The Peace of the Rhinoceros: A Small Meditation on a Sufi Teacher and an Old Zen Koan

The Peace of the Rhinoceros: A Small Meditation on a Sufi Teacher and an Old Zen Koan November 23, 2022





Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,
the Only Being,
United with all the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master,

the Spirit of Guidance.

When I lived in the Zen monastery in Oakland, I served on the jisha team responsible among other things for hosting guests. So, no surprise when the roshi told me we were getting a VIP visitor.

His name was Samuel Lewis, and while he was mostly known as a Sufi master, he had also been acknowledged for his insight by spiritual teachers in a number of traditions, one of which was Zen. Ours was a bit more mainstream Zen Buddhist community and so most of us were expecting for us something on the rather exotic side, sort of a Zen zebra.

We weren’t disappointed. When he arrived I answered the door. Standing on the front step was an elderly man only a few inches more than five feet tall. He had shoulder length grey hair, a full beard, and oversized black plastic framed glasses. He was wearing the robes of a Korean Zen priest, I later learned put on special for the occasion. Before I could say anything, actually before I could take a full breath he brushed past me and looked around. His first words were, “Wali Ali, take a letter.”

I recall a young somewhat pudgy man followed along after him trying to write in a stenographer’s notebook. As the Zen and Sufi master’s entourage of four or five followed he proceeded to examine the large old building that had been converted into a Zen monastery dictating his observations along the way, mostly, although not a hundred percent positive.

It was a whirlwind. And when the shaikh Zen master and his disciples left, a visible, certainly a tangible echo played through the quiet rooms of our little house monastery for an age to follow.

Years later, after I left the Zen monasteries, I had a period of wandering. At some point I ended up in the Khanqah founded by Murshid Sam and now led by his disciple Wali Ali Meyer. For a time I studied the intricacies of Inayat Khan’s universalist Sufism with Wali Ali. Eventually as we parted, he to an adventure in the American South, and me to what I didn’t realize at the time would be a revisioned Zen practice, he gave me what was called the ninth bayat, blessing or initiation.

Yesterday I learned after some years suffering from dementia Wali Ali had returned to the Khanqah to die.

As it happens, it was on this day, the 23rd of November, in 2019 that Imam, the last Sumatran rhinoceros in Malaysia died. Something in the neighborhood of eighty individuals still live in neighboring Indonesia. But the future of the species is somewhat past bleak.

Reading about this triggered a small cascade of thoughts, mind bubbles. It falls hard on how we humans have just crossed eight billion individuals across the globe. It is also connected with the harsh realities of global climate change. And with it thoughts of the years ahead, and connected in some ways terrible dislocations of population and mass migrations.  Death and birth and, well, most of all, movement.

I think of my Sufi teacher, his years teaching, his years teaching with dementia, and now his teaching with death.

It brings to my mind a koan. Koans are a meditation thing out of the Zen tradition, birthed in China, given some very interesting shapes in Japan, and now a spiritual practice engaged across the planet.

It’s gathered as case 91 in the Blue Cliff Record and case 25 in the Book of Serenity.

Another of my teachers, the Australian-American Zen teacher John Tarrant paraphrases the case:

Once upon a time in China, the governor gave a rare fan carved of rhinoceros horn to a Zen Master, who forgot about it. Then he remembered. He called to his assistant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.” The assistant said, “It is broken.” The master said, “In that case, bring me the rhinoceros.”

The fan is broken. The rhinoceros is not there.

And we are invited to bring it forth.

The trigger for me in this at this moment is the question of movement, of gain and loss.

The Buddha noticed this movement of things. He saw how it extends not just in our thoughts but in the material universe as well. He noticed all things are in motion, arising, decaying, dying. Reforming. Motion. And knowledge of this rests in the back of every heart. Rest isn’t really a good word here. Because this motion that is noticed, is the great buzz of the universe. And it reveals the lack of substantiality. It reveals the truth of impermanence. It shows us we are alive for a moment. Gone before. Gone after. Gone. Gone.

And humans experience this buzz as hurt. As loss. As a profound dis-ease.

In some traditions this has been called existential angst.

That thing. The fly in the ointment.

The Zen priest Judith Ragir observes “On the surface of life there is duality – broken and fixed. But so many things in this life cannot be fixed. Many deep things in life, we cannot fix. So what can we do? Where does our spiritual life lead us with things that cannot be fixed – with broken hearts that cannot be mended?”

She goes on to note how also this us, the broken us, is all there is to seek the whole.

I think the important point, at least one, is that the broken seeking the whole is not meant as a quest for healing in the conventional sense. That happens. Or not. I encourage looking for healing of mind and body.

But this project, this broken fan, this rhinoceros is the matter of, not to put too fine a point on it, cosmic proportions. This is about heaven and hell. This is about squaring the circle of our lives.

This is an invitation to something that extends from before the creation of this sun and this planet and past the dying embers of the star and the lost memory of the planet.

This is about the peace of the buzz. The peace within life, within dementia, within death.

We are not different that the motion of the universe. We are separate from it. But it is us, you, me.

What is kind of wonderful is that we of all animals get to, or can notice. It becomes an eruption of the heart. It becomes the peace of the buzz.

It is a bringing forth of the rhinoceros. The one that is extinct and not.

It raises my gratitude for all my teachers, although in the moment I think of Wali Ali Meyer. My wishes. My regrets. My love.

Gate, gate, pāragate, pārasaṃgate, bodhi svāhā

Gone, gone, gone beyond. Gone totally beyond



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