The Zen Master and the Ducks

The old Zen story goes something like this: The Zen master and a student were walking in the woods, when they noticed ducks flying overhead.

“What do you see,” the Zen master asked the student.

“Ducks,” the student answered.

“Where did they go,” asked the Zen master.

“They flew away,” replied the student.

The Zen master grabbed the student’s nose and twisted it, and as the student cried out in pain, the Zen master said, “When have ducks ever flown away?”

One interpretation of this Zen koan is that no individual duck exists in Reality, there are only the collective “ducks,” with one duck being no different from another; and they have never flown away, they have always been.

The student could only see the ducks within the framework of existence and time, whereas the Zen master could see their eternal nature . . . hence, they could never fly away. The part that the student thought flew away is the individual part that we see when we separate ourselves from the rest of humanity.

The student, in her mind, struggled with the duality of existence; I am here now, but someday I will be dead and gone, and then what? Whereas the Zen master sees no endings or beginnings, only the constant flow of existence within time, a flow that is irrelevant. Nothing truly matters or changes, although within the limited vision of the student, everything changes constantly.

This ongoing struggle and conflict for the student is the student’s basis of suffering and her confusion of life that prohibits her from the freedom that exists beyond her structured thought. However, she cannot break out of the patterns she has formed from her experience; she can’t break out of her prison. If she could, she would see that the ducks could never fly away.

Likewise, we imprison ourselves as well. Death to us is a total ending of all we hold dear, and we fear death. Our religions help little, and even with tremendous faith, we still are uncomfortable with leaving behind all that we have accumulated; our relationships, our achievements and our property, but we cannot take any of this with us, and we see ourselves as individuals, facing this end of life predicament alone.

This is a horrible misunderstanding. We are never an individual, except in basic conventional terms that allow us to function within existence, but when we get past existence and into the true Reality that is the basis of all existence, there is no differentiation, we are all truly one. We can experience this reality; it’s not difficult to do, just give up all that seems important to you. Not that you leave your family, but give up your attachment to them, and embrace them with a real love that encompasses all of humanity.

Be careful of the insurance policies, the beliefs, and religions that guarantee our separate little selves a survival after death, and instead have the courage to look in another direction. Break through the emptiness of the loss of worldly pursuits, and into a world that can’t be imagined – that of true Reality. All that we are and all that we have will disappear when death separates our illusions from this Reality, and if we can distance ourselves from our attachments before this happens, before the recycling, then we won’t have to return to these same kinds of attachments in another lifetime; we will be free to go on.

The Zen master, in a few words, was trying to tell his student about these things, but the student was not yet ready to hear. She had not emptied her mind of all the confusion and illusions that kept her in turmoil, she had not yet discovered true meditation, where the student was no longer a student, but instead was nothing more than a duck, that could never fly away. . . .

Source by E. Raymond Rock

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