Koan: Go straight on a narrow mountain road with 99 curves.
Life is full of twists and turns and Buddhism has always been concerned with the very real question of how to navigate them. Governments that seemed stable on Monday collapse on Tuesday, leaving people with currencies that are worth no more than the paper they are printed on. Marriages fall apart seemingly without warning and babies are born at the least opportune times. There are joyful twists as well: the unexpected promotion, news of a friend’s recovery from illness, a welcome rain after months of drought. Enlightenment is like this, too: an impossible occurrence, often at the least likely time.
There is no shortage of prescriptions available for navigating these perils. Humanity is fond of making rules and principles that we hope will carry us through times of uncertainty, from moral codes to legal structures to vast religious paradigms about the creation of the universe, death, and what happens after. The architecture of the human mind knows no bounds in its complexity when trying to outsmart uncertainty.
We simply can’t help it. That’s what the mind does. But we can also notice when it runs afoul of reality. A young man with Asperger’s sees the world in purely logical terms. His reasoning is theoretically impeccable, save for one fatal flaw: he’s wrong a lot of the time. We are not so different, he and I: it’s often difficult for me to give up my theories, even when everything around me is chanting to the contrary.
Going straight can mean rigidity, but it also suggests directness, immediacy, and intimacy. Like Newton’s apple, we are drawn toward whatever matter holds our greatest gravity. When I eat a hamburger, my cat is not concerned at all with proper etiquette: he hangs his head over my shoulder, purring and meowing, and has been known to reach out an unexpected paw to snag a bit of my dinner. The heart doesn’t consult us about what it loves or hates, desires or is averse to, and there is a clarity in that.
A woman in her seventies mourns the death of her domineering husband while simultaneously celebrating the possibilities of a new life. She discovers long dormant dreams beginning to blossom, wild and inviting worlds full of poetry and imagination beckoning her from the distance. “I’m afraid,” she says, “but I am an explorer.”
We too are explorers, not that we ever asked to be, but alas: this is our lot. The question is whether we will accept the invitation to journey. To feel the dirt beneath our bare feet is to not pick and choose, to avoid avoiding what is true. We can decline the invitation to curl up in cul-de-sacs of worry and regret and lean into the turns, orienting ourselves into the full truth of our blindness about what is around the bend.
It’s Alive! Zen is a home for Zen meditation and koans in San Antonio, Texas.