Hakuin considered this to be one of the difficult koans, the nanto koans, hard to pass. It’s interesting to approach it through a story about Hakuin himself who, you may remember from his biography, as a young child was first attracted to Zen because he grew up with a terrible fear of going to Hell, feeling guilty, and he looked to meditation as a way to escape his tormenting anxiety and fears, his phobias. As a result of his real psychological problems, he threw himself totally into his practice in the pursuit of some kind of breakthrough or realization that would rid him of his fears, and he threw himself into practice, although he actually seems to have spent very little time studying with particular teachers, often sitting a lot on his own.
But in any case, it seemed that his efforts paid off and one day he had this great realization that just filled him with joy and relief. Feeling that once and for all he had escaped the fears that brought him to practice, and with great enthusiasm, he went back to one of his teachers to announce his realization and the teacher looked him up and down and said, oh -- very good, but let me ask you, what about that old koan about the dog and Buddha nature. What do you make of that? And Hakuin said something to the effect, Nobody can lay a hand on that ever again. The teacher reached out, grabbed him by the nose, gave it a twist, and said, I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp of it right now. And Hakuin was in terrible pain and shock and he didn’t know what to do in that circumstance, and he went off feeling very deflated.
But unfortunately he took it to mean that, well, he just had to go and keep practicing until he got a bigger satori that would be impervious to that kind of trick. Now, I would like to suggest that eventually Hakuin’s nose, which got pulled by his teacher, migrated to the rear end of the buffalo in this story. Because the buffalo -- in this translation, the Yamada Roshi Commentary, he translates it as a cow. A lot of other translations say a buffalo, and the buffalo is also the ox in the oxherding pictures. It’s all the same animal, basically, an animal that was used to symbolize our essential nature. The picture we’re given -- it’s not easy to visualize -- but the idea is that somehow this buffalo or cow is leaping through a window, and they make a point of saying it’s a latticed window, and a latticed window is something that is divided into lots of tiny grids, lots of squares. I would think, for us, it defines a cartesian grid. It’s a metaphor for things, a space being divided up into little boxes, with lots of little separations and boundaries. So we’ve got this picture of the buffalo passing through the grid, passing through the symbol of differentiation, the oneness of the buffalo passing through differentiations. And it can almost entirely get through, but not quite. There’s something left over.
There are lots of ways that we can think about that left-over. The picture passing through, in one sense, is like a picture of transcendence. You go beyond differentiation. The buffalo passes through the lattice demonstrating that the lattice is in fact empty. That’s why it can pass through. There’s no obstacle, and everything you think of as a barrier, as images of separation and differentiation, everything that’s an obstacle to oneness or essential nature, is actually empty. And the koan will say, that will take you very far, but only so far. You can see everything as empty and approach your life from that perspective, but something will get stuck.
Now, in the case of Hakuin, what you can say is that he was desperate to cultivate these transcendent experiences, to have some kind of experiences that would take him into a realm where he would be impervious to his anxiety. He could almost do it, and that’s one of the great traps of practice, that you can cultivate special states which, for a time, maybe even most of the time, will allow you to feel that you’ve risen above your problems, or the problems of the suffering of the world, or your dependency, or your mortality.
But it’s like the koan of the hundred foot pole. You can go way up into the air, but when you’re up there, you’re not of much use to anybody, and probably one way or another you’re going to have to come down. In Mumon’s commentary, he says, If you’re able to see into this koan, you’ll be able to repay your four obligations above and help the living beings in the three realms below. To see through the fantasy of final transcendence, allows you to function. You can’t repay your obligations or save beings from the top of a pole. In order to do any of those things, you have to come down.
Hakuin eventually, after many, many satori experiences and relapses, finally got the idea that his real insight was to serve others, to teach, to stop being preoccupied with his own personal state and to simply throw himself into helping others. Now, if you want to think about what it means to see the self as empty or really get over yourself, it is this precisely bodhisattva’s activity of functioning in the service of others rather than being preoccupied with your own inner state of consciousness.
Mumon’s verse says, if it passes through, it will fall into a ditch. If the buffalo went through completely, if it completely transcended the world, it would be in the ditch of emptiness. It would be stuck on the top of the hundred foot pole. It would be lost in this kind of solipsistic emptiness that is of no use to anybody. If it returns, it will be destroyed. To return means if you abandon emptiness and just go back to the world of differentiation, you’re stuck in the world of ordinary suffering again. So it has to be something that’s a bridge. And here, the little tail is how the absolute manifests in the midst of our ordinary life. Like Joko said, find the absolute in your anxiety, in your anger, in your resistance. Don’t find the absolute in getting blissed out on your cushion. Find the absolute by having no separation with your own tension and resistance to the moment. Find it there.
What we need to do, as I was saying in the opening remarks this morning, is not practice in a way where we’re in the pursuit of some particular state while we’re sitting and getting into this endless not-there-yet mode, as though no matter how much we manage to sit in a good state, inevitably something happens to interrupt it or when we get off the cushion something interrupts, and then we feel like we’re always a day late and a dollar short, never, ever quite attaining the thing we’re trying to do. When we’re in that mode, we see our mind as it is and our life as it is, as an obstacle. We feel like it’s the tail that’s getting stuck that’s a problem, but Mumon says that little tail is marvelous. Being stuck is not the problem. It is the anchor into real life. We’re not trying to attain a state of transcendence, and I think that’s something that’s distinctive about Zen. We don’t have a model of the teacher who is like a guru who has transcended the ego or suffering once and for all and exists permanently on a higher plain, and our connection to a perfect master gives us a little chance to touch the hem of transcendent reality. Zen doesn’t see things that way, or promise that way, and certainly doesn’t see the teacher that way.
Rather, we’re trying to see that all these things that we come to practice to escape, the way Hakuin was trying to escape his phobias, are not obstacles. They are actually life itself. That’s where the tail is coming through. We have to be able to take life whole, not try to figure out how once and for all to get beyond it. So when Hakuin describes this as a particularly difficult koan, it’s not difficult in the sense of what you have to do to pass it as a koan. One way or another, of course you have to become the buffalo, you have to merge with the imageries of these things, but the hard part is the really letting go of that fantasy of once and for all passing through, of once and for all transcendent, to see the place of stuckness as simultaneously the place of our essential nature. That’s the hard part.