As I walk, I ride the water buffalo.
Koans are a way of understanding apart from explanation, a not-understanding, if you will. In Buddhism, there are some big ideas that can shake the foundations of our assumptions — no-self, impermanence, enlightenment — you have heard them, or not. Many books have been written, concepts carefully explained. You can put these ideas together into a sort of dogma or doctrine, showing the relationship between impermanence and no self, etc…. Yes, and you can take this and make something to believe in.
There is Buddhism with belief. Zen is without belief. Zen is not about organizing life around some key concepts. Koans won’t participate in this project. If the concepts are the map, then the koans are the territory. If the map is topographical, one line indicating 10 feet in elevation, the koans are the surprise as the mountain begins to rise beneath your gait, as your thighs begin to burn, as you feel the exertion, your heart racing and your breath quickening. With a koan, you are thrown into life, as it is, not as desired, believed or imagined or explained. Koans mean encountering what is here, present. A koan points as you explore and discover the pattern of things, the open heart at the center of the world. A koan asks not for belief or allegiance. Rather it opens the field of life, beckoning us to explore, experience and respond as part of life revealed, not apart from it. So, today’s koan:
As I walk,
I ride the water buffalo
I have two horses, Ruby and Flare. Ruby is a 20+ year old thoroughbred and Flare is a 30 year old pony. Ruby, the larger of the two, rules the barn yard. Riding the horses is something of an experience — there are times of deep connection with the horse. Her left shoulder lifts and my body shifts to the right. Give a slight tug on the left rein, squeeze with the legs, placing the right leg slightly back and she turns to the left. To write it here is to analyze it. It all happens rather seamlessly and that is the point — we are connected, as if joined.
I notice this sometimes happens with people as we work on a common task together, say, doing the dishes. I clear the table, handing him the dishes as he washes them and places them in the dish rack. She takes them from the rack, drying them and putting them away. And sometimes it just flows — from person to person, in a way that the connection becomes palpable, experienced, real. In the one of the dedication chants we sometimes use it says, “the whole universe is one seamless body.” Washing the dishes like that.
We are part of life, not apart from it. We join with life, living, moving. Ruby’s shoulder rises and my weight shifts. Doing the dishes it is unclear exactly who is doing what — it is that close. Seamless. Sometimes this is called “moving in the Tao.”
In the koan our walking is seamless. But, before we get to that, there is a cultural thing to clear up. The water buffalo, or the ox, is a symbol in Zen for the seamlessness of things. So, this wonderful koan:
Walking I am a part of this life, everything shines with this light.
And it could be anything. As I…
- ride the horse…
- do the dishes…
- talk with my friend…
- drive to the market…
- sit down for dinner…
- cook soup…
- bake bread…
- type these words…
I am riding the water buffalo, the ox. Seamless.
But, koans not only open the door to the “one seamless body,” they show us how we are living our lives, they illumine — not with judgement, but simply, “It is like this.” They ask us to notice our walking, or driving, or cooking, etc…. “How is it for you?” they ask.
I remember a walk I took on September 30, 1997. I remember the date because it was the day that Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out. I placed the CD in my Walkman and went for a walk. I had been having trouble with a relationship, and had begun to doubt my vocation in the Christian ministry.Full of doubt, tears flowed and I just walked.
I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping
So, I had this walk through the streets of Whitinsville, Massachusetts. I walked listening to Dylan’s mournful song of an end. For hours I walked. Mostly caught up, reacting to my circumstances. I was so cut off from body; coherent thoughts were lost to me. Feet tired, brain wired, clouds weeping, I got lost. In my sorrow, numb, I had checked out, cutting myself off from my life, the very life that I was having then and there. My cries were so loud, I couldn’t hear them. The seamlessness of all things, which includes my own sorrow, was lost to me.
Walking but I could see no buffalo.
There is a koan that goes, “If you turn things around you are like the Buddha.” When we discount the experiences that we would rather not have, we cut ourselves from the life source, from our experience of life’s seamlessness. Turning things around we wake up to our thoughts, feelings, our situation, our gesture becomes one of openness to what is here, curious and daring to dive deep into the heart of things where the “whole universe is one seamless body” At the heart of things? The Buddha, or we might say, Awakening.
Gosh, there I am again, sad, doubting of self, work, the Tao. Yes, but now I am riding the buffalo.
I remember early in my Zen saying, “It reaches everywhere!”