A Tale of a Tail: Encountering the Ox as it Passes Through the Window & With that Finding Zen’s Way of Liberation

A Tale of a Tail: Encountering the Ox as it Passes Through the Window & With that Finding Zen’s Way of Liberation

James Myoun Ford

Boundless Way Zen

I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist family. At my grandmother’s knee I learned the problems of this life all happened because of Adam and Eve, because of original sin. They screwed up, seriously so, they sowed seeds of discontent, and because we’re their descendants, we have inherited, we have harvested the storm of sadness that haunts our lives. I also picked up really quickly, although it was not spoken of directly, or, precisely how, that all this suffering had something to do with sex.

I knew there was something wrong in life. In my small world as I grew older and began to become aware of the world beyond me I saw how alcohol ravaged my family. I remember the yelling and shaming. And I remember how from time to time my father was gone. In my childhood I was told to the hospital, he’d been badly wounded in the war. Later I learned it was sometimes hospital, and it was sometimes jail. We were poor and we lived among other poor people. We also moved a lot. Years later my not quite joke was that I didn’t know people moved during the day until I grew up.

For a while the stories my grandmother told me, and which I heard again in Sunday school and church explained it. And, as I moved toward adolescence, my flesh whispered the hidden part of that original sin, the part we weren’t supposed to talk about. Driven by that thorn in my flesh and the realization that story didn’t work for me, I launched out on the great quest.

That quest included loves and monastery, it included dancing with dervishes, sitting with Zen monks, and all along a deep inquiry into the matter of self and other, of my heart and the nature of the world.

It seems to me there are a small handful of observations that are as old as our humanity, which if engaged, can lead to wisdom. I find myself particularly thinking of two the Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church mentioned a lot. We are alive. Or, more specifically, I am alive. And, we will die. Or, rather more to the point, I will die. Bottom line stuff, this. Among other things from these two observations I suspect pretty much all religion births.

Often the deep feeling that marks the human heart is that something is wrong, terribly wrong. Sometimes our mortality is thought to be some deep part of it. So, I got Adam and Eve who brought death into the world. And sex. Other religions offer different stories to deal with our being alive, and knowing it, and pretty much with that also learning we will at some point die.

Although, I’ve also noticed, most of the great religions that have survived into modernity offer a denial of death as part of their benefits package for signing on. Oh, we die, but its not the real us. There is some magical little bit that is untouched by the hurts of the world, and which will continue on after we shuck off this mortal coil. We go to heaven or hell. Our Western mother religion Judaism is somewhat ambivalent about this life after death thing for people, the idea of people living on in any serious way actually comes late to that gang. But Christians and Muslims, they’ve embraced the idea with a vengeance. These days I notice a significant subset of Christians are less invested in hell, but there’s still heaven, and most want that and assume it theirs by right.

Or, perhaps we transmigrate from body to body, an idea found among some Western pagan philosophers and posed once or twice in Judaism and Christianity. As Hinduism has evolved and given us the most common view, also adapted into much Western New Age thought, that we are spiritually evolving, rebirthing time after time, until, finally, we learn the lessons that need learning, and we return to God.

Buddhism took this on, and offers a delightful conundrum. Gautama Siddhartha stated unequivocally that there is no magic bit, no soul, no essence to pass from this body to another. More, he states that this sense of something separate and permanent in the flow of cause and effect is the great cognitive disorder, what leads to most of human suffering. And then, as best we can tell from the texts that tell his story, and convey his teachings, the Buddha then tells about his previous lives with some detail.

In ensuing years a lot of ink has been spilled over that apparent contradiction, particularly since Buddhism has come west.

I suggest another way of looking at this great mess of birth and death and our individual existences, and of a purpose worth having.

And to approach it, I suggest a koan.

Koans are the unique gift of the Zen school, the way I eventually stumbled upon as the heart of my life. I would find this way enriched for me by the traditions of Western liberal religion, and that comprehensive approach certainly informs my voice. But, Western and rational and liberal by style, the heart of it is Zen. Like that line about the world rests on a turtle resting on a turtle, and so on, turtles all the way down. Zen. Zen all the way down…

And with that, we come to koans. They are stories, fragments, poems, bits and pieces that the masters of this way, the way I’ve found to liberate my heart, noticed make assertions about reality and then invite a person, not any person, but specific people, you, me, to engage, creatively, and intimately with that reality, with reality. And, more than that, because, for koans to become fully alive, we who take them on, must then present our understanding to an elder on the way to check us, to confirm or further challenge us. The real become more so. All the way down.

One of the great collections of koans is an anthology of forty-eight cases gathered in Twelfth century China by the master Wumen Huikai, published as the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate, or the Gateless Barrier. I dream these koans. And they reciprocate, they dream my life for me. I can’t speak my gratitude for this strangeness. The thirty-eighth case is quite brief, and I suggest to the point.

Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like an Ox that passes through a latticed window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. So, why can’t its tail also pass through?”

That’s it. That’s the koan. Well, Wumen also throws in the briefest of sermons. My profession for a quarter century has been preaching sermons. There are few I’ve spoken or heard as useful to healing the hurt of human hearts as this one. “If you can get upside down with this one, discern it clearly, and give a turning word to it, then you can meet the Four Obligations above and give comfort to the Three Existences below. But if it is not yet clear, pay close attention to this tail and you will resolve it at last.”

Our four obligations are to our family, to our community, to all beings and to the great way. The three existences are past, present and future. So, finding the upside down and penetrating to its deepest core heals the whole world right to the depths of deepest time. And, then, together with that assertion we are invited to pay attention to the tail in this metaphor of an ox escaping through a window.

So, what is the Ox? And what about that tail? Perhaps the greatest of all koan masters, Hakuin Ekaku, ruminating in the Eighteenth century suggested this particular koan was one of the thorniest, one of most difficult of them all. Now, from the inside of koan work, this isn’t strictly true. To give an acceptable response for this case to a teacher of koan Zen is in fact pretty straightforward. And. To understand it down to the bottoms of our feet, all the way down, to find it penetrate through blood, bone and marrow; that is the hard part.

So, what about the easy? And then, what about the difficult?

Let’s start with easy.

The question is put to us by the master Wuzu Fayan. I love him. He’s one of those trickster figures about whom we never know quite enough, but he keeps popping up in our lives. Wuzu means “Fifth Ancestor,” but he isn’t the fifth ancestor, who is Huineng. This Wuzu lived through the last three quarters of the eleventh century, dying just at the beginning of the twelfth.

For me he is particularly interesting because the driving question, the heart koan of his life came out of a conversation with a Sutra master whom he asked about awakening, and was told “it is like drinking water and knowing for oneself whether it is warm or cold.” Wanting to know that taste for himself, he launched into the great way. I’ve used that line over and over as the great invitation of the Zen way – to know for our selves, for your self, for my self, what is and what is not. At least so far as the great matters of the heart are concerned, the questions that tumble out of us and our knowing we are born and we shall die. After Wuzu resolved the question for himself he went on to teach. One of his students was Yuanwu the editor of the Blue Cliff Record, and a few generations later in his line we are given Wumen, the editor of the Gateless Gate.

Clearly in this koan we are given a metaphor. And the metaphor turns on the Ox and the Ox’s tail. It’s fair to suggest this Ox is the same Ox used in that wondrous map of the way of awakening called the Ten Oxherding pictures. According to my teacher’s teacher this Ox “pulls the plow through the mud of the rice fields and enriches them with its manure. Its power and placid disposition give it a place in the Buddhist pantheon with (Manjushri’s) lion and (Samantabhadra’s) elephant.” In the Oxherding pictures it represents our Buddha nature.

Buddha nature. So, what is this Buddha nature we’re supposed to know so intimately it is like having come to sip that water, and knowing for ourselves whether warm or cool? First, there’s what we know with our senses. Here is the flow of cause and effect, where we are woven out of many things, and we ourselves by our actions and intentions add new strands to the great web. It is real. Pinch yourself, and you’ll know it is so.

Here we also can come back to the Buddha’s assertion of no self, no essence, and at the same time telling stories of lifetime after lifetime that certainly looks like something with an essence. What I find in this is how that emptiness that is as much a part of anything as the thing of it is experienced in our lived lives. We experience emptiness as something.

On my way it has had three manifestations.

First, there was that separation. I feel it. I know I’m not you. And neither of us is the wall.

Then, through some miracle a noticing realizing viscerally, deeply, truly, that I am connected to you. And you to me. And both of us to the wall.

And so much more.

That web of intimacy.

Such a lovely thing. So liberating.

But, not a stopping there.


And continuing.

And then another noticing. Here I see that nothing is permanent. Everything is a moment.

There are no nouns.

The world is verbing…

All those lives are this life. Self. Other. One. The Great Empty.

Facets of a jewel…

And with that words collapse…

And in a heartbeat.

Here we are. You. Me. The wall.


There’s this Ox.

It has passed through the latticed window. Horns. Head. Shoulders. Front legs. Body. Back legs.


Except that little tail.

Why is that?

There’s an easy answer. It “passes” the koan.

Then there’s the next part.

Taking it out into the world of our lives. Where we are separate. Where we are one. Where we are completely, totally, wildly,


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