Once a teacher and student were walking together they saw some wild ducks fly by.
The teacher asked, “What is that?” The student replied, “Wild ducks.”
The teacher asked, “Where have they gone? ” The student replied, “They’ve flown away.”
The teacher twisted the student’s, nose, who cried out in pain, and asked: “When have they ever flown away?”
~The Blue Cliff Record, case 53
The wildfires are back, and I was recently reading through The Blue Cliff record when I came across the above koan. It made me think of all the people and all the animals disaffected by these 100,000-plus acre fires that have now become annual events in California. A few days ago, I was traveling down a country road in northern Sonoma, passing through a small valley that was thick with a smoky haze from the Mendocino Complex. I saw a young deer nervously skit at the margins of the road in broad daylight. Though forty miles away, she knew there was fire in the hills, and did not know where to go.
Years ago, I heard a story from a friend who loved to run through a wooded oak and chaparral canyon near her home in Santa Barbara. One day, rounding a corner, she encountered a black bear, standing just yards away on the trail. For a moment, close in, a veil had been lifted: the bear faced her, and without thoughts, she faced the bear. And then, they parted ways. Listening to the story at the time, I thought it deeply totemic, and it made a lasting impression on me. Last year, the Thomas Fire ravaged the flora and fauna of her canyon, and the killer mud-flows went on to forever alter its geology, rendering it “unrecognizable”, as she later described it. I wondered: where had the bear gone?
In Zen, sometimes it is enough to just ask the question. Where did the wild ducks go? Was the bear able to run away? Where have the 1,200 families burned out of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa gone? Just asking the question is an expression, an affirmation, of the wonderful and sometimes horrifying relationship trees and fires and rocks and humans and deer and bears have with each other. In some way, which cannot be explained in words, but which can only be lived, that affirmation is itself mysteriously healing. Where did the bear go? When has she ever run away?