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Ruminations on Zen's Cows  

Part 12: The Corrida

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
Page 1 of 2

The bullfight as we know it today is a stylized affair to be sure; yet, in its essence, it must surely conform to the contestís ancient mode. It is a Light versus Dark ritual and as such is traditionally held at significant solar occasions such as equinox and solstice. Even today, just as hunting and fishing have their seasons, so, too, the bullfight season usually commences at a date fixed by Easter, itself determined by the vernal equinox.

Light is associated with sun so it should come as no surprise that the matador, Lightís representative, wears brilliantly decorated garments known as a "suit of lights." Before the advent of spangles and gold sequins, bird feathers had to do the job.

Providing that the person who volunteers to represent Lightís interests by subduing the raging, albeit delicious, Bull of Darkness does not bungle the work or otherwise denigrate the honor, he or she will, of course, assume heroic stature. It constitutes nothing in the way of epiphany to see a matador hide from the bull while trying to convince his picador to accept a contract on its life or, failing to get anyone else to murder the animal, to try to assassinate it, himself. If the matador shows a modicum of bravery, heíll be accorded a heroís reception, if not in the arena then in the local pubs where the heady wine of stardom is more inebriating than that stuff of veritas. In the pub, in the presence of the matador, everybody tends to forget the flaws and exaggerates the competent parts of the performance.

The Corrida begins, as it no doubt always has, as a festive occasion.

A crowd gathers while a brass band plays and a presiding official takes his seat up in the stands. Hucksters sell beer and snacks and there is the usual merriment as people look around to greet their friends.

A half dozen wild bulls to whom a man on foot is a novel sight wait in darkened pens. They are angry and confused and would like to be anywhere but where they are.

Gates open and three matadors brightly dressed in their Suit of Lights, parade into the arena, their respective teams of banderilleros and picadors following, all marching to the blaring beat of a paso doble. The pageantry is formal but curiously tawdry and, because of this, not entirely pleasant to watch. It seems the stuff of kewpie dolls and tinsel and gaudy carnival costumes.

The crowd cheers, drinks, and munches away on nachos, peanuts, mangoes or spiced cucumbers, while murmuring a prayer that the supplier of bulls hasnít cheated on the quality. The arena is cleared and somebody holds up a sign advertising the name and weight of the bull that will momentarily charge through the toril gate.

Then everything changes. The gate opens and the bull, his head held high, charges violently into the arena, making a furious circuit of the field and slamming his horns into anything that strikes his sun-dazzled eyes as killable. Splinters fly as the matadors and a few subordinates, holding magenta capes, come forward and provoke his charge. The contest has begun. In twenty minutes it will be over. Not a single pair of eyes in the entire stadium is looking anywhere but at the ferocious bull. He charges the cape behind which a taunting human stands. And then, at the last moment, the human steps aside and the bull harmlessly passes, his face slapping silk.

The matador who is slated to kill the bull watches closely. Like criminals that have a modus operandi, bulls have a killing style, too. As one man may be right handed and another left, bulls also favor the right or left horn. Since the bull will closely pass the matador from both directions, his tendency to hook with one or the other horn is a problem of some concern.

A trumpet sounds, other gates open, and the burly picadors enter on their blindfolded and heavily padded horses. The crowd hisses its displeasure. Nobody likes the picador. The bull especially dislikes him. With truly awesome power he attacks often with enough force to lift and toss both horse and rider to the ground.

The picadorís lance must both neutralize the bullís horn preference and also lower the bullís head by injuring its enormous neck muscle. If the bullís head isnít in a lowered position he canít be killed in the required manner. Perhaps in antiquity this head-lowering was not essential since at the moment the matador successfully dominated or controlled the bull a team of lancers would no doubt have moved in to dispatch him. But if this was, in fact, the practice, only vestiges of a ritualized team-killing remain in the actions of the next combatants, the banderilleros who place the gaily decorated barbed sticks into the bullís hide.

Ancient cave painting of wounded bull and weapons - from Pindal, Northern Spain.

All this is preliminary, the necessary foreplay of the great creative act, the faena.

Hatless (and the only person allowed to be hatless on the sand), the matador now comes out alone, the embodiment of light, sky, sun, Yang, Logos - but not good and not male - and the bull, the embodiment of dark, moon, Yin, Eros - but not bad and not female - meet alone on the sand. Fred and Ginger have a date. And what a dance they do.

Garci-Sanchezí photo of Matador Miguel del Pino executing a "manoletina," a pass created by Manolete in which the matador holds the cloth behind himself and gives the bull the choice of charging either the dark cloth or his own suit of light. Such complete control gives the matador or his fellow "hunters" the opportunity to lance the animal with impunity. Photo reproduced from American matador Barnaby Conradís La Fiesta Brava.

As in any pas de deux, one must lead... and light will lead the dark. But they are a pair, not a couple of competing solo performers. Two are going to become One, to harmonize their movements in a stunning display of grace.

But think of the contest for a moment. Think of Christina Sanchez, for example, weighing in at around 120 pounds or less, unarmed but for a piece of woolen cloth and a couple of thin wooden sticks, striding into the arena to confront a furious 1200 pound wounded wild animal with two 15 inch lethal horns. And she calls him to come and dance with her. He snorts at her impudence, he heaves his chest, his diaphragm pumping; and in crazed fury, he charges at her intending to gore and batter her into a bloody pulp.

Another beautiful and famous female matador, Concita Cintron elegantly dominating the bull. From Barnaby Conrad's Encyclopedia of Bullfighting.

And statuesque, she stands there and with merely a flick of her wrist, guides him past her. Again, he turns, and staring in disbelief, charges again.. and again. Then she leads him in a circular movement, into turning around her, his nose in the cloth, following the graceful arc of her arm. Again and again. Around and around. The Spinning Maiden and the Ox. It is transcendentally beautiful.

The crowd is transformed. It isnít just the bravery. Only someone who has ever confronted a wild animal can fully appreciate the bravery. Most spectators have seen enough gorings, enough "blood on the sand" or "death in the afternoon" to marvel at the matadorís courage; but only Zen masters and test pilots can fully appreciate the intensity of the matadorís concentration. He is in the Zone. With danger and concentration as givens, the excitement consists in the significance and beauty of the dance. A male or female Terpsichore has made a raging bull waltz. And the subdued beast has consented to execute the steps perfectly. The two partners, oblivious to the onlookers, have become One in absolutely exquisite passion. It is really quite astonishing, this loving embrace, this flowing ecstasy of union. And as in any tryst, the erotic excitement is intensified and enhanced by the danger.

The crowd does not take sides, providing, of course, that both partners are equal to the task.. Again, this is a duet, not a couple of competing solo performers. If a matador is cowardly and does not lead his partner properly - if, for example, he does not "hold him close", he is booed badly... the crowd is not shy. If the bull is cowardly and will not dance but tries to run away... he is booed, and sometimes the crowd insists that he be removed and another bull brought in. This actually happens more often than you think.

For ten minutes the faena continues. Back and forth... from left side and right. And when man and beast achieve unity and the "sympathyí between them is so radiant that the people in the stands can actually feel it, the point of no return is suddenly reached. The bullís earthly time has run out. Thereís a schedule to keep.

This moment is not discretionary but it ought to be. It ought to be the decision of the matador to determine when to end the dance, when to say that there has been sufficient foreplay for the climax; but the time constraints of buses, restaurant reservations and a total of six bulls on the afternoonís carte, remove the matador from the decision making process. He quietly exchanges his wooden sword for a steel one.

Usually, enough has been enough. As the "moment of truth" approaches, a quality bull is extremely dangerous. He may never have seen a human being on foot before, but he has learned quickly the ways of two-legged creatures. At this moment he wants to gore flesh not serge. So, one way or the other, the dance has ended and there is nothing left but death. Either the bull will kill or the man will kill the bull... or they will kill each other. Liebestod.

It had better be a good kill. The sword must plunge down between the shoulder blades and sever the aorta - not a terribly large target. Wherever bulls are killed, in secular or sacred circumstances, there is always a prescribed method. In artworks, Mithras slew with a sword to the throat. In Crete, bulls were ceremonially hobbled, bound and bled to death while a flute player gently teased out an ode as the bull succumbed. Today, in abattoirs theyíre electrocuted or hit over the head with sledge hammers. But in the Corrida, the bull must be killed instantaneously by severing his aorta. To whatever degree this is not accomplished, disgrace accrues.

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Part 13
Last modified: July 11, 2004
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