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Wu-Tsu™s Buffalo Passes Through the Window

Wu-tsu said, It is like a buffalo that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can™t its tail pass through as well?

Wu-Men's Comment

If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, you can meet the Four Obligations above and give comfort to the Three Existences below. But if it is not yet clear, pay close attention to the tail and you will resolve it at last.

Wu-Men's Verse

Passing through, falling into a ditch;
Turning beyond, all is lost.
This tiny little tail
What a wonderful thing it is!

This case is famous for being one of the most difficult of all koans, so I thought I™d begin by talking about what it means to say that a koan is difficult. What kind of difficulty are we talking about?

Superficially, a koan seems to have the form of a riddle, and unfortunately they are all too often approached that way. We imagine that we can find the trick or the gimmick that will unlock its meaning. Perhaps the most famous riddle in Western literature is the one the Sphinx is said to have posed to Oedipus, What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon, and on three legs in the evening?When we get it, suddenly it makes sense. But although answering the Sphinx™s riddle supposedly saved Oedipus™ life, it only re-confirmed his confidence in his own cleverness and in the power of his reason to solve any problem. The real problem of who he was remained untouched, and if anything, his arrogant self-confidence was increased. If we™re not careful, we can learn to understand koans in this just this superficial sort of way, and come away with nothing but increased sense of our own cleverness.

Another kind of difficulty is the sort we encounter in poetry whose structure is complex and highly allusive. Ezra Pound™s Cantos is a good example. This long poem opens with the words, And then... Why does it seem to be starting in the middle? And it goes on with a translation from that section of Homer™s Odyssey where Odysseus goes down to the Underworld, and offers a blood sacrifice to the ghosts of the dead who gather around, so that they can drink their fill and momentarily be re-animated and answer his questions. Why is Pound re-telling that particular story at the beginning of his own poem? As we read on, we encounter allusions to more classical literature, as well Renaissance and Chinese history and the Provencal troubadours. In order to understand what™s going on we need to familiarize ourselves with a vast cultural heritage that we™ve probably only been dimly aware of, and in studying Pound™s sources, we make them our own, and see them in a new light. We realize how we were like those hungry ghosts who needed to drink deeply of what the poet was offering up for us. Working through this kind of difficulty makes us learn and be changed by what we learn. So we™re getting warmer.

Then there™s the difficulty we face when we sit with our pain. Of course nobody likes pain. But do we try to master it and become so tough that we can endure anything? Or do we shrink from it, afraid we won™t be able to stand what life throws at us? When we treat pain as a koan, we go beyond these habitual ways of coping. We sit with the pain, without thoughts of mastery or escape, without judging how well or how badly we™re handling it. We just let our experience be our experience. In that moment, our whole notion of difficulty dissolves along with our strategies for dealing with it.

But this koan goes further, and reminds us that even this experience of being just this moment is not the end of the story. That tail remains. We can™t use such experiences to transcend our problems, or go eyond our difficulties. Here™s another example: how do we face aging? So many people spend their lives feeling at one time or another that they™re either too young or too old. We number our years. How many do you have? Too many? Too few? As we get older, how do we cope with the changes in our bodies, the joints that get stiffer, the muscles that get weaker, the stomachs that no longer can enjoy the same foods? When we sit, all that judgment drops off. We realize that we are no age at all, we are just who we are at this moment. The buffalo has stuck his head through the window. But when we get up from our cushion, we still must take our medication, watch our diet, and exercise in a way suited to our age and strength. That tail never disappears. Striking a balance between these two perspectives is the practice of a lifetime, and all of us are in danger of leaning too far in one direction or another at various points in our practice.

What kind of ditch do you fall into? Do you try to use practice to become above it all, rather than engaging with life? Or do you worry that after all these years of practice you still haven™t gotten it, or blame yourself for still having problems in your life? (Shouldn™t I have gotten over that by now?) Do you turn practice into a lifetime of self-improvement, forgetting your essential perfection.? Or do you turn a glimpse of our essential perfection into grounds for self-congratulation and complacency? When this koan turns us upside down, we can truly say with Wu-men, What a marvelous, difficult life I lead!