Zen and the Art of Tarot III: Card as Koan

This is the third post in a series on the relationship between Zen Buddhism and the Tarot. It came about because I decided to try mixing Zen philosophy and visualization meditation in my attack on a personal issue of mine.


The personal issue, as I explained in depth in the previous posts, is a persistent feeling of unworthiness — of feeling like I do not deserve the good things and good people in my life. After all, there are so many all over the world who do not have the things I am blessed with; why should I have what they do not? Intellectually, I know that none of us really “deserve” what we have; 95% of everything in our lives — good and bad — can be traced to accidents of luck, birth and upbringing. But intellectual knowledge is not the same as feeling the truth of something. And the feeling of unworthiness was causing me to subconsciously sabotage my efforts to improve my life, and making me feel guilty for what I had.

When I drew Tarot cards on this issue, I got the Hermit, the Six of Wands, and Strength. I successfully used visualization meditation to figure out the meaning of the Hermit, and decided to use the same technique on the other two cards.

In this exercise, I was, in a way, treating the cards like koans.

The Koan

A koan is a puzzle, story, or dialogue that is designed to be pretty much senseless. It is a little pretzel for the mind to meditate upon, a weight that is too heavy for the thinking brain to lift. But by struggling to make sense of it, the mind is led, by many winding paths, toward enlightenment.

The Stick That is Not a Stick

A monk, taking a bamboo stick, said to the people,
“If you call this a stick, you fall into the trap of words,
but if you do not call it a stick, you contradict facts.
So what do you call it?”

At that time a monk in the assembly came forth. He snatched the
stick, broke it in two, and threw the pieces across the room.

–traditional koan

In this koan, the monk is saying that calling the stick “a stick” reduces its existence as a real, individual object to a general linguistic category, hiding its uniqueness. On the other hand, if you say it’s “not a stick,” you are denying the very real truth that it is, in fact, a stick. What is the answer?

One answer is that given by the other monk, who, by breaking the stick, calls attention to the false dichotomy (why should “stick” or “not stick” be the only choices of action?) and simultaneously engages with the world creatively, using his freedom of action and will to bring an end to the paradox.

However, that is not the only answer. The point of the koan is not to “have an answer”, any more than the point of a barbell is to be lifted once and never picked up again. The koan is to be engaged with and meditated upon until a larger truth is revealed.

And a Tarot card can be viewed in much the same way. By drawing a card at random and trying to apply it to a situation in your life, the mind is forced into engage with the situation and the card, to ruminate and free-associate until the larger truth is revealed. And of course, in the Zen tradition, excellent way to do this is meditation.

The Six of Wands

Shortly after I left the Hermit’s tower, the knight came to me. He was riding a great white horse — actually, a winged horse. As he landed beside me on the forest path, I could see that he was indeed a knight, but not really a warrior in the classic sense. Instead he reminded me somewhat of the White Knight in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass — with spectacles, a long mustache, and a professorial air. He welcomed me warmly, took my hand, and swung me up onto the back of his horse, and we took flight.

In a twinkling we were up over the forest, and the pegasus carried us quickly away from the trees and over the beach, out over the ocean. We headed directly for the Isle of Smoke.

“Why are we going there?” I asked, over the beating of the wings.

“The Isle of Smoke is where you go to ask the gods to help you with your manifestations,” he answered. “You come to the island and burn offerings, and the smoke travels up to the gods and carries your message. And in part, that’s what your reading’s question is about — releasing emotional blocks to manifestations. You haven’t been to the island recently, have you?”

“No,” I admitted.

“You haven’t felt like you had the right to ask for anything more,” he said. “So we’ll go to the island and talk about it.”

A moment later the island was under us — rocky, and carpeted with pine trees. The horse swung round and glided to a landing in a large clearing dotted with the offering fires of my past efforts (and perhaps of the efforts of others — I had the distinct feeling I was not the only one to visit the island). We dismounted by some large rocks, and he took off his helmet and began pulling various things from the packs on the horse — crackers, matches, and a tea kettle. As he lit a fire and made tea, and I sat on the rocks, he talked.

“The classic meaning of the Six of Wands,” he said, “concerns competition and victory. But this is a rather shallow way of looking at things. You’re a druid; think about the natural world. In the natural world, what is competition?”

“Well, people often talk about animals and plants in competition,” I said. “Evolution, survival of the fittest, and so on. But I suppose that they themselves rarely see it that way. No tree in the forest is trying to beat all the others; no animal is consciously trying to be the best or the strongest or have the most offspring. They’re all just individuals trying to do the best they can to live, to go about their business in a world with limited resources.”

“Exactly,” said the knight. He handed me my tea. “All this activity can be seen as competition, but it’s a rather limited view; and there are anti-competitive, co-operative forces as well — though they are often less visible.”

“Ok,” I said. “What does this have to do with deserving things?”

He blinked at me through his spectacles. “The issue of competition seems to be irrelevant to you? The Hermit told you that ‘deserving’ something was a statement about the moral relationship between you and other people. Does this moral relationship have nothing to do with competition?”

I stared back at him, and then smacked my head as the realization hit. “I see! When I’m asking for something, or thinking about something I want, somehow implicit in that is ‘I get this, but other people don’t.’ That’s competition.”

“Exactly,” said the knight. “You’re thinking of this as a zero-sum game, in which someone has to lose in order for you to win. You get the great job, and someone else does not. You have a wonderful family, other people struggle. You get to travel the world, other people are stuck at home. But is that really what you’re asking for?”

“Not consciously,” I said. “Maybe subconsciously… Not because I don’t want people to have these good things, but because I guess it’s so tempting to compare myself to other people.”

“But remove that element of competition,” he said, “and you change your moral relationship. You were thinking of ‘deserving’ as being ‘I’m better than you’, which is morally nonsense. Remove the element of competition, remove the sense of victory, and the meaning of ‘deserve’ is changed.”

“But still,” I said, “how can I ask for more, when so many people have less?”

“Why are you asking for these things only for yourself?” he said. “Ask for them on behalf of everyone.”

The revelation may seem blindingly obvious, but for me it was a gut-level rush of relief. I was struck so hard with the insight that it almost knocked me out of the meditation! I knelt down before him and thanked him many times, and he laughed and smiled and told me not to be silly.

“Get up,” he said. “You have one more meeting today.”

He packed up the tea and helped me up on the pegasus, and we flew off again, headed for the meeting with the final card: Strength.


In my personal interpretation of the Tarot, Strength is about the power of truth — particularly its power in the physical world, in which it overcomes (eventually) all illusion and pretense, no matter how they are defended with desire, ignorance, or force of arms. And in my own personal pantheon, Power and Truth are both realms ruled by Odin… So I was not surprised to find that the Knight was taking me to him.

This was the first time I realized Odin had built a permanent home in the branches of Yggdrasil.

The pegasus carried me up into the sky, up above the atmosphere, where all sound died, and my skin froze with cold, and the stars were hard and bright. We didn’t stay long enough to get uncomfortable — I had a dizzying impression of speed and my stomach turned, and then we were in the World Tree’s upper branches. Somehow its mighty leaves shielded us from the cold airlessness of space. Suddenly I saw a dwelling perched where several branches knotted together, seemingly half-built and half-grown, glowing with the light of many huge windows. The pegasus alighted on a platform, and the knight helped me get down.

Odin met us at the great ash door. I’ve seen him in a number of different forms, usually bearded and covered by a great cloak and hood; today the hood was thrown back, revealing a thin smiling face and a bright blue eye. I do not remember whether his eyeless socket was covered by a patch, or his hair, or what; it was more like I simply didn’t notice that side of his face.

The knight went back outside to see to his horse, and Odin invited me in, and offered me wine and cheese and crackers. (Yes, after this meditation I was ready for a snack!)

Odin spoke at length, and unfortunately I had some trouble hearing him. At this point I’d been meditating for close to an hour, and I was starting to get tired; so it was difficult for me to focus. He knew he was losing me, I think, so he repeated his points several times and even shouted once or twice to keep my attention!

The gist of what he was saying was that, by including everyone in my hopes, desires, and intentions, I achieve several things. First, of course, I get rid of the problem of whether I “deserve” to have something. Second, I infuse egolessness into the intention, which helps to ensure that my intention is in tandem with what would be best for everyone. I have taken away a layer of fear or bad attachment that could get tangled up in the situation. For example, it would be pointless to set a goal for a million dollars if I also asked for everyone else to have it: dollars would simply fall in value, and everyone would be back where they started. By including everyone else in my intentions, I force myself to focus on the things I really want dollars for: security, freedom, and abundance. And third, by removing the element of competition, I encourage more feelings of security and cooperation in my subconscious, focused only on the positive outcomes for everyone involved.

At that point, as I said, I had gotten pretty tired and unfocused; so when Odin finally got his message through to me, I thanked him profusely and then ended the meditation immediately.

The Greatest Koan

I think my strategy of meditating on the cards worked extremely well, and was a great example of how the cards can act as koans. Like koans, a Tarot card may seem to have no relevance to the issue at hand, or only a shallow meaning; but there are deeper layers, hidden connections, and profound wisdom below the surface. The idea that morality is a function of relationships is nowhere obvious in the Hermit card; the connection between competition and worthiness is not something that jumps to mind with the Six of Wands; and the ways in which focusing on the ‘truer’ goals of security, freedom, and abundance are stronger and more powerful than the shallow goal of a million dollars would never occur to me just by looking at the Strength card.

But the connections were there; and this shows, I think, that in fact all Tarot cards are relevant to all situations. It’s a function of the interconnectedness and unity of all things, really. If we were free from all bad attachments, free from all illusions, then all the connections between the cards and our human situations would be immediately apparent. And it seems likely to me that the more difficult it is for you to see how a card is relevant, the stronger the attachment or delusion you’re laboring under.

But of course it’s not just Tarot cards that are such amazing tools of divination. Since they are designed for divination, they are easier to use for most people. But you don’t have to use the Tarot. Anything can be used in this way: raindrops, clouds, a chance word spoken by a stranger…

From the standpoint of Zen, the whole world is one mighty koan.

A monk asked Master Tenryu, “How can I escape the three delusions of desire, form, and no-form?”
Tenryu said, “Escape? Well, where are you right now?”


4 responses to “Zen and the Art of Tarot III: Card as Koan”

  1. “But of course it’s not just Tarot cards that are such amazing tools of divination. Since they are designed for divination, they are easier to use for most people. But you don’t have to use the Tarot. Anything can be used in this way: raindrops, clouds, a chance word spoken by a stranger…

    From the standpoint of Zen, the whole world is one mighty koan.”

    Thank you for that one, Jeff!

    I’ve been thinking about taking up one form of divination or another for some time now, but nothing really interested me. However, as I read these words, it suddenly dawned on me that I already do something like this quite often. Whenever I notice a thing, animal, word, or name repeated several times in a short time span (a synchronicity of a sort), I try to take the time and see what they are about. “Classical” meditation usually does not work very well for me (I suppose I need more instructions on how to perform it successfully), but writing does, as well as letting my mind freely associate while I do my chores around the house in the early morning.

    I’ve never thought about it the way you put it in the quoted sentences, but when I read them, it really made a lot of sense!


  2. I’m glad you found it helpful, Argenta! 🙂 If you’re interested in trying meditation of the sort I describe here, I do have some downloadable meditations on the Offerings page, available free.


  3. This series has been helpful to me. Thank you. 🙂


  4. […] light of what happened after, I think this episode shows again how even the most inexplicable events that happen during meditation really are meaningful, and have […]


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