What is Zen?

(NB – This is an interview with John Tarrant, conducted Trish Rohrer for Shambhala Sun Magazine, December 2003.)

Trish Rorer: Maybe we need to be clearer about what Zen is . . .

John Tarrant: If someone asks you what music is, you play the piano. Zen has moves like that. Somebody could ask, “What is Zen?” and you could say, “The apple tree out front” or, “The eyes of the homeless.” That’s a good way to touch the need behind the question, yet it’s hard to grasp straight away.

So, there are methods: Zen is something you do that transforms the mind. Every day, sit down and be quiet and feel your life. Try to keep company with a koan. Check whether your heart is open when you’re practicing. That’s important. Try noticing things in the mind. Try not believing your thoughts–that might be liberating.

If there’s a No Trespassers area in your life where you think spiritual practice can’t go, go to there anyway and Zen will be more visible to you. If you think you have to be Japanese, Tibetan, thin, married, a monk, whatever, find what in you isn’t those things and Zen will be there.

Go to the mall, and when you’re standing in line for the movies, or looking for a better shade of lipstick, I bet you can find Zen there. That might be modern Zen.

TR: If I were shopping for lipstick, what would I be looking for if I were looking for Zen?

JT: Are you free? Is it funny? Can you see through the forms of things? Can you really enjoy the lipstick? Is it generous?

TR: What is free?

JT: Well, “I need this lipstick or I will be unhappy,” would not be free. “Oh, what a cool lipstick,” would be free. But let’s take an issue more pressing for most people: If I say, “I need you to love me” then that’s not free, right? I’m in pain. But what if I don’t need you to love me–I just love you. Or you just love me. What if nobody is expecting to get anything out of it? That’s free. A Zen question about love might be, “What if your attempts to manipulate others to love you are the main obstacle to others loving you?” That would be bringing a koan approach into a really normal, everyday situation.

TR: This is not common in American Zen at the moment, is it?

JT: No, American Zen is all over the place at the moment, to be honest. That might be good.

TR: Most Zen people don’t speak about transformation of consciousness.

JT: You can make Zen into a museum of forms. How you sit, what robes, a pre-modern Japanese aesthetic, a minimalist hideaway. You follow a prescribed way to do things and try to relax and find freedom there. In that situation, a radical idea might be serving a non-Japanese kind of pickle and what happens in the mind is not important. This path has its beauty yet is not to my taste.

On the other path: Zen is a method for transformation. It’s fierce, you don’t hide out, you appear as yourself. You want freedom, you want to understand the universe. You want to stop building the house of pain. The old masters gave us methods and hints and it’s something we can actually pull off. The earlier generations in Zen with the Beat poets had a good time. Nice to do that too.

Zen looks backwards a lot. It suffers from past success. But backwards is not where the answers will be found. The imagination is the crucial thing. It’s like those little dry sponge toys for kids. When you put them in bath water they become shockingly lively dinosaurs. We have to supply the water for Zen. Poetry is important, dreams too. You have to really listen, to do the methods and see how they aid you in your life–in your life–not in somebody else’s life.

TR: But isn’t there a risk of perverting the dharma by changing the form? Wouldn’t it be prudent just to stick with the dharma?

JT: That’s like saying, Stick with the bible. Which bible? You mean the one that says we should keep slaves? The one that says that women are inferior? Plenty of that in Buddhism. Zen is methods and a few road markers, not things to believe.

In China, the Zen people hung out, joked around, meditated, tried to address common crises together. They asked themselves, How can we use koan style thinking to help the generals to rule cities rather than burning them? Those questions hadn’t been asked in India. The Chinese cared about these things. They trusted life and didn’t just avoid it. They had to find out what worked. We have to collaborate that way now.

TR: So what’s new?

JT: Zen has changed a lot. There are kids and women involved, Zydeco sutras, new ideas of beauty, taking account of the private sorrows that grip everyone. Meditation in action. In the streets. In basketball. Meditation in places of sorrow and holocaust. Meditation inside art installations. The kids now are interested in the beat poets and that’s good. Enlightenment is more real, embodied.

This is a lucky time for Zen. Modern culture has fabulous ideas and art that link straight to Zen. The questions that touch our lives are new or new again: How to make the natural world sacred once more? What is enlightenment in families? What about the different kinds of love that touch everyone? As empires get more hollow and think that the exterior is all there is, how to encourage the interior life? And the old favorite, how to persuade the generals not to burn the cities.