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.
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.