A Buffalo Passes Through the Enclosure.

October 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

Buffalo tail

Goso said, “When a buffalo goes out of his enclosure to the edge of the abyss, his horns and his head and his hoofs all pass through, but why can’t the tail also pass?”

Mumon’s comment: If anyone can open one eye at this point and say a word of Zen, he is qualified to repay the four gratifications, and, not only that, he can save all sentient beings under him. But if he cannot say such a word of true Zen, he should turn back to his tail.

If the buffalo runs, he will fall into the trench;

If he returns, he will be butchered.

That little tail

Is a very strange thing.


“A Buffalo Passes Through the Enclosure”, or “Goso’s Buffalo”, is the 37th koan (depending upon which version you read) of the Zen classic The Gateless Gate. In Mumon’s verse on the koan he presents us with another “no win” situation where running on ahead will have the buffalo falling into a trench but going back means he will be butchered.

I daresay that we have all felt like this buffalo at one time or another. We have all felt trapped by enclosures where uncertainty about the future, self-doubt and fear arose every time we sought to extricate ourselves from the situation. Well-meaning friends would urge us to move on but something always seemed to sabotage our effort. Staying in the confines of our enclosure seemed somehow wrong; yet leaving to face an unfamiliar openness didn’t seem like much of an alternative, either. Like Goso’s buffalo, our horns, head and hoofs may have understood the need to move on, but our tail prevented the transition.

There is something curious about this tail. As Mumon said, it is “a very strange thing” that we should turn our attention to if we cannot say a word of Zen, or, that is, if we cannot act spontaneously and leave our enclosure.

Upon examination it initially appears that the tail represents a fear of leaving the known for the unknown. Our friends certainly interpret it this way when they see us questioning and doubting ourselves. But the tail is more than that. The tail also represents our values that if abandoned, we feel, would really throw us into an emotional abyss. That is why in the koan we are not told to cut off our tail and, through a sheer act of will, force ourselves to move forward. Instead we are asked to examine those values, and the hopes and fears that accompany them.

A woman I knew was having a difficult time making the transition from her old line of work to the new. Her old situation had changed radically making it hard to do her job as she had before. Yet it was a good paying job and she wondered if she could take the cut in pay if she quit. In her deliberations she also wondered if it wasn’t just the loss of prestige her job provided that she feared. But in the end she realized that the “tail” that held her back was the desire to help others that her old job allowed her to fulfill. She did not want to leave her present situation because she felt any new situation would not allow her to help others. Realizing this fallacy, she set about looking for work in which she could help others again. Or, failing that, find some volunteer work to do if any new job did not fulfill her aspirations.

At times we can find new ways to express our values outside the confines of our old enclosures. At other times we find that it is our values themselves that we must leave, as they no longer truly represent our hopes for something better. As children, for example, we value our parents and the security they bring us. But as we mature we find it necessary to leave them behind to make our own way in the world.

There is one value that we all share and which the buffalo’s tail ultimately symbolizes. That value is the one we put on our self.

We all hope for good things so act to promote our own good. We also fear the loss of self, so look for ways to protect and safeguard it. Over time, though, these self-promotions and safeguards become an enclosure of doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts. And the longer they last, the more restricted we feel.

“Goso’s Buffalo” is an invitation to discover our enclosures; those stories we habitually tell ourselves to keep safe. We all have them. Some stories have us washing our hands fifty times a day. Some keep us from trying new things or going to different places. Others tell us that we are unworthy of love. Each story has it’s own variation but all act to keep us trapped inside our enclosures. Ultimately these stories prevent us from realizing our true nature and true Freedom.

With this in mind, ask yourself what your story is. What is your tail? And how is it preventing you from living more freely and realizing your true nature. When you can speak a true word of Zen in response to these questions you can save all sentient beings.





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