"A woman raised a goose in a bottle. When the goose had grown, she wanted to get it out without harming the goose, or breaking the bottle. How do you get the goose out of the bottle?"
Koans are reflections of our lives as they are. Here we have a predicament of yearning to be free and yet find ourselves within impossible constraints. Sound familiar?
In this life as it is, we find ourselves as a bottled goose in a limiting career, with a certain physical malady, or in an apartment with upstairs neighbors fighting every night and sometimes through the day. Even the dang weather manifests this koan - it's intensely cold today. How do I get out without harming myself or the cold?
Yes, the more we look for bottled geese in our life, the more we find them.
In koan work, we put others in our shoes - in this case, the goose, the bottle, and the woman. The juicy details help provide context and allow us to enter the situation fully. So the goose is the self in all the myriad aspects of our lives, always presenting as a particular thing.
In the "Goose In a Bottle" koan, we might notice that the container is transparent. How have you been such a clear container? I think of parenting, for example, where we are a context and a trellis for the child's life. We may aspire to be a clear container, knowing, of course, that there is always some tint in the glass. The job of containing, even when done with our clearest, best intentions, doesn't always turn out so well.
And so we continue to practice.
In any case, the time will come when it's time for the goose to get out of the bottle. How can we fully respect the container AND facilitate the goose's going? Zazen too, and all the methods of our Zen Way, is like the goose, the glass container, and the woman.
Clearly, the boundary between the woman and the container is blurry. She raised the goose in the bottle (perhaps to keep the goose extra safe and warm or perhaps to control the sweet thing) and now must watch the goose struggle inside, cheering for them to get free, praying that they won't be hurt, and that the integrity of the container will not be compromised.
A long-time Zen student came to this koan at a key time in her life. She had been in a difficult teacher-student relationship with a very tight container. At first, practicing under those conditions had been a profound source of inspiration for her practice. But over the years, when she had grown as a practitioner, the container became asphyxiating, as if the bottle had a cork in it.
Sincere koan introspection seems to invite this kind of synchronicity. And this koan became intensely personal for her. She had clear understanding into the psychological aspect of the relationship dynamics with her teacher, and yet that understanding wasn't enough. The resolution could only come through action. How could she get out without harming herself or the container?
And after some diligent practice, she did it. She resolved the koan and the relationship simultaneously.
Moments like this one - when the world turns and the resolution to the koan comes clear - are moments of mysterious compassion. Kannon Bodhisattva pays us a visit, drops their usual name and form, enters us, and turns in accord with the circumstances as they are.
This Zen student saw and embodied how to get the goose out of the bottle. And then saw how the goose, the bottle, and the woman had a way of reconstituting in more and more subtle ways.
Fortunately, once we've found the way to freedom, it's just a matter of practice.