A student asked Baling, “What is the blown-hair sword?”
Baling said, “Each branch of coral holds up the light of the moon.”

—Blue Cliff Record Case 100, transl. by John Tarrant & Joan Sutherland

This is such a beautiful koan. I can picture that edge of a hair-blown sword; that’s how sharp I want my wood chisel (used in making guitars). “Each branch of coral” is a kind of soft image of moonlight streaming down into the water. The moon way up in the sky, the coral deep in the water—the highest and lowest thing.

When I play music, whenever I make a mistake—if it’s not musically perfect or “not how I would play it!”—it’s actually how I am playing it right now. Each one of those little things is a branch of coral holding up the moon.

But what is so special about the coral? Each sparrow holds up the moon. Each chili-cheese fry holds up the moon (I just had lunch, and may change my mind in a half hour). Coming home from sesshin, down in the train station, I met a pack of teenage kids trying to sell me some mushrooms. The girl with Goth makeup said,  “You gotta take these mushrooms and go to a park. The trees are your best friend.” I couldn’t argue with that, though I declined the shrooms. Each runaway child holds up the moon.

Last week, I went out to a beer store that is a couple of blocks from my house. I cut across a parking lot and on the far end, saw a mini-version of the “Freedom Convoy” of trucks of the kind that were protesting at the U.S. border last year. There were several cars and one big, white truck, all honking their horns like crazy at passing traffic.

It was the most obnoxious thing you could imagine. I realized, “Holy ****; the Freedom Convoy is setting up shop only two blocks from my house!” I was already grumpy and I thought, “They’re so obnoxious, I can’t deal with this anymore.” So, I went storming across the parking lot.

Out of the window of that giant white truck, I see this skinny little arm hanging and I think, “I can probably take that guy. Hell, let’s do this!”

I came around the side of the truck, stormed up to the window, looked in, and the person sitting in the truck turned, looked at me, waved, and smiled. It was a 65-year-old gray-haired lady. Before I could help myself, I smiled and waved back. 

And then the whole thing flipped on its head. She was just one more branch of coral, holding up the moon. I don’t know, I felt this funny compassion for her because she was just doing what she thought was the right thing, with her two eight-year-old women friends in the cars. 

It was like they were holding up the whole world for everybody, in the same way that I was with my anger storming over there. It just wiped away everything. Just this life. We’re just “life-ing.” And it’s just like, throw a smile and a wave.

—Jordan McConnell