Return to Sheep Mountain
The Diamond Sutra says “The past mind can’t be grasped, the present mind can’t be grasped, and the future mind can’t be grasped”. With which mind are you going to eat the cake?
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 28 (fragment)
It had been more than 43 years since I had last visited Sheep Mountain, which rises straight up several thousand feet, across the Matanuska River from the Chugach range, in South Central Alaska. I had long ago over-wintered there and was now walking along an old-gravel road bordered by alder and willow, looking for a former-neighbor’s cabin. On the trail, I spied a set of fresh moose tracks, pressed into the muddy earth just a few hours before, and the above koan came to me.
The koan was asking, I felt, about the passage of place and time. Which past mind, which memory, can’t be grasped: The moose, four hours ago; the 19-year old, four decades ago? Which present mind can’t be grasped: The moose track as it now sits, the me as I bend down to look? Which future mind can’t be grasped: This track that will soon be gone; the me, a few decades in the future?
I re-read the above few lines from The Diamond Sutra, asked of a travelling monk by an old lady in a tea-shop, and it became clearer, without really needing an answer. Though late May, it was still cold on Sheep Mountain; mid-30s in the mornings. Nevertheless, the alder and willow were exploding over just a few days, desperately catching up to the lengthening summer days. The thickets are thickening with new green shoots; in another week, or so, they promised to be fully-leaved. With the thaw, the snow and the glacier are again feeding the Matanuska River, which is running fast. Woody, a neighbor with whom I shared coffee one morning, told me that Allen, the hunting guide, drowned crossing the river in a canoe just a couple of months after I left. His wife has lived in their cabin, alone these years.
I read the sutra lines again, and it seemed that mind ~ the one mind which stretches to the far corners of the universe ~ can never be grasped; it can only be lived. I put my hand down upon the moose track, and for just a moment, they seemed to enjoy each other’s reflection.