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Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy Hardcover – October 19, 2004

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About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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....

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; F First Edition edition (October 19, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400047641
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400047642
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.7 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,171,290 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Bob Flannery on October 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Let the teaching flow out from your own breast

to cover the sky and the earth."

- Yantou

"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 how it is true." - BMtR

The single most satisfying aspect of this book is the sharing of personal experience. The author relates his "Stumbling into Koans" as well as sharing the experiences of others who have encountered koan practice. Many of the traditional koans are themselves dialogues or interchanges.

Each of the fourteen chapters stands alone as the presentation of a koan with commentary. Each chapter is entitled, for example "ON AVOIDING BAD ART" or "LIFE WITH AND WITHOUT YOUR CHERISHED BELIEFS" or "THE HEAVEN THAT'S ALREADY HERE". Each koan has a section "Working with the Koan", with one or more personal stories from the author or another person. The honest sharing of life experience makes the book intriguing.

"Koans might be imagined as vials of ancient light. There is one strange thing about meeting ancestors in this way: when they reach down across night and the years to give you their light, you might find that what you have been given is your own light, something that belongs to you." - BMtR

On the other hand, one can lose one's precious maps that over and over lead one into the familiar den of misery. Tarrant strongly advises to discard the old, familiar roadmap to Misery, AND don't replace it with anything. Not knowing is preferred to being CERTAIN and suffering. Life is allowed to be itself, not scrunched into little ugly molds.

Try it. You'll like it!
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Daniel M. Kaplan on October 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is more than a book about Koans. It is a complete presentation of The Matter itself. John Tarrant goes directly to the heart of the matter and directly to OUR hearts. One can't help but take up koans as one reads the book. Koans are about our life, not about some chinese buddhists who lived 1000 years or more ago. John show the way to freedom, demonstrates the way to freedom and the kicker is, it's already here if you can see it and use it. What a gift. Nine bows.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful By William Krumbein on December 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I am a member of Pacific Zen Institute (PZI) and John Tarrant is my primary teacher. That being said, I offer a little different perspective than what you may read in other responses to his book, "Bring Me the Rhinoceros."

We at PZI have one-on-one interviews with John during any given month as well as at retreats. This is the context in which most people view koan work. But the word koan literally means "public notice". John has reconnected our community to the ways of old Chinese masters by bringing public discussion back into koan studies. He does this by conducting koan seminars throughout the year where we will meditate with a koan, then share our experience with the group.

What John has done with "Bring Me the Rhinoceros" is to offer every reader the opportunity to join in a grand public koan discussion. John writes how these koans have affected him; he writes about other people and their koan experiences; but it doesn't end here.

Sometimes I read one chapter just before going to sleep. Other times I read a chapter just before my morning meditation period. How have you experienced these koans? Join us, then, in this grand discussion.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Nina Jo Smith on March 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Okay, Mountain Tasting runs a close second, but this book gets me through hard times. It is great to read aloud to a friend or spouse. It is the only book I now recommend to those dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

The koans work me and transform my suffering into something like acceptance.

My only complaint is that it has not yet come out in paperback.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By JSB on April 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Put simply, this is one of the best books on spiritual practice - and on living a good life - that I have ever read. If you're the least bit interested in such matters, you'll enjoy the rhinoceros. I had never felt much interest in koans before, but John Tarrant enabled me to see them in a new light. His is the warm, humorous, and deeply wise side of zen.
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