9 – Sixteen Bodhisattvas Take A Bath

The koan for this week:

In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water.
They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”
The Blue Cliff Record Case 78

Water cleanses us, and is the universal solvent; it is the most part of tears, ocean and of our own cells, and of the idea that all the time, beneath our ideas, we are being carried along by a great current.

Unhappiness is all about being separate. Boredom, refusal, hopelessness—there are things that advertise themselves as problems but which are actually armor. Not just certainty but reaching for certainty is armor, not only impressing others but wanting to impress others is armor. Armor requires busyness and fills space, it keeps the now at a distance. Zen depends on the idea of getting closer to what is going on.

For a long time I had the idea that there was a right thing that should be happening—and perhaps that gave me the feeling that what was actually happening was not worth close examination. I was hurrying past to get to the right thing, there was a gap between my consciousness and the world. In that gap I was working hard, attending to my thoughts and explanations.

Trees didn’t seem to suffer from a gap in their consciousness, so I studied them. They were hard to tell apart, especially in Australia where the different kinds of eucalyptus look really alike. I pored over pictures of fruit and leaves and flowers. This was like looking under the lamp for the keys that I lost in the dark field. But it started to work anyway; even searching for the wrong thing helped.


Then I ended up just living with trees, sitting with them, camping out under them. Sometimes I forgot what I was trying to achieve and felt like a tree. Animals began to behave differently around me. Wallabies approached and grazed the extremely green grass under the acacias. An echidna licked the salt off my ankle. I waited by a billabong at dusk till platypuses appeared.

Eventually things were different with people too. Even wanting people to be happy was creating a gap especially if they were sad or irritable. And loving them came to be wanting them to be as they were, the way animals are the way they are.

Welcoming my own life too, meant I did not want myself to be happier or to feel something different from what I was feeling. Then naturally I was participating more.

Listening to the rain today, I was restless and not feeling particularly competent and then the drops started to rain though my body. The popping sound on the roof seemed to indicate that the drops were rising as well as falling. The rain was dissolving the gaps in between the mind and the world. When that happens, I am already in the water with all the other beings, I don’t notice the moment I stepped in.

Sometimes, too, the most interesting things appear that open our connection with each other. In December, I was sailing with a friend just inside the Golden Gate. We were surrounded by harbor porpoises, we could see their black backs and hear their breathing. I was watching a couple swimming close together. Suddenly I saw something I had never seen, they threw their baby in the air. It was so surprising.


Day and night are always waiting for us but it’s easy not to arrive. Suffering seems to occur when we have decided that there is a problem and have stopped noticing the situation. If I have decided that there is something wrong with this moment then there won’t be much joy, there will just be struggling through, watching the clock like a shift worker, wishing I had some other problem or a different job. If I haven’t decided something is impossible I could notice that I am walking on the rain drops and the grey sky and all the time surrounded by welcoming eyes.

This koan for me is about turning toward, about immersion, about dissolving ideas about things. It’s nice that we are all stepping into the bath together, with each other and with the trees and animals.

Questions, just in case:

  1. Is there an image, memory, dream that comes to you when you meditate with this koan?
  2. What are some areas of your life or the world that you hold yourself back from? How is it when you step into the bath?
  3. Water can be a powerful image, what is it for you?
  4. How will you know when you have reached the place that the sons and daughters of the Buddhas live?
  5. Extra Credit (10 points): What is the cause of water?