God, an Ox, and Its Tail: Reflecting on a Zen Koan

God, an Ox, and Its Tail: Reflecting on a Zen Koan December 17, 2018




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?

Gateless Gate, Case 38

I’m not sure where I first heard the line “If you scratch an Asian Christian, underneath you will find a Buddhist; if you scratch a western Buddhist you will find a Christian.” So, I did a simple google search trying to find the source for it. The only reference I could find was from a Kwan Um Zen teacher the Western born monk Dae Kwang Sunim. He suggested it was something of a commonplace in Korea.

However common a saying it might be or not, at the time I heard it, it really annoyed me. I felt that somehow it was belittling my commitment to my found tradition. And, yet, it has crept into my subconscious and continue to pop up every now and again. Today I find myself thinking about the great clash of East and West as it resides in my heart.

For me the Buddhist analysis, certainly as it is presented within contemporary Zen Buddhism is the clearest of all explanations for the shape our of our human condition. This is captured in two ancient doctrines: the three marks of existence, and the two truths.

The three marks of existence  are central. First, everything is impermanent, the technical term is anicca. I find this self-evident. Second, there is no special substance to any thing, the technical term is anatta. Not so immediately obvious to people considering the animating principles of our being, that sense of an “I.” But, with close examination, it becomes obvious a permanent and abiding self is pretty elusive. And, it is an axiomatic assertion of Buddhism that there is no abiding self. And then with, the third assertion: that that this flux of rising and falling is experienced as dis-ease. The technical term is dukkha. I’ve seen this experience also translated as suffering, longing, and angst. It is our normative human state.

And, just as important, certainly to our healing the great hurt is, are the two truths of the relative and the absolute worlds. Classically the relative is the phenomenal world, while the absolute is the “higher” truth of emptiness – that lack of abiding substance within the play of causality. There is an inclination to valorize the empty, to give it the substance that is lacking in things. I’ve seen this emptiness being described as God. I’ve used that language myself, and will be returning to this point in a moment.

I think these assertions are true. And I meet them as a born and bred child of the West, an heir to classical thought and particularly rationalism and humanism. And, about equally, as an heir to the Christian traditions, stories, and myths. Culture clash. And, it makes me wonder how I am experiencing these truths in my own life.

This why I sometimes speak of my physiology of faith (the idea lifted from an anecdote regarding the immortal Erasmus of Rotterdam). I claim a Buddhist brain and a Christian heart. I think Buddhism, but I dream Christianity. Oh, there’s a third bit, as well, my rationalist stomach. Which, perhaps leads to this small reflection…

And with that back to the great clash of civilizations, or more properly the great encounters of the world’s traditions. We get no better example of such clashes writ large and what can happen as when Buddhism arrived in China from India. Two ancient cultures with assumptions and languages carrying their own hidden assumptions met. For the Chinese mostly through merchants and books, as well as with the odd missionary.

Then things happened. Small things and large would happen. For one, what was for the most part a tradition of wandering monks would become settled monastics, with only limited wandering about. Another, and among the more notable for those of us who practice Zen, was the Chinese question, “who are your parents?” Through a long winding road this would lead to first the myth and then the fact of dharma transmission and lineage.

And. For Buddhism in China using indigenous spiritual terms with near meanings would be used for ease of communication, and as with Dao to say Dharma, would subtly shift the meanings. And with that as Dharma becomes Dao a rather richer term emerges informed not only by Buddhist but by Daoism and subtly a host of Chinese understandings about the nature of the world.

Here in the West and in modernity writ large we are seeing new shifts of use.

Some of this is ecclesiastical and practical. So, in trying to understand the rise of the unique ordination model of Japanese Buddhism which is “neither monastic nor lay,” I found the easiest way of understanding it was by a comparison with the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Where the older tradition disdains the newer, and the newer takes the needs of a particular time and place and by its own lights provides a faithful reinterpretation. And, no doubt, to my observation, something complicated and rich emerges.

The examples, possible and obvious, for this sort of thing are probably near endless.

But, here, today, I find myself thinking about is how often I see Western Zen Buddhists use the word “God.” I think I can make a categorical assertion that all Zen Buddhists in the West reject the idea of a divinity with a human-like consciousness that intervenes in the doings of history. But, while that’s the most common understanding its not the only way God is understood in the West.

A few years back science writer and blogger Razib Khan wrote about the famous Pew Religious Landscape Survey, noticing the majority of Western Buddhists seemed to believe in God. I generally didn’t credit this as much as I might otherwise have, as the survey suggested only seventy-three percent of self-described atheists didn’t believe in God. I suspected there’s a methodological problem here, perhaps in how the question was phrased.

However, a year after that survey Khan offered another reflection, based on a World Values Survey, suggesting that the majority of world Buddhists may believe in God. Culture clashes?  Definitional problems? Or? Again, I wonder about methodology. But, I am beginning to suspect that perhaps some significant number, perhaps the majority of self-described Buddhists at least here in the West do indeed have some sense of a deity.

So, what is this Buddhist God?

I have in my library a small collection of Buddhist polemics denouncing the Western ideas of God. Probably the biggest objection is how outsiders really see the projection of human ego on the sky in the most popular portrayals of deity. And there are corners of the inter webs where these polemics are repeated with considerable volume. Many Buddhists have serious problems with this idea of the big human.

In Asia I suspect the God they’re speaking of is a collapsing into something bit more Tien, the Chinese heavenly realm than the all powerful God of the West. And while the prayers addressed to heaven often are petitions, the whole thing is messier than a simple adaptation of the Abrahamic deity.

Still, increasingly, Buddhists here in the West find themselves using the word God. Mostly, as a stand in for sunyata, the great empty, the boundless. Offering my own variation on this, when I was in seminary, and so much smarter than I am today, I was asked what I thought that word God meant? I replied that God is a hole in the language into which we throw all our hopes and fears. To which one of my friends replied, Oh yes. God is a whole in the language into which we throw all our hopes and fears. The great empty is empty. But, it is also a cornucopia from which all things arise. At least from one angle.

There is in fact quite a solid precedent within Western religious thinking for God as the great empty. The apophatic mystics come immediately to mind. And also, in the Christian scriptures that mysterious term kenosis.

As to the Buddhist party of the equation. I was reading Stephen Batchelor’s controversial and wonderful After Buddhism when I came across this line. It’s repeated in both the Udana and the Itivuttaka texts from the Khuddaka Nikaya, translated by Maurice Walshe, slightly modified here.

There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, uncompounded. If there were not this unborn… then there would be no deliverance here visible form what is born, become, made, compounded. But sincere there is an unborn, unbecome, unade, uncompounded, therefore a deliverance is visible for what is born, become, made compounded.

Here we get the closest Buddhist scriptures ever come to describing what in Hinduism is called Atman and in the West is called God. For the West this passage from the Pali scriptures is perhaps not all that close.

Except, for each, maybe among some of the mystics.

So, there’s stuff going on. And, maybe, always has been. Of course, the big question is what does this mean in our actual lived lives?

For me it’s a bit like that passage near the end of the book of Job. A silence and a whirlwind. And then it is here I find myself thinking of the Gateless Gate, that Twelfth century anthology of koans, and particularly the 38th case.

“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?”

The editor of the book Wumen 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.


And with that, back to that koan about the Ox and its tail. I think it offers the great mess that allows us our cultural assumptions, allows us vulnerability to not be trapped by them, and invites us into a great mystery.

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.

And God? The God within and the God beyond? The kenotic God? Maybe. With a lot of emphasis on the vulnerability of maybe. And it’s power. Here we encounter ourselves encountering life and death and the most profound of mysteries, what is our source, our destiny, and our lives in between?

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.

God is a great mystery. God is a placeholder for our hopes and fears. God is the great other. God is a black hole. God is the great emptying. Is it birthed in the West? In the East? Is it the great culture clash? Or? God. God. The Ox. And, its tail.

What about that tail?

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 we face in meditation, against which our knowing pushes into unknowing.

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, the Ox’s tail wags at us.

The great emptying? But in what direction?

So. There it is.

The third manifestation. A great mystery. Our heart’s revelations. A dance. A song.

The swish of an Ox’s tail.



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