A Buffalo Passes Through the Moongate

This teisho was given at the half day sit on September 3rd, 2005, five days after Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans region.)

Case 38 in the Mumonkan, the Gate of No Barrier

Goso said, “A buffalo passes through the moongate. His head, horns, and four legs all pass through. But why can’t the tail pass too?”


If you make a complete about-face, open your eye, and give a turning word, you will be able to repay the four kinds of love that have favored you and help the sentient beings in the three realms who follow you. If you are still unable to do this, return to this tail and reflect upon it, and then for the first time you will realize something.


Passing through, it falls in a ditch;
Coming back, all the worse, it is lost.
This tiny little thing
What a strange thing it is!

(Rings the bell three times)

For those of you who might be here for the first time, I’d like to explain that this is what we call a koan in Zen. The word koan goes back to the Chinese term “kung-an,” which originally referred to a case in Chinese law. So these are basically cases in Zen, like cases in law, and they are used for the training of Zen students, somewhat as legal cases are used in the training of lawyers. People might learn law in a different way, by studying abstract principles, but this is not how legal education works. Instead lawyers-in-training study particular cases until they get a feel for the law. This “feel” is more flexible, more intelligent, and more profound than the knowledge of law that would come from abstract principles. The same is true for Zen training. In Zen we look at particular cases of awakening. Then we come away with a feel, a deep appreciation grounded in actual human experience. This is also the way we teach poetry in English. If you read a lot of a certain poet’s work, you can get a profound feel for it.

Before we start working with koans, we have to be in a special mental state. A person learns how to reach this mental state by first sitting properly on the cushion, and this means arranging the body in a proper way. By arranging the body in the appropriate way, we make it possible for the mind to enter a deep state of concentration. You sit on the cushion with the back straight and you breathe through your hara (Ch. dantian), the region around the navel, and generally in our tradition people are asked to focus their minds on their exhalations rather than the inhalations. In Zen, this practice is known as “breath perception meditation” (Jap. “susoku-kan”). You watch the breath, and watch the breath, and watch the breath again, as it goes out . . .out . . .out. And little by little, you undergo a significant psychological transformation.

Human beings are actually capable of entering many different states of mind although we ordinarily spend most of our daily lives in a very small number of those states. We have available to us a number of alternate states which are quite wonderful and one of these states we refer to in Zen as samadhi. By “samadhi,” we in Zen mean the state of meditative concentration in which the split between the self and the world disappears to some degree. Often, arrival at this state is accompanied by sensations of floating or expanding, or of the hands or face disappearing. It might seem that you are turning around on your cushion or twisting even though you are straight. These are physical sensations which often accompany entering into samadhi. In a samadhi state, we are not separate from the world around us to the same degree as we are in ordinary consciousness, and our experience of the moment is much more direct and not so obstructed by thoughts and feelings.

Once you are in samadhi, you have really reached the first stage of Zen practice. After you reach this stage, the teacher will generally start to give you koans. In our tradition, the first koan following susoku-kan, breath perception, is called the “Mu koan.” That koan is quite important and difficult and takes a number of years to work through. After Mu, the teacher will give you a series of koans, one at a time, and it may take months or years to work through any particular koan.

A koan usually involves a story, and it might be a very simple story indeed. In this case, the story could hardly be more simple.

Goso said, “A buffalo passes through the moongate. His head, horns, and four legs all pass through. But why can’t the tail pass too?”

Goso poses a question to a student. We don’t know to whom he poses the question. But it could hardly be simpler. A little, tiny story! The appropriate use of the koan is that you should enter deep samadhi and then you will begin to internalize the koan. You internalize the koan by repeating on each exhalation the part of it which is called the “turning word” or “turning phrase.” In the case of this koan, the most effective turning phrase would probably be “can’t pass.” So, you enter deep samadhi and repeat on each exhalation, “Can’t pass … can’t pass…. can’t pass.”

Koans sometimes have an intellectual character or a complex narrative content—a story line. This koan is about a buffalo passing through a moongate. Why can’t the tail go through? You could interpret the buffalo’s story in many ways. But it is very important to know that koans should not be approached as something we have to interpret or explain in order to find the point or the message. Instead, the koan has to be worked through on a deeper psychological level and in this way, Zen gradually removes the obstacles to awakening. That is the function of a koan.

When I deliver talks on Zen practice, it might seem that I am offering food for thought or lessons for life or moral instruction or fables about this and that. All of that would be incorrect. The purpose of a talk like this is really just to say, “Please do some zazen!” You can say that in a million different ways, and a teisho is one way of saying it, preparing the ground for future practice.

We have all come here today and we have been sitting in samadhi, more and less deeply. I am going to drone on for an hour. You might be sitting there trying to focus on your breath and this is actually an ideal situation because you need to get into deep samadhi. Things I say may or may not seem very significant. They may pass quickly by. But later when we do this koan together, it might have a special resonance. Also, if you are in samadhi now, the koan might resonate on a deep level even though it seems to have very little intellectual depth.

The function of a teisho is often misunderstood. The teisho is not quite like a lecture that you might have in a class and it is not exactly like a sermon. People who hear sermons are not in deep samadhi, generally speaking. A teisho is a different kind of discourse with a different format. A different function! When we are in deep samadhi listening to a teisho, it “speaks” in the language of the unconscious. It is not really a coherent talk--especially mine are not very coherent--but they generally are not supposed to be. Teishoes are not laid out in a pre-planned way and there are not supposed to be any lecture notes. The person speaking is supposed to enter deep samadhi and whatever comes out is OK! It requires great trust in the process.

So I just wanted to explain what we are up to today because it is easily misunderstood. I hope we will all to have a chance do this koan together sometime in the future!

What happens in Zen training is that the teacher will give you a koan and you will work with that koan and usually it strikes a deep chord sooner or later. This koan may strike a deep chord today or not. But sooner or later, the koan will resonate in your body, mind and heart. As it resonates, it churns up things inside us all. Things come up that might have happened a long time ago, or we may rediscover things about ourselves that we have forgotten or have tried to put away. Working through these things is a matter of constantly coming back to a stable, empty mind until the door inside us opens and we have a glimpse of awakening. This is one way to explain how a koan works.

Today’s koan is very simple.

Goso said, “A buffalo passes through the moongate. His head, horns, and four legs all pass through. But why can’t the tail pass too?”

Now in Chinese architecture they have moongates. Maybe you have seen one of them. They also have them in Japan and Vietnam, and maybe even in Korea, though I am not sure. A moongate is a gate in a wall or in a building. It is round instead of square or rectangular in shape, so it is like a moon! You can pass through this circle and go into the courtyard or any other area. It is quite a beautiful fixture of Asian architecture. Since it is a circle, it is also a symbol of perfection. In a way, this koan is talking about the experience of wholeness, the experience of perfection and completeness. It is talking about the experience of being awake. So it does have a symbolic or interpretive dimension, but that is not the essence of the koan.

You know, today is just a beautiful day. I was just astounded this morning as I passed by a little lake in Piscataway. Maybe some of you also drove by that lake and have also seen it today. One of my coworkers has a house there and it is quite a lovely place to live. This lake was like a perfect mirror today. It was just perfect and all clouds in the early morning sky were mirrored in the lake. It was so beautiful! The sky itself was just breathtaking and the temperature was so pleasant.

And we have all come here to do zazen. This is a holiday weekend and you could be at the beach or in the mountains but you have all come here to practice meditation. We sit on the cushion and we are in a quest for perfection. We are in a quest for that experience in which everything seems connected, whole and perfect. Those are beautiful moments! Here we are sitting in pursuit of that. At the same time that this is going on here, you have probably been following in the news about all the terrible events that are happening in New Orleans. I don’t know if you have ever been to New Orleans but it is really quite a town. I have been there four times in my life. It is one of the most marvelous places I have been to. My wife and I have camped on Lake Pontchartrain, which has been in the news lately. That area has beautiful, 200-year-old live oaks. These are a kind of oak tree that grows quite old but they don’t grow tall, they grow wide. They have limbs which go outward for as much as 20 yards. The trees grow very wide and their limbs get so long that they come down to the ground. These are strange, beautiful trees. The whole country there is so beautiful and the city is beautiful.

We have been reading in the newspapers and listening on the radio about the terrible things happening over the last 6 days. I think it makes our practice here very poignant. I actually got up last night around 3 o’clock. I usually get up around 4:30. I just couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about this event in New Orleans. It bothered me and I think it probably should.

This is life. Here in New Jersey the weather is really beautiful. It is gorgeous. The last week has seen some of the nicest weather we have had all year after a muggy, hot summer. And we have all come here to practice Zen and some of you entered deep samadhi. It is really wonderful when that happens. But then at the same time, somebody is lying on the streets of New Orleans crying, or dying because of renal failure or starvation. This is life…and it is complicated. How do we keep going on with something like this? What is the point of all this when all of it can be taken away from us in a second. Just like that!

Two weeks ago, all of those people in New Orleans were getting ready for a big festival. I don’t mean Mardi Gras. They have another festival in the fall. When we first went there in the 1970s, my wife and I were planning to drive through the delta and not stop. But so much as going on that we ended up staying there for a week. At that time, the city was basically a good place for poor people. There was a restaurant called Buster’s, and for 75 cents you could have a plate of red beans and rice. Man, was it good! For a dollar and 25 cents you could get chicken and rice, and for 2 dollars ham and rice. So we would go there and have beans and rice every day. I don’t know if that restaurant is still in existence, but if there is ever a New Orleans again, and if you ever visit that place, try to find Buster’s. To go with the other food, they served Binder’s bread, the best French bread I have ever had in my life. Incredible! They would carve up big loaves of this bread, stacked on a plate with lots of butter. It was a paradise for two poor hippies on the road. And then we went to a bakery and we had our first croissant. In fact, it was an almond croissant. I myself had never had a croissant before and didn’t even know how to pronounce the name. We went in and asked for this thing we saw in the pastry cabinet and thought, “Oh my God! It has got almonds in it!” It was heaven, and we had many adventures in this beautiful city. Every time I go there, I like to jog through the French quarter where they have beautiful graveyards and incredible gardens.

And now it is gone and will never be back as it was. It has gone overnight. Now it is so distressing to see these events unfold. Fundamentally, people who were wealthy enough to get out, got out; but all the poor people are left behind in the city. And the whole network of social services and support has broken down completely and even the federal government has failed to respond. We can get mad at the government. I myself am a Democrat and so I am not a fan of Mr. Bush. But you know, getting mad at Mr. Bush doesn’t solve any problems. It won’t solve the problem in New Orleans, and it will not solve the bigger problems either. Our fundamental problem is bigger than the disaster in New Orleans, although what happened in New Orleans is certainly big enough.

At times, we all become spectators at an event which is truly terrible, when whatever happens is beyond our control. At those times, people who are clearly innocent just suffer unbelievably. This is so much a part of our human lives, is it not? This isn’t the first time we have seem this, yes? I remember when I was about 17 years old, and President Nixon ordered the bombing of Laos and Cambodia. I was just a kid and felt so helpless. I had no understanding of politics. I was just appalled that all of these innocent people were getting killed. I demonstrated against Nixon.

Again and again these events happen and I think they have a subtle psychological effect. Obviously they have an effect on the people in New Orleans who are left behind. They feel deeply betrayed. We have all seen pictures of people stealing televisions, and everybody is saying that this is “looting.” My personal impression is that this is very different kind of act. We see people who no longer have a house or electricity, running away with a television. Why would they steal a TV? I don’t think this is about wanting a television. It’s about anger. They feel a tremendous sense of betrayal. A real sense of betrayal! Maybe I am a “bleeding heart liberal” who is imagining all this, but it doesn’t make sense for anyone to steal a TV when there’s no electricity. This is a different kind of act than that. I think it has to do with the feeling, “I have been abandoned by my world and I am angry about it.”

And I think that when we watch all this on TV or hear about it, it has a psychological effect on us even when we are sitting far way from the people actually experiencing the pain. We are in New Jersey and it is safe and beautiful right now and it couldn’t be nicer, OK? But on another level this event has a profound effect. Life is giving innocent people these terrible blows and no redress or rescue is coming right now and when the help eventually arrives, it is going to be too late. So I think this event leaves a big hole in our trust in life. It affects people’s behavior on many levels, subtly and grossly. People begin to say that you really can’t trust life. I think events like this create waves. This event will create waves that will go out and out and subtly affect so many things in the future.

One of the reasons people become so coarse and aggressive in their behavior is that they believe that they have to be coarse and aggressive in such a dangerous and untrustworthy world. They might never put in that way but it is as though they think that the lesson of life is that this is a dangerous world where nobody is going to help you.

I was a young kid, maybe 7 years old, during the Cuban missile crisis. The US and Soviet Union began to build a huge missile arsenal. They engaged in a competition and built so many missiles with nuclear warheads that if they had used them all, they would have obliterated the human race several times over. And yet the two nations couldn’t stop because of this pervasive atmosphere of distrust. The Soviet Union and U.S had been allies during World War II but as soon as the war was over, they started building huge arsenals to protect themselves from each other. Americans began to fear Russians and started making these incredibly deadly weapons, and Russians began to fear us and the arms race started. It is true that they were communists and we were capitalists. But I think that this behavior had much to do with the Holocaust. There again, people all over the earth saw the spectacle of millions of helpless and blameless people suffering terribly with no rescue coming to them. Events like these cast a spell on the human race. It is really like a spell! And then it has wave effects which carry on for generations. People lose faith in the goodness of life. They lose faith in their fellow human beings, in their capacity to be good.

This event in New Orleans is not the Holocaust but still of some importance, since hundreds of people are going to be dead, hundreds of thousands are homeless and a beautiful city has been destroyed.

Seeing this, it is possible to say that when we do something like Zen, we are wasting our time. Someone might ask, “Why are you sitting here when there is so much suffering all over the world?”

I think one of the curious things about life is that people do so little to prevent or alleviate suffering. This is such a curious phenomenon. I read an article about five years ago in National Geographic about the problems with New Orleans’ location. This is a magazine that has circulation of I don’t how many! Ten thousand? Thirty thousand? The article interviewed a lot of scientists who all said that New Orleans is in a big trouble. “If we get a big hurricane, then it will wipe us out. We have to do something to deal with this problem.” And it was a complex problem.” The article said, “The levee system is inadequate and the environmental degradation has removed the barriers of plant life and mangrove trees that used to protect against these strong water surges. The pumping of oil has lowered the water table.” We have known this for over a decade and yet we didn’t do anything. And I think that is fascinating!

This was true during the Holocaust. This is true for what is going on in the Sudan. I think people get paralyzed by these things. These events cast a spell on people. We try to create islands of safety and happiness in a sea of precariousness and danger. When the spell is cast over us, we don’t consciously think that we have lost our trust in life. We just begin to lead a life which is cautiously selfish and we get busy in pursuing selfish happiness for me and my friends and family. We assume that the world is dangerous and that each of us has got to build a fence around ourselves. And I think that is why we don’t act. It is just too painful to look. We want to live in the moongate. The moongate is when you get up in the morning and beautiful birds are singing and you have a cup of Blue Mountain coffee with a bagel, if you like a bagel, or you have a Dunkin Donut, if you like donuts. And maybe you listen to your music on your iPod and you think you are happy right now.

But why didn’t we fix the dams? It would have taken a kind of sacrifice to do it. We would have to break the spell and we would have to face the fact that things are sometimes dangerous and that you can’t count on good luck. I am not being very clear but I think these two things go together. We cling to happiness and we cling to safety. We don’t address the problems and we don’t want to face bad things. When we see destruction and injustice, we try to be a little island of happiness and security. But then we can’t change things because we can’t face them.

There are people who say, “ I just can’t read the newspapers. It is all too depressing.” I actually know many people who are like that. I don’t think we can blame these people. They are very tenderhearted. They are very sensitive people. They get so depressed that they have to stop taking it in. I actually feel very much affection for these people. The bad news just grinds you down if you pay too much attention. So, how do you pay attention and not lose your faith in life? I think Zen training is directly related to that question; in fact, it’s what this training is about. It’s like saying, “OK! Sometimes life is a moongate, beautiful and perfect; but you have to be willing to able to look at the tail.” You should be able to acknowledge something which is not perfect. Being too hungry for perfection and happiness shows a deep-seated lack of trust in life!

You know, there was a Zen master who loved his teacher. He was a Zen teacher who studied with his teacher for many years and became a very famous Zen teacher himself. He had a deep personal relationship with his teacher and he was supposed to conduct a funeral ceremony for his dead master. He was famous and his teacher was very famous. A big community was assembled at this famous temple and he was going to do the eulogy. And he just started crying, and one of his students said, “You are supposed to be a Zen master. Why are you crying?” And then the master said, “Listen, when I want to cry, I’ll cry.” I think that this response shows great courage and great trust in life.

If we cling too much to happiness, we can’t be helpful. A deep distrust is inherent in clinging to happiness. Now I don’t want everyone to take their hankies out and weep. You don’t owe it to the universe to be unhappy. I know people like that, who think they should be unhappy all the time. It is not our moral duty to be unhappy. There is a deeper wholeness to things which is indestructible. It exists even though things fall apart as they have in New Orleans. This wholeness just has to bigger than these calamities. These calamities are so big that this wholeness has to be a really big wholeness. And if we don’t face our troubles, whatever they might be, we can’t encounter that really big wholeness.

I remember reading an essay by the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn in which he talked about his village being destroyed by napalm bombs. On that occasion he had been asked to talk about 9/11—about what a terrible tragedy 9/11 was. At that time, just after 9/11, all the Americans were wringing their hands about what victims we were! We were blameless! And indeed we were victims. But when asked about his views on 9/11, Thich Nhat Hanh talked about seeing his village destroyed by American napalm bombs. In part he was saying was that nobody is totally blameless; but also, he was making the point that it is not good enough to say that you have been injured and that this is an injustice. You have to look for the deeper wholeness. And the way to find deeper wholeness is through the things that trouble us and through what causes us discomfort and what keeps us awake at night.

A lot of people in this room already understand this very well. They are already deeply engaged with those who need help. All the same, I just think that this is an important point to make – we can’t cling to the happiness. On the one hand, we don’t owe it to the universe to be unhappy. This practice is about happiness. But on the other hand, happiness is not real if it can’t embrace everything. Even the calamities! This is really quite important.

Last night, when I was lying in bed, these images came into my mind – the images that I saw on TV earlier. I had gone to bed and I woke up and there these images were in my mind. And I have to tell you that I was troubled. So I got up and I did some zazen. This is the way you work through any koan. New Orleans is a real-life koan in my opinion. It just bothers you. There is nothing intellectually that can be said about this tragedy, right? You could say that it is all George Bush’s fault. “That Bush! This just shows that he is no good. ” But that doesn’t solve anything and doesn’t get us anywhere. Just so you know, I didn’t vote for the man. I won’t vote for his brother when he runs in two years. But it doesn’t get us anywhere and it doesn’t solve the bigger problem which is that life seems to have betrayed us. So I don’t think you can say anything intellectually. All right, you could say that we should have invested in the levees or that we need to invest more in the public sphere in future. But saying this doesn’t take away the pain. Your heart is troubled and nothing will solve it. One should make donations to the Red Cross and pressure the legislators to take action. Those things have to be done. But even that doesn’t help to deal with the pain. You have to enter deep samadhi – deep Mu-shin-- and then you see the pain and it is your pain. It is not the pain of people in New Orleans but your pain at seeing their pain. It IS such a betrayal. The world can be terrible at times and that troubles us. But it is very important to deal with this!

What I did—sitting on my cushion--might not be a satisfactory solution for everybody. But what has worked for me in the past is that I enter deep Mu-shin and I see that pain and anger and disappointment. I have a part of me that wanted to blame Mr. Bush. I was ticked off at the Department of Homeland Security and mad in general. I was angry and troubled. But you come back to your breath and little by little the pain goes away, and the anger goes away. And then it is like a switch that goes on and you experience the big wholeness!

Life hurts you. When you lose your job, it hurts. Someone can tell you, “Well, you will get another job. Five years from now you will laugh and think that you were so silly to worry about this job.” But you are not laughing at the time and it hurts right down to your molecules. It hurts your body and your heart. You feel like your heart is breaking. I myself have lost a few jobs. I wanted this particular job very badly when I finished grad school. It was a job at Pomona College in California. I felt that the job description had been written just for me. But that job went to somebody who had authored three books. I had such high hopes, foolishly. When I came back home after the initial interview, I had told my wife, “The job is in the bag. That interview went beautifully.” And when we didn’t get the job, even my wife cried. She was so unhappy. She was unhappier than I was. She didn’t like the clouds in Seattle and she thought she was going to escape to California. So it hurt badly. I felt that I was just no good. Then I sat on the cushion. I sat and sat till that switch went on in my body and I was suddenly OK! The feeling of wellbeing comes back. When that happens, it is just magical. Then you can say, “I love this life.” Reaching this state would be much harder for me if I myself were in New Orleans right now. It is much easier for me to feel sorry for these people while I am sitting here in New Jersey. If I were in New Orleans, I would have to do a lot more zazen.

We all have things that hurt us very deeply. Facing them is the path. You have to work through the thing that hurts you the most, the thing that does you an injury. The injury is very important. That injury is the door to awakening.

I had my Dai-kensho experience when everything was going to pieces in my life. First of all, I had gone out on the market unsuccessfully. If you are a graduate student in English, there aren’t too many jobs. The chances of my getting a job at that time were 1 in 400 or so. You send out 400 letters of application and nothing happens! This was the situation after I had spent seven years completing my Ph.D. At the same time, in our Zen community, the two teachers, two people I love, had a serious conflict. You might think that enlightened people don’t have conflicts with other people. But they are still human beings and they still have personal defects. Don’t forget this, please! Genki Roshi was deeply awake but he had human failings just like anyone else. Webb Sensei was deeply awake but he too had human failings just like anyone else. It was astonishing to me that two people who were so deeply enlightened could actually be petty and childish at times.

Let me tell you, this conflict rocked my world! Before then, these two had walked on water for me. They were two of the most loving, compassionate and kindly people I had ever known. But suddenly these people were sniping and fuming at each other. You can imagine how that affected our whole community. It was like a bomb going off in our sangha. We were jolted because our teachers were not behaving like Zen teachers. Their petty behavior was at odds with our high opinion of them. All of this just didn’t make sense to us, and it plunged us into doubt about our practice. “Maybe,” some people thought, "this Zen practice is a fraud.”

At the same time that we were going through this crisis of faith in the practice, we had taken out a huge mortgage to pay for our temple--and guess who had been appointed the treasurer? I was! I am an English teacher and had no knowledge of how to deal with accounting issues. I had some friends who were helping me with the accounting, but when this crisis happened, our group began to develop a huge cash-flow problem that ultimately led to the sale of our temple. We fell into this financial crisis because all of these people had doubts about Zen and their teachers, and they stopped sending their checks in every week.

So basically I was going to be unemployed because I couldn’t find a teaching position. The community that I loved more than anything in the world was falling apart. The temple I had helped to built was going to be placed on the auction block. You know I had put the windows in myself, and I had helped to put the flooring on, and we had all built the temple with our own hands. This was like the end of the world for me!

During the crisis Genki left Seattle for a while, for a month I think, going back to Japan. And Webb went ahead and held the summer sesshin. We used to get about 40 people at our sesshins. Instead, only six people came to sesshin because of the civil war in our group. I myself wasn’t intending to go because I was so bummed out by the whole situation. However, when Webb came to me and asked if I were going to go to sesshin, I looked at his face and I just couldn’t bear to say no. I just didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t want to take any sides; I loved Genki and I loved Webb. I did and I do! So I looked at his face and said, “Yes! I’m going to go!” But all the way up to Tokugan-ji, our temple, which we were going to sell and where we were holding our last sesshin, I just kept thinking, “Why did I come here? I just want to get out. I never want to come back. This such a terrible situation.” But I sat in sesshin there all the same.

Then, the strangest thing happened. It wasn’t really that strange but it seemed strange then. We had recently put the windows in the zendo as well as a big front door. The door was beautiful but it didn’t have any screens. So all kinds of birds and little animals used to come in our zendo! Squirrels would come in and hop around while we sat. Tip-tippi-tip-tippi-tip! It was great! Then one day this mountain bluejay flew in but it didn’t comprehend what the windows were and it couldn’t get out of the zendo. Of course, birds don’t understand glass, and so the bluejay hit a closed window and fell down.

When we had our break, I found the jay and discovered it had hurt itself. At our temple, unlike here, we sat on elevated platforms called “tans.” We stored our gear under the tans and our cushions rested on the top of the tans. At any rate, the bird was under the tans and it had broken its legs. All of this was like the last straw for me. As you might know, I love birds. So I tried to feed this little bird but I didn’t know what it needed to eat. I tried to feed it worms, seeds, and some bread under these tans. But one evening I went to sleep and came back in the morning to find that some animal had eaten the bird. That was it for me. That was when I had my Dai-kensho experience. The death of the bird just hurt so much. It was that experience that made it possible for me to open up. I was a very hard-hearted and small-minded person and it took all of those calamities to open the doors for me! But it just blew open the doors of my life!

It is not wrong to want to be happy. You don’t owe it to the universe to be suffering constantly. The Buddha actually talked about happiness all the time. He said, “If you clear away the obstructions, there will be joy.” The Buddhist path itself leads to happiness. But all the same, the Buddha’s own family was killed during his lifetime. He understood how this existence really is. His family lived in place which was then called the Shakya Republic. The whole Shakya “tribe” or “clan” – the extended kinship group -- was annihilated. But he still kept talking about cultivating the mind of happiness and trust! Mind of joy! Infinite trust!

This is life! This is where we do our practice. If you cling to bliss and happiness you don’t wake up. If you cling to misery, you don’t wake up. This is life! Today we sit on the cushion and we enter deep samadhi and call Mu, but over in the distance, rumbling thunder! Yes? This rumbling thunder could bring suffering and pain to all of us. Yet this is the voice all of us have to hear in order to wake up. Buddha said that this path we are traveling is beautiful at the beginning, beautiful at the middle, and beautiful at the end. Joy at the beginning, joy in the middle, joy at the end. But joy takes root in the midst of this suffering. The condition for awakening is our engagement with this world.

Goso said, “A buffalo passes by the moongate. His head, horns, and four legs all pass through. But why can’t the tail pass too?”

Why does there always have to be tail? Someone might say, “I was so happy just before I lost my job.” “I was so happy just before the doctor called and said I have cancer.” Why does there has always have to be a tail in this world. “Everything was OK five days ago. Why does there have to be such destruction in New Orleans?” Don’t look away!


If you make a complete about-face, open your eye, and give a turning word, you will be able to repay the four kinds of love that have favored you and help the sentient beings in the three realms who follow you. If you are still unable to do this, return to this tail and reflect upon it, and then for the first time you will realize something.


Passing through, it falls in a ditch;
Coming back, all the worse, it is lost.
This tiny little thing
What a strange thing it is!

(Rings the bell three times)


Updated 9.9.05