In the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate, Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.” The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns. The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo! Shoo!” The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed. When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing. When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!” If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.
This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices. We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast. If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it? It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou. However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not? Zhaozhou simply laughs. Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?
It is quite human to be inhumane. Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase? If not, why call it such? How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly? Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:
Now consider this cover art here, with only the first blind man . You would think of the second only if you were familiar with the first image, which anyone familiar with the image would know, just as effortlessly. However, in looking into these things, and looking specifically for an image that has the end of the log hanging in space as it is on this cover, it turns out that the image on this cover is actually one of three blind men crossing a bridge, a cropped portion of a completely different painting by Hakuin of the same theme, blind men crossing a log bridge. Here is the third image below:
Hakuin might ask us: What does the blindness of these men look like? Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.