Why Can’t the Tail Pass Through?

Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, January 14, 2014


Koans are often teaching devices that take the form of a dialogue between two people. They were dished orally, and eventually collections would form, often attached to a particular teacher who would use them sequentially in a koan curriculum. The student’s job is to present the koan to their teacher. Koan curriculums are central to the practice of Buddhism in Korean, Thai, Japanese Zen practice.

The answer to each koan is unique to each person who answers it. You become the answer with your mind-body. We’re not involved with formal koan study here, so perhaps it’s something that you can drop into your life. You can rub it up against daily events. Turn yourself into a question.

Ox window

One of the great collections of koans is an anthology of forty-eight cases gathered in twelfth-century China by the master Wumen Huikai, published as the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate, or the Gateless Barrier. Here is case 38:
Wuzu Fayan said, “It is like a water buffalo (an ox) that passes through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t the tail pass through?”

Wumen’s Commentary

If in regard to this you are able to turn yourself upside down, attain one single eye, and utter a turning word, you will be able to repay the four obligations above and help the living beings of the three realms below. If you are still unable to do this, reflect again on the tail; then you will be able to grasp it for the first time.

The Verse

If it passes through, it will fall into a ditch;
If it turns back, it will be destroyed.
This tiny little tail –
What a strange and marvelous thing it is!


A water buffalo is a common site in China or India, it’s like a bike in Toronto or a pickup truck in Barrie. Without it you can’t haul water, you can’t get around. Perhaps it stands for the utility of the mind. It’s always nearby, always ready to serve if asked in the right manner. The water buffalo, like your mind, can be trained in certain ways. And at some fundamental level, it’s unknowable. Sometimes I look at the person who is sleeping beside me, night after night, and I have to wonder: what do I really know about you?

Small snag nirvana

In the koan, the water buffalo is coming through a window. The large parts make it through — the body and legs — but some small part snags the whole process. That snag is nirvana. It means having trouble but without defensiveness or inhibition or apathy. Sometimes the mind is so ordinary we’re watching shopping lists in mediation, at other times the mind has very high or low states. How to work with narratives that turn repetitively? The mind is also no-mind, nirvana, Buddha.

The tail is the one thing we haven’t been able to work with. It’s that little bit of anxiety, the addiction that we can’t turn off or the ideal we can’t embody. We like the idea but we’re not living it.

Dogen wrote about this koan: “When the dharma does not fill your whole body and mind you think it’s already sufficient. When the dharma does fill your whole body and mind you know something is missing.” (The something missing is the tail that can’t fit through.)

How can there not be something missing in your practice? The something missing, the tail, is a cause for celebration because it is an opportunity to go deeper.


Maybe the tail is also our young life that haunts us. We are told by psychologists that our adult life has been sculpted by our childhood. Freud said that our greatest fear was the fear of dying and that we repress the fear of death. Adler, who split from Freud, said that what we repress most is power. Jung, who also split with Freud, said that the quality we most repress is a desire to connect with something bigger than oneself. He felt that this was the real motivation behind neurosis, that we want to connect with something bigger. Ernest Jones, another psychologist, said that the thing we most repress is fear we won’t have desire, that we won’t allow ourselves to want. Our greatest fear is to love our desire and our passion. Perhaps each of these men is projecting the results of a deep inner dig.

Freud had the idea that people don’t have dreams, instead, unconscious content is recruited to bring light to locked up areas, dreams are the way the psyche is trying to explain what is happening in the present. Adam Philips: We have so much childhood but so few memories.

Against Yourself

You think you’ve got through the window but life shows you a new level, something that has been left behind. What happens to hate if you can’t get it through the window? You turn it against yourself.

The Dalai Lama first visited the United States in the 1980s. At the end of his teaching period, the young psychologist Jack Kornfield asked him, “Is there anything you notice that is unique in the United States?” The Dalai Lama conferred with his translator and answered, “Self-judgment – I’ve never encountered this before.” How can a society that loves the self, hate the self? (The second most popular hashtag on Twitter is me. The first is love.) The tail that holds you back can be self-judgment and inadequacy: oh, here’s another reason why I’m shit.

Class War

We’re in the midst of the largest liberation movement in history, which is the liberation of any constraint on the very richest from making money. We’re creating tremendous inequality because everything can be turned into money. Water can be sold, the earth cracked open and fracked, forests leveled. We are witnessing a class war of rich against poor. The biggest loser is our environment. The rich have repackaged the liberation movements of blacks, women, animals, in order to free their greed and the flow of capital. Free trade but not free people. We are creating a permanent underclass. What we need is not revolution which brings us variations on the same leaders, but embodied rebellion with values. Our tactic is our attention. When you can’t pay attention, corporations can sell you things. They plug into your feelings of inadequacy (I am not enough equals I am not enough). The casualties of our economic model end up in therapy or meditation because we can’t consume and produce at this level. The first place to go is the body, breath, community. We become more open to what arises in us, outside of us. You have an ethical obligation to practice.

How to practice until you’re not afraid of yourself any longer? To look at the tail and see your unlived life and not be afraid of it.

In mystical Judaism, they tell a story about the beginning before the beginning. There was a vase filled with light and one day the vase exploded. The righteous came and started putting all the pieces together again. When you practice you appreciate all the different fragments, you become a peacemaker. You pick up all the pieces of God and try to put them back together again.