Identify Your Cows


I heard this story when I was training at Plum Village in France under the guidance of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006.  I am struck by how much I continue to reflect on its meaning.


One day the Buddha was out in the country side practicing walking meditation with his disciples.  They came across a cow herder who anxiously said to the Buddha, “Venerable monk, my cows all ran away.  I’m looking for them.  Have you seen them come by this way?”

The Buddha replied, “We have not seen any cows in this direction.  You might want to look in the other direction.”

The man hurried off.  Buddha turned to his disciples and said, “Aren’t we lucky, we don’t have any cows.”


A cow in this story is symbolic for those things that prevent us from experiencing real freedom.  They could be our material possessions.  Once you own something, you have to take care of it.  You have to worry about it.  In the time of the Buddha, monks owned three robes and one bowl.  They were forbidden to own anything else.  Food and shelter was freely given to them as needed by supportive lay followers.  Their practice had to be worthy enough to receive such offerings.


A cow could also refer to a rank or a position that one holds.  Once a person has a certain degree of status and power, it’s hard to let that go.  Yet, the holding on to that power often comes at a high cost. There is the constant worry that someone else will come along and displace you.  Or that you’ll eventually become ineffective in your position.  The stress from work can give us all kinds of physical, emotional, and mental problems.


Zen Master Rinzai, paradoxically, encouraged his students to be the person of “no rank.”  Even in the spiritual world our competitive natures can creep in.  We want to be closer to Enlightenment than other practitioners.  We might feel envious of students who are able to go on more retreats than we are.  This is all nonsense, though.  Our inherent Enlightenment is not affected by how much we practice.  Enlightenment is always there regardless of whether we recognize it or not.  The wave is always a part of the ocean, the question is whether the wave recognizes it’s “ocean nature” or not.  The practice of the Zen student is to touch their Buddha Nature in every opportunity available to them.  We don’t need to wait for the right time, the perfect teacher, or the right retreat to come along before we touch our Buddha Nature.  Buddha Nature is our birthright.


The question is, what prevents us from connecting with our inherent Buddha Nature?  What are our “cows”?


We all own things, and we all have certain positions or ranks we want to hold on to.  We may not have the luxury to just let those things go.  Or maybe we do, and we just have not looked carefully enough at our options, or we are afraid of changing.


Practice is about taking an honest look at ourselves and our lives and assessing what is a true need versus what is something we just want to have as a kind of security.  We may not be in a position to give up certain things.  But have we really looked carefully enough at our cows?


When I look at my own responsibilities these include my work as a Zen Priest and my duties as a father and husband.  These duties if abused or neglected will cause great harm.  But on a subtler level I need to be watchful that they don’t turn into “cows”.   In other words, I can identify myself with these roles and forget that these are not who I am.  Forgetfulness of this is where the “cow” comes in.  I need to remember that these roles are more like a mask that I take on and off, but sometimes the mask itself gets glued to my face and I can’t distinguish myself from the mask.  I remember a Catholic monk saying, “I’m not a monk, I’m a man wearing monk’s clothes.”  This expresses my sentiment exactly.


Which masks do you put on and take off regularly?

Prior to my “Home Leaving Ceremony” (priest ordination for lack of a better description) there were times that I felt that I had no real mask to put on.  I was a nobody.  My teacher had me wait six years until she offered me the “Home Leaving Ceremony.”  During that extended period, I felt extremely vulnerable, not having a secure identity.  I suppose my label could have been “student”, but I wasn’t a student in the way our society recognizes a student.  I wasn’t enrolled in a University.  I wasn’t getting a degree that I could then use to apply to a job.

At this time, I also had no steady work, nor did I earn income in the usual sense, nothing I could call, “my occupation”, and no family to support.  I was neither a husband nor a father.  I was doing work for my teacher and for the temple in exchange for receiving the Dharma, room, and board.  My work included cooking, cleaning, gardening, being the Treasurer, and attending to the needs of my teacher, including driving her to prison for meditation with the Buddhist group or to the airport for engagements further away.  I had no teaching responsibilities for several years.


I am eternally grateful to have been put in such an awkward position as a young adult.  Luckily, I was supported by a Zen community and a teacher so that I could really just practice Zazen and learn.  Being open to my own vulnerability is where a lot of growth happened.


Within Soto Zen there is a tradition for both lay and priests to help us identify our attachment to the label of “Buddhist”.  During the first meditation period in the morning Zen Buddhists sit without their outer Buddha robe on them.  Once the “Robe Verse” is recited, one is then permitted to wrap themselves in their robe.  So, we sit first thing in the morning without relying on our robe.  It’s a reminder that underneath our layers of clothing there is just this body wrapped in skin.  Even a Buddha robe is not going to protect us from our humanity nor our vulnerability as a human that lives and dies.


With regards to family responsibilities, questions I have found helpful in order to make the distinction between mask and reality are, “What does honesty look like when I am in front of my wife and son?  What if I shared my true feelings rather than pretended everything is okay?”  These are questions I continue to ask myself.  Like anyone else, family demands of me my time, energy, and effort to keep things moving.  There is no way I can maintain constant harmony.  The question is not if things fall apart, but when.  At those times, introspection rather than blame has always proved helpful for reestablishing connection.


The labels I have been given – Zen Priest, father, husband, son, brother, male, American, human – none of these will protect me from dying.  If I’m not careful in my practice, they all have the potential to become my “cows”.  I can’t lean on those roles when it comes to the “Great Matter of Life and Death”.  What I can do is tap more deeply into my own being, love myself more and do my best to show my concern for the wellbeing of everyone in my life.  Though I continue to strive to carry out the Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, maybe, just maybe, I can be a little less of a jerk, and a tiny bit more considerate to one or two people in my life.

Questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion:

  1. What are your cows?  How can you relate to them differently?
  2. We all get stuck in habitual responses with those we love.  What would happen if you shared your true feelings instead of pretending everything is okay?


A Dharma Doorway

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.


Children have been by far my best teachers.  Jesus said that if we can learn to have the mind of a child, then we will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The child’s mind is open, receptive, and sincerely curious about life.  When sitting zazen, Dai-En Roshi would encourage us to sit with “kindergarten mind,” a phrase she received from her teacher, Aoyama Roshi.

Upon leaving Japan as a teacher of English, I had a plan to enter graduate school and to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theology.  I knew within the first few weeks of study that I was in the wrong place.  I felt the need to be working, earning money, and experiencing life, and not thinking about it.  I dropped out of graduate school and began working as a substitute teacher for the West Contra Costa School District in California.  I was considering becoming a full-time elementary school teacher at that time.

I found substitute teaching exciting because I did not know where I would be going next, or what kind of children I would be teaching.  Some of the classes were wonderful, and others were absolutely dreadful.  I enjoyed the younger kids much more than the adolescent children.

At the beginning of the summer I returned to the east coast to live with my parents in Maryland.  My sister-n-law, Lois, helped me to find full-time work as a teacher in a Catholic school that served children with autism.  The work was not bad, but the opportunity arrived for me to work as a 5th grade teacher at another Catholic school in the area.  Because I had not yet made a signed commitment to the first school, I abruptly left it to teach at the other school.  I later regretted this move because I realized that how I leave one job effects how I enter another job.

I was unprepared to take on two classes of 30 children ten years of age.  As much as children can be looked to as examples for developing curiosity, their egos are in full swing.  I realized the need, personally, when working with kids, to be able to recognize my own ego, my attachments and aversions, and to be able to drop ego identification frequently.  The training in Zen I had done up to that point was not sufficient in addressing this need.  I had, after all, spent little time actually training with a Zen teacher, or living in a monastery.  The intellectual foundation for practice had been laid by my academic training, but it did not address the down-to-earth practice that I needed to do.

For the five months that I taught the Catholic school children, I came home exhausted everyday.  I struggled with holding their attention and getting them to do and behave the way I wanted them to.  Yet I was teaching them material from religion and biology, all things I loved.  I was not able to convey my love for these subjects in a way that justified my continuation in this work.  I spent what I later determined to be too much time disciplining children, and not nearly enough time affirming them.  This lesson came at a great price, and thanks to practicing Vipassana with Tara Brach’s meditation group at a Unitarian Universalist church near Washington DC once a week.  Because I felt so much better, so restored, after practicing with this group, I made it a point, no matter what, to attend her class every week.

One of the weeks that I attended, Tara had us split off into smaller groups to talk about a Dharma subject.  I shared my frustration in working with the children and I received very helpful feedback from my group.  I realized that I might not be doing the kids any favors by my demonstrations of anger towards those who were misbehaving.  I bought a Dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein that addressed the mental component “fear,” and ways of working with it.

I saw a direct connection between my anger towards misbehaving children, and my own fears of being inadequate to actually directing and having compassion toward children.  Determined not to act from a place of anger or fear anymore, I came into the classroom Monday morning with the goal of remaining calm and looking at my own ego attachments in the process of working through my fears. 

This worked well for my first class, albeit in a strange way.  I decided not to say anything to this class until I could be calm and feel at peace.  I waited for their attention without saying a word.  I did not realize that I would be waiting for a full 25 minutes to do this, and probably most teachers would not have this patience.  As I continued to calm myself, looking at my ego, and my desire to control the kids, the children were busy talking amongst themselves waiting for me to “lose it,” as I had usually done at this time.  But I was determined to change, even if that meant losing my job.

I did not care at this point, if I lost my job or not.  I was too exhausted to continue teaching in the way that I had been, and felt that if I can not change, then perhaps I should not be working as a teacher.  I had nothing to lose in remaining silent and, in effect, waiting for their attention. 

After 25 minutes of me standing in front of the class, still, calm, and not speaking, all of the children, to a tee, noticed that I was waiting for them.  They had been expecting me to discipline them as I had been ineffectively doing.  I managed to trick them by not behaving in my usual pattern.  They noticed the change and all of them stopped speaking and began looking at me in wonder.  The silence was palpable.  The kids were wondering, “is he going to reprimand us?”  I could see it on their faces.  They were anticipating my disciplinarian action.

Instead, I began with the lesson, asking them to take out their books and turn to a certain page.  They seemed somewhat disappointed and perplexed not to see more drama on my part.  But they paid marvelous attention during the last part of the period, attending to their work, without complaint or question.  It was beautiful.  I could not have asked for a better outcome.  I had found the secret to working with kids: patience with myself.

I decided to use the same strategy for the next class.  I had high hopes.  Anxiety was running through my veins with the same kind of anticipation that accompanied me before a swim a race.  I did not realize, however, that the previous class would tell the children in the next class about my plans.  This class was a different kind of beast all together.  I waited even longer, almost 45 minutes, without saying a thing, and nothing of note happened other than the kids continuing to talk without giving me an ounce of their attention.  One child, in fact, decided to leave the class at this time to let the principal of the school know what I was doing. 

Upon reflection, I could see how my own karma was ripening.  I had lost the trust of these children long ago.  They had not forgiven or forgotten how I had been treating them, and they seemed determined in making me pay for my mistakes.  I was now beginning to feel like the children I had sent to the principal’s office for punishment.  The only difference was that instead of me going to the principal, the principal was coming to me.

I felt as if I had completely failed in my objectives.  My peace of mind was nowhere to be found as I contemplated what to do next.  What would the principal say about this?  What would he think about me?  How can I explain myself?  I felt very stuck.

The principal entered the classroom and sat down in one of the desks in the middle of the room.  The whole class was quiet.  I picked up on their quiet and began the lesson as if nothing prior had happened.  Somewhat defeated, acting as though I planned all of this, but on another level knowing something was wrong, I walked through the rest of the day wondering what would be the result of all this, and how to explain my actions.

It dawned on me that I needed, rather than punishing the “bad” kids, to reward the “good” kids.  Tuesday of the same week I instituted a reward system where I gave tickets to the kids who were, “caught being good.”  They could cash in the tickets for prizes that were to be determined.  I found, hands down, that this had more consistent results then my experiments with silence.  I was now actively seeking out the children that were behaving, and actively ignoring the kids that were being rude.  This shift of focus was noticed by the children.  They changed.  Even the “bad” kids began to consider how they could be, “caught being good.”

I felt that, thanks to my experiments with silence, I was able to see the need and implementation of a reward system.  I had effectively taken control over this class.  It took me a grueling five months of struggle with myself to come to this place, but I did it.  The one thing that was worrying me, however, was the principal.  Since that fateful day when he had come into my class I had not heard a word from him.

Friday afternoon of that week he called me into his office.  It was during a break before my last class.  The principal asked me to resign.  He told me that he had found my replacement, and that the incident that Monday morning convinced him I was unable to control the class. 

I was speechless.  I did not know how to respond.  I did not want to resign.  Why?!  I tried to explain feebly how I had finally gained control of the class.  It was too late though.  He asked me to tell the kids that I would be leaving after today.  That was the end of it.

Thrust into a maelstrom of confusion and anger I proceeded to return to my class.  I had about 15 minutes before the children would be arriving for their last period with me.  Not knowing exactly how to conduct the class, I hinted at my departure by talking about how all things change, and ended with a sincere prayer straight from my heart saying,  “Sometimes we feel lost and confused in this world.  It’s at these times that we can look to God and cry out, ‘God, help me.  What should I do?  Where should I go?’” 

The children knew what I was talking about.  They could not say it directly, but they knew.  Some looked at me quite seriously and understood that a big change was about to happen.  I did not need nor feel obliged to say more.  The only thought that came to mind after the prayer was to visit that teacher (Dai-En Roshi) up in Pennsylvania who was trying to start a Zen monastery.  What did I have to lose at this point?  I had no job, no girlfriend, and no children to take care of.  If I was going to study and practice Zen for real, this would be the time to do it.  I would learn what I had not learned while practicing by myself.  I would learn how to really practice and teach meditation.

What these children taught me was the importance of not trying to control anyone.  They showed me how controlling I was, they shined back to me my own anger and delusion.  They taught me, too, that I needed to learn how to control myself.  Three years of meditating mostly on my own was insufficient to work through these issues.  I needed a teacher to work with at this point, to show me how to meditate, and to show me how a teacher conducts him/herself in daily activities.  Though the way I was treated by the principal reflected his own weaknesses, what turned out to be a loss in this world enabled me to more fully study, practice and eventually teach the Dharma.  One Dharma gate had closed and another Dharma gate had opened.