Caoshan asked a student, “Awakening is like the empty sky. It responds to things the way the moon appears in water. How do you explain this responsiveness?” The student said, “It’s like a donkey seeing a well.” “That’s most of it, but not the whole thing.” “What’s it like for you?” asked the student, “It’s like a well seeing a donkey.” said Caoshan.
This koan about the well and the donkey was brought up at our recent retreat during which we explored the peach blossom quality of experience. In a peach blossom experience we meet reality just as it is without any of our overlay. That sounds like a donkey seeing a well to me. There’s a me seeing the well, but without any overlay, the way the empty sky receives whatever passes through it. This is to encounter the sword that takes life and gives life. It cuts through everything conditioning our experience of the world around us. Our life based on that conditioning is taken away and we are given a new life in which we have a choice. It is an accomplishment and takes hard work to cultivate a mind that reflects what comes in front of it like the moon in water, without putting up filters, without putting up projections or ideas. The student’s response is good, as far as it goes.
But, the student’s response leaves out the other side of the coin. To say awakening is like a donkey seeing a well speaks to the way something is still being held onto, the donkey. Caoshan’s response of “A well sees a donkey” takes what’s being held onto away. When you experience, “a donkey sees a well” there is nothing to know. When you experience, “a well sees a donkey” there is no one who knows. No subject, no object, your body and mind are “like the vast sky”. The donkey is the donkey and the well is the well and simultaneously the donkey is the well and the well is the donkey and all the barriers come down. Life is not something to be observed from a corner, so we practice seeing by being seen, being seen by seeing.