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The Goose in the Bottle

An old koan asks, "How can you get a goose out of a bottle?" We're asked to imagine that a baby gosling was placed inside one of those big glass bottles with a little opening that you see model ships in, and raised inside, until now it is full grown and can no longer fit through the neck of the bottle. How can you get the goose out of the bottle? It's actually a frightening image when we think about what an artificial, cramped and constricted life that poor goose must lead in there, and how unimaginable a life of freedom must be to an animal raised under such conditions. And yet, that's what the old teacher who thought up this koan was saying about our lives- that we lead lives so confined and constricted that we can hardly begin to imagine what true freedom is like. We find a version of this koan in the collection , The Book of Serenity (translated by Thomas Cleary, Lindisfarne 1990) case 91: "Nanquan's Peony". A court official named Lu Geng asks Nanquan (Nan-ch'uan) how to get the goose out of the bottle. Since Lu Geng, in the main part of the case, introduces himself to Nan-ch-uan by reciting someone else's words, I'd guess that the problem of the goose and the bottle was also already a very old, well-known riddle and Lu Geng is testing the master to see what he will make of it. Nan-ch'uan calls "Sir!" and Lu Geng immediately responds, "Yes?" Nan-ch'uan said "It's out."

This koan nicely illustrates two sides of our practice. From the side of the Absolute, we see that all along there has been no barrier, no bottle. Nan-ch'uan calls, Lu Geng responds. There is no gap, no separation in that call and response. The world is wide open and there is no bottle of self to confine the moment.

The other side of our practice attends to our moment to moment experience of resistance and separation. From this point of view, if we're ever going to be free, it is essential that we come to understand the nature of the bottle that constrains us. It's interesting to compare the imagery of this koan with something Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his Philosophical Investigations - the goal of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. For Wittgenstein, the fly-bottle was built out of our misuse of language Ð for instance, our confusion about the grammar of first and third person descriptions of experience: we imagine we look inside and describe inner landscapes the same way we look outside and describe the world. And doing so we get all entangled in misunderstandings about the nature and privacy of so-called "inner" experience. Now for Wittgenstein, as for us, the only way out of the bottle involved the close, careful examination of the bottle itself- in his case, he urged us over and over to look carefully at how a word is actually used, rather than assume it's meaning must be as label attached to an object of experience.

In light of Wittgenstein's approach, it's interesting to note that the main part of the original case is also about language:

"Officer Lu Geng said to Nanquan, "Teaching Master Zhao was quite extraordinary: he was able to say, " Heaven and earth have the same root, myriad things are one body." Nanquan pointed to a peony in the garden and said, "People today see this flower as in a dream."

Lu Geng starts off by quoting someone else; his insight is second-hand, "as in a dream." Only when Nan-ch'uan calls his name does he himself become totally present. That in itself is an important lesson, but the case is really more complicated than that. To be in a dream is to mistake something imaginary or insubstantial for what's solid or real. Yet, Buddha taught that all dharmas Ð all phenomena, both the world of external objects, tables and chairs and trees, as well as our inner world, including the "self" Ð are empty of any solid, unchanging existence. Our so-called waking world is no more solid than our dreams. If objects have no fixed or stable unchanging essence, we can see another reason Wittgenstein was right to warn us against thinking that the meaning of a word can simply be its correspondence to an object, like a label on a tree in a botanical garden. If the world itself is never static, but is constituted by evershifting contexts and interconnections, then the meaning of our words can never be pinned down by attaching them like a label to a permanent object of reference.

Yet, we must function in this everchanging world, and to do so we have to learn to maneuver our way skillfully through the dream Ð including the dream of language. Sometimes when we're dreaming, something very strange or frightening may be taking place, but part of ourselves, even while asleep, in the middle of the dream, manages to say, "I know I'm only dreaming; I can wake up at anytime..." Our practice is like that, staying clear, staying present in the midst of our dream, in the midst of our daily life. What keeps us from being totally present? Or, in terms of the koan, what constrains our lives, what keeps us all bottled up?

If we want to describe the bottle in the most general terms, we could say that we're "caught in a self-centered dream." But each of us needs to be more specific. We need to explore the constriction we find in our own bodies, the tension that holds all the old hurts, and fears, and defenses. We need to see what walls we unconsciously have set up, what lines we are unwilling to cross, what we are afraid to face, what we are trying to shield ourselves from. Some of you who are of a certain age may remember an old toothpaste commercial that promised that its product would put up a "Guard-All" shield between the tooth and the forces of tooth decay. Well, in a way that how all our bottles get built in the first place. We try to put up a shield between ourselves and life, thinking to protect ourselves from suffering. And these shields do work in their way, and at perhaps at vulnerable times in our lives, we've felt we couldn't live without them. But ultimately they turn from being walls that protect to walls that imprison. One day we wake up and realize that we've crawled into a glass bottle to hide, and now don't know how to get out.

If we work on this koan from the side of the Absolute, in the context a top-down practice, the day may come when the bottle suddenly disappears for us as it did for Lu Geng: inside and outside are one, and the goose is free to fly off in any direction. But in the very next moment, our goose is likely to back inside the bottle. We will have had a taste of freedom, but not worked through the self-centeredness that constrains our everyday life. If you treat this koan as a riddle, it isn't so difficult - but neither will it make any difference in your life when you solve it. Practicing with it in a bottom - up way means taking the time to thoroughly study the bottle, and not being in any hurry to fly off with the goose.