Once, not long ago, a river meandered through our town. Actually, there was never a river here, and our town is really a small and shrinking city. But the wistful look on your face when I mentioned the river is reason enough to have one. So now I have to move somewhere in Connecticut or Massachusetts, or start digging a large channel through downtown. Hand me a shovel, I hate New England.
Today was downright exhausting, and my hour long walk along the river left me dripping and drooping. It wasn’t different than most days, same time, same place, and the usual 756 miles, according to my old friend Orion, who was watching from his usual perch, unseen, as he prefers it by day. When I was done, I started to complain about how I felt, when Orion interjected, “Just be thankful you’re not in Florida today, its hotter by far, and your usual walk would have covered a full 930 miles today, and there you’d have reason perhaps to complain just a bit.” Heading home to shower, I called out to Orion, “You know you are one heavenly pain in the ass.” “Yeah,” he replied, “that’s what Artemis said.”
You have no sense of being on an island standing on the corner waiting for the light, caught cursing those who block the box. It is odd having to look up to see the sky, gray on this day, but here the horizon is only chrome, glass and stone. It is only from the 45th floor that the river brings you to ground.
Along the river this morning, the gulls stood on fence stanchions watching the parade of walkers, runners, bikers like them ignoring the river, intent on logging the daily miles, oblivious to the panorama that lies just beyond our closely focussed eyes. The gulls offer a piercing commentary, and that is something we notice, and so unlike the Egyptian Geese of our Florida home, who chatter incessantly along our walks, like so many old men sitting much of the day in Riverside Park staring out over the Hudson River trying to clear phlegmy throats.
He clearly remembers standing on the edge peering down into the almost bottomless canyon, listening to the narrow river slide across the rocks thrown down by its walls over millennia. He was a visitor here, knew he would stay only briefly, then leave, his spirit hiding among the rocks in the nearby mountains, staring down on the mesa for eternity. He remembers listening for coyote, begging the wily one to tell him the tales of its ancestors with whom he will soon share this canyon. All he hears is the wail of the jackrabbit, coyote’s message in a foreign voice, as night engulfs the mesa and he stares up at the galaxies and stars which barely notice the small orb hanging in the distant sky.
If you go walking one day and meet a person you think may be the Buddha, ask him what is the heart of all of the sutras. If he answers you with Dharma will you be certain this person is not the Buddha? If, on the other hand, he says nothing at all, and merely holds up a mirror, will you be certain you are seeing the Buddha? Decide before he crosses the river and is gone from sight.
A reflection on Case 1 of Bring Me the Rhinoceros (Koans)
There comes a moment at which both memory and history become blurred at the edges, where the bedrock on which belief has been so carefully erected seems more magma, shifting threatening to bring down the superstructure of desire and assumption. It is the fading that is at once both fear inducing and exhilarating for faith is tested and will most likely fail leaving uncertainty in place of illusion. This is the joy and treat of aging where your own life has former lives that you cannot be certain you lived, which seem familiar enough but never with the crystalline clarity you imaged memory must have. Memory is a Buddhist river and so much of the fun is continually getting your feet wet once again.