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.