Old Cow

Tesshin Statue - small


Roshi used his talk this week to explore case 60 in the Book of Serenity.  This case is alternatively known as “Iron Grinder” or “Tetsuma, the Cow”  Below is the text …


Ryû Tetsuma came to Isan. 

Isan said, “Old Cow, you have come!” 

Tetsuma said, “Tomorrow there will be a great feast at Mt. Tai. Will you go there, Master?” 

Isan lay down and stretched himself out. 

Tetsuma left immediately.



The first thing Roshi pointed out is that this very brief, but powerful case, is a bit unusual because it is not between two masters, but rather a master and a nun.  Roshi went on to note that although much of Zen literature focuses men, there is a rich thread of accomplished women in our tradition as well.  This is important as women will play an especially active role in Zen in the West.


The case opens up with Tetsuma coming to visit the Zen master.  We are to understand that this is not just a common farm woman, but an accomplished Zen nun.  The master says “Old Cow, you have come!”  Hmmm, “old cow” not exactly the nicest thing to say to someone!  However, as we know, the surface reaction is almost never the right reaction when reading a Zen koan.  What we need to understand is that in this part of the world cows are really important. They were the main form of motive power.  They pulled wagons, drove plows, and did many of the functions that horses did in the West.  So, calling this nun an old cow really means – precious jewel.  


At this point, Tesshin Roshi paused and noted a statue of an Ox (pictured in this article) he gave to his master many years ago.  Like Isan, the invocation of the image of a cow is high praise and Roshi’s master kept this statue on his personal alter until the day he died.


However, in another sense, does it even matter what the master calls the nun?  In Zen we believe that perfection is everywhere.  We do not worry about the role of the master or the role of the nun.  What matters is that there are two people and these two people really understand reality.  The nun asks, “there is a big event at a famous temple, are you going master?”  The master takes a nap.  What does this mean?  In one sense, the master is saying what could possibly be at this big event that would make reality any more “real” than what we have right here and right now.  This is a critical message for us!  There really is nothing special out there.  There is no magic incantation which will be given at the next retreat.  There is no key written in the next book we read.  Nothing profound is going to happen to you in the dokusan room.  Everything we need is right in front of us right now.  The master realized this and simply took a nap.  The nun realized this and simply went home.


Roshi stopped here and painted us the image of every person being a perfect diamond wrapped up in layers and layers of thread.  Imagine our life long conditioning as nothing more than wrapping a long string around and around the perfect diamond.  Our practice is simply stopping this and starting to unwind this thread.  With enough practice, we get the diamond completely unwrapped and shining in the sunlight.  This is what happed in the interaction between Tetsuma and Isan.  They both recognized the perfection in the other.  Thus, there was nothing more to do.


Roshi wrapped up by noting that the point of our practice is to attain a true “state of ease.” This is what Isan’s nap symbolizes.  What does ease really mean?  Most of us look to external things to induce ease.  It could be wine, TV, sports, and a million other things.  However true ease and freedom from suffering comes from within.  Imagine a time when you could be at ease no matter what was going on outside of you.  This is the point of practice.  This is the message Isan was teaching and which Tetsuma understood.