A good Koan, as in the collection of gnomic phrases popularized by Zen, is an inexhaustible fountain of symbolic resonances. The mind can ponder, play, ruminate and allow unexpected meanings to emerge. Not all koans are passed down by tradition; sometimes the world can throw a live one at you, like lobbing a friendly grenade....
There we were meditating in the hut in the garden. Just nearing the end of session and deep in silence, came a strange noise and splash from outside.
What’s that? The mind processes briefly: ‘Ah, the plastic guard heron has tipped over into the pond.’ Why? Nothing is near, nothing touched it. There is no wind.
And so a koan is presented: The heron has fallen into the pond. A koan for both of us, no doubt.
It keeps returning to my mind, this heron, and the pond, and the falling. A living bird will stand, its long legs motionless, its eye bright and ready to pounce, poised in stillness and waiting for as long as it takes, so perfectly adapted to function. But living herons don’t fall into ponds! Should a heron fall momentarily asleep and land in water, what a shock it would be-- great flapping, flying drops and the bird taking off, orienting itself into a glide, and then back presently to the water’s edge by some pond, some stream, somewhere.
But this shock is a gift, an interruption in the smooth expectations of function. Near the end of a quest, an external shock may re-orient the system. It is an interval, a gap where the new may enter, and in any creative process such interruptions can be embraced or even cultivated. We may find ourselves after a lifetime of meditative practice with our heron well set up, the pond smooth and reflecting the moon as it is supposed to do, but something missing. Where am I? What is missing?
At any point herons might fall. Falling is the beautiful principle of Randomicity which keeps Mind from setting into an order which imprisons, dictates and compels, or Being from spreading into somnolence. Mind, Being and Randomicity are three foundations of human existence, cycling through the living process unstoppably. However, we make choices. Therefore, we may find it convenient or self-empowering to build an edifice, establish a pattern or ideology with which to identify and make it into our life purpose. Alternatively, through permissiveness, laziness or even kindness we might neglect the rational constraints of order and investigation in favour of intensification and powerful natural urges. Even randomicity has its groupies, people intoxicated by change and chaos in pursuit of the unexpected.
However, when mind and being are balanced, poised like a heron by the pond, the random may enter of its own accord. A wind from nowhere disturbs the order or vibrates through being. Recognized and accepted, it speaks of a greater Order and greater Being, within which all our activities subsist like grains on the seashore, and with which they are irrevocably infused.
This is what has been missing. I pay lip-service, I set up my stall, I send out my longing into the empyrean and hope it will return to me in a form I recognize and can claim as result. But it comes back through a gap in my awareness, a vacuity in this frame so carefully cultivated. It strikes me in the night, when the ‘grinders have ceased’ or taps me on the cheek like a wisp of thistledown when I am looking the other way.
“ O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely”. (Song of Solomon)
This is the true creative random, the dimension we cannot control with mind or being, however assiduously we have worked, and in working may have forgotten to serve. When the heron has fallen into the pond it is for me, for each of us, to ponder and unlock the riddle in our own life where we have lost sight of something.
Like a koan, the words return and echo in the empty chamber which I have vacated.
But I am not far: I am in the clefts of the rock; I am standing by the pond; it is my pure delight to tip that benighted heron into the water.