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unstoppable kudzu

Hi Friends, 

I've been on the road this spring, so the newsletter is a bit late. 

We did a retreat in Santa Fe in which we took off from Basho— the journey itself is home.

Here are the first lines of Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, in Sam Hamill's translation: 

The moon and sun are travelers in eternity. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have been those who perished on the road. Still I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds and dream of a lifetime of wandering. 

Even if we never leave home we are on a great journey, visiting this earth. I'm finding out that it is a practice to tell the story of the journeys—the journey toward awakening, even the feeling of missing out. The seasons too, pass over us. Here is Basho again on the poignancy of spring.

Spring passes, 

birds cry out,

tears in the eyes of fish.

We've had a lot of rain and cold—climate change. We are here while we are here: Here's what I noticed:

Sunlight after rain,

calla lilies and cold toes:

a hopeful feeling.

In Seattle, during a retreat on the Valley Spirit of the Daodejing, Rachel Boughton told a version of the Russian fairy tale, Vasilisa. The great witch Baba Yaga lives in a hut made of bones that spins around on chicken legs, and the little girl has to go and get light from her.

The witch seemed to be an elemental force, a version of the valley spirit, who is the mother of us all and holds us all, whatever our opinions of life—another story of the journey we are on.

Lots of other good things are happening:

We're funding KALPA, our library of talks and texts. If you go online to KALPA and sign up for a monthly subscription we'll be thrilled. We are adding new material weekly.

Jesse Cardin is launching a conversation group for our teachers and leaders to talk about issues that come up for them. 

David Weinstein and Jon Joseph are doing retreats regularly. Check them out online. 

Now I'll start working on the June newsletter.


John Tarrant

In This Issue

Falling Off the Edge of the Known World by John Tarrant 
A Blog Post from Rachel Boughton 
A Video Talk from John Tarrant 
A Video Talk excerpt from Allison Atwill 

Questions? Comments?
We'd like to hear from you.
             poem by Yelu Chucai, Confucian scholar and chief advisor to Ghenghis Khan
Chan History

Falling Off the Edge of the Known World
Khitan Sage, Yelu Chucai


In midsummer of 1218 a literary man travelled into the interior of China to Ordos on the great bend of the Kerulen River. His name was Yelu Chucai and he came to meet Genghis Khan. Yelu Chucai was 28, he was 6’8”, had a compelling voice, and his beard came down to his waist. He was Khitan and it is said that he was one of the last people known to have spoken Khitan and written the Khitan script. His people had been conquered by the forces of the Jin dynasty and his father had risen to be a minister and advise the Jin emperor. Genghis Khan overthrew the Jin emperor.

“Your people and the Jin have been enemies for generations. I have taken vengeance for you,” said the Khan.

“Ah my father served the Jin with respect. How could I be so insincere as to consider my father and my ruler as enemies?” the scholar replied.

Genghis Khan is said to have liked his directness and took him along as an advisor. He was often out on the steppes in the yurts. It is possible that the Khan understood that his new advisor was serving something greater than his own interest, and was concerned with the country and the welfare of the people. It was not that the Khan cared greatly about such things, but he probably understood something genuine.

The new advisor was learned in Confucianism but also studied both Daoism and Chan. It is said that shock of the sack of Beijing led to his interest in Chan and that he studied with a koan teacher called Wansong. Wansong’s remedy was to tell stories that change you. He wasn’t interested in believing things but in offering new ways of thinking and feeling.

The origin story of The Book of Serenity is that after he joined the new government, Yelu Chucai asked his teacher for a book of koans, and the Book of Serenity, with its 100 koans and poems, was collected in response to this request. It was one of the earliest koan collections. The first copy was sent out to the steppes but the courier never arrived. When the replacement copy finally appeared, Yelu Chucai and his friends sat up all night in a yurt, reading it aloud. I like to think of them studying and talking together by lamp light, trying to keep the world alive. Those stories were the occasions for meditation and the idea was that if you were in a tight place and nothing would help then koans might open a way.

Yelu Chucai advocated for gentle policies toward conquered people.

Later he became prime minister under Genghis’s son, Ogedei, who asked him, “Are you going to weep for the people again?”

“You can conquer a country on horseback but you can’t rule from horseback,” he replied. And Yelu Chucai did persist and did save cities.

When the Khan’s generals swept through Afghanistan, Persia, and Russia, they were immensely destructive and cruel. By comparison, perhaps as a result of the Yelu Chucai’s presence, Chinese culture endured and the cities in China were not destroyed. It was a difficult life for a sage even so. After Ogedei, the rulers grew even harsher and more corrupt and Yelu Chucai eventually withdrew from government.

He died in the Mongol capital of Karakorum, a city that once had a tall tree made of silver with golden lamps hanging from the branches. The city has long been ruined and abandoned. The sage’s remains were brought back home to Beijing. The temple built at his grave site near Kunming Lake in Beijing was destroyed and looted during the cultural revolution. That seems the sort of thing he would have expected. Sometimes I feel his spirit advising us when difficulties press down on us. In hard times it is always possible to offer some sort of help. Also just to live, to sit with friends and speak about the deepest matters, keeps the light alive.  

John Tarrant

Stupas in the old Mongol city of Karkoram where Yelu Chucai died 
Teachings from Our Community 

Still the Same Body 
A blog post from
Rachel Boughton

This is the body that has always held me, a me that both is and isn't limited. The same body that was star and stardust and gamete and zygote and blinked into awareness one day, who lived in a unitary reality, where everything and everyone was me. Read

Video & Audio Talks
Your Ideas About Awakening

An excerpt from a longer Dharma talk by Allison Atwill recorded at Winter Sesshin,
January 2019

A Tiger Loose in the Mountains  

John Tarrant's Dharma Talk on Yunmen's Golden Haired Lion recorded at Fall Sesshin 2015
Copyright © 2019 Pacific Zen Institute, All rights reserved.

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