One of our Boundless Way Zen miscellaneous koans says: "Go straight on a narrow mountain road with 99 curves." When we take up this koan, it seems impossible. How can we reconcile going straight when the road doesn't cooperate? How can we lead a life from our compassion, balance and wisdom, when we are endlessly confronted with curves and barriers?
The koan reminds me of a long walk that I took over 40 years ago, when I was doing ethnomusicology fieldwork in Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, 12,000 feet up in the Andes mountains. I was studying the local music of the Aymara Indians, which, to my surprise, wasn't the romantic flute music I had heard on Paul Simon's song "El Condor Pasa." It was seriously out of tune brass band music, learned by the musicians during their required stint in the Peruvian military. I spent weeks interviewing musicians who played in these bands.
One morning, at the convent where I was staying, I heard a brass band marching by my window. I grabbed my portable Sony cassette recorder and ran out to follow the band, as they led a wedding party down the dirt road. We danced and walked on the narrow mountain roads, which curved around and about, and all the time I was holding out my microphone to record the music. And then, suddenly, we came to the end of the road, and everyone, the band, the couple, all of their guests got on small reed boats and floated away on the lake.
I waved good-bye to them, and turned around to walk back to the convent. But I was completely lost -- we had been walking for hours according to my watch, but we had taken many twists and turns. I didn't know how to get home. So I only had one choice. I started to walk back down the road that had ended at the lake. I had many adventures that day, wandering around on the Capachica Peninsula, hungry, thirsty and exhausted from the altitude. But I kept meeting people, who pointed the way back, now to the left, now to the right. And in one small village, an old man gave me my first and only taste of coca, chased by strong, clear alcohol, which helped me finally get back to the convent, where lunch was just being served.
How do we get home when we're lost? How do we survive when we have no resources left? How do we walk straight on a narrow mountain road with 99 curves? Here's one answer, from the Peruvian Indians of La Merced.