When the Wheels Come Off

The teacher asked a monk, “The master cart-­maker made a hundred carts. If he took off both wheels and removed the axle, what would he make clear about the cart?”

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 8


I am reluctant to say it. Once I do, I know afterward I will have to wash out my mouth with (organic, hand-milled, lavender-and- shea-butter) soap. But here it goes: form and emptiness. There; it’s done. Words, of course, cannot touch the meaning of the light in all things that we so often talk about. In the second line of the Tao Te Ching, it says that: “The word that can be spoken is not the true word.” Which is, well, true. However, blogs are made of words and for purposes of illustration, we sometimes call that light in all things “emptiness” and the things that hold the light, “form.” Emptiness and form; form and emptiness. And like many, if not most, koans, the above cart koan has two aspects to it.


Several weeks ago, our Phoenix affiliate, Desert Lotus Sangha, took up this koan during their weekly meeting. From the emails going back and forth, it looked to be a lively exchange. In discussing the unmaking of the carts, there was one comment among the many that seemed to touch people, in a deconstructionist kind of way: “When all of my stories that make me me disappear, what am I?” On reading that line, I could feel for a moment my own stories fall away; I could feel a vastness and possibility open in the world. That vastness is called emptiness.

Form is also obviously central to this cart koan, but it is a form that accepts all circumstances; without judgement. All conditions, without measure. The important part of this practice is to understand, when the wheels fall off, what we get is a cart without wheels. And that is whole and complete, even beautiful, in itself. About five years ago, a dear friend of mine retired from teaching to move up to Montana. He has for decades been an accomplished ornithologist, a popular wilderness guide and all-around lover of activity. A month into his new life, just shy of 60 years old, his wife woke one night to his loud groans as he lay in bed. They live out in the country, and it took some time to get him, lying unconscious, to the hospital. The diagnosis: ischemic stroke in his brain, partially paralyzing his right side, taking away much of the use his right arm and weakening his right leg. With undaunted courage, my friend plunged into physical therapy to regain effective use of his right side, with limited success. He would not be discouraged: “I may be only 70% of what I once was,” he said one night, when I was visiting in his house in Montana, “But I am 100% of that.” That is form.


And that is also the answer to this koan. Zen practice is not about becoming perfect, it is about more and more understanding that, we are whole and perfect, from the very first. And even if circumstances change, that perfection does not. Even if the wheels fall off our own carts.


~ JON JOSEPH, ROSHI

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