Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters are once again waters.
Driving to work on Friday, I decided to take a different way. Roadwork created a thruway to my job that would cut a few minutes off of my short commute. With the river on my left and a steep incline on my right, I cruised down the smooth city street, merging into a flow of traffic from downtown. A yearling deer and fawn sauntered across the street 50 feet ahead of traffic. As we approached a bend in the river, another doe bolted into the driver’s side headlight of the white Subaru Forester ahead of me. She faltered, and then fell back into the lane for oncoming traffic. All of the cars on the road came to a quick stop. The doe struggled to stand, and she did. Then, she tried to run, taking 3-4 limping steps. She fell again, got up again, and fell one final time. Traffic stood by. Every car contained one person encased in their personal pod of horror. The doe was lying in the road, lifting her head in pain or will to live or some other drive I have yet to understand in the privileged, injury-free lifetime I have lived. One woman got out of her car and cautiously approached the doe. Bending at the waist, she reached her hand towards her, hesitated, and then reached again to stroke her side. The doe lay motionless, either dead or dying. I willed myself to get out of the car, to be with the doe in her last moments of struggle. I wanted to send her metta and peace, but my discomfort and terror of witnessing her death kept me glued to my car seat. I called 911 to reach our small town police department so someone could come and expedite her death, release her from the pain she must be in. My car was in the middle of the road. The black truck behind me pulled forward and past the deer. A man got out, one I have seen at work many times. He’s gruff and a really bad tipper, so that is how I remember him. He approached the deer and woman, who was still stroking the deer as it lay dying. He told her to grab the hind legs and he grabbed the front. They pulled the doe to the side of the road. I heard police sirens. I had to move my car from the middle of the road. I am unsure if the deer was dead already or if it was alive when dragged to the side of the road along with pieces of the woman’s car that hit her. I wanted her to have dignity, but I did nothing to facilitate it. I cried in my car before going in to work.
When I think of that deer, I don’t wonder why she died in front of me. But in past years of seeking, I would have taken it personally that this deer ran out in the road in front of me and died. I would have wondered what it meant in the bigger picture of MY life and why it happened in front of ME, possibly even TO me.
This is the meaning of this koan. Because he’s convenient, I’ll use the bad tipper as an illustration of the first part of the koan. Before starting a spiritual journey with an end goal of enlightenment or entry to heaven or maybe a simple tight yoga ass, the seeker has yet to seek. The deer in the road is the deer in the road. In this case, the deer is blocking traffic, and, for the purpose of utility, needs to be removed. The bad tipper saw the dying deer in the road as a dying deer in the road and moved it. The deer was unconnected to him and his purpose, so he moved it out of his way and continued, unaffected. For those in the midst of seeking, they wait for the streets to turn into bricks of gold, their meditative efforts to manifest stacks of cash onto their spendthrift existence, or the joy of being able to bounce a quarter off of their tight yoga asses. In earnest, they grasp to the external to find their internal way. Their sense of intuition relies on the ability to decode the roles of the deer, the woman in the road, the bad tipper and internalize them. The seeker believes by knowing the reason, they will find the way. While understanding logic in making material and tactical decisions is important, it doesn’t work with the Mystery.
I’m far from enlightened and well into my study of Zen, but I do my best to let the mountains be mountains and the waters be waters and recognize that death is inevitable. Why the death happened in front of me does not matter, though through my seeking I understand the deer is connected to the Great Mystery in the same way as me. I wish I could have been a better shepherd and friend to that little sister during her final moments. Like the seeker, I walk away learning something about myself through an external experience, but I learn by listening to the internal dissonance created by it rather than internalizing the events in front of me or externalizing the dissonance. Make sense?
For all of you seeking, use the tools. Take what speaks to you, what hits you right between the eyes or pokes your heart, and work it. Journal it. Sit with it. Practice it, until you understand how it applies to your life with all of its successes and failures, with all of its moments of being the hammer and the nail. Use balance. Spend 30/60/90 minutes a day diligently focused on it, and then spend the rest of the time letting the mountains be mountains and waters be waters and belly laughs be abundant. This is how you will know yourself. This is how you will learn your intuition. This is how you will be a great student of mystery and lover of life. This is how you will survive.
“If you are living only for yourself, and you know that everyone else is living only for themselves, you know that there is no help for you if you fall. All people must fall at some time, just as there will always come rain and bad weather. You learn that you must protect what is yours, or you may lose everything.
“You put locks on your doors, locks on your hearts. You live in fear that you may lose what you have, so you spend your life getting more and more and trying to build walls around what you have. You learn to protect rather than to give.
“In the old way there were no locks on our doors. We had no fences to make lines between ‘mine’ and ‘yours.’ To be great among our people was not to gather the most for ourselves, it was to be the biggest giver and sharer and to protect the weak. We honored those who could help the most, not those who could have the most.
“Once a person starts to live in your way, everything changes, because everything has to be protected. You start making rules about what people can’t do, not what people should do.
“I’d rather have rules that say, ‘You should, you should.’ It teaches us who we should be, not who we should not be. All your way does is tell someone how not to be bad. It doesn’t tell them how to be good.
“When we teach the children fear this way, we set their feet on a bad path. We teach them to grow up thinking about themselves. Sharing is just a small stick they hold out to other people, not the strongest branch on the tree of their lives. They learn to protect, not to give, and it builds a wall around their hearts.
“We need to change this. We need to teach them a helping way, to give them a vision of what is right, not only of what is wrong. We need to teach them that the way to be strong is to help the weak; the way to have wealth is to give things away; the way to lead is to serve. We need to let them know that they are an important part of the circle of life, and if they do not play their part, no one else can.
“If we teach them these things they will have hope in their hearts. If we don’t, their hearts will become hard. They will gather things to them and watch life from a cold distance. They will see the world as something to use, not something to honor. Their ears will stay closed to voices of creation, and the words of the sacred will die on their lips.”
~”Dan”, Lakota elder, as told to Ken Nerburn in The Wolf at Twilight
In the afternoon, I run the canyon. I hurdle over the back fence of my rented adobe under the vigilant eyes of the dogs, who seem suspicious of my freedom. I walk five steps and then start running, just like I do when I am with her.
I jog, pigeon-toed and on the balls of my feet. I focus my gaze on the copper sand of the road. Today, I see her prints. Women’s Montrail Bajada. Size 6. Toes pointed straight ahead.
Two years ago we ran together in the Rocky Mountains. We were training for a marathon on Father’s Day. In the half-lit winter forest, we chattered our way through miles of rocky trail.
In April, she went to North Carolina to run a relay race with friends. I stayed behind and trudged out a 16 mile run. It was a Saturday. We texted back and forth: It was her first relay race, and she really liked it. I ran into a big group of female elk. She was in a van with her team.
I finished my run around the same time they did. Later that day, her friend posted pictures of her on Facebook. Her hair was in pigtails.
That same afternoon, her husband died in an avalanche, and my mom called to tell me my dad had terminal cancer.
For reasons that are blurry and foggy and unexplainable, I was the first one that could get ahold of her.
I told her that he died.
Five weeks later, my dad died too.
After that, we ran together. She wore her Montrails. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we pounded our ankles onto the ground. We used running to try to get ahead of our emotions, and we knew it. Some days it worked, and some days it didn’t. A part of me believed that if I could control running, I would also be able to control cancer and avalanches and Social Security Disability.
We’ve both moved to temporary places. She is in Santa Cruz. I am in Moab. Most of our possessions are in storage units near the Rocky Mountains. We text back and forth.
The footprints aren’t really hers, but they connect me to her. They reassure me in ways that she can’t say and I can’t ask that we are learning to incorporate the wounds.
She’d enjoy the way the sand on the rim feels like marshmallows. She’d be wearing shorts and tease me for wearing tights and long-sleeves. Like me, she would be enchanted with the way the afternoon light makes the colors of the sage and juniper pop against the sandstone walls and endless blue sky.
I stood quietly behind Sand Dunes Arch, listening to the impending arrival of a brood of children. The pounding of their feet could be felt rather than seen, the fine grain sand softening the frantic blows their legs threw blindly to the earth.
“Where can I put this?” the oldest boy called to himself as he appeared underneath the arch, running directly towards the only Do Not Enter sign in the area. He scurried ahead a few steps, then backtracked to his mother.
“Can you hold this?” he asked as he thrust his jacket upon her. In the five-minute walk from the parking lot to the arch she had become a living coat rack, holding three jackets and a couple of two-liter canteens.
Free from the weight of his jacket, the boy joined his younger brothers and baby sister in a race through the arch. The boys were dressed in matching button-down shirts and slacks. The little girl wore a purple ankle length dress that matched her mother’s. The children were red-faced and gasping for breath.
The father appeared last, the sound of his discipline nipping at their heels. The children exited the arch as quickly as they entered. Dutifully, the father waited to walk with the mother, though he could not help but pull ahead to make sure the children could hear his lasso.
~Arches National Park, Moab, UT