Buffalo through the Window Koan

In yesterday’s post on synchronicity I mentioned this koan, and how it was a metaphor for for where I was in my life right now. In today’s post, I would like to expand on that.

Again a Zen koan is a intuitive mental puzzle meant to help students gain a deeper understanding of enlightenment or to help them on the way to that enlightenment. They cannot be solved with reason or logic. What “enlightenment” means is a whole other post–book, or lifetime. It’s a big question. So, we will skip that for now.

I have never worked with koans in my Zen practice. Here I only touch the surface and address this koan as a metaphor for my life and situation. In terms of koans, I am a novice or less.

Here’s the koan MOL: a very large buffalo (think bison for our purposes) comes through a small window relative to his size. He gets his large head, shoulders, and hips through but can’t get his tail through. (There is a part 2 I’ll mention later.) When Lawson-roshi presented this koan in his teisho (teaching), it was like it was directed right at me. I was that buffalo! Shit!

For those of you that have never noticed or seen a buffalo’s tail, it is a very small thing. The key to solving this koan is this tiny, little tail on this huge buffalo. The tail is what is holding him back from going all the way through. This is of course about becoming enlightened. To solve this koan you have to become the tail. What is the tail? I am the tail. But, also, what is the buffalo and the window. Whoa! This is deep.

For me, I immediately saw the tail was my clinging to my job at our boys school where we have been taking horses now for equine-assisted counseling for the last 14 years. I have known I have been burned out for several years now–and been monitoring the burnout during that period to make sure it was not getting in the way of my counseling. I also had the help of my Equine Specialist that works with me. However, increasingly the last year the dissonance had been getting bigger and bigger. It was time, past time really, for me to leave. It was time for a new path. This was not an easy decision. It would potentially be a financial disaster as the boys school is 60% or more of my income.

Nonetheless, I knew right then and there, my “tail” was holding me back. After sleeping, meditating, and thinking about it over the next few days, I informed the school that I would no longer be bringing the horses out to the school as of the end of February. As this date approaches, I am already waking up in the early mornings with high anxiety and have to use my Zen and counseling skills to talk myself down.

The truth is, you have to let go of something for something else to be born. This is the archetypal birth-death-rebirth story. To find a new path, a new calling, you have to let go of the old one. You have to let it die. This is what a vision quest is all about.

Here’s the second part of the koan: on the other side of the window is a deep ditch (arroyo if you are from the desert like me) and the buffalo falls into it. If he turns around and tries to go back, he will be destroyed.

I am that buffalo. I am through that window now, but standing in a deep arroyo. How do I get across to the grass and water up the other side, i.e., to my new path? Is that tail still holding me back? What is my tail?


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