It is Life Filling a Sieve with Water

The Koan:

A teacher said, “It’s like filling a sieve with water.” The student thought about this for some time, but didn’t understand. The teacher took a sieve and they went to the sea. The student poured water into the sieve and it poured out again. “How do you do it?” she asked. The teacher threw the sieve out into the ocean, where it floated for a moment and then sank. Koans show us ourselves, our plans and schemes, the machinations of coping, of getting ahead, or looking for something that we believe will make us whole or complete -- our dissatisfactions with life as we see ourselves separate from life -- and finally they bring us home.

Like a compass, koans point north, to heart’s true home, AND they lay out the journey: there are deep valleys to traverse, high mountains to climb. We will meet others along the way, have dreams, see visions. Finally having crossed valleys, and climbed hills, we find we never left home.

“How is it?” a student asked. The teacher said, “It is like filling a sieve with water.”

The Desire to Hold

Often I look at my life as a collection of experiences. I have a pot. In that pot is a stew.

  • a touch of childhood fear: my bedroom in the basement, the monsters beneath the bed

  • a dash of expectation: when I find a partner, I will belong

  • a bunch of spiritual experience: seeking, finding, trying to grasp intimations of eternity

  • a peck of understanding: bringing the light of mindfulness to my experience, I will be able to put it together in a sensible way and I can find myself in the knowing.

I want to hold and know and understand. I am encouraged in this. The western tradition in its 21st Century incarnation invites me “to know who I am.” So, put it all together, steep things a bit, allow the flavors to blend, and I get a David.

Add to this my desire to hold on, to be somebody solid. This is the way of having a container, thi is the way of the pot.

The very desire to know myself holds eternity The very thing I spend a lifetime seeking is held in this desire. In another koan, the great Yunmen has a dialogue with a student, “Master, I am reaching for the light. Help me! Yunmen responds, “Forget the light, show me the reaching.” The reaching, the desire itself is part of It, holds a bit of eternity. So, the teacher in this koan says, “It is like filling a sieve with water.” Not a pot, a sieve.

Life Flows On

And of course, this runs exactly counter to my expectations. Glimpses into, if you will forgive me, Reality, are of the sieve, not the pot. They move through, they beckon...they frustrate. The sieve glistens with moisture, yet holds nothing. I find that nothing is delivered, nothing achieved, there is nothing to hold. Like the old hymn, “My life flows on in endless song,” it flows, passes through. In my noble desire, I search. Cup after cup is poured into the sieve. Sometimes it seems that I am getting close, only to find the water running out yet again. So, the koan goes, “The student poured water into the sieve and it poured out again.” Pouring in, it pours out. In and out. In and out.

Isn’t it good we have one another? The student has her teacher, her reaching becomes this big question, a question for herself that she asks the teacher, “How do you do it?” The teacher takes the sieve takes a deep breath and heaves it into the sea. It floats there a bit, and then settles to the bottom. This life? It is like filling a sieve with water.

In Sufi poetry and literature there is the image of the fish. In Shirazi’s fable, “Tale of the Fish,”( we have the same the same dilema. The fish are wondering, counseling with one another, discussing the great Majesty, Water. They seek Water as a God on the outside, finally traveling to visit a fish of great wisdom, to their question he responds,

“Ah, fish! If you could bring to me from all existence one thing, and one thing alone that is not Water, then I might reveal to you the Essence which you seek. But mark this well, that there is naught but He! This endless ocean which surrounds us, that is He, and so are we.

Of course, water is life. What is not of this life? What is not included? The teacher throws the sieve into the water -- our lives are part of, not apart from the seamlessness. Our journeys lead us to the Wise Old Fish, “if you could bring to me one thing that is not water, I might be able to show you the Essence." But we are not separate like that. Yet, you can still show me Life itself. How do you do it?






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