The teacher asked, “Why has the Western barbarian no beard?”

~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 4

It is not hard for koanistas to see this as a rather minor, and even boring, case in the Gateless Barrier collection, sandwiched between two more famous ones: Chiu Chih’s Raises a Finger and Hsian Yen’s Up a Tree. The Western barbarian here, of course, is Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen school in China. A student’s response to the question about his beard might be something as simple as a stroke on the chin. And then, off to the next koan! the student might figure. My experience, however, is that these un-famous koans are important. Most awakening, I think, comes from small gestures, not grand. It comes in: “Oh. Yes. That is true.”, kind of moments, rather than times when heaven and earth crumble and disappear.

I have a cousin who lives on an island in Penobscot Bay, off the rocky and pine-bound coast of Maine, where he works as a lobster fisherman and oyster farmer. We have visited the island, North Haven, lots of times over the years. It has only about 350 year-round residents, perhaps 10 miles of road, and several dozen cars. Driving the packed-gravel roads, every time a one driver passes another, they wave. Without exception, whether they know each other, or not, they wave.

So, a few mornings ago, I thought I would try that in my small California burg. When a police car passed, I waved. And then I kept waving, to bicyclists and other drivers, to joggers and parents walking their children to school. I did not stop there. I began to wave at the crows on my lawn, the stop sign on the corner, and at the Eucalyptus trees near the traffic circle. The funny thing is, I found that when I began to wave, things began to wave back.

People seemed friendlier, even though they may not have seen me. And it is not that large trees shook their boughs back at me, or that crows started greeting me Good Morning! Instead, they became more them, if I can explain it in words. The Eucalyptus became more gum-tree like, the crows more scavenger-bird like. When I waved, in a small way, the world waved back. Oh. Yes. That is true.

You may not think it related, but there are life lessons to be learned in surfing small waves: