Why does the Russian River flow [and flood] to the sea?

~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

Going through the curriculum a week ago with a friend, I came across this Russian River koan. It had been only a few days before, following huge rains, that the river peaked at 45 feet above normal to deliver its worst flood in 25 years. Flood damage was estimated at $155 million, with about 35 homes “red tagged” for demolition.

One of the earliest memories of my father’s work as a newsreel cameraman was of him pulling on rain gear late one night, and heading up to the Russian River to cover the floods. The Russian is grand: for a time, it was the south-eastern border of the vast 19th century Russian Empire. It flows for over 100 miles south from its source in Mendocino County and turns west at Healdsburg, heading toward the Pacific. As it approaches the sea, the river valley narrows, cutting through the hard-rock of the coastal range. When the river floods upriver, the waters spread out through wide Alexander Valley and vineyards, but down-river the amassed water climbs the walls of the river valley itself. For decades the Russian has exceeded its 32 ft “100-year flood” stage every several years. The Russian River knows flooding.

That might be the “How” of the river flow, but what of the “Why”? To understand that from a Zen perspective, we need to establish a first-person intimacy with the river. The magic of koan practice is that when we make the flow of the river our own flow, then we realize that the muck and mud left by the winter flood is also our own. In the fall, the salmon run is our migration, and the play of children on the summer gravel banks is our play. When we establish that intimacy, suddenly the relationship far exceeds the boundaries of the river itself. Somehow, the river is not different from the bright morning sunshine in my window, or the smell and taste of the coffee in my cup. Somehow, the river is not outside of me. That is the “Why” of it.