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Lions Roar : September 2019
demonstration of Zen practice. They eat when they’re hungry, run on the wheel when they feel the need, drink when they’re thirsty, and sleep when they’re tired. The rest of the time, they just sit still with their eyes open, apparently mindful of their surroundings. As far as I know, they don’t distract themselves with mindless pursuits and are troubled neither by their past nor their future. I think of them often and try to follow their example when I’m settling in with dread or restlessness for my twentieth or thirtieth hour of a silent meditation retreat. Chinese dwarf hamsters don’t even need to pay someone to make them sit. Every day is retreat for them. As Dogen Zenji once said, “Zazen is not the life of an indi- vidual; it’s the universe that’s breathing through you.” I often obstruct the universe’s easy breaths and turn them into gasps, but the universe breathes effortlessly through Chinese dwarf hamsters. In fact, this image of my hamsters as “always practicing” helped me pass my first Zen koan at the Village Zendo in New York City. There, my teacher, Roshi Enkyo O’Hara, gives students the traditional first koan, known as “Mu” after its punch line: A monk once asked Joshu, “Has a dog got buddhanature?” Joshu answered, “Mu!” The question we ponder is, “What is mu?” It’s been trans- lated in several unhelpful ways—yes, no, maybe. We are expected to go beyond the obvious translations, and it takes many of us (including me) a year or two or more to get it. It’s infuriating. Once, when I discussed my frustration with Roshi, she said, “For now, just think of mu as a little animal sitting on your shoulder all the time.” I began to imagine it specifically as one of my dwarf hamsters, calmly practicing on my shoulder as I practiced in the zendo. I can’t explain it—because these things cannot be explained—but that was the step that soon led me to present the correct understanding of the koan to my teacher. I saw the similarities among the dog and the hamster and me, and we all came up with that answer together. “Has a hamster got bud- dhanature? Mu!” My hamsters have shown me the fleeting delicacy of life, and that even the tiniest lives have meaning. They have dem- onstrated that sitting still and breathing is life. That might be the greatest koan of all. ♦ Gertrude & Hazel LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 63 PHOTOA.JESSEJIRYUDAVIS