The Right Stuff
A preliminary and somewhat whimsical sketch for a more serious investigation into the mystical connection between Spanish bullfighting and the Ox-herding pictures of Zen.
It is twenty thousand years ago, give or take a few millennia.
I, as you might expect, am decrepit in everything but spirit; but you, you are young and virile, keen witted and of course handsome. I am of little use and seldom noticed, but everyone needs and admires you. Your arms are strong. You have all your teeth, and you are very tall - at least five feet.
You and I and our extended families are gathering berries in a sunlit meadow in Basque country, northeast Spain. It's a beautiful place. On one side, the land slopes down and dips into the Ebro River; and on the other, it rises to a high and grassy crest.
Some four dozen of us are laughing and singing and stuffing our mouths with fruit. The scene is deceptively peaceful, for while we're undoubtedly happy to be eating, we are anything but calm. Danger is all around us - below, above, and worst of all, laterally. Venomous snakes are everywhere. Whoever steps on one can plan his funeral. Birds of prey circle overhead. A toddler who wanders even a few yards from his mother's reach will prompt a sudden whistling dive and find himself airborne in the clutches of unyielding talons.
But these perils are as nothing compared to the one that reposes on the other side of the hill. For there, in a vale that seems as peaceful as ours, graze a herd of bison, a peculiar kind of bison, bos taurus iberius our descendants will call them, toros bravos, the meanest, most xenophobic beasts God ever made. No, these are not ordinary bison, the docile kind that can be stampeded over cliffs or singly cut-out of a herd for a quick kill. These are huge, ferocious animals that do not hesitate to attack mammoths and tigers and refuse to tolerate the intrusion of strangers, not man nor beast nor even their own kind.
How we have studied this toro bravo, this wild bull! We know him intimately. To us he is endlessly fascinating - as unreasoning as rage, as compelling as lust. And what a size he is! If we had a scale and were able to get him on it, he'd weigh more than half a ton, the equal of a dozen of our adult human males.
But it isn't his heft that is so menacing. It's those terrible weapons of his - those curved, pointed horns, a foot and a half long - that jut out from either side of his massive head. These he uses as battering rams, goring his flesh and blood victim repeatedly and with somewhat more verve than he'd require to break down an oaken door. Sometimes when he is in one of his lighter moods, he uses his horns as bats to strike his victim, sending its mangled body flying through untenable space. Or, he may use his weapons as impaling lances, though he seems never to consider skewering sufficient. With a jerk of his head he'll fling his catch skyward and when it descends he'll prong it again or let it bounce off his buttressed forehead, hurtling it skyward for another toss. When he tires of the game, he lets the luckless creature come to earth, whereupon he tramples and gores it into an unrecognizable pulp.
We don't know why he is so murderous. He's a vegetarian and doesn't like the taste of blood. His cows, too, are wretchedly ill-tempered. Even the best of them are quite uncommon scolds.
We should like to avoid him entirely, but he is nomadic, and possibly because we furnish him with so much amusement, he always seems to make himself our neighbor. It is hard to stay one step ahead of a wild bull. On the other hand, his meat, despite his meanness, is surprisingly tender and sweet.
A bos taurus iberius steak is gourmet fare; though we usually pay dearly to have it on the carte du jour. When he is close enough to be within spear range, he will likely charge; and what he charges, he will kill. Fortunately, he often attacks rogue males of his own species. Then, providing he quickly moves his herd to another pasture and that we beat the vultures and hyenas to the carcass, we can dine without having to bury somebody first.
Alas! Sometimes there is no one left to dine. He has massacred whole families, including cousins. Run down and gored them all.
But let's get back to that sunny day in the meadow, that day when we were berry picking.
From his lookout point at the crest of a hill one of our kinsmen stands guard, watching this herd of bison that is grazing in the next valley. He's positioned there to give us warning time to flee should the toros bravos decide to move to our side of the hill.
You've had your fill of fruit and are eager to spell the lookout. My belly is full, too, so I tag along. I like to watch you watch the bulls. You study them as if they were a riddle, one that has a solution that you are condemned to find. The riddle has nagged you to obsession. You seem convinced that your fate as well as ours somehow depends upon your discovering the answer.
Our kinsman is happy to see us approach. He's hungry and anxious to join the others before all the good berries are picked. He stops to admire your new goatskin shirt. It is long and particularly well tailored. I know for I made it myself. He knows this and by complimenting you he compliments us both. He's a good sentry.
We sit beneath an oak tree and watch the temporarily placid herd. "If only they weren't so unpredictable, so moody," I say. You agree, but a look of concern comes into your face. "They're spreading out," you note ominously.
This is our greatest fear, for these animals have a peculiarly high regard for family values and familial solidarity and are really only nonaggressive when they are surrounded by close relatives. For as long as they can see each other clearly, they content themselves with eating. We view it as decidedly unfortunate that their eyesight is not good and that, since they require rather large amounts of fodder to sustain their bulk, they tend to spread out when searching for it. For the moment one of these bison realizes that he has been separated from his fellows a fearsome panic, an insane paranoia, seizes him and he looks around for someone to hold responsible for his cruel rejection. Any moving object is culpable and as such becomes a target for castigation. Perhaps, running at full ramming speed and crashing his head into flesh and bone has a tranquilizing effect upon him.
The wind suddenly shifts and you detect the stench of a rotting corpse. Several hyenas detect it too and materialize from somewhere behind us. We can hear them cackle as they warily slink towards the fallen animal. "Is it a man?" I ask, dreading the possibility that we have finally located old Grandfather Louis whom we haven't seen in several days.
You climb a nearby oak tree for a better look. "No," you say definitively, "it's a boar. A young one, I'd say."
The boar lies between one bull and the rest of the herd. There is no more precarious position in the world than one which is situated between a bull and the rest of his family; yet we know that the hyenas, foolhardy in hunger and unable to resist the delicious odor, will take the unconscionable risk. As they begin to tear at the boar's flesh, they disturb the lone bull. He looks around seeking the comfort and support of his family and, finding himself in such terrible isolation, he panics. Clearly the hyenas are to blame for his miserable ostracism. Instantly he lowers his head and charges, and then, with astonishing grace, he runs down the hyenas, striking them, smashing them like so many shuttlecocks into oblivion's net. Despite the empathy we feel, we cannot help but note that the death wail of a hyena has a certain melodic charm.
As usual, we are awestruck by the performance. For all his might, how agile is this bull! How he gambols and cavorts! How he capers, spins and leaps! And with what lethal choreography does he display his repertoire of gaits. He paces, trots and gallops. And he is so incredibly fast! When he puts his head down and charges, no racing horse can overtake him - not for the first hundred feet or so.
While none of the hyenas survives to admire this magnificent display of athletic skill, we, from our safe distance, can applaud his antics. Our appreciation of his talent is not without reservation, however. It is tainted by the disquieting suspicion that we, more animated and varied in our challenges than other animals, are the favored balls, pucks, loops and discs of his sport.
You sigh deeply at the sight. And then suddenly a strange and mysterious look crosses your face. You stare at the horizon and the glint of an idea appears in your eye. "He'll charge anything that moves," you whisper. And you meaningfully repeat, "Anything."
As if your whisper has trumpeted him to combat, the bull bellows to his herd, and they, already disturbed, quickly yield to his demand. He has had enough of this bloody valley and its corpses. The grass will doubtless be greener on the other side of the hill. Our side.
And so, on this fateful day, as I turn and run to warn our families, you stand there, silent and tall, thinking and planning. Then you lay your spear down and begin to remove your long goatskin shirt. Holding its collar in your teeth, you extend the sleeves and grasp the fringe that rides the length of the seams. You shake the garment as if testing it for a trial yet to come, and then you pick up your spear and slowly, with measured stride, descend the hill. We scatter like monkeys, shrieking in terror.
Some of our people, seeking the Ebro's safety, have launched dugout canoes and are paddling furiously into the current. Others are running along the water's edge. Some, I among them, have decided upon the least satisfactory of refuges. We have climbed the few trees that stand in the meadow. The trees are like islands upon which we may find ourselves marooned should the bulls decide to stay in the area. But we can see you clearly through the branches.
I call to you, begging you to climb up out of harm's way, but you merely raise your arm and with a glance signal me to silence.
The bull sire has ambled down the hill. Only a hundred yards or so separate the two of you. With your back to the river, you lay your spear against a rock and wait. He comes closer. I whine and bite my knuckles, nearly fainting from fear.
Suddenly you shout "Toro!" and hold your shirt in front of you, shaking it vigorously. "Toro!"
The bull hears you and sees you. He is incredulous. Who dares to tantalize him this way? For a terrible moment he cannot believe such impudence. Quizzically he looks around. What snarling, foolish animal is this who mocks him, who shouts his name and does this mincing little dance?
Such arrogance cannot be tolerated! He lowers his head and charges.
From the safety of our perch we stifle our screams. But you, naked and alone, fury's unprotected target, simply stand there shouting, "Here! Toro! Aqui!" Horrified, we can barely watch the inevitable head-on collision. But then, in a fraction of the second before the horns would strike you, you step to the side, rotating a quarter turn, and arch your body, letting your outstretched arms hold the shirt in its original position. And Mirabile Dictu! The bull collides with only the shirt! His great bulk passes harmlessly beneath your extended arms! We cannot believe it! But you, you are jubilant! This is precisely what you had expected! Only we and the bull are incredulous.
He looks around. Was this too easy? Where is his victim? It is not on the ground. It is not screaming. Suddenly he sees it, upright, dancing its mocking little jig. The bull is bewildered. The shirt lives! He has struck it with his mighty horns and still it lives!
The bull bellows, lowers his head and charges. This time, he vows, the shirt will die!
When the dust settles before our uncomprehending eyes, we see you standing there, lithe and fearless, fierce and supple, shaking your goatskin shirt and taunting our old tormenter. Again you have harmlessly passed the bull, the ferocious Implacable One, and again he has pulled up, turned, and now confronts you. He is chagrined. Once more he has been insulted. He had intended to crush, to rend, to gore... but instead of this fine result, he has had his majestic face slapped by a puny goatskin enemy! How could this have happened? He snorts and paws the dirt. Then he regains his dignity and lowers his head.
"Come!" you shout as he advances. Again, at the moment before he would strike you, you step sideways and arch your body and let him hurl himself against the flapping shirt. He is prepared for a momentous collision, but he strikes merely a hollow garment, and this absence of meaningful mass disturbs his balance and his trajectory. His knees nearly buckle under him. He rears up, violently rampant, to regain his poise. As his front hooves flail pointlessly, you smile in grim triumph. You knew this would happen. This is what you planned.
You return to your original stance, hold your shirt in front of you and jiggle it to tease him as you call, "Toro! Here!"
Panting, snorting, totally confused and outraged, the bull turns and squares off, his eyes pronouncing a death sentence for his well-stitched adversary. This time the shirt will meet its maker! I read its mind and gasp.
The bull lowers his head and charges, but he collides only with flapping leather. Again, he has passed harmlessly beneath your arms.
Many of our kinsmen who ran and paddled away have begun to return. Curiosity has overtaken their fear. They too have been surprised by the events. They too sense that something marvelous is occurring. They need to see what wonderful thing it is that you are doing.
The bull bellows like a storm god and lows like soughing pines. He is distraught. He stands foolish and immobile in frustration, his great diaphragm pumping, his head bobbing, his whole body seeming to convulse in sobs. He cannot tolerate confusion; but he will not admit defeat. Again, he lowers his head and lunges towards you. You await him, standing as steady as an oak. Again you pass the bull beneath your arms.
The bull stops, halted by perplexity. He turns and stares hopelessly at his fashionable foe. You tantalize him with it. "Here!" you call, shaking it. "Here!" Something terrible has manifested in you. You are angrier than the bull. "Here!" you shout defiantly. And again he accepts the challenge, lowers his head and charges. And again, at the last possible moment, just as we are sure we will faint from fear for you, you step aside and the bull collides merely with the indomitable shirt.
Again and again he charges, expecting always to receive the caress of splintered bone and tangled guts but receiving only a slap in the face. All his efforts at destruction have failed him. He is confused and quite out of breath. Why does this shirt not crumble into a writhing heap? He needs to think. He needs to understand. Is P=mv no longer true? Why was there not a greater impact? Time. He must have a little time to sort out these unforeseen results!
You give him time. You turn your back to him and walk towards your spear, calling to us in the tree. We understand. We are not brutes. Three of our strongest kinsmen, armed with sharp flint-tipped spears and bone daggers, drop from the tree and at your signal, join you in hurling spears against the bull's laboring belly. His herd deserts him as his bellows subside into whimpers of death.
You stand over him, the sweat of victory seeping from your pores, your expression exultant! You have mastered him. He who has so long tormented us... him, have you conquered! You! naked, bronzed and glistening in the sun, your miraculous shirt, this haute couture vestment, draped casually over your left shoulder. What a figure you cut! Oh, Lord of Light! Oh! Hero for all times. When shall there come a day that the sun will shine upon your equal? Never. Of this we are certain.
No one can contain his joy. All of us leap and dance and shout, weeping at the poignant beauty of it all. What a victory is this! We cannot believe it. In our long and chequered history of triumph and tragedy, nothing like this has ever happened.
Already we have lit a fire. Already we prepare to butcher the animal. But unexpectedly, your mood grows dark. The occasion demands a certain gravity. Perhaps we have not grasped the full significance of this event! Our approbation has been too airy, and you wish to give it proper ballast, to infuse it with more substantive meaning.
Slowly, with dignified cadence, you approach the dead beast and place your foot in the cradle of his horns. "That's one small step for man," you intone, "one giant leap for mankind." We look at each other quizzically, wondering what exactly you mean by that... when suddenly a kinsman mercifully shouts, "From the sky a great bird of light has come to us. Yes! An Eagle has landed here. All can be tranquil now!" And this we seem to understand so we commence shouting, Tor-e-a-dor! We are very close to France, after all.
We roast the unusually fresh meat and eat till bursting. Yet, something is missing. Even a banquet such as this demands a proper closure. "Ah," says a kinsman, "if only we had some fragrant liqueur to top off the meal." We all sigh in agreement.
A strange and mysterious look comes over your face. You stare at the horizon and the glint of an idea appears in your eye.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts