the walls we build

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Tonight, I want to touch on a koan that has somehow stuck in my consciousness and is shouting very loudly within me of late. It’s a scenario that hones in on the walls we build that make up our individual worlds – the boundaries we draw that circumscribe our experience of living. Here is Case 38 from the Mumonkan, the Gateless Gate:

Goso said, “For example, it’s just like a great cow passing through a latticed window. Her head, horns, and four legs have passed through. Why is it that her tail can’t pass through?”

In this koan, we might imagine a creature trapped inside an enclosure from which there is no escape. The only opening is a window, covered by a lattice-work grill. The creature can see light through this window, but it’s unable to fully free itself from the four walls of the enclosure.

In his teisho on the case, Yamada Roshi says that the cow is our essential nature. And this true nature manifests when the phenomenal aspects of our being – our thoughts, opinions, delusions, desires, all the things that constitute our sense of self – fly away, drop off through practice. Through awakening. Without knowing what moves a person to do harm to others, we might speculate that the person has mentally constructed a world dominated by the proposition that, “My world would be better if:

“You and your kind were not in it; 
Everybody thought as I do; 
I had everything you have – and more; 
Everyone lived according to my desires; 
I could do anything I want, regardless of the consequences.”

And on and on.

We see this throughout history in the persons of dictators, autocrats, mass murderers, religious zealots, felons of all stripes. For these people, it’s all about me and my sense of comfort in my world. What is it we used to hear from some people? “It’s my world; you’re just living in it.”

And even when harm to others is not involved, we have our own walls and boundaries that define our existence. “I can’t do this because …” or “I must do that because …” and so on. I, myself, had a stunning experience of this syndrome a while ago. Lying in bed one night, on my way to sleep, suddenly all the walls that cramp me within the life I’m living were revealed to be of my own making, and I saw them all as illusory. A breadth of freedom welled up within and around me; the walls just dissolved. I didn’t witness the dissolution; the walls were suddenly just no more. A memorable “whew!” happening.

But on reflection, I can say now that the walls didn’t dissolve or disappear; I saw that they were never there in the first place. There was no inside in which I was trapped, and there was no outside into which I could or needed to escape. I was free to respond to current conditions in the appropriate way, whatever that turned out to be. Right there in the moment.

Case 38 is said to be one of the most difficult koans in our koan curriculum, and it seems that I am still working with it. The final question, “Why is it that her tail can’t pass through?”, still mystifies me. Is it that the realization of no-inside and no-outside makes it obvious that there’s nothing to pass through? Nowhere to be except here and now, and nowhere to go except here and now? I confess, I don’t have a solid grasp on that aspect of the proposition. At least not one that endures.

And maybe that’s a good thing. If we get caught up in that kind of knowing, we just construct a new set of walls, don’t we? So, I guess our best bet is just to be aware of the walls we build that define our world and determine how we behave within it. And as we wake up to this awareness, we revel in the freedom that we have to live fully in whatever circumstances life presents to us. According to our own wisdom. And if we can throw in a little compassion, our experience becomes a salve to the world around us.

What else need we do? Indeed, what else need we do?