Someone asked Yunmen, “What does sitting correctly and contemplating true reality mean?”

The master replied, “A coin lost in the river is found in the river.”

I recently used this koan as the basis for a discussion at a retreat. Koans are alive, and they often flip on me: One time working on Who am I? the question became the statement I am Who! and almost magically a new, spacious world, opened to me. The above koan worked in a similar way. Found in the River became Lost in the River, for reasons not fully understood, and took a darker turn into loss, and death.

I searched for a personal connection to Lost in the River, and in my talk, I mentioned an old family story about how my great-uncles had found a quail-egg sized gold nugget while mining in a river in Calaveras County nearly a century and a half ago. It passed down from my grandmother, who once let me hold it my hand, to my father, who lost it to thieves when they broke into his trailer park home. That was a piece of gold lost back into the river of life, but it is not what really brought me to this koan.

Several weeks ago I read an article in the New Yorker by poet Donald Hall, who in the early 1970s met a young student, Jane Kenyon, and married her, with some concern that he would pre-decease by decades his bride, who was 20 years his junior. Instead, she passed away in 1995, and he is now nearly 90. The article was an elegy to Jane, and somehow her poem, Twilight: After Haying helped me better understand The Coin Lost in the River. About finishing cutting hay on a New England farm, her poem goes:

Yes, long shadows go out

from the bales; and yes the soul

must part from the body:

what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,

too tired to leave the field.

They talk and smoke,

and the tips of their cigarettes

blaze like small roses

in the night air. (It arrived

and settled among them before they were aware.)

The moon comes

to count the bales,

and the dispossessed–

Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will

–sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s


and suffering are bound together

like the grasses…

The last, sweet exhalations

of timothy and vetch

go out with the song of the bird;

the ravaged field

grows wet with dew.