The koan: Why can’t the clear-eyed bodhisattva sever the red thread?

There are so many things that bind us to this life.  The bulk and weight of the body with its unwieldy wants and needs, frail and incomplete. The mind, largely hidden, capable of blindly butchering reality with the steely edge of its prejudices in one moment while birthing shining worlds of possibility the next.  Emotions that wash over and through us, exhilarating and dangerous, at times urging us to act when stillness is warranted or to lie stagnant when movement would heal. Connection with others and the world alternately comforts and frightens and dizzies in ways that no language can fully convey.

The human is fundamentally a joyous animal, reveling in the rush and release of activity and rest, consumption and elimination, equipped from the start with a magnificent capacity for receiving the world’s bounty. But beneath the refinements of the prefrontal cortex lives a creature whose belly still scrapes the earth as it moves. Despite countless generations’ attempts at domestication, at the core the body remains feral. It can be unpredictable, uncouth, and at times brutally violent yet is simultaneously honest, guileless, and innocent.

There is an impulse to flee these bewildering contradictions, whether by ascension into the purity and freedom of spirit or complete fusion with the insatiable appetites of the soul, yet to be consumed by one at the exclusion of the other is to beg the gods for catastrophe. Thus we are travelers through light and dark, making our clumsy way through the confused brambles of a life we cannot hope to understand. While bursting into meadows of clarity brings exalted relief, perhaps the greatest life is the one that comes to love the animal because it bleeds.


  • What does being “clear-eyed” mean for you?
  • What does the color red symbolize for you?
  • What is something “red” in your life that you have tried unsuccessfully to rid yourself of? How do you imagine your life would be different if you got rid of it?
  • Can you be “clear-eyed” while still being attached to this “red” thing?
  • What is something “red” in your life that you appreciate? How do you benefit from being connected to it?

It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas

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