Throwing a Ball on a Swift Current

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

One day after lunch I went walking down near the Maitai River and was shocked to see a cat crossing the stream, gingerly picking her way across the rocky underwater ridge. Now and then she'd scoop at the torrent with her right paw as though testing for depth, or fishing. When she reached the other shore, she suddenly launched herself back into the current and swam downstream towards an old abandoned recliner rocker, part submerged -- a frightening, surreal intrusion in the life of the ducks, and the odd swimming dog.

She beached up in a little sandy cove, sat up on the grit, shook herself into a sudden halo of shining drops, and looked back at me as if to say, 'I bet you can't do that.' Right! And made me think of Heraclitus' fragment - 'You never step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are always flowing in upon you'. Each paw going down onto the underwater rock bridge is swept by a completely new torrent, moment after moment... You never step into the same Maitai because you are new --- now anxious, now conducting business, now sleeping, now making love, now the endlessly shifting colours and lights on the dark flooding stream. What are you now?

For the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC), the unchanging law is that everything is in a state of perpetual change, 'like a fire, now in measure flaring up, now in measure dying out'. Shakyamuni expresses the same point in the Diamond Sutra:

All things are under the law of change
They are a dream, a phantom, a bubble or shadow;
they are like dew or a flash of lightning,
a flickering star at dawn.
You should contemplate like this.

In the mind's torrent, in spite of its customary snags and whirlpools, we don't even know our next thought. Shakyamuni says, 'You should contemplate like this'. Doing Zazen, notice each arising thing, then let go, and with awareness like moonlight on the churning rushing water, open to the next wave. Nothing endures. This can be life giving; even the deepest grief releases itself in time and we feel the shaky uncertain movement of our life again like blood beginning to move in thawing capillaries. Nothing endures, and this is traditionally understood as the source of our suffering - our happiness doesn't last, we struggle and all too quickly we die. Yet we find the sources of our deepest life as we make ourselves open and vulnerable to the fleeting instants of our life, not so much in the spirit of Carpe Diem ('seize the day'), but uniting with the tender brevity of right now.

The moment is all we have. Past and future are each a dark abyss embracing the lit space of this moment. When we open uncertainly to the beauty and the horror of our life right now, we are, as Auden puts it, 'like children leaning in and out of the bright kingdom of the moment.'

In a way, when we live our life with this kind of intimacy, it turns into something like dream, and yet comes back vividly alive in memory when we need to recall it. The way is not the cultivation of some unbearable lightness of being where everything is forgotten or discarded. Remembering, planning, imagining, unfold here and now. Eduardo Galeano notes that 'Recordar (Sp.): To remember, comes from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart...' We need to have time, and a ritual space to remember those who have died -- our ancestors, our loved ones -- as well as those who live with us and touch our lives from day to day.

Try to remember some details.
Remember the clothing
of the one you love
so that on the day of loss you'll be able to say:
last seen wearing such-and-such,
brown jacket, white hat.
Try to remember some details.
For they have no face
and their soul is hidden and their crying
is the same as their laughter,
and their silence and their shouting rise to one height
and their body temperature is between 98 and 104 degrees
and they have no life outside this narrow space
and they have no graven image, no likeness, no memory
and they have paper cups on the day of their rejoicing
and paper plates that are used once only...


A monk asked the old teacher Chao-chou: 'Does a new-born infant have the sixth sense or not?' (Does a baby have the Mind of Realisation? Does a baby have Buddha Nature?) Chao-chou replied, 'Throwing a ball on a swift current.'

The monk returned to Tou-tzu and asked, "What does 'Throwing a ball on a swift current' mean?"

Tou-tzu said, 'Moment after moment, it never stops flowing.'

A baby cries, we feel sharp anxiety, we stumble out of bed in the cold and pick her up -- the ever-shifting lights on the sleek, darkly gliding stream of our life... --

© Ross Bolleter 1998