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from Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry

by Taigen Dan Leighton (Wisdom Publications, 2011) 


An Off-Beat Conference and a Song Gathering the Mind

Sometimes in Zen we sit for a day, or three, five, or seven days, in what is called sesshin. Sesshin means to gather or meet the mind, or to settle into Zen mind. During sesshin we may experience and become intimate with a deeper awareness, going beyond our discriminations or calculations and deliberations, though maybe it includes those. But such settling reveals a wider panoramic awareness that is transformative. It can change how we see our deep connection to the world. 

In March, 2007 I attended a symposium at the University of Minnesota about Bob Dylan, my favorite American Dharma bard, who I quote frequently. This was one of the more interesting academic conferences I have attended, although it was not strictly academic. Spider John Koerner and Tony Glover, distinctive blues singers who used to play with Dylan when he lived in Minneapolis, performed. Anne Waldman, one of the beat poets and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, and who accompanied Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour, offered a wonderful shamanic talk about Dylan as a shaman. A range of stimulating presentations and discussions about Dylan were given. In such an eclectic spirit I will consider a Bob Dylan song about sesshin. More often I discuss Zen texts, sutras, or old koan teaching stories. When I say this is a song about sesshin, of course it also involves many other things. The song is called “Visions of Johanna.”[1]

Among other things, “Visions of Johanna” is about the feminine, or the narrator’s relationship to women. The song also includes drug references. Some commentators claim it is about hell. This song is often considered gloomy and pessimistic by critics, but I do not feel that way about it at all.[2] “Visions of Johanna” reveals much about the experience of sesshin. This is not at all to claim that Bob Dylan’s intention in writing this song was to speak about sesshin, or Zen, or that he even had Zen in mind while creating it. I am discussing what I hear in the text of the song, about the work itself. As the Japanese philosopher and celebrator of folk art, Yanagi Sōetsu (1889-1961), said, “The thing shines, not the maker.”[3] Yanagi spoke of the aesthetics of folk art where the beauty of a piece of pottery, for example, was a function of the mutual influence of other, often unknown potters. In this sense Bob Dylan has been the consummate true folk singer throughout his career, including his work described as belonging to blues, rock, and gospel genres. Dylan has emphasized his songs themselves over speculations about his own life, for which he has tried to maintain privacy. Ample sanction allows presentation of a Zen view of “Visions of Johanna.” 

We do know that Bob Dylan has been greatly influenced by Judeo-Christian spiritual teachings, but he has obviously had some connection with Buddhism as well. He sang about Rubin Hurricane Carter, the falsely accused boxer, as “sitting like Buddha in a ten-foot cell.” The image of the ten-foot cell goes back to the size of the room of the legendary enlightened layman Vimalakīrti, in the sutra named after him.[4] The traditional size of the abbot’s quarters in Zen monasteries is based on this, and “ten-foot” (Hōjō in Japanese) is the honorary name given Zen abbots in China and Japan. Dylan had a close association with Allen Ginsberg and many other practicing Buddhists.[5]

Nothing to Turn Off

I hear a turning line, sometimes two, in each verse, and then one turning line for the whole song. I will present each verse and then comment.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?

We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it

And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it

Lights flicker from the opposite loft

In this room the heat pipes just cough

The country music station plays soft

But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off

Just Louise and her lover so entwined

And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind


“Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet?” As we sit in sesshin, or even in one period of zazen, ain’t it just like your mind to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Even in settled sitting, unexpected thoughts may continue to arise. As for “night,” in Zen imagery, going back to Shitou’s “Harmony of Difference and Sameness” that is often chanted, light is an image for how we see with the lights on all the different particular people.[6] The dark or night, when all light is extinguished, is an image for oneness beyond any visible distinctions, and the possibility of deep communion with wholeness and the fundamental mind. 

Sometimes in sesshin we may feel that, “We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” You may feel this in one period of zazen, but particularly sitting period after period we realize that we are stranded on our cushion. You may be doing your best to deny it, but we are radically alone in zazen. This provides an opportunity to be radically present with this body and mind, in a way that we do not have a chance to experience in our ordinary everyday activities. Of course, that is not the whole story. We are also doing it together and supporting each other in community, but initially at least it may feel like we sit here stranded. And yes, we all have various patterns of resistance and ways in which we are tempted to deny it. 

Key lines in this stanza are, “In this room the heat pipes just cough”—during the relative quiet of sesshin we hear the sounds of the building—and “The country music station plays soft.” Country songs could be an apt metaphor for all the melodramas possibly going through our thought streams during zazen. Then Dylan, or the singer of the song, says this amazing thing: “There’s nothing, really nothing to turn off.” This is a basic fundamental statement of Zen truth, core to the Platform Sutra, for example. There is nothing to turn off, really. We see all the forms of the world, yet in our sitting we may realize that they are all constructions or fabrications. Our mind, even as we do our best to deny this reality, is busy creating all the melodramas they sigh about on the country music stations; but there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off. Actually, for each situation, each problem in our life, each itch, each pain in our knees, ache in our shoulders, there is nothing really nothing to turn off or evade. What we learn in sitting, eventually, is that it is okay to be the person sitting on your cushion right now, with the problems that we have. Then the Buddha work is about how we meet our situation. We do not need to turn it off, to destroy our thoughts, or to crush or deny our humanity. There’s nothing really nothing to turn off. 

I will not attempt to say who Johanna is or was or what she represents. Johanna could represent many things. One pessimistic suggestion from commentators is that “Johanna” is Hebrew for Armageddon, or that “Gehenna” is Greek and Latin for hell or future torture.[7] We all have negative, fearful visions or positive ones, including visions of awakening, or of the perfect being we could be, or could be relating with. 

Electric Ghosts Howl

The next verse goes:

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain

And the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train

We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight

Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane

Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near

She’s delicate and seems like a mirror

But she just makes it all too concise and too clear

That Johanna’s not here

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face

Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place


In the beginning of this verse he mentions the “empty lot.” This may refer to the previous verse where there is “nothing, really nothing, to turn off.” Our whole world and all its stuff may be an empty lot, the myriad forms of emptiness. Notice the night watchman who clicks his flashlight so the light comes on and off. We see the particulars of our situation, and then we have glimpses of something deeper, of some communion with wholeness. As he clicks his flashlight he asks himself if it is him or them who’s really insane. This is part of sesshin. Is it me or are these visions insane? What is really going on here? Part of opening the mind of sesshin and really meeting the wholeness of mind is being willing to expand our capacities and our sense of reality. This conjures up the fourth of the classic five fears of Buddhism: fear of death, fear of loss of reputation, fear of loss of livelihood, and then this fear of weird mental states. What is sanity? It might be good to ask whether it is me or these visions who is really insane. By the way, the fifth fear is of public speaking, seemingly trivial compared to the others. Yet we all may have some of that, and perhaps the night watchman is afraid to speak out, or even Johanna. 

This verse includes one of Dylan’s greatest lines, “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.” When we sit facing the wall, the wall seems like a mirror. Indeed this is delicate. Whatever we are is projected on that wall. The wall is ourselves, and the wall of the world is what we meet. And we also meet face to face between teacher and student. I do not think it only Johanna for whom the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face. For all of us, especially in sesshin, this shadow ghost of vitality, of electricity, of energy howls in the bones of our face. Dōgen talked about face-to-face practice. Usually we recognize people by their faces rather than other body parts. And always, if you look in a mirror, the ghost of electricity may be howling there. 

Muttering at the Wall

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously

He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously

And when bringing her name up

He speaks of a farewell kiss to me

He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all

Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall

How can I explain?

Oh, it’s so hard to get on

And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn


 “Little boy lost” is a reference to William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” where there is a little boy lost and a little girl lost.[8] For most Zen practitioners, when you first attend sesshin and sit facing the wall all day, somehow this little boy lost or little girl lost appears. In this practice we must engage our little boy or little girl, and we often get lost in them. Sometimes students come with these very serious questions and take themselves so seriously, and brag of their misery. This happens, and I remember that I sometimes did that, too. Buddhist practice involves letting go of the self. But we do that by studying the self. How do we take care of this part of us that feels lost, that takes very seriously all of the stories of our personal history, the constructed self that we grasp so tightly, and even after we let go, it persists so subtly. Dylan sings, “He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all.” All this self-concern arises amid the pain and sadness of the rest of the world, and does nothing to abet the suffering.  

The next line is how I first came to see this song as about sesshin, “Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in the hall.” I have long witnessed this in the halls of meditation. Perhaps we have all at times muttered small talk at the wall in the hall. Dylan here does not offer any assistance. You might even see this line as somewhat cruel, a kind of put down, but we must face this little boy lost or little girl lost, holding on tight to our constructed self so seriously, bragging of our misery. The First Noble Truth of suffering brings us into this practice of sitting and facing ourselves, and sometimes it feels so overwhelming that all we can do is just brag of our misery.  

The key line in this verse is, “How can I explain?” It is difficult to say anything to the one who brags of their misery. How can one explain the whole world that goes beyond this little boy or girl lost? We must each of us and together be kind when we see this little boy or little girl lost, in ourselves or in another. Practice involves not just seeing through, and Dylan is a great example of penetrating wisdom, but there is also the question of how we take care. There is no way to explain, but can you befriend and be kind with this little lost child? Sometimes such kindness might take the form of a put-down, or a sharp, “Wake Up.” Beyond any particular situation of misery, “How can I explain?” is an incisive utterance of the ultimate. Explanations tend toward sterile shutting down of discussion and inquiry. Explanations can become slogans or dogmas to inflict on others, or fight wars for. More vital and inspiring than explanations are the visions that sometimes keep us up past the dawn. 

Verdicts of Infinity

Here comes what I hear as the pivotal line in the whole song.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while

But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues 

You can tell by the way she smiles

See the primitive wallflower freeze 

When the jelly-faced women all sneeze

Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze

I can’t find my knees” 

Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule

But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel


I feel the crux of the whole song with, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.” Then follows, “Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.” Several members of my sangha work in museums, and I enjoy regularly visiting museums. I think of this line more for art museums, but it is also true of natural history museums and science museums. The Dylan conference I mentioned at the University of Minnesota had in conjunction an exhibit on Dylan at the Weisman Museum, part of the University. And this song was one of those you could hear at the museum. So “inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial,” as did the very notion of infinity on trial at that museum.  

In spring 2007 there was an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute called “From Cezanne to Picasso,” which I liked quite a bit. This exhibit not only had paintings by Cezanne and Picasso, but many other great works of art collected by a dealer who befriended many artists. Included were works by Gauguin, Monet, and Renoir, and two rooms of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Inside a great museum we can see infinity go on trial, as the ultimate worth of all humanity, perhaps at its best, is subjected to the visitors’ verdicts. Amid great beauty or visual insight we might feel, “this is what salvation must be like after a while.” We see exquisite beauty, and can feel the value of all human endeavor, or perhaps put it on trial with our evaluations. 

Van Gogh and Slavery on Trial

I am particularly fond of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings—each one of them is a kind of a miracle, his landscapes are so vibrantly alive, as are even his brushstrokes. People commonly think of Van Gogh as a tortured artist, and we know he expressed deep loneliness in his letters to his brother Theo, his best friend and patron, and that Vincent finally committed suicide. But when I look at his paintings I do not see torture, but astonishing vitality and a sense of wonder illuminating and enlivening the earth itself. Recent interpretations or historical suggestions claim that he had some chemical imbalance that gave him terrible headaches and drove him to suicide. Other recent speculation, based on Vincent’s letters, concern Theo’s family. Theo and his wife were about to have a baby, and shortly before his death Vincent felt that he was a financial burden to them.[9] Theo’s wife, whose name happened to be Johanna, is the one who later protected Vincent’s paintings and dedicated herself to getting them exhibited, so that eventually the world could appreciate them. But I do not know if Dylan might have been thinking of Theo’s Johanna. 

The American Zen teacher Bernie Tetsugen Glassman from the Maezumi Roshi lineage has led sesshins at Auschwitz with Jewish and German participants, including descendants of holocaust survivors and descendants of camp guards. I have never attended one of them, but I have heard from people who have done so that they are extremely powerful. They sit for seven days with the ghosts of a different kind of electricity—present with mind open in a place where such a horror has occurred. For a number of years I annually visited a Zen group in Richmond, Virginia, leading sittings there. Sangha members took me to visit local historic sites, such as where Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death;” or where Edgar Allan Poe gave his last reading of “The Raven.” Richmond also contains the site of slave auction houses used from before the eighteenth century. This place was the center of all American slavery for over a fifty-year period in the first half of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of thousands of Virginian home-grown African-American slaves were literally sold down the river, shipped to cotton plantations in the deep South. In 2007 the state of Virginia formally expressed its regret about this history. Inspired by Glassman’s sittings at Auschwitz, in April 2008 I lead a sitting at the Richmond slave auction house site. We started by walking the trail from the dock where the slaves were deposited along the riverbank, and then across the bridge to the auction site where we did zazen, the site now below a large freeway. It was indeed an intense experience for all, and this place remains a power spot critical to all our ongoing American history and karma. 

But at the Chicago Art Institute exhibit, inside the two rooms with beautiful Van Gogh paintings, I had a vision of a different kind of impactful sitting, to do a sesshin for a day, or five or seven, performing zazen in one of those rooms with this sacred art. Just sitting amid Van Gogh’s luminous brushstrokes, then we would stand up and do walking meditation seeing these miraculous visions from Vincent on the walls. I would gladly have them “conquer my mind.” 

In such a setting, as well as at Auschwitz or the auction houses at Richmond, infinity does go up on trial. Each of us and our karmic lives on this planet go up on trial. And that is what sesshin is like also. Inside the meditation hall infinity goes up on trial. Instead of paintings on the wall there are people sitting facing the wall. Each one is a miracle. Can we sit long enough to put infinity up on trial; to feel our connection with wholeness and all time? 

The verdict is still out on humanity. Do the creative spirits and works of Van Gogh, Johann Sebastian Bach, Gandhi, Shakespeare, Coltrane, Laozi, Homer, and yes, Dōgen and Dylan himself somehow outweigh the Nazis, the long histories of slavery, our current systematic torture of innocents, and massive environmental devastation for personal profit? As to infinity itself, from whence could there ever come judge and jury to adjudicate that ruling? 

Dylan sings, “Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while. But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles.” Actually we cannot “explain” that smile, or the highway blues. Perhaps even Vincent Van Gogh in one of his amazing paintings of wheat fields or cypress trees could not totally capture the full reality or the life and the vitality of the ghost of electricity howling through those scenes.  

Sometimes Zen students try to figure it all out. Or they have some experience of wholeness and believe they can put a frame around it and put it up on the wall so they can bow down to that, or sell museum tickets to see it. That certainly is not the point either. Dylan sings, “See the primitive wall flower freeze.” There are various ways to interpret this line. But as a frieze of figures face the wall, a flower blossoms in the back of each, as we sit, quietly. Then of course we also hear many exclamations, “Jeeze I can’t find my knees!” This is a common utterance during sesshin. 

Everything Returned

Finishing with the final verse:

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him

Sayin’, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a    

    prayer for him”

But like Louise always says,

“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him

And Madonna, she still has not showed

We see this empty cage now corrode 

Where her cape of the stage once had flowed

The fiddler, he now steps to the road

He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed

On the back of the fish truck that loads

While my conscience explodes

The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain

And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain


A lot is happening in this last verse, and as I said at the outset, this song is about much more than sesshin. I will discuss a few lines in this verse. The first two lines go, “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.” This is one aspect of our interconnectedness, and a part of what needs accepting. We are all part of the food chain. We cannot claim any perfect image, of Johanna, or of whomever we have a vision. Is there anyone who is not a parasite, not dependent on others? We can see this as parasitical or turn it over and see how we might become symbiotic. How do we cooperate together, but also how do we realize that we all are already totally interconnected? Madonna, an image of perfect woman, still has not showed, and “We see this empty cage now corrode.” Part of the self we construct is an empty cage. As we take up this practice our conditioned habits start to corrode.  

The key line in this verse seems to me, “The fiddler, he now steps to the road. He writes everything’s been returned which was owed.” I recall one shuso ceremony at Tassajara monastery. The shuso is the head monk for a practice period, and at this ceremony near the end of the three months all of the students and many former head monks who visit for the day in turn ask the head monk questions about practice and the teaching, a sort of rapid-fire Dharma combat. This is the first time a monk is publicly questioned like that, a potentially frightening, but also exhilarating experience. At the end after all the questions and the head monk’s responses, the former head monks each make congratulatory statements. On this occasion Rev. Lou Hartman, a long-time monk at Zen Center who I highly esteem, just said to the shuso, “Everything’s been returned that was owed.”[10]

All infinity is on trial, and yet we each owe something. We have some responsibility; we have Buddha’s work to perform. And yet it is possible for everything to be returned that was owed. It is possible to give ourselves fully to being ourselves, not merely to becoming or clutching on to some magical Johanna, however we see her. 

Strengthen What Remains

Dylan adds, “On the backs of the fish truck that loads while my conscience explodes.” Many commentaries have seen this line as very negative, as the death of conscience. But I hear it otherwise as somehow exploding the whole world into conscientiously taking care of all beings, a very positive image. Either way, “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain, and these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.” We might feel the singer sadly missing Johanna, some lost or regretted love, and it is “all too concise and too clear that Johanna’s not here.” But something about those visions of Johanna still remain. In another song Dylan sings, “Strengthen the things that remain,”[11] and in many ways I feel that as our practice. Taking care of whatever remains that may help all beings is Buddha’s work. Dōgen says to express the dream within the dream. Perhaps these visions of Johanna are more important than Johanna herself, if there even is a Johanna.

At the end of one of his more recent songs Dylan sings, “My heart’s in the highlands” and “there’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow. But I’m already there in my mind, And that’s good enough for now.”[12] How can we open our minds, for now, to seeing infinity up on trial, and to envisioning and connecting with the wholeness of the highlands? 


[1] “Visions of Johanna” in Dylan, Lyrics, 1962-2001, pp. 193-194; released on the album “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966.

[2] Apart from the many biographies, a number of useful critical studies of Dylan’s work have been published. See, for example, Christopher Ricks, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), an illuminating discussion of Dylan’s poetics by a noted literature professor, but with only a few passing references to “Visions of Johanna.” Stephen Scobie noticed the near-absence of comment on this song in his work, Alias Bob Dylan (Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1991), so later self-published a useful short booklet, Visions of Johanna; see []. Aidan Day, Jokerman: Reading the Lyrics of Bob Dylan (New York: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1988), pp. 111-124 provides a critical analysis of the poetics of the song. Michael Gray, Song & Dance Man III: The Art of Bob Dylan (New York: Continuum, 2000) is a sometimes instructive tome of more than 900 pages with various scattered references to the song.

[3] See Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York: Kodansha International, 1989).

[4] See Robert Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakīrti (University Park, Pa.: Penn Sate University Press, 1976).

[5] See “Hurricane” in Ibid., pp. 355-357. I note that “Visions of Johanna,” and most of Dylan’s songs cited in this book, are from his work in the sixties, which is most commonly celebrated. However, I continue to appreciate Dylan’s ongoing work, up through his fine CDs of the past decade. Eminent Dōgen and Zen scholar Steven Heine in his book, Bargainin’ For Salvation: Bob Dylan, A Zen Master? (New York: Continuum, 2009), presents a Zen dialectical view of Dylan’s famously shifting career. Heine sees Dylan’s varying emphases as oscillating up through the nineties between prophetic moral certainty, as in both his protest and gospel periods, and on the other side periods of intense existential questioning. Heine sees Dylan’s works from the mid-nineties on as representing a “Middle Way” synthesis including both questioning and conviction. This includes Dylan’s Time Out of Mind; Love and Theft; Modern Times; and also Together Through Life, released after Heine’s book was written.

[6] See Suzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. See also Bielefeldt, Foulk, Leighton, and Okumura, trans. “Harmony of Difference and Equality,” in Leighton with Wu, trans. Cultivating the Empty Field, pp. 74-75.

[7] Gray, Song & Dance Man III, p. 154, and Scobie, Visions of Johanna, p. 12, respectively.

[8] Keynes, Blake Complete Writings, pp. 112-115, 120-121, 218-219.

[9] See Irving Stone, ed., Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1937), p. 478; and Cliff Edwards, The Shoes of Van Gogh: A Spiritual and Artistic Journey to the Ordinary (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), pp. 122, 133. Dr. Edwards is a Western Theologian who also was a resident monk at the Rinzai Zen monastery Daitokuji in Kyoto. For his illuminating commentary on Van Gogh’s spiritual art with comparisons to Zen Buddhist perspectives, in addition to The Shoes of Van Gogh, see also Cliff Edwards, Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1989).

[10] In an early version of the song Dylan sang the line differently, and much more negatively, as “Knowing everything’s gone which was owed.” Gray, Song & Dance Man III, p. 489. But the version finally released on “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966 has “Everything’s been returned,” which also suggests the positive sense offered here.

[11] “When You Gonna Wake Up?” in Dylan, Lyrics, 1962-2001, pp. 413-414.

[12] “Highlands” in Dylan, Lyrics, 1962-2001, pp. 571-573.