Yunmen, teaching the community, said, “The old Buddha and temple pillar intermingle. What level of activity is this? He himself answered, “Clouds gather on South Mountain, rain falls on North Mountain.”
The Blue Cliff Record, case 83
The simple explanation of this koan, and one like it in our miscellaneous collection, “Hide in the pillar”, is that we (Buddhas old and young) are not separate from the temple pillar (or any other feature in our lives, architectural, or otherwise). But when we try to explain that not-two quality with words, all freshness of experiencing the pillar goes away. In putting meaning to it, we do what Yunmen advises against: we distance ourselves from our own lives ~ architectural features, and all. Some people call that delusion.
Two years ago, I put up a wooden box to provide shelter for barn owls. They are great rodent eaters: some surveys estimate a single barn owl family will eat 1,000 gophers in a year (of course, owls know little of property lines and may fly over your gophers to eat your neighbor’s). The box, two feet by three by one, has a four-inch hole in it for the owls to climb through. Sitting high on a ten-foot fence, I have often imagined that round black hole, catching the star light and moon light, feeling raindrops, and inhaling some wildfire smoke, calling to the barn owls as they hunt late at night.
Barn owls are exotically gorgeous: they have a large white, pie-shaped face, which reminds me of a fine- cheeked geisha. They don’t hoot, but screech when flying, sometimes clicking. A few weeks ago, I heard a barn owl go screech screech, as it flew over my back yard. Hopefully, I checked. But the box remains empty; the pine shavings I first put inside are clean, without pellets, feathers, or gopher bones. Still, the empty barn owl box enjoys the clouds on the South Mountain and the rains on the North Mountain. Its black hole waits patiently, catching the sounds of fire trucks going by, the sight of a lawnmower, or the warmth of the sun as the fog burns off. A friend of mine, who was moving to Texas from Virginia a couple of years ago, said at
the time, “I am getting ready for San Antonio, but San Antonio is also getting ready for me.” These years, intermingling, the owls have been getting ready for the box, and the box has also been getting ready for them.