joshu’s stray dog

This happened when I was living in Rochester, New York about fifteen years ago. My future wife and I were sharing a third-floor (and probably illegal and fire-trapped) attic apartment on a street intellectually named Harvard. I had recently purchased a used, half-rusted, lime-green bicycle at a yard sale and was using it as my primary means of transportation to and from one of my many part-time jobs around the city. One crisp early fall morning, as I was riding down Oxford Street (Cambridge Street was nearby, in case you were wondering) on the way to my shift at a funky used book store next to an independent movie theater (that served incredibly good coffee and Neapolitan pizza, strangely), a very old, very shaggy, very slow dog began to ambulate across my way. This rough beast was moving so slow I should have had time to stop or at least swerve. Sometimes people say things like “It happened so fast, I couldn’t get out of the way, etc.” but in my case things happened so incredibly slowly that my disbelief paralyzed me.  Was I really going to hit a dog with my bike? Or more specifically, was a dog really going to hit me with my bike? Neither happened, because I braked and flipped over my handlebars, landing on my right elbow. Just before this happened, he looked at me. (I’m sure the dog was a he. I can still see his eyes. Sleepy. Judging.) My arm went numb almost immediately, but like the desperate wage slave that I was at the time (illegal apartments that mock building code don’t come cheap), I got back on my bike, now slightly bent in an unfixable way, and made it to the shop. All throughout my shift, as I drank excellent coffee and downed a few slices of warm, bready pizza, my elbow began to swell to the approximate size of a grapefruit.  After work, I drove to the emergency room. They drained some particularly disgusting fluid from my joint, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home. A few days later, I was good as new. Why am I telling you this? That slow, mangy dog taught me a lesson. A simple lesson, but one that I needed to learn. That dog taught me to always wear a helmet. A helmet I wasn’t wearing that day. A helmet whose absence could have caused real paralysis or even death had I landed just a few feet north of my elbow. That dog also taught me a lesson about lessons. That we learn life’s most important lessons when we least expect them. And that these lessons are usually taught by unbelievable (as in, not to be believed) teachers. Like the woman I wrote about five years ago who learned the dharma from a rusty pipe, I learned the dharma of bike helmets from a stray dog. One of the towering figures of Zen Buddhism, eighth century Chinese master (and father of the modern Zen word-puzzle, or koan), Joshu, was once asked if a dog had Buddha-nature.  He responded, almost angrily “Mu!” which has been translated as “No!” throughout the centuries. And yet, the Buddha himself said that all things are imbued with Buddha-nature. How then did Joshu have the temerity to contradict the Buddha? Who is right? That answer to that riddle, the entry gate to the Zen life, is still up for grabs. To this eternally unanswerable question, Master Joshu answered no. But on that day, the listless yellow mutt that crossed my path had Buddha-nature, and as I slow-motion catapulted over my handlebars, he looked up at me like he knew it.

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