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Dharma Talks : The Kwan Um School of Zen and Providence Zen Center

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This Trivial Tail  

Oh Jo said, "It's like a water buffalo passing through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs have already passed through. Why is it that its tail cannot?"

Commentary:     If it passes through, it falls into a ditch;
If it turns back, it is destroyed.
This trivial tail,
Just this is very weird.

This water buffalo is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is at a slaughter house which is surrounded by a ditch. If it escapes it falls into the ditch and will be caught. If it stays it will be slaughtered. So here it finds itself-all but through the window. Why is it that its tail cannot pass through?

Zen Master Seung Sahn gave us many succinct teaching phrases. One is "A good situation is a bad situation; a bad situation is a good situation." When our situation is always smooth and with good feeling then we can grow complacent. Keeping an alert and awake mind, fresh with inquiry, isn't always so easy then. When we find ourselves stuck, suffering, wishing things to be other than they are, then this difficult situation often has us looking for some way to resolve it. Questioning arises. And what a gift this is! As we keep asking -- going past the complaints and protests of how unfair life can be, seeing that we're not completely satisfied by intellectual understanding -- then we can address the root of suffering. We can address the questions that we all share as human beings: What is this life and death business? What is my job in this life? What is suffering, and what is this that suffers? What is this I? What is other than I?

What we call practice is exactly this act of questioning and of doing it again and again moment to moment -- returning to our "Don't Know" mind that is before assumptions and preconceptions. So every situation -- bad, good or neutral -- offers an opportunity to see clearly, without attachment, and act with the compassion that is a natural result.

"This trivial tail, just this is very weird" -- and very wonderful. Why is it that its tail cannot pass through?


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