On South Mountain


Hsueh Feng taught the assembly, “On South Mountain, there is a turtle-nosed cobra snake. All of you people must watch out carefully!”

Chang Ching said, ”In the hall today, there certainly are people who have lost their bodies and their lives.”

Hsuan Sha said, “Why make use of South Mountain?”

Yunmen took his staff and threw it down in front on Hsueh Feng, making a gesture of fright.

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 22 (abbreviated)

As we head into the third week of the current stay-at-home order, put in place to mitigate the spread of the Corona virus, a number of friends, from as near as Chico, Ca and as far away as Dharamshala, India, have indicated they are “going into retreat.” This cloistering has that kind of feel for me, as well. The word sesshin, which we call retreat, comes from two Sino-Japanese words: setsu, which means “piece together” and shin “the heart-mind”. In retreat, separated from the rest of the world, we often take hold of a koan (or it takes hold of us), and visit with it day and night. My koan, in these weeks, has been the Corona koan (somehow, the “SARS-CoV-2” koan or “COVID-19” koan just does not easily roll off the tongue). The virus is the turtle-nosed snake out there, hidden in the grass, and I am watching it carefully.

In sesshin, drinking tea, taking a stroll, and of course, meditating, is an invitation to visit with our koan. Even while sleeping, we can work on it. In recent weeks, my dreams at night have been rich with the virus. Every night, I am visited by the Corona, either by avoiding it, contracting it, dealing with others who have it, or handling the medical stuff to prevent it. Last night, in a dream, I was sheltering in place somewhere, and someone brought me a large shipment of antiseptic wipes and other personal protective gear, to distribute. But with it came a small posse of infected people, who were kind of milling about, wanting some help. At first, I was quietly resentful, but soon enough I wasn’t, and I began to help. And before that, in a recurring dream that ran for two nights, I was driving around in a car with an old Zen friend. We were surveying the virus-impacted landscape outside the car, comparing koan answers and, frankly, kind of enjoying each other’s company.

In the koan above, the cobra snake on South Mountain is the pure and clear manifestation of Buddha nature. Perhaps dangerous, possibly deadly, and extraordinarily beautiful, it certainly is not wrong. Even with my terrible algebra, if for me, the Corona virus is the snake, then it too has these qualities, and it too, is not wrong. The virus has an awakened nature, and shines with a kind of light. Hsuan Sha asks, "Why, then, make use of South Mountain?" An excellent question. I think it is because we wear a bandana when we go shopping and wash our hands when we return, all the while, watching carefully, carefully.


Print: Mayumi Oda, Strawberry Fields Forever

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