The Mystery of Tariki

This essay was the centerpiece of a talk I gave about “Courage, Creativity and Change” at the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta on August 7, 2016.  In the talk I reflected on courage as being internal and very different from bravery, a response to something external.  I talked about the courage of being other and how I learned as a child about being other from the Jewish neighbors I met in Buffalo, New York.  Anne Frank’s diaries helped me understand that courage is being true to one’s self even under insurmountable odds.  Courage is essential to creativity.  And creativity is a struggle against complacency.  It is courageous to create something new.  We find comfort in our patterns and departing from them is risky business.  True and lasting change cannot happen unless we dare to be different, to diverge, and to invent the future.  I talked about one of my role models, Lanier Clance, who grew up different in a world where differences were punished, who insisted on being himself in a world that did not understand him and who embodied existentialism in his community work, his interpersonal relationships and his art.  Lanier was an avatar of spontaneity.

An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation
so much as invocation.  Part of the work cannot be made,
it must be received; and we cannot have this gift
except by supplication, by courting,
by creating within ourselves that “begging bowl”
to which the gift is drawn.
— Lewis Hide


(Addendum to notes for a presentation for the Society of the Integration of Spirituality and Psychotherapy, Atlanta, October 1, 2004)


If I had a patron saint they would be St. Serendipity.  Most of the spiritual adventures I have had were under the sway of this saint whose penchant for surprise is only matched by their sense of humor.  The day before I met with the society’s steering committee I had been on the phone with my friend Will who is a floraphiliac, to be more specific, a camellia enthusiast.  He was insisting that I go on-line and Google a particular camellia so I could see its blossom.  As per his instructions, I Googled “kanjiro.”  As St. Serendipity would have it I found not only the blossom of the kanjiro camellia but the web page of Kawai Kanjiro, a Japanese folk artist and one of the founders of the mingei folk arts movement which sought to preserve traditional arts in Japan as industrialization was encroaching.  Kawai Kanjiro had been designated a Living National Treasure during his lifetime.  He was a potter and his studio in the ancient city of Kyoto is now a museum.  His guiding principle was tariki which translates roughly as “other power” or grace.  “We do not work alone,” he said adding, “when you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally then your work truly becomes a work of art.”  And of that flow he said, “Everything that is, is not.  Everything is, yet at the same time, nothing is.  I myself am the emptiest of all.”  I shared my “research” with the steering committee and they wanted me to say more about tariki when I spoke to the society.

I got up earlier than usual the morning of the society’s meeting.  I live half an hour’s drive away and wanted a little extra time in case of traffic.  A little nervous, I called the facility where the meeting was being held to clarify directions and got a recording that gave four sets of directions in rapid fire that served only to further confuse me.  Then my car alarm went off in the garage downstairs.  This was weird because I do not use my car alarm.  When I got downstairs my car was beeping away and had locked itself. I found the device that deactivates the alarm and turned it off.  Flustered I went back upstairs to finish getting ready and the alarm went off again.  I go downstairs and turn it off but as I am pulling out of the garage the alarm goes off yet again.  Now my frustration has turned to anger.  This sequence happens several times while I am driving over to the interstate which to my dismay, no disgust, is moving like a snail.  I am running late, traffic is creeping along and for no apparent reason my car alarm has gone crazy.  It continues to go off willy-nilly and I am so perplexed I take the wrong exit and must make a time consuming correction.  Frustration has gone all the way through anger and is headed toward despair when I turn into the parking lot of the facility.  I gingerly extract myself from the car hoping not to further upset the tranquility of the morning and rush to the meeting room where I am forty-five minutes late.  I had called on my cell phone to alert the group of my delay.  When I arrived they had just finished meditating.  I took a deep breath, placed my alarm deactivating talisman on the table in front of me, apologized and began my presentation on tariki.  St. Serendipity was in stitches.  As Kanjiro said, “We do not work alone.”

The concept of tariki comes from Shin Buddhism, the dominant sect in Japan.  Its complimentary concept jiriki which translates roughly as “self power” or will comes from Zen Buddhism, the minority sect in Japan but the one most familiar to Westerners.  D.T. Suzuki was a Zen master who did much to bring Zen Buddhism to the West.  In his book The Field of Zen he talks about tariki and jiriki noting that jiriki or self power is necessary for tariki.  He explains that in Shin Buddhism the repetition of “Nembutsu” a mantra or prayer of adoration to the Amitabha Buddha (the Buddha of the Future) is done to produce a monotonous state of consciousness, a place of serene equilibrium where tariki is awakened.  There are parallels here galore:  the shaman’s shift in consciousness through the heart beat of the drum, the chants of all religions that open devotees to Source, the zikr of the Sufi whirling dervishes where you forget you’ve forgotten the difference between God and you.

Meditation is another way of emptying the mind of all the opposites and coming into the present.  Psychotherapy can be a form of meditation for both the therapist and the client.  When the tug-of-war over conscious and unconscious expectations on both sides subsides tariki becomes palpable and the magic of the moment heals both parties.  I was fortunate that my primary therapist, the late Earl Brown, was not only trained in psychotherapy but in Buddhist meditation as well.  Our therapy sessions would often move to impasse and Earl would just sit there looking at me.  At the time I thought he was trying to outfox me, to stare me down, to break my resistance.  In retrospect I believe he was in that empty place of waiting, like a bodhisattva in pause for me to find him there so I could know the blessing of being in the mystery of the present.  Thomas Moore in his latest book The Soul’s Religion describes spiritual emptiness not only as an open mind but an open self.  He says, it “frees us from the anxiety of having to be in control.”  In psychology Moore writes, “emptiness is the absence of neurosis” and defines our neuroses as “nothing more than anxious attempts to prevent life from happening.” And yet we resist emptiness, defining negative space negatively.  Look at our words:  empty/full, negative/positive, avoid/fulfill.  When we don’t know we fear, so we repeat what we do know, turning history into destiny, the ultimate neurosis.

On a visit to Japan in 1989 I took the train from Tokyo to the old capital, Kamakura.  There resides the great Buddha I had first seen in pictures as a boy who wanted to travel the world. I had twisted my ankle earlier that day and I was walking slowly, aware of every step.  I was in awe as I approached the giant bronze statue of the meditating Buddha framed by the green of the surrounding hills.  For a small fee you can enter the Buddha’s body.  I pay my ten yen and walk up a flight of slippery stairs to enter and view the ancient welding.  Inside a sign in English warns that this is a Tathagatagarba or cosmic womb and to respect what is still and empty with stillness and emptiness.  How different this is from the full to overflowing lives that most of us live where only matter matters and materialism reigns supreme.  Where in this is that empty space, begging bowl, cosmic womb where tariki can be invoked?

St. Serendipity having had their way with me led me eventually to a shop where the demon in my car alarm could be exorcised.  I asked the owner of the shop why it had gone berserk to begin with.  He just smiled, shook his head and said, “no reason in particular, they just do that sometimes.”  Earl Brown’s daughter, Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and noted author. Her mother Grace sent me her new essay about Earl’s death and dying.  In it she notes that there are “no clocks in the heart.”  In the heart’s time everything is emerging just as it is.  Early and late do not exist when now is now.  It took St. Serendipity, a car alarm demon and a massive traffic jam to drive this home, form begets emptiness and emptiness, form.. There are no clocks in the heart only empty space for the vast mystery of life to unfold.

Franklin Abbott
Stone Mountain
December 18, 2004


copywrite 2004, feel free to circulate via the internet
Barbara Brown Taylor’s essay can be found at
information on the Kawai Kanjiro Museum is at
for more on Thomas Moore go to


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