(July 27, 2006)
ZEN AND THE SON OF BUCEPHALUS
by Abbot John
"Take my wife… please!"
Circumstances had forced me to feel much in common with our Founder - specifically in his pre-enlightened phase. I tried to project my mind back 2.5 millennia to answer the question that nags all husbands. What made the Buddha ride Kantaka, his prized stallion, to the edge of the forest and leave his wife behind? Somehow, Henny Youngman kept trying to bridge the gap.
Women accept with a peculiar gusto a timeless challenge when they become "married women." They say that they join clubs - but in reality they form teams. It is a sport they play while they vacation on this planet. In a kind of symbiotic link (that science has yet failed to explain) they work together to achieve the goal of "civilizing" husbands. They act in the most surreptitious ways. We don't know we're being trained until we're so deep in the process we cannot find ways to stop it.
Last month, without knowing where I was headed, my wife took me to obedience school. A friend of hers - another "clubwoman" - had invited several couples out to her lodge in the mountains. "Wear jeans," my wife said, "Maybe we'll get to do a little riding." I suspected as much especially since she was wearing knee-high riding boots, a tweed jacket and gabardine breeches. She also carried a leather crop. I chose not to argue.
I still don't know exactly how it happened. As we drove into the mountains, she talked about "bridal paths," which, she laughed, were "just trails." She is experienced in conjuring future pleasantries. She spoke of many things, all of which led me to foresee an afternoon of adventure. A kind of mini-western, starring me, of course, played out in my mind. A saloon. Swinging doors. Spurs jangling. A flute that mournfully played two notes. Cigar smoke wafting through dark shadows. Perhaps, even for only one day, I would go AWOL from my mind and explore the latent Clint Eastwood in me. Maybe I could even buy a cool hat and one of those long "drifter" coats that signaled everybody that I wasn't anyone they wanted to mess with.
The house was disappointingly unlike the Ponderosa. The lawn was edged with flowers and the building had that Alpine chalet look. We parked and went inside and met the other three couples - none of whom I had ever seen before. The women chattered in huddle formation. When they left the room to plot something, we husbands stood there as animated as guys in a lineup. "Drink?" somebody asked, and we followed him into the bar. A man in a white jacket filled four large beer steins, and we manfully stepped up to the brass rail and grabbed them. We grunted a few times in a non-threatening manner - and then the women returned. They were all dressed identically except this time they wore velvet hats. Somebody else's wife slapped her palm with her leather whip and sang, "Tally Ho! Gentlemen. Tally Ho!" We drained our mugs, slammed them against the bar, and followed the women out. "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."
Eight saddled horses - four English and four western - were waiting for us, and none of them was happy to see us. My wife indicated that the one that still had testicles was to be mine. He was a big horse. "Lotta horse for a lotta man," she said. I was too flattered to announce that I didn't know how to ride. My sideways look of fear signaled her. "We're only going up the mountain," she soothed. Seven people mounted their horses. I stood there looking up at mine.
I must stop this story for a moment and add some biographical facts so that you don't think too ill of me as this morbid tale unfolds. I was born in the country, farm country, not horse country. My only experience with horses, or what I thought were horses, was in my youth when our family would go to the County Fair and I would get to ride around on a pony that was tethered to a pole and as the pony moved, the ring on which it was secured would move too. So, round and round we went, counterclockwise and without incident.
I can now state with certainty that those creatures I rode were NOT horses. They were of such a different size and nature they could be classified as horses only in a vague genetic sense. My only other sense of horses came from films.. Like all young men I suppose I dreamt of leaping onto the back of a fine stallion and riding to someone's rescue. But this day, with these women, including my wife, and the other men whose blank expression now made perfect sense to me, the intuitive statement that dreams are not reality became a hard core fact.
In reality there was no way I was going to leap on the back of the beast I was now standing next to. Being lowered via crane was a viable alternative. But they had no crane. With my fear now evidenced, instructions were being given to me by a groom who did not share my impending sense of doom. His strategy had something to do with shame.
"Have you ever been on a horse before?" he began.
"Yes…uhh no…what I mean is I've been on something that looked a little like a horse…but not quite as uhh …uhh"
"Okay. Don't worry. It's simple. You'll like it. Do you have any questions?"
"Well... Yes. How am I my supposed to get on it?"
It wasn't simple. All of his instructions only sounded simple, none actually was. For instance, consider the mounting, I was told to hold the reins, grab the horn and the back of the saddle, place my left foot in the stirrup, pull myself up and swing my other leg over the back of the beast. All of that sounds fairly easy, but in practice I found that I had to first get my left foot raised to the approximate height of my nose without falling over backwards or the horse moving forward.
Finally, with a stepladder instead of a crane, I found myself properly astride the huge back of the beast. "What is his name?" I asked. "Bu," the groom answered. I was incredulous. "Bu... as in Bucephalus?" I asked. "Yes," said the groom, surprised that anyone who was stupid enough to ride the animal would recognize the name.
My instructor relayed one last bit of information in a tone of voice that usually comes with, "Whatever happens don't push this red button." That final bit of wisdom was "Remember to always let Bu know who the boss is." As if on cue the beast turned its head almost completely backwards like the little girl in Exorcist and looked at me with what I can only call a wicked grin. He curled his upper lip and left absolutely no doubt in either his mind or mine who the boss was. This animal was indeed the reincarnation of Bucephalus.
Off we went. The ladies happily engaged in what appeared to be an enjoyable conversation about shopping. The other men had obviously been dragged along to this kind of thing before, because, although, they didn't seem overly enthralled about being there, they did not wear the expression of abject fear that I am sure was all over my face. They wore businesslike expressions. I was holding on for dear life. As I began to focus and to lock all of my senses into one directed purpose I became aware of an odd perception. When their words cannot quite be comprehended except for a few numbers, a group of women chatting sounds exactly like crows circling overhead. But that's a story for a different time. "My wife will buy anything marked down. Last week she bought an escalator."
I must get back to the horse and the Zen of this adventure. Important people and horses go together. Their merged forms are extremely pleasing to the artistic eye. Statues of horses are common to all civilizations. Horse-courage is the stuff of battle folklore. Bucephalus is probably the most famous of the war horses, and legend has it that only Alexander The Great could ride him because the animal's ferocious attitude matched his own. Myth states unequivocally that Bucephalus would rip the flesh off all who stood before him in battle. Many horses have acquired reputations that resonate in the human heart: General Lee's Traveller; Custer's Comanche at the Little Big Horn; Secretariat, a race horse of such quality that he was actually voted "Male Athlete of the Year" by a national sports publication. In the USA who hasn't heard of Silver, or Trigger, or Seabiscuit. Caligula even attempted to make Incitatus a senator of Rome. And every Buddhist knows about Kantaka, the great and beautiful stallion of the World Sage of the Shakya Clan. Civilization probably owes more to the horse than to any other animal on the planet. Give me the name of a single cat that has done as well in the annals of our history.
My Son of Bucephalis (SoB) did not possess the same respect for history as I; and as we ascended the mountain path and jogged through the trees this became abundantly clear. The SoB would walk so close to the edge of the path that I knew a misstep would plunge us both onto the rocks and ragged scrub below us. He knew it, too. The difference was that he didn't care. Whenever possible he attempted to erase me... yes... "rub me off" his back. If we walked beside high rocks, he would lean into them, trying to crush my leg. I would have to lift a foot out of the stirrup and place it on his neck to prevent an amputation. If he neared trees with low branches, he would do a kind of "How low can you go? Jamaican riff and, as he scraped under the branches, I would have to kow-tow into his withers, as, of course, he intended. It became a ballet, a pas des deux of death, and after each attempt on my life, he would turn his head and sneer at me, flashing his massive teeth. Each time I would exert pressure on the reins, my SoB would menacingly jerk his head signifying that unless I was idiotic enough to try to rip the bit clean through the back of his head, I was not to apply any pressure at all. I got the Jeffersonian message: "He governs best who governs least." What he really wanted was for me to let go of the reins althogether. We were on his turf. "I told my doctor I had broken my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places."
This dance up the mountain and through the woods had left me bruised and bleeding. Fortunately, the G forces generated during the descent staunched the bleeding. The SoB was anxious to get back to his stall and all that stood between him and it was a few miles of treacherous "Bridal Path." I now know why they call a trail a Bridal Path.
A horse has a number of distinct ways of moving, gaits, they are called. My horse suddenly favored the fast ones.
There comes a point when fear is transcended... like a runner's high when you push through the pain and enter another dimension. When a horse gets to a certain speed he shifts from a canter to a gallop and your hands squeeze the saddle's horn as you fly. It becomes strangely enjoyable. I call it the Pegasus Effect.
I beat the others back to the stables by many many lenghts. Twenty minutes worth. I slid off the side of the beast into the groom's waiting arms. He led old SoB back to his stall. I recited a mantra... with feeling.. "I stopped being an atheist. They have no holidays."
Strangely dissimilar disciplines such as horseback riding, playing music, or even Zen meditation often have striking similarities. In the beginning your wife or Master or even an annoying assistant may issue instructions that can seem pointless or confusing. Your natural goodwill allows you to be cajoled into trying things your common sense warns you against. For every hundred who begin a program, one or two will finish. Every endeavor has its casualties and its pain. To play a guitar you better not fear developing calluses on your fingertips. For zafu sitting, expect sore knees, ankles and back. And whether you ride Bucephalus into battle or Kantaka to the forest's edge, get used to saddle sores and be prepared to walk funny for a few days.
But after you have met the challenge and conquered it, you gain a kind of inexplicable joy. What keeps the joy alive is the awareness of the importance of what you've accomplished. When the Son of Bucephalus began his flight home and, in that nanosecond, my mind realized its inability to control that situation, I became aware of another: my ability to fly. Fear is the mind-killer; and once that mind is dead, fear dies and we become invincible.
In our particular Zen discipline it is often said we must keep death on our shoulder. That thought is not a morbid nihilistic thought but rather one that reminds us of the importance of our task. It is a freeing, sustaining thought. Life is dominated by the two great pains: the Pain of Discipline and the Pain of Regret. Pain (suffering – dukkha) itself is inevitable. But while we are all doomed to experience pain, insight into its nature, into the possibility that it is or can be a Prelude to something better, can lead us into pain's opposite. Hanging on and having faith have something to do with entering the Zone of Prelude and then to breaking through into unfettered flight.
Knowing now how much I learned from my encounter with Bucephalus's offspring, I would regret not having had the experience - if I had been sufficiently sane and declined to go. My wife's intentions are worth noting. Riding a horse, after all, is a civilized thing to do. "I take my wife everywhere; but she keeps finding her way back."
And for that, Mr. Youngman, I shall be eternally grateful.