One evening, working on a tugboat in northern British Columbia, I understood a Koan. Finally, the book that seemed designed to demonstrate that I could not be further from enlightenment yielded up a small token:
Q: Outside the gates of the temple, water flows uphill.
A: The village dog is peeing against the old oak tree.
Finally a glimmer, not to be repeated in this book: the old dog is lifting his leg against the trunk of an oak tree in the temple yard. An arc of pee arches up. Perhaps, I dare to hope, deep spiritual traditions can spread their benefit to human kind after all.
This Koan points forward to a time seven or so years further along in my life.
I’m sitting in a house in sunny Albuquerque, but the weather reminds me of a cloudy day in Montreal. I have that rainy day feeling, not unpleasant but a bit pensive, as I look out the window at tree branches swaying gently in a breeze.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, or perhaps from another time—like a grasshopper landing on the back of my arm from some nearby rock—that koan comes into my mind.
Water is flowing uphill outside the gates of the temple. A dog from the village is lifting his leg against the old oak tree. Wait a second. It’s not just the arc of pee as the old mutt relieves himself. It’s the tree itself. I’m surprised that I didn’t see this while sitting in the darkened tugboat seven years earlier, with small waves smacking the hull during another three-mile crossing. But perhaps the ground has been prepared to receive this insight. A failing marriage can help you look around and notice how others are feeling about their lives, including the trees, standing patiently in the flow of time.
The koan pulls into the station of my mind, perhaps from the past, perhaps from the future, perhaps from this moment now as I look back at both those times.
Water flows uphill in all living trees. Sap, drawn from the rain soaked ground, is drunk by the roots, climbs up the trunk, along branches, twigs and leaf stems until it swells the green leaves welcoming the sunlight. A tree is an entity whose very purpose is to conduct water from the darkness of the earth into the realm of light.
And what does the tree do with that light? It drinks it in through the photosynthetic receptivity of its leaves and then it is in the nature of sunlight to travel, to fill the space around it. Sunlight, striking the leaves of a tree on planet Earth, tarries on its journey out into the vastness of space. As light from the Sun flows down the trunk into the darkness of the earth, it provides the energy needed for the roots to grow and to sip on yesterday’s rain. The body of the tree is the meeting of these two flows. Not just the vehicle to conduct light into the earth and water back towards the sky, but the living embodiment of those two flows. Sunlight can move into the welcoming darkness of Mother Earth because she has built a tower to receive it, a beacon waving in the breeze. And the flowing sap from Mother Earth can defy gravity because Father Sun has kindled the life of leaf and thirsty pores and cells along the way. A tree stands between earth and sky and is the very meeting ground of their love affair.
Not so different from you and me.