Mr. Wilson, my eighth grade history teacher, was a compact and intense red-faced man. Charlie Birkner was a clownish classmate with enormous glasses and a mild pleasant grin; he sat just to the right of me. Mr. Wilson could swing quickly from a puzzling joke about the Jefferson administration to a furious rage at the antics of some classroom slacker. Charlie Birkner could make amazingly realistic Star Wars light-saber noises with his mouth and he enjoyed playing his pencil as though it were a saxophone.
One day Mr. Wilson, in an expansive mood, said to us “A Chinese wise man and his student were standing on a bridge over a mountain stream. Look how quickly the water moves, said the student. No, look how still the bridge is, replied the wise man. If you can understand that, you’ll have learned something about life.”
The room went completely silent. Mystified, each of us tried to penetrate the message of the story. Mr. Wilson just grinned wickedly. His head twitched slightly. The silence persisted. Finally, as though he had just caught hold of a knock-knock joke that had eluded him for years, Charlie Birkner called out:
“Oh, I get it!”
I always wondered what that story meant, but Charlie Birkner never told me.
Newt remained curled up in the chair. He held out his painty hands as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. “No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…”
Chiyono studied Zen for many years under Bukko of Engaku. Still, she could not attain the fruits of
meditation. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old wooden pail girded with bamboo. The bamboo broke, and the bottom fell out of the pail. At that moment, she was set free. Chiyono said:
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle
“No more water in the pail, no more moon in the water.”
Gyomay M. Kubose, Zen Koans