too ill to continue, and Aitken decided that instead of cancelling the retreat, he would have Tarrant do the dokusan meetings. That was Tarrant’s official transmission of authority.
He eventually made his way to California where he began teaching, following the formal protocols that Aitken had followed. He was experimenting even then; his colleague, David Weinstein, remembers Tarrant giving teisho while bouncing his baby daughter on his knee. But over time Tarrant 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, but what remained central to him were the koans. These formed, he felt, a “designed learning system” which somehow 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 the 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 him or her.
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.”
As a parting gift, he gives me several cards with art work by students on one side and a commentary 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:
Cypress Trees in the Garden:
Tarrant, John – 146, 155-72, 173-74, 175, 178-79, 182, 184, 191, 196, 197, 198, 212, 213, 231, 390, 417-18, 423, 468, 487