A Native American Koan

By Terry Plotkin

Nearly 40 year ago I went to Washington D.C. for the final leg of The Longest Walk. This was a Native-American sponsored event. They had walked cross-country to the nation’s capitol to make a statement of their rights, build their movement, and ask for a redress of their grievances. Some hippies, with whom I had picked apples in Western Mass. were going, and they invited me to join. We arrived at the staging area for the last mile before their destination of the National Mall and the organizers had us line up as follows: Those who walked the whole trip would go first (this included several Buddhists who drummed the whole journey), then native people who had joined along the walk. That all made sense to me. People of color went behind them, and last came the white people. I was upset that the white people walked behind the black and brown people. I thought that since we all arrived at the end and were there to be supportive, we should all walk together and not segregate by race. I was making my argument to my friends who were unfazed by this set-up and joined at the back of the line, but I resisted.


Just then, at the moment of impasse, an older Native-American man with long gray hair tied back in a braid, appeared out of nowhere.  I had no idea what he was doing there since the native people were all at the front of the line by that point.  I didn’t have time to get nervous. Truth be told, I didn’t even feel like I belonged there. I had made the journey almost as an afterthought and anyway I had other business to attend to there. So when this dignified looking man took the time to speak with me I felt honored, albeit undeservedly so.  Nonetheless, I was struggling to find my way in my life, and when someone like him approached me, I gave it my full attention seeking, as I was, truth and direction.  He looked straight at me and said: “I am going to tell you a story. There is a valley.” He paused a moment and spanned the horizon with his arm, fingers spread.  “In that valley there is a tree.” Another pause. “That is all there is.” With that pronouncement, he walked away to his section of the line. I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with my issue of the segregated line or anything else for that matter. I stayed mad. I had no idea what he was talking about.


His “story” stayed with me all these years precisely because I didn’t get it. Yet the man seemed to me to have stature. If the same words had come from a stoned friend, of whom I had many back then, I wouldn’t have paid it any mind and would have forgotten it along with so many other things that were uttered. So it was a surprise when I was recently cross-country skiing in my favorite nearby woods, when the memory of the Native–American man and his simple story suddenly came back to me. It was a beautiful winter late-afternoon day. The hills were purple in the setting sun, the ground white, the bare trees varying shades of gray, save for the evergreens, and the gentlest snow was falling. Absolutely beautiful. But I was not enjoying it that much. I was in a foul mood, thinking about how people were always so busy and harried that they did not have time for each other or for nature. The reason the story of the tree in the valley being all there is popped into my brain at that moment was, just like 40 years ago, I was wasting a potentially sacred moment on intellectual ponderings of things I didn’t approve of. I finally understood what he was trying to convey.   My bad mood suddenly gone, I saw the woods in a fresh light, happy to be in it skiing.  I looked around me and composed a story: There is a snow-covered trail and a rock outcropping just ahead covered in gray ice. That is all there is.

4 Responses to “A Native American Koan”

  1. Nice! And that is all I have to say.

  2. very nice

  3. Like it.

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