I gave this talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Saturday, January 29, 2022. There’s also a link below to a recording of the version of this talk I gave at our Full Moon Zen sit on Thursday, January 27, 2022.
This is Case 38 in The Gateless Gate:
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?”
Here’s Wu-men’s commentary on the koan:
If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, then 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.
And here’s 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!
Our daughter, who is 13, has strong likes and dislikes.
One thing she really likes is birthdays—her own, for sure, but others’ birthdays, too. She looks forward to celebrations so much, and that brings all of us a lot of joy.
One thing our daughter really does not like is change. I don’t think she’s yet forgiven my wife and me for our move from a suburb into Boston two years ago. As much as she’s come to like where we now live, she still feels the sting of leaving the only home she’d known until we moved.
Our daughter’s love of birthdays and her distaste for change met head on eight years ago, as she was about to turn five. At times, she seemed excited to celebrate her birthday; other times, she seemed anxious and down.
I sat with her at bedtime one night to try to understand what was going on. She said she was sad that she wouldn’t be four anymore; that four would be lost.
I had bought our daughter a set Russian nesting dolls on a trip I’d taken several months earlier. Many of you have seen these dolls, I’m sure. This set had five dolls: five hollow, brightly painted dolls, each one a bit larger than the next. The four largest dolls separate at the waist, so you can put the smallest doll inside the doll one size up; those two in the next one up; and so on. When they’re all packed up, the largest doll is the only one you see. Now it contains all the others.
I reached for the set of dolls on a bookshelf nearby, took it apart, and started reassembling it. As I put the smallest one inside the next size up, I told my daughter this was just like when she turned two: one was still inside two. When I put those two in the third, I made the same point about when she turned three; and I made that point again when I put the first three dolls in the fourth. By the time we got to the fifth doll, she understood that turning five didn’t mean losing four. Four would still be part of her.
Growth in most domains of life is like this. Our perspective and experience may be transformed, but they’re transformed in a way that integrates and refigures our prior perspectives and experiences. The old and the new; this way and that way; the things that used to seem like binaries, and that used to generate discomfort, become synthesized into a new way of knowing and being that we never could have imagined.
Like Alice, we can peer into the looking glass, but we can’t know what’s through it until we’re through it. In this case, however, “through” isn’t exactly a way out. Getting to the other side; well, what we find might not exactly be another side.
In the koan with which I opened this talk, the window is a metaphor for enlightenment, of course. The buffalo—which is you or me—wants to pass from someplace she doesn’t want to be to someplace she imagines to be better. But she can’t quite get through. Her tail is stuck.
Hakuin, the 18th century teacher who revived the Rinzai school in Japan, and koan practice with it, regarded this koan as one of eight that are especially difficult to pass through. I suppose it is, if we conceive of enlightenment as a passage to someplace completely other than where we’ve been, and if we expect to become someone completely new, other than who we’ve been.
To be clear, the Zen way entices us toward a particular sort of growth. Its teachings and practices both support and embody that growth as we take them up. I suppose we can call it spiritual growth if we must call it something. It’s a paradoxical sort of growth, not unlike those Russian dolls.
Why is spiritual growth paradoxical?
On the one hand, our practice may help us grow beyond the existential angst many of us feel; that acute, uncomfortable, fragile sense of existential isolation that propels so much action and inaction which can compound our own and others’ suffering.
The biggest Russian doll is bigger than the whole universe; it is hidden in plain sight, as everything and nothing. Taking up and continuing along the Zen Way, we may discover and center in this reality—experientially, as the fabric of our being, not as an idea. We may come to discover and feel ourselves, and everything else, as arising and boundlessly coterminous with that biggest of all Russian dolls.
We can think of enlightenment experiences or insights, if we have them, as glimpses of that biggest Russian doll reality. But I think it’s best to think of enlightenment, if we’re going to think about it at all, as progressively becoming securely anchored in that awareness and experience. And not just from the universal perspective, the perspective of that biggest of all Russian dolls, important as it is to cultivate it, and as much as Zen practice is about helping us do so. But also from one’s own very concrete and particular perspective, as a being interdependently present with other beings.
There used to be a brushwork piece hanging here that depicted a candle burning from both ends. At one end it said, “Sometimes swiftly.” At the other it said, “Sometimes slowly.”
This image depicts the eventual resolution of a debate that raged for some time in the early days of the Zen tradition. Back in 8th century China, the so-called Northern School of Zen claimed enlightenment comes suddenly, and the so-called Southern School claimed that enlightenment comes gradually. The image represents the synthesis that eventually emerged: both perspectives are valid. It can happen either way.
My view of how that ancient debate should be resolved is just a bit different. Instead of “sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly,” I’d say, “sometimes swiftly, always slowly.”
And that’s a good segue to what makes spiritual growth paradoxical. It’s all about that tail.
Striving to pass through that window, we may think our tail has us stuck. If so, we certainly are stuck—but the other end has us stuck. There’s no escaping our tail-ness, and no need to escape it, as if we even could. We’re stuck because of how we’re conceiving of enlightenment and striving for what we conceive.
Enlightenment is a slippery word; some might even say it’s a dirty word. It certainly is a dirty word if one projects into it the pretense of completion; the end of growth.
Our enlightenment is ongoing; never ending. We can sink ever deeper into the realization that we are what we were seeking—not in a grandiose way, but in the sense knowing ourselves both as distinct beings and as not separate in any way. We continue to open; to marinate.
And as buffalos with tails, we always will have blind spots. As distinct beings, there are experiences and perspectives that are not our own. We can miss things about ourselves or about the world around us. Each of us needs others to help us see and learn from what we presently do not see.
I once met a teacher who said Zen has nothing to do with ethics. His point is that Zen is fundamentally about realizing that biggest of all Russian dolls insight, and he believes that awareness has nothing to do with ethics. That’s a view from the perspective of the absolute, but one that, to my thinking, neglects the unity of absolute and relative.
I’m with the 20th century teacher Yamada Roshi, who summed up the whole of Zen practice and its goal as the refinement of character. That biggest of all Russian dolls insight can and must contribute greatly to the refinement of one’s character. If that doesn’t yet seem to be happening, there’s reason to question how securely one is anchored in that awareness and experience.
As we grow in insight, wisdom, and maturity, we hopefully become less subject to baser impulses and delusive ways of thinking that possessed those smaller Russian dolls within us, cute as they are. But real maturity is accepting their presence with all humility and tending to them skillfully; never thinking we’re free of blind spots or have otherwise fully passed through some mythical, ultimate gate; and remaining open to new insights from wherever or whomever they may come.
So let’s please each pay close attention to our own tail.