“Why Can’t the Tail Pass Too?”

Case 38, A Buffalo Passes The Window

Goso said, ‘A buffalo passes by the window. His head, horns, and four legs all go past. But why can’t the tail pass too?’

Mumon’s Comment

If you make a complete about-face, open your eye, and give a turning word on this point, 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.

Mumon’s Verse

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

(Katsuki Sekida, “Two Zen Classics”, “Mumonkan: The Gateless Gate”)

I’ll start with Fuxi’s poem, which is about an ox (an ox can be a water-buffalo); here’s the poem again, for reference:

The empty hand grasps the hoe-handle
Walking along I ride the ox
The ox crosses the wooden bridge
The bridge is flowing, the water is still”

(‘Zen’s Chinese Heritage’, Andy Ferguson, pg 2)

The empty-hand of Fuxi’s poem I describe as action generated through the stretch of ligaments. There are three sets of ligaments, roughly, that connect the sacrum to the pelvis; you can find that online, looks like links may be breaking the site today so I’ll leave it off. These three sets of ligaments support motion in the sacrum that rocks, rolls, and twists, roughly, and generate activity in the muscles of the pelvis and in the legs.

The hand is the weight of the relaxed body in the movement of breath that stretches the ligaments at the sacrum and generates activity; the activity generated is actually in support of the alignment of the lower spine in the movement of inhalation and exhalation, and the ability to feel along the legs informs the alignment.

Why all the anatomy; doesn’t that drop away at some point? Well, the rest of the ox passes, but the tail does not. The first four trance states, at least, belong to mindfulness of the body, and the relinquishment of volition in action that constitutes riding the ox depends on the reverberation of pitch, yaw, and roll throughout the body from under the hooves of the ox. So to speak. This is the source of shake, rattle and roll in sacred dance like that of the Bushmen, it’s stretch at the sacrum with a rhythm in three directions.

If you need to see what’s happening on the cushion to try to find feeling in your legs, as I do, then my descriptions of the relationship of dermatones and the stretch and activity that aligns the spine may be useful to you, as it is useful to me. Nothing happens without everything happening, in my experience, and so I outline the entirety of the first four meditative states; the freedom of mind and movement in the location of consciousness like falling asleep is the real beginning to me. That’s a thing that can be hard to realize when your legs are twisted up in the knot handed down from India, at least for me, so I write to remind myself.

To me, the ox in Ferguson’s translation (or the buffalo in the koan) is a metaphor for the activity generated through the stretch of ligaments, although to ride the ox requires a state between waking and sleeping so that the involuntary activity doesn’t cause a “hypnic jerk” (I talk about that in Letting Go In Action) that ends the reciprocal stretch and activity. The bridge and the water represent a freedom in the location of awareness that precipitates action as though through hypnosis, and the cessation of voluntary activity in the body, respectively. Because it’s a hynogogic thing, it’s never quite the same twice, even if Fuxi’s poem and Gautama’s description of meditative states might make a person imagine it to be so… that’s how it is in my experience, when I’ve had such experience, anyway. Having such experience more lately, and I feel better for it, I think.

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