In a poem entitled “The Little Duck,” the American philosopher Donald C. Babcock (1886-1986) depicts a duck riding the Atlantic “a hundred feet beyond the surf”:
This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.
He isn’t cold, and he is thinking things over.
There is a big heaving in the Atlantic,
And he is part of it.
He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree,
But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher.
He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.
Closely observing his subject, Babcock notes that the duck “can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.” And though the duck “probably doesn’t know how large the ocean is,” he “realizes it, and he “sits down in it.” He “reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.” 
To compare a sitting duck, however poised, to the Lord Buddha may seem an irreverent stretch, but Babcock’s characterization of the duck’s action—or non-action—as reposing in the immediate accurately describes one form of Zen meditation. Known as shikantaza, or “just sitting,” this practice is central to the Soto Zen tradition and is often regarded as the purest form of Zen meditation. Rather than count breaths, probe a koan, or otherwise engage in concentrative mental activity, the practitioner of shikantaza brings an open, panoramic attention to whatever is occurring in the present moment. Rather than filter experience through concepts and their emotional colorations, he or she rests in a quiet, unmediated awareness.
That may sound easy, and for a wild duck it may be so. But for most people it takes sustained, disciplined, and often difficult training. Toward the end of Doris Dorrie’s film How to Cook Your Life (2007), a documentary about the life and work of chef and Soto Zen priest Edward Espe Brown (b. 1945), Brown speaks of “resting in the immediate,” reciting the lines above. And elsewhere, Brown describes his struggle to put that principle into practice:
I spent years just trying to see if I could breathe. In Buddhism over and over people say follow the breath and I’ve studied what is allowing the breath. You can think you’re allowing the breath and it turns out you’re just having it go the way you tell it to go. And then every so often you notice something about your breath like, “oh, I guess I was creating that after all.” It’s very hard to have experience that’s really actually fresh and new, immediate. But that seems to be extremely powerful, extremely important for waking up in some way rather than just “can I get better at creating the experience I should be having.” 
As this description implies, if we are to rest in the immediate we must first relinquish the urge to control whatever we are experiencing. Like the heaving ocean, our rising and falling breath is at it is. To accept it as it is, we must first become aware of the impulse to make our breath—or any other element of our experience—conform to our expectations. But over time, Brown’s experience suggests, we can learn to put our conditioning and our drive toward attainment into abeyance. Freeing ourselves from what Karen Horney called the “tyranny of the shoulds,” we can rest in the freshness of our immediate experience.
In other words, we can become like Babcock’s little duck, reposing in the immediate. But having learned to do so, can we also repose in “infinity”? Can we, too, become part of the heaving ocean? “He has made himself part of the boundless,” writes Babcock of the little duck, “by easing himself into it just where it touches him.” Babcock’s assertion brings to mind a revered text of the Soto school of Zen, Shih-t’ou His-ch’ien’s Sandokai, whose title is sometimes translated as “The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute.” In this eighth-century poem, Shih-t’ou (b. 700) declares that the relative and absolute dimensions of our experience are not two but one. They fit together like a lid on a box. They meet and unite like two arrows in the air. As Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara explains in her talk on this text, what Shih-t’ou is telling us is that “our human nature does not obstruct our Buddha-nature.”  Although we may not be aware of it, we are at once historical and timeless, human and boundless, ordinary and infinite in nature. And we can touch the absolute, boundless dimension of our nature by becoming truly intimate with our messy, moment-to-moment experience, just as it is.
“The Little Duck” was published in The New Yorker on October 4, 1947. An expansive, free-verse poem in the manner of Robinson Jeffers, it occupies the better part of two facing pages. Babcock’s general themes are impermanence and the opposition of “culture to nature.” Nature takes the form of a fierce coastal storm, which has left widespread detritus and a fifty-ton, overturned rock in its wake. Human culture is epitomized by destroyed cottages “whose porches were over-ambitious, playing host to the ocean.” Within this context, Babcock’s little duck is seen as an imperturbable survivor, whose serene poise co-exists with the destruction all around. Edward Espe Brown recalls that his mother loved “The Little Duck,” which appeared shortly before her early death.
1 – Donald C. Babcock, “The Little Duck,” The New Yorker, October 4, 1947. This poem also appears, slightly revised, in Donald C. Babcock’s collection New England Harvest (Indiana University Press, 1953). The last line of the excerpt above becomes, “He has poise, however, and philosophers can use that.”
2 – Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt, “What Should We Be Tasting Now,” interview with Edward Espe Brown, Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.
3 – Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara,”The Identity of Relative and Absolute,” True Expression: Village Zendo Newsletter, May, 2007.
Photo by OspreyPL