Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy

Overview

Bring Me the Rhinoceros is an unusual guide to happiness and a can opener for your thinking. For fifteen hundred years, Zen koans have been passed down through generations of masters, usually in private encounters between teacher and student. This book deftly retells fourteen traditional koans, which are partly paradoxical questions dangerous to your beliefs and partly treasure boxes of ancient wisdom. Koans show that you don’t have to impress people or change into an improved, more polished version of yourself. ...
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Overview

Bring Me the Rhinoceros is an unusual guide to happiness and a can opener for your thinking. For fifteen hundred years, Zen koans have been passed down through generations of masters, usually in private encounters between teacher and student. This book deftly retells fourteen traditional koans, which are partly paradoxical questions dangerous to your beliefs and partly treasure boxes of ancient wisdom. Koans show that you don’t have to impress people or change into an improved, more polished version of yourself. Instead you can find happiness by unbuilding, unmaking, throwing overboard, and generally subverting unhappiness. John Tarrant brings the heart of the koan tradition out into the open, reminding us that the old wisdom remains as vital as ever, a deep resource available to anyone in any place or time.
“Here’s a book to crack the happiness code if ever there was one. Forget about self-improvement, five-point plans, and inspirational seminars that you can’t remember a word of a week later. Tarrant’s is the fix that fixes nothing because there is nothing to fix. Your life is a koan, a deep question whose answer you are already living—this is the true inspiration, and Tarrant delivers.”—Roger Housden, author of the Ten Poems series
“Every life is full of koans, and yet you can’t learn from a book how to understand them. You need someone to put you in the right frame of mind to see the puzzles and paradoxes of your experience. With intelligence, humor, and steady, deep reflection, John Tarrant does this as no one has done it before. This book could take you to a different and important level of experience.”—Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and Dark Nights of the Soul
Bring Me the Rhinoceros is one of the best books ever written about Zen. But it is more than that: it is a book of Zen, pointing us to reality by its own fluent and witty example. John Tarrant has the rare ability to enter the minds of the ancient Zen masters as they do their amazing pirouettes upon the void and, with a few vivid touches, to illuminate our lives with their sayings.”—Stephen Mitchell, author of Gilgamesh: A New English Version
“This book’s straightforward honesty, clear writing, and destabilizing insight have a profound effect. John Tarrant does indeed bring on the rhinoceros and a host of other powerful but invisible creatures, ready to run us down when we refuse to acknowledge the fierce, awkward, and beautiful world we inhabit”—David Whyte, author of Crossing the Unknown Sea
“John Tarrant’s talent for telling these classic Zen tales transforms them magically into a song in which, as you read, the words disappear as the music continues to echo in your mind and make you happy. Mysteriously, like koans.” —Sylvia Boorstein, author of Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Tarrant (The Light Inside the Dark), a Jungian psychotherapist for 20 years in Santa Rosa, CA, where he directs the Pacific Zen Institute, has written a charming and accessible, if at times overly explicatory, first handbook to the Zen koans. Something more than a riddle and less than an anecdote, koans carry the possibility of helping students of Buddhism attain enlightenment: they are at once the hallmark and the stereotypical image of Buddhism. At times, in his efforts to contextualize the koans, Tarrant runs the danger of explaining them away, but many readers should enjoy the freshness of the koans and the ease of Tarrant's writing. For most collections. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400047642
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/19/2004
  • Language: Japanese
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

John Tarrant was born in Tasmania and worked in the antiquated copper smelters there, writing poetry after his shift. Later he was a fisherman on the Great Barrier Reef and a lobbyist for Aboriginal land rights before graduating from the Australian National University.
A Zen teacher who has practiced Jungian psychotherapy for twenty years and studied koans for thirty, Tarrant now directs Pacific Zen Institute, a venture in meditation and the arts, as well as teaching culture change in organizations. He is the author of The Light Inside the Dark. He lives among the vineyards near Santa Rosa, California, and can be reached at johntarrant@earthlink.net.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
Bodhidharma's Vast Emptiness
Emperor Wu of Liang asked the great master Bodhidharma,
"What is the main point of this holy teaching?"
"Vast emptiness, nothing holy," said Bodhidharma.
"Who are you, standing in front of me?" asked the emperor.
"I do not know," said Bodhidharma.
The emperor didn't understand. Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze River and went to the kingdom of Wei.
Later, the emperor raised this matter with his advisor, Duke Zhi. The advisor asked,
"Your Majesty, do you know who that Indian sage was?"
"No I don't," said the emperor.
"That was Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, carrying the seal of the Buddha's heart and mind."
The emperor felt a sudden regret and said, "Send a messenger to call him back."
Duke Zhi told him, "Your Majesty, even if everyone in the kingdom went after him he wouldn't return."
FORGETTING WHO YOU ARE AND MAKING USE OF NOTHING
To study the Buddha's way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be awakened by ten thousand things.
Eihei Dogen
Poetry arrived to look for me. I don't know, I don't know where it came from, from winter or river, I don't know how or when, No there weren't voices, there weren't words, or silence.
Pablo Neruda
If you are in a tight spot and nothing has worked, you probably think that you need a transcendent piece of wisdom to rely on. You might think that you need a foothold or a handhold. You might think that you need to improve yourself or your skills in some way. Here is a koan that suggests another possibility: the way through might be by not improving yourself and not finding a railing to take hold of. Here is a koan about how the way through can appear naturally if you are open to it taking an unfamiliar shape. This koan also contains the legend about how this understanding was brought to China from India.
The Koan
Bodhidharma's Vast Emptiness
Emperor Wu had two unusual experiences that changed his life. These essentially inward events led him to certain achievements that are remembered today, more than a millennium after his death. The first experience happened when his armies had to repel an invasion of horsemen from the northwest. The horsemen carried with them whatever they owned, and they weren't afraid to die. The emperor had himself ascended to the throne in the standard way, by overthrowing the previous, weakened monarch, and he believed that he understood the riders. To steady his troops he visited the front lines and sat in the firelight on a small hill. This is when the emperor had his first peculiar experience.
Banners whipped loudly overhead and the wind felt as though it were inside his chest, tearing and banging. Something of the desert's tedious immensity was conveyed to him. The wind cleansed him of any anxiety and also took away other things the solidity of which he had never questioned before. It took away his august rank and his name. He stopped planning, and he also stopped thinking about the outcome of the battle. When everything he usually depended upon was gone, he knew immediately what to do. In the predawn, just before the nomads liked to attack, he sent horsemen into the center of their camp and immediately pulled them back again. As the pursuit came, the center of his line kept falling back. The nomads rode into the vacuum he had opened and he closed on them from both sides.
After his return, while the ministers celebrated, the emperor went into the garden to be alone. On the hillside, he had felt quite certain that he was going to win. At that moment, in the wind and the vast land, he was small and unimportant, and this sense of his unimportance allowed him to be clear about what needed to be done. Being important now seemed to him to be just a prejudice that confined him.
Once he forgot about having a special point to his life, he felt remarkably free for an emperor. There were some complications. On certain days he considered leaving his room but couldn't find a reason to. He still gave interviews at court before dawn but was sometimes beset by a sense of unreality. Shedding his old beliefs had not been so hard. He hadn't done anything to achieve his new way of seeing things; it was a gift from wind and war. Having opinions about life--ideas about being an emperor, about his own dignity and the motives of his ministers, having to dislike this person and admire that one--pained him now; he could feel these familiar attitudes as walls crowding around him. Yet some understanding, he was certain, eluded him. He did what was necessary out of duty and didn't mourn his old certainties, but he lacked delight. There had to be more to life than the freedom of pointlessness.
The emperor sought hints from the world. He noticed that he had remorse about the murders involved in his ascent to the throne. His qualms, as he thought of them, were the beginning of a new curiosity about his own life. At the same time he began to entertain famous teachers who passed through. Sometimes they were helpful. They usually praised him and gave carefully bland advice, often involving diets. Sometimes it was even good advice, but the question he had was something like a feeling--a mingling of excitement and uneasiness hard to formulate--and advice didn't seem to touch it.
Then the emperor heard of a sage from India. The man was himself a legend; it was said that it had taken him three years to make his way over the seas. The emperor knew nothing about the sea, but he imagined waves as the grass of the steppes in a high wind. He tried thinking of China as an ocean that he passed through, and nomads as pirates with horses. Though his own obligations prevented him from undertaking such journeys, he respected this kind of solitary accomplishment.
When this sage arrived at court, he turned out to be a genuine barbarian: red hair, blue eyes, dressed in rags. His name was Bodhidharma, which was not really a personal name, just some sort of title in Sanskrit. The clothes of the ministers were gorgeous, and in the red-and-gold audience room the visitor managed to seem nondescript, which was an achievement for a barbarian. He didn't have the air of one deprived or poor; the main contrast with the ministers was not in how he dressed. In a place where everyone wanted something, he did not. The ministers' rank was displayed by differences in insignia and dress; the sage made no claims about rank. He didn't either push himself forward into the emperor's notice or pull himself back into hiding. He stood quietly, and his presence affected the court until everyone fell silent. The emperor noticed that his own thoughts were becoming simple; he remembered the taste of vegetable soup.
"Even the most elegant palace," thought the emperor, "is also a burden." Then he stood up as if to approach the visitor's stillness. He wanted to find a road deeper into his own life, and asked,
"I have funded many monasteries; what merit have I earned?"
"No merit," said Bodhidharma.
With a jolt, the emperor thought, "Here is someone who knows! It's not about building things up. It's about undoing everything." He realized that he had fallen into being an emperor again and underestimated the sage and perhaps himself. He had not dared to ask a question important to his own life. The memory of a hillside and a battle rose up in him. He had had no language for what he had undergone, had had no one to stand beside him and say, "Yes, I see it too!" Now the emperor felt the man's presence as a kind of sympathy, which he longed to explore.
"What is the main point of this holy teaching?"
"Vast emptiness, nothing holy," said Bodhidharma.
Again the quiet voice that didn't ask to be heard. The emperor's senses became keen. It was as if the two men were sitting together on a bench in a temple garden with all the time in the world. He wanted to reach the other man's mind, or perhaps go deeper into his own mind. An odd thought came to him: "If I'm an emperor, how can I also be a person?" So he asked, "Who are you, standing in front of me?"
"I do not know," said Bodhidharma.
This statement stopped the emperor completely. He began to feel a delightful insubstantiality. The emperor's sadness over the shameful things he had done fell away, it fell into that emptiness. The emperor's worry over when more attacks would come from the north also disappeared. Inside himself he couldn't find an emperor.
He felt capable of many things but not quite yet; the words "I don't know, I don't know" stuck in his head like a line from a song. For a moment, he walked alone and was content. Around him, emptiness flowed in all directions. Then, as he looked about, the palace returned and the court officials started to whisper to each other. He was fascinated by how clear everything was. Someone else spoke, and Bodhidharma began to withdraw, as if he were himself a spell that had been lifted. If he had stayed, "I don't know" might have lost its power. In the court, only one person noted his going.
Later, the emperor raised this matter with his advisor, Duke Zhi. The advisor asked, "Your Majesty, do you know who that Indian sage was?"
"No, I don't," said the emperor, realizing how much emperors take for granted.
"That was Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, carrying the seal of the Buddha's heart and mind."
The emperor felt a sudden regret and said, "Send a messenger to call him back."
Duke Zhi told him, "Your Majesty, even if everyone in the kingdom went after him he wouldn't return."
"I met him but didn't meet him," said the emperor, and eventually those words were put on his grave. This was his way of expressing his own "I don't know."
Afterward the emperor noticed more about his own life. He noticed that when he didn't expect people to please him, he enjoyed seeing them. That seemed to be a clue. He found that he enjoyed building temples; it wasn't a matter of duty. Then he went further. The emperor gave himself up to temples as a slave, seeking inward freedom in an exterior narrowness, in forgetting how to be an emperor. At such times he felt full of love. He dug ditches and planted gardens. He wasn't an emperor or a murderer; the work took away his sense of himself. Like the Indian sage, he didn't know who he was and was free until he became himself again. The strategy was also an excellent fundraising device for the temples, since the game was that his ministers had to ransom him with huge gifts. And he enjoyed tormenting his ministers in this mild way. After he was ransomed he would live contentedly in the palace for a while until a feeling of suffocation and surfeit became once more unendurable, and he would give himself up to a temple and be a gardener once more.
Bodhidharma went away without carrying even one opinion about the emperor and sat for nine years in the mountains facing a cliff. "I don't know" continues to murmur, century after century. People wait and live inside questions; mistakes lead through doors. The idea that there is a wisdom that the universe just gives to you without reference to teachers or scriptures came from Bodhidharma to the reader of this page and is happening right now.
Working with the Koan
A man is madly in love one day and the next cares only to go fishing. A country goes to great lengths to make an alliance and within a year has changed sides. This is not just fickleness and greed. There is an insubstantiality to human reasons and motives and identity. You may make an expedition to meet people in loincloths as photographed by National Geographic but find that they have copies of the article with them, and have taken to wearing Nikes and T-shirts with pictures of hip-hop artists on them.
What we believe about ourselves does not stand up to examination, so there is always the problem of describing our own lives in a plausible way. The old teachers named this insubstantiality "emptiness." They thought that, contrary to the medieval idea that something cannot come out of nothing, everything we do comes out of nothing.
Occasionally, awakening from sleep you may wonder, "Where on earth am I?" Or, fleetingly, in a more disoriented awakening, the question becomes, "Who am I?" or even, "What am I?" These moments, when you open your eyes in the world as for the first time, like a newborn, can be delicious. With the uncertainty comes a feeling of freedom.
In the Zen tradition, you are asked about Bodhidharma's three answers: "No merit," "Vast emptiness," and "I do not know." One place to start is with the idea of no merit.
No merit. How much do you do for praise? How many things do you say just to make an impression on others? What are you really achieving when you try to make an impression? And how many accounts do you have to keep? If you didn't do things for merit and advancement, or if you didn't act with motives at all, what would life be like? At work? In bed? Alone in a room? Even alone in a room you can be consumed with wanting other people to see you in a good light. Can you imagine how things would be without that kind of wanting?
Vast emptiness, nothing holy. What is the mind like if it's not occupied with plans and schemes, and fears that the plans and schemes will fail? What if your unexamined beliefs were to fall away and you were to live without them, and also to live without the thought that you had given anything up?
I don't know. If you were to put aside what you know because of what other people told you, how much of what you know do you truly know for yourself? If you look for the origin of your thoughts, of your life, of your universe, can you find it? Can you find where this moment comes from or where it goes home to?
Driving home from a retreat in the redwoods, I come into the small town of Occidental and, seeing shops and houses, realize, "Oh, the twenty-first century." But because I have spent a week forgetting what to expect and indeed forgetting who I am, I wouldn't be shocked if it was any century.
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