From the Publisher
Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls
Bring Me the Rhinoceros is one of the best books ever written about Zen.”—Stephen Mitchell, translator of Gilgamesh: A New English Version
“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
Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake
Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction: An Impossible Question Means A Journey
This book offers an unusual path into happiness. It doesn’t encourage you to strive for things or manipulate people or change yourself into an improved, more polished version of you. Instead, it suggests a way to approach happiness indirectly by unbuilding, unmaking, tossing overboard, and generally subverting unhappiness. And even this indirect approach is not based on a plan. It’s hard to plan for something that takes you beyond what you can imagine, which is what this method is designed to do. The method described in this book is based on Zen koans (“ko-an”) and has been in use for a long time in East Asia, though in the United States, Europe, and Australia it is just getting established. The goal of the Zen koan is enlightenment, which is a profound change of heart. This change of heart makes the world seem like a different place; with it comes a freedom of mind and an awareness of the joy and kindness underlying daily life.
Koans are not intended to prescribe a particular kind of happiness or right way to live. They don’t teach you to assemble or make something that didn’t exist before. Many psychological and spiritual approaches rely on an engineering metaphor and hope to make your mind more predictable and controllable. Koans go the other way. They encourage you to make an ally of the unpredictability of the mind and to approach your life more as a work of art. The surprise they offer is the one that art offers: inside unpredictability you will find not chaos, but beauty. Koans light up a life that may have been dormant in you; they hold out the possibility of transformation even if you are trying to address unclear or apparently insoluble problems.
To begin with, here are seven things to notice about koans: Koans show you that you can depend on creative moves. Usually people think of a creative leap as something like one, two, three, four . . . six. With koans a creative leap is more like one, two, three, four . . . rhinoceros. What if happiness were a creative activity, like writing a poem? You cannot know where the next line of a poem will come from and you can’t force it, yet there is a discipline that helps. When you attend in the right way, the poem’s next line really does arrive out of nowhere. In the same way, through a koan, happiness can arrive out of nowhere.
Koans encourage doubt and curiosity. Koans don’t ask you to believe anything offensive to reason. You can have any religion and use koans. You can have no religion and use koans. Koans don’t take away painful beliefs and put positive beliefs in their place. Koans just take away the painful beliefs and so provide freedom. What you do with that freedom is up to you.
Koans rely on uncertainty as a path to happiness. If you set off after happiness thinking that you know what you need, you will always end up with something that meets that need. The problem here is that when you are unhappy, it is as if you are in prison, and in that narrow cell you think of happiness with an inmate’s mind. You might imagine a more comfy cell, consider painting the walls a nicer color—rose, perhaps—and getting a new sofa. Koans don’t support the interior decoration project; they demolish the walls.
Koans will undermine your reasons and your explanations. If you have a reason for happiness, then that happiness can be taken away. The person you love could leave, the job could stop being interesting. If you have a reason for loving life, what happens if that reason fails? With koans you may find that life and love are so strong and vivid that they can’t be explained or justified. Koans open a happiness that comes for no good reason. That happiness exists before reasons have appeared in the universe.
Koans lead you to see life as funny rather than tragic. Well, which would you rather? This is one of their delights. For example, an earnest visitor asked a Chinese master, “Where do we go when we die?”
“I shall go straight to hell,” said the old master.
“You?” said the questioner, “A good Zen master, why would you go to hell?”
“If I don’t, who will teach you?”
Koans will change your idea of who you are, and this will require courage. If you are used to living in a small room and suddenly discover a wide meadow, you might feel unsafe. Everyone thinks that they want happiness, but they might not. They might rather keep their stories about who they are and about what is impossible. Happiness is not an add-on to what you already are; it requires you to become a different person from the one who set off seeking it.
Koans uncover a hidden kindness in life. Koans show a path in which kindness is part of the foundation of the mind; not one of its accoutrements, nor something to be cultivated. If it were an attainment, kindness could be taken away or lost. When you unpack all your motives and other people’s motives and get to the bottom of things, you find love. I know that this is a shocking thing to say but I will try to show you how it is true.