Timeless Wisdom

Enter the Gates That Open

A Zen Teacher Reflects on the Relationship between Attention and Caring

By John Tarrant

Q: What is Zen?
A: Food in the pot, water in the pail. (Zen Koan)

The creative moment appears inside the things of the world. When we stop grabbing at things, they seem to approach us and our connection with them is something we feel and know.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that an angel wouldn’t be impressed by our feelings; instead we should tell an angel about things.

He will stand astonished; as you stood
by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours

I live in Sonoma County and the autumn wild fires there touched our house. They appeared as smoke and a glow in the distance beyond the hill that we call a mountain. The flames burned the house across the road leaving the play structure standing. Driven by 60 mph winds, the flames cut through the field where the llamas—who watch all comings and goings—had just been evacuated, bypassed the eucalyptus trees that were saying “burn me!”, jumped the road at the house, took some pine trees, grape vines, a maple, a lilac, a wisteria, a gazebo covered by the wisteria, and a whitewater canoe. The fire baked the golden apples on the apple tree and grasped hold of the front porch, the door, cracked a window, and leapt onto the roof. Then the tired fire crews of three engines stopped it with water and axes. I felt for the trees and birds who lived there, but I never did like the front of the house. That’s not quite the story I want to tell, though.

Here’s the story: I went to thank the Battalion Chief from the Rancho Adobe Fire Station and he told me another story about the fire. A fire truck was driving close to the flames and the order came to pull back. There was a wall of flame and no hope for the houses there. However, the driver had touch of OCD and couldn’t bring himself to turn the truck around just anywhere, that wouldn’t do at all. He wanted to find the perfect place to turn the around, the exact right place. So he kept driving and looking as the flames came closer, knowing the right moment would appear. And as he drove he saw a flashlight waving in the dark. A woman had missed the evacuation, was dazed, and lay down between two houses, ready to die. His OCD was her miracle. They got her out before the flames arrived. So that’s the creative moment, too, something odd and ordinary that looks a bit like a mistake at first, but it opens a gate in the world, and in this case saves a life.

And here’s another story about things: In the burned houses, fireproof safes survived. Sometimes the only other thing intact was high fired ceramic—a chimney, a big flower pot with white glaze and blue flowers. The tumblers on the safe still worked and the doors swung open nicely. Inside there was puddle of metal that had been grandma’s rings or granddad’s watch. The papers, stock certificates, bitcoin codes, titles to the house and car, of these things there was no trace. A fireproof safe saves itself but nothing else. This tells us about our relationship to things in a different way. Loss is a true and surprising road. We can’t negotiate with our moment of loss, it has an irrevocable quality, one way or another we just have to enter it.

Correspondingly, things have a thusness, an irreducibility; seeing this quality is the art of caring for life and moving through the passages we have to take, feeling our way. When we do this, things seem radiant, and complete in themselves. This is where the art of attention and the art of caring for life crossover.

Yesterday I took the dogs for a walk along the new green that has dashed forward now that the longed for rains have come. I forgot the leashes. So I tied iPhone cords together and put a bowline on one end, very shipshape. The old cattle dog was happy, the leash is pro forma for him, but he likes the ceremonies of connection. The energetic border collie kept slipping free and I had a good time. Strangers stopped to talk to me. They didn’t comment but occasionally they glanced down at the tangle of white cord with real knots in it, and smiled quietly.

This morning the sound of rain woke me, irregular and delicious on the roof. It seems that the seasons are a gift from the year and wrap us around. I wrote a little haiku:

I woke to rain at dawn;
persimmon leaves are turning
persimmon colored

John Tarrant is the author of Bring me the Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans that will Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & The Spiritual Life. He is a Zen Roshi with a PhD in Psychology who, after 15 years of teaching koans in the classical Japanese way, developed new ways to teach people with no experience of Zen or even of meditation. He teaches meditation as a creative path.

Join us at the Garrison Institute May 25-28, 2018 for a retreat with Tarrant, “Attention Is the Most Basic Form of Love: A Workshop on the Creative Stories of Zen.”

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