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Isan's Buffalo: What changes and what remains constant? Barry Magid May 20th 2009

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Miscellaneous Koans Isan's Water Buffalo

One day master Isan said to the assembled monks, "Two hundred and fifty years from now, after I'm dead, a water buffalo will appear and on it's side will be the words "I am Isan." "Tell me," he asked, "will you call it a buffalo or will you call it Isan?"

Some of you probably heard me talk about this koan before, and I find it’s one I keep coming back to over and over again, particularly since turning 60 I didn’t have to wait 500 years to see the water buffalo in the mirror. Because, of course, that’s what this koan is really about: the changing nature of our self, our self and our bodies, and whether we stay the same or are different and whether we recognize ourselves in the new form or not.

Traditionally in koan study, a student can answer this koan by getting down on all fours and doing his best water buffalo imitation, having supports out in front and a tail out behind. It can be quite cute. I suppose if you are a monk whose life is very controlled and very formal and proper in everything you do, it is a pretty radical transformation to get down and do something so uninhibited and child-like as playing at being a buffalo, and perhaps just being able to freely change self-states like that from serious to playful, is a very important part of traditional training. But I think that for me now the changes that we have to come to terms with are perhaps less playful and more painful. And the danger is that instead of Isan’s buffalo we feel more like Kafka’s big cockroach and we wake up one morning saying, Oh my God! How did I get in this body of a sick old person? It can be as horrible to us as waking up as an insect.

Now part of what we have to look at is whether we hold on to some image of who we really are -- young, healthy, good-looking (relatively) -- and what we think of as the real me that is undergoing this terrible transformation into this miserable parody of myself that’s now getting old and gray and not so fit. We really suffer if we feel like that all the time: This isn’t me! And we hold on in our minds to an image from the past that we try to cling to desperately but obviously we’re never going to be able to hold on to. The challenge is to fully occupy that body of the water buffalo when it’s time. When an old man’s face appears in the mirror, it’s time to be an old man.

Now we can get caught in a lot of ways about that. We can think we know what it is to get old and we may be carrying around a 25-year-old’s picture of how decrepit and finished life is at 60. I know my father at 60 was much older than I am at the same age. He was getting ready for retirement, thinking of himself as finishing a career. And for many of us, we find ourselves surprised at what we’re called upon to do at an age when we didn’t expect to be doing it. I thought my dad was an old father because I was born when he was close to 40 and my son was born when I was close to 50.

Joko didn’t begin teaching until she was 60. Just when my dad was thinking about retirement she was starting a Zen Center. So we have to be very careful about the ideas that we have about what an age means. We can be just as trapped by an image of being old as we can be trapped by trying to cling to a picture of what it is to be young. In what ways are we the same person? What ways are we different as time passes? That’s really what the koan is asking.
When you sign a mortgage, there’s no question in the bank’s mind whether you’re the same person or not. Thirty years from now it’s you who they will want to collect from. But that’s not our subjective or emotional reality. In our practice, part of what we’re doing is trying to let in just how different we are, not just year to year but hour to hour. I can start a period of sitting feeling very clear and centered and a half hour later I’ll have this rampaging buffalo rummaging around in my head. It won’t settle down, won’t be quiet. Or my knee will be acting out, my body will be a whole different body than the one I sat down with. It will be full of pain.

How willing are we to say, Well, that’s me. Well, this is me. Or are we saying, Oh shit! Why can’t I be that again? We talk about clinging and attachment. That’s the kind that really gets us, where we cling to some image of who we were, who we want to be now, not wanting to see ourselves undergoing the changes of age or illness, not wanting to see our loved ones, our teachers, our friends, undergoing those changes. We want them to stay the same. We need them to be the same! How can they do that to us? You never know when you’re going to wake up a buffalo. Sometimes it doesn’t take as long as you think. When it happens, you have to be prepared. It’s the life of a buffalo now. That’s all there is.

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