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Explain water. ~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

Over the last several weeks we have been working with water: a coin lost in the river is found in the river; moment by moment; non-stop flow. “What is that sound outside the gate?” asked the teacher. The monk replied, “The sound of raindrops.” And last week, in this drought-prone, wildland-fire plagued part of the country, we heard the sound of raindrops. It was wonderful.

The above koan, “explain water”, seems utterly plain, but when I recently visited it with a friend, what touched me was its reservoir of richness within its very simplicity. Wet and dry seem to need each other.

After he took a gulp of water from a mason jar, which made me laugh, my friend offered: “I cried twice recently.” In the several years of talking together, I don’t recall him openly offering up his emotions in that way. “I was surprised at how I cried when I heard the Queen had died.” His first memory of Queen Elizabeth was as a very young child seeing her picture on Canadian currency. Her reign, he noted, was ancient and august, pre-dating even his father’s birth. “I cried again,” he said, “was when I heard a certain song being played this past September 11.” The Whole World had been released by the hip-hop band Outkast just after the World Trade Center attack. On hearing it again, he wept, for the dead, and for the survivors.

After my friend had spoken, I thought of a quote from Joan Sutherland, Roshi’s new book, “Through a Forest of Many Colors.” Joan writes about a young woman, Mujaku, who lived in medieval Japan and became a nun at age 32 following the death of her samurai husband. While in dokusan with her Zen teacher Bukko, she heard the cry of a deer down at a nearby creek. The master shouted, “Where is that deer? Who is hearing?” Shaken, Mujaku later went down to the creek to fetch water, saw the moon’s reflection in the bucket, and spontaneously created a poem: The bucket catches the stream/The pure moon through the pines/Appears in the water. And then the tears came. Joan writes:

She sees the moon’s reflection in the water: her grief, radiant. Later still, she says, the bottom falls out of her bucket: water and light soaking into the earth. All that wet: the stream, the watery moon in a bucket, the deer’s moist eye, the woman weeping.

Her tears become a solvent for what is unyielding within, the defenses we erect to keep from feeling the pain of life all the way through—which also keeps us from feeling its beauty all the way through. The tears soften, unstick, breach, topple, and fill. They run like water under the ice, and suddenly the frozen is flowing again.

~ Through Forests of Every Color, p. 44

What is the cause of water? Maybe it is something that doesn’t need explaining. Perhaps it is self evident; perhaps we are self evident. It is possible we are more simple than we think, our lives more clean, direct and refreshing than we can imagine. And far more satisfying.

Nothing in all beneath heaven is so soft and weak as water. And yet, for conquering the hard and strong, nothing succeeds like water. And nothing can change it: weak overcoming strong, soft overcoming hard. Everything throughout all beneath heaven knows this, and yet nothing puts it into practice.

~Tao Te Ching, David Hinton, p. 117