Skunks & Mirrors

Things are not only what they seem to be.

Mujina Yōkai, Terajima Ryōan (寺島良安, Japanese, 1654), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’d been hanging my laundry on the line when the skunk’s endearing little waddle caught my eye. It was a beautiful night, mild if cold, and frankly poetic. The dark was filled with fat, puffy, white snowflakes that seemed to frolic more than fall. The ground was just as dark, save for the distinctive black-and-white striped skunk making its way over the long stripes of old white snow. I in my Zen-black meditation garb and my cold, fair hands worked the white laundry line, musing about the mirror of it all. Black-white, black-white, sky reflected creatures reflected Earth, all of us together glowing in the night.

I thought of the black-and-white robes of the Zen teacher I was due to meet soon. Those iconic colors of Soto Zen, reflecting the interplay between the absolute and the everyday. I marveled at the scene; for with so many coincidences as this, the Student is called to pay attention. Especially as the topic of study during the month-long Practice Period had been The Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, an ancient verse that points to the way our lives are not segmented and alone. Each detail seems reflective of some other detail, until you realize “not one and not two,” everything is a reflection of everything else. We affect one another as we are each other.

Animals figure heavily in the Jewel Mirror, a precious early Chinese Zen teaching we chant in Zen temples even today. There are nervous horses ready to bolt and herons hiding in the glowing light of the moon. My little skunk friend wended his way into the tale, too, because as I mindlessly rushed to my appointment with the teacher, I ran into him once again– much to his surprise and my misfortune. He’d disappeared and I’d gone out front to throw away the trash, never expecting he’d be there. He gave what I’ll call a little fart of anxiety and ran off, leaving me aghast that I could’ve been so thoughtless. Worse, I had only five minutes to get out of my smelly clothes, shower, and get in front of my computer for my interview with the teacher. Somehow, I did it!

The encounter meant that my nervousness devolved into laughter and presence. The discussion I’d choreographed in my mind evaporated. Instead, the Teacher and I were able to connect in an affirming, generous string of moments that marked a turning point for me. But one thing the she said stood out as I told her about meeting the skunk: “Be glad at least it wasn’t a black badger.” I was confused, because the line she referenced in the Jewel Mirror is rather hopeful. It speaks to the unlikely awakening of grand-minded wealthy folk. Used to much fancier things, they are ironically filled with wonder and awakened by the presence of black badgers and white bulls. These earthy creatures are symbols of luck in Chinese culture; they reflect something at once simple, pure, and full of promise. How could this be a bad thing?

And with a sense of wonder,
You will see black badgers & white bulls.

Chan master Dongshan

I decided to investigate the symbolism of badgers in Japanese folk culture, and came across a reference to mujina, or badgers which are portrayed as yōkai, or shape-shifting tricksters. They aren’t evil spirits, nor are they angels; rather they hold some place in-between. The kanji form 妖怪 offers a sense of wary optimism, translating to “attractive; calamity” and “apparition; mystery; suspicious.” To be sure, these are not the same as the lucky “black badger” of China, and I wondered at how the Japanese monks who inherited Master Dongshan’s work perceived its presence. Then one other tale caught my eye. Kabukiri-kozō is a mujina who appears as a “little monk” who sings and greets humans with generous encouragement to take sips of tea or water. My little skunk came again to mind, as he mirrors monks’ garb, and is always approached with wary optimism.

Like the elites in Dongshan’s verse, I found myself ironically moved by this smelly encounter. It left me hopeful; but my hope was only superficial, as days later I was hit by a new smelly problem. I watched in horror one afternoon as the neighbor’s cat ate a long-dead rodent underneath my freshly-hung laundry. This neighbor has, for the entirety of the time I’ve lived in my home, employed juvenile tactics of sabotage against my laundry. Any idea of coincidence was erased by the higher probability of a deliberate and cruel prank, with a smell that was beyond anything I’d encountered before. And not only the clothes on the line were affected, but everything in the yard, including my door and myself standing within it. In a state of shock, I was suffused by a pungent cloud of odorous death. It would take weeks to calm it.

“Complications are auspicious; do not resist them.” That may be one of the more memorable lines of the Jewel Mirror, and the one that produces the most knowing laughs from the Zen teachers who repeat it. Not long after the gruesome discovery of the neighbor cat’s catch, my own cat became ill and an altogether different smell consumed my home. It was equally awful, if tempered by my compassion for her suffering. My mind returned again and again to that verse. I tried to find some hope within my situation. Surely it was a sign for some deeper learning, each scent representing suffering, sickness, and death? Whatever the lesson, though, their shared cacophony was lingering and all-consuming. I could not slough the stench.

Complications are auspicious; do not resist them.

Chan master Dongshan

Then suddenly, stench of all stenches, there is war. I read a visceral account of the front line in Ukraine. How intense must be the smell of sickness, violence, and death. How lasting! I look to my bottle of Pine-Sol; there is no cleanser for Ukraine that can remove the stench that they withstand, day in and day out, 25 days by this writing. And that these are neighbors, friends, beloveds? A skunk, a dead rodent, a cat’s illness, as awful as it’s been, now I find I am dealing with nothing. Yet there is a glint, a reflection of understanding and compassion. Stories wrapped in stories, the mirrors of suffering spur my compassion. Knowing the shock of cruelty one human can inflict on another is stunning, as it stuns. There is an exhaustion borne of tending to the urgent ramifications of another’s unconscionable choice. And there is a hollow, lonely feeling that comes in the isolation of it all, as one human hurts another, whether one receives it or finds they can do nothing about it.

Over many days, my reflection on mujina and the auspiciousness of black badgers took some very dark turns. The grand Jewel Mirror had devolved into my simple bathroom vanity, speckled with white dots of toothpaste and spittle. Each point blurred, and I felt lost in their formlessness. Certainly I was exhausted, after all of my laundering and scrubbing, wrapped in the tendrils of memories of sexual abuse, spousal abuse, and mad neighbors, punctuated by grief for the war. But as I stared past my own reflection, the sudden sound of squeaking disturbed my bleak reverie. The squeak became more urgent, and then became a scream. Out the window, I saw my dear little skunk wrapped in a ball of black. Was it fighting off the neighbor’s cat? My rage at the neighbor renewed, I ran down the stairs and tore open the back door.

It took a moment for me to realize what I’d done. And once I’d quickly shut the door to the overwhelming odor of full-on skunk spray– which is what this sweet animal is best known for when under attack, duh— I lost myself in peals of laughter. Standing there, covered in the stench of fear, hate, and illness combined with the tincture of my laughter, the moment became medicine. I finally understood: “not resisting complications” cannot be accomplished by seeking the meaning of complications. The laughter was magical because in that moment, I was able to drop every effort. I allowed myself to be completely in the situation, in every layer of that smelly onion of a moment, without judgement.

There are some things we cannot know. I cannot know what really drives my neighbor to do what he does against me. I cannot know If there is meaning to the dreadful war that is happening across the ocean. And I must remember to be patient with the darker memories that linger still in my body. Sometimes, the suffering of self and other is too dense for understanding. Sometimes nothing more can be done but to go about tending to the work of what we can do. I smell a remnant of dead-animal smell; I stop, realizing, “Here is death.” I feel everything: grief, overwhelm, helplessness. And at last I bow to the mirror of myriad things, and just keep scrubbing.

One response to “Skunks & Mirrors”

  1. Beautiful writing…


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