Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

John Tarrant

I’ve pursued the idea that Zen is an art form that transforms you, rather than a religion to believe. In koan Zen there’s a dance between innovation and tradition, the way there is in poetry.

I found koans to be the only spiritual practice that is an art form, i.e. which has consequences not determined beforehand. A koan connects to images, myths and dreams; it comes out of the depths of the world. It becomes a doorway, a poem, a story, a conversation, a dog that follows you around and draws your attention to the large and small landmarks. It leads us into unknown realms—which is what art does.

As a writer I try to drag Zen out of self help into a written form that slides around between fiction, non fiction, and commentary.

I first published poems in The Paris ReviewThreepenny Review, and the extinct Blind Donkey, but now I just publish Zen pieces in Lion’s Roar or Uncertainty Club and pass the poems around to friends.

In terms of teaching, I’m not interested in Zen as a set of rules and procedures. My experiments have led me to trust people more than once I did, and to teach people to trust their own moves. They are probably not doing it wrong. They are probably OK with their own inner lives and with way of understanding those lives. They seem to find freedom more natural than I had imagined.

For a couple of decades I did Jungian dream work and I have a PhD in psychology. I helped design the pioneering mind-body curriculum in Integrative Medicine at The University of Arizona at Tucson. It was intended to develop a culture for change in medical education. I also helped design the curriculum and train the initial leadership group at Duke Integrative Medicine.

Pieces by John Tarrant