I’m interested in Zen as a way that transforms the mind. There’s a dance between innovation and tradition, the way there is in English poetry. I studied and taught Zen in a classical, pretty much Japanese, manner for about 15 years before developing new ways of introducing koans that even people with no experience of meditation can find useful. A koan is a doorway. Strangely enough these imaginative little poems and stories and dialogues open into something more real than the usual stories the mind makes up.
I’m not so interested in Zen as a set of rules and procedures. My experiments have led me to trust people more than once I did, and to teach people to trust their own moves. They are probably not doing it wrong. They are probably OK with their own inner lives and with way of understanding those lives. They seem find freedom more natural than I had imagined.
For a couple of decades I did Jungian dream work and I have a PhD in psychology. I helped design the pioneering mind-body curriculum in Integrative Medicine at The University of Arizona at Tucson. It was intended to develop a culture for change in medical education. I also helped design the curriculum and train the initial leadership group at Duke Integrative Medicine.
John Tarrant (born 1949) is a Western Zen teacher, director of the Pacific Zen Institute (pacificzen.org) which has centers in California, Arizona, and Canada. He teaches and writes about the transformation of consciousness through the use of the Zen koan and trains koan meditation teachers. Tarrant is from Australia, he came from an old Tasmanian family and grew up in the City of Launceston on Bass Strait. His early influences included English literature, especially poetry, the Latin Mass, the Tasmanian bush, and Australian Aboriginal culture. Tarrant worked at many jobs, ranging from working as a laborer in an open-pit mine, to commercial fishing the Great Barrier Reef. Eventually he also worked as a lobbyist for the Aboriginal land rights movement.
Tarrant attended the University of Tasmania and then the Australian National University, where he earned a degree in Human Sciences and English Literature. He later earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Saybrook Institute in San Francisco. He wrote his doctoral thesis on “The Design of Enlightenment in Koan Zen” and for twenty years was a Jungian psychotherapist working on dream analysis at the same time as he developed his teaching of koans. Tarrant’s first Buddhist studies, in the early 1970’s, were with Tibetan Lamas who visited Australia. He discovered koans (stories sometimes given to Zen practitioners to hasten and refine insight and enlightenment) and, lacking any teachers in the southern hemisphere, worked on them by himself for a number of years. Later in the United States he passed his first koans with Korean teacher Seung Sahn. He studied with Robert Aitken in Hawaii for 9 years and was Aitken’s first dharma heir. He also did advanced koan work with Koun Yamada. He began teaching in 1983. In 1987 he founded the organization which evolved into the Pacific Zen Institute (PZI) in Santa Rosa, California, devoted to koan work and the arts.
John Tarrant’s reputation as a writer and poet grew with contributions to many publications including The Paris Review, Threepenny Review and the books, Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry and What Book? Buddha Poems From Beat to Hiphop. Tarrant’s own books include The Light Inside the Dark: Zen Soul & The Spiritual Life (HarperCollins) —a map of the spiritual journey including the dark bits—and Bring Me the Rhinoceros—& Other Zen Koans To Save Your Life (Harmony), which is a sampler of koans and a western approach to them.
Although his training was originally in what was essentially still the medieval koan system, Tarrant has spent many years exploring how koans are pertinent to people living in the modern world. He holds koan seminars where people of all levels of experience are welcomed and a collaborative culture is encouraged. Pacific Zen Institute’s program of Koan small groups and salons allow people to study koans together in an ongoing way. He teaches koans as doorways available to anyone, not only for advanced practitioners.
PZI’s projects include creating new English translations of some of the elements of the sutra collection as well the evolution of musical settings of many parts of the chanted liturgy. Working with the Zen teacher and translator, Joan Sutherland, and Richie Domingue, then leader of the Zydeco Band “Gator Beat”, Tarrant collaborated in developing what is probably the first sung Zen liturgy in an American idiom.
Among Tarrant’s successors and collaborators through Pacific Zen Institute include the Zen master Joan Sutherland, head of the “Open Source” Zen network, Susan Murphy, a film maker and Zen master based in Sydney, Australia, David Weinstein in Northern California, and James Ishmael Ford, founder and senior teacher of the “Boundless Way Zen” network.
As part of his interest in meditation in action Tarrant has taught in alternative energy corporations and medical and health care organizations. He worked with the startup of Dr. Andrew Weil’s Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Tarrant designed and taught the part of the curriculum in which the art of medicine was approached as being based in the arts of attention including working with the executive team at Duke Integrative Medicine with Dr. Tracy Gaudet.