“A woman raised a goose in a bottle. When the goose had grown, she wanted to get it out without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?”
Koans, like this one from the Miscellaneous Series, are reflections of our lives as they are. Here we have an impossible predicament – sound familiar?
In this life as it is, we find ourselves as a goose in the bottle of a limiting career, with a certain physical malady, or in a home with upstairs neighbors fighting every night and sometimes through the day. Even the dang weather manifests this koan – it’s cold today. How do I get out without harming myself or the cold?
Yes, the more we look for geese in bottles in our life, the more we find them everywhere we look.
In koan work, we put others in our shoes – in this case, the goose, the bottle, and the woman. The juicy details help provide context and allow us to enter the situation fully.
So the goose is me and you in all the myriad aspects of our lives, always presenting as a particular thing – thirty years in education, how do I get out?
In this koan, we notice that the container is transparent. How have you been such a clear container? I think of parenting, for example, where we are the context, the container, and the trellis for the child’s life. We may aspire to be a clear container, knowing, of course, that there is always some tint in the glass. The job of containing, even when done with our clearest, best intentions, doesn’t always turn out so well and nearly always not as we’d hoped.
And so we continue to practice.
In any case, the time will come when it’s time for the goose to get out. How can we fully respect the container AND facilitate the goose’s going?
Zazen too, and all the forms our Zen practice, are like the goose, the glass container, and the woman. Caution: we simply won’t find freedom while quibbling about the conditions. The more we accept and embody them, the clearer they are. The possibility for freedom is always so close. When we trust the practice, the koan, this very life and enter the conditions fully, embodying them under their terms, not ours, then we can see right through goose, glass and woman.
A curious detail here is that the koan doesn’t require us to get free without harming the woman. How do you see that in your life?
A friend and long-time Zen student came to this koan at a key time in her life. She had been in a difficult student-teacher relationship with a very tight container that had once been the source and inspiration for her continuing development but then when she was grown, it became asphyxiating. Sincere koan introspection seems to invite this kind of synchronicity and the koan for her became intensely personal. She had clear insight into the relationship dynamics and yet that seeing wasn’t enough. The resolution could only come through action. How could she get out without harming herself or the container?
And with some diligent practice, she did it. She resolved the koan and the relationship simultaneously, or nearly so.
Moments like this one, when the world turns and the resolution to the koan becomes clear are moments of mysterious compassion. Kannon Bodhisattva pays us a visit, drops her usual name and form, enters us, and turns in accord with the circumstances as they are.
My friend saw and embodied how to get the goose out of the bottle … and then saw how the goose, the bottle, and the woman had a way of reconstituting in more and more subtle ways.
Fortunately, once we’ve found the way to freedom, it’s just a matter of practice.