You must be wondering why I am posting about water buffaloes.
The answer is simple. I want to talk to you about the water buffalo because it is important to what I will be discussing.
To understand the water buffalo is to understand the inner workings of the Vietnamese agricultural industry. Allow me to present a few points on this beast of burden.
Water Buffalo Facts:
1. They are smart and can be trusted to do the work– Water buffaloes will live to be 20 or 30 years old, and they are very smart and easily domesticated (if you know how to do it correctly). Once they have been domesticated, it is so easy to take care of them that the work is mostly entrusted to children between the ages of five and ten because it is not hard work.
All the kids have to do is make sure the water buffalo is ‘walked’ to its grazing areas so that it can feed properly, watered thoroughly at its watering hole, and then penned into the barn safely. The children usually ride on the water buffaloes’ backs as they go through their usual daily routine, and this usually occurs in the evenings after the kids have been let out of school.
Once water buffaloes have been taught how to do the work , they will willingly work hard in return for their simple needs, which is grass and water. Very few animals will do this willingly. The water buffalo is one that will consistently do so in a tropical environment where water is two-to-four feet deep.
2. They have affection for those close to them, but are very wary of strangers – Parents put five-year-olds on the backs of water buffaloes with huge dangerous horns because they know that the family water buffalo will protect the child on its backs against any dangers. Approach a strange water buffalo head-on at your own risk. It will, more than likely, gore you.
3. Once entrenched with a pattern, they will adhere to the pattern only and will not deviate – This means that once they learn their route and routine, they can be trusted to do the same routine over, and over, and over, with no (or very little) supervision.
4. They need water – Water buffalo can exist in an environment with little water, but they do not thrive. If an area is lacking in water, they will either dig down to find water or wander off in search of water because they need it to live comfortably.
5. They are tropical creatures and cannot live in cold climates – Water buffalo do not do well in cold temperatures. They cannot handle temperatures between 30 – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why they are found only in the tropics.
6. They have a set of working horns and will not hesitate to use them if they feel threatened – The horns on a water buffalo are real working horns. They are not decorative, which means they will gore if they feel threatened.
Lao Tzu’s Famous Water Buffalo Ride:
Once we understand how the water buffalo thinks and acts, it is simple to deduce the story behind the image of an old man, sitting backwards, on a water buffalo, riding off into the distance. It is a simple image, but it was recorded faithfully, so that at some point in the future, it can be deconstructed and understood for what it represents.
This is my own thoughts on Lao Tzu’s water buffalo ride.
Look over there, on the levee by the rice fields. It is an old man. He has white hair and is dressed in grey traveling clothes. However, as simple as his garments are, he cannot hide the fact that he is of nobility because of the way he carries himself. His back is straight, attesting to the life of the nobleman who has not been bent double from backbreaking labor. His clothes, though simple, are cut of high quality fabrics, not torn, faded, or frayed.
What is he doing? Oh look. He is reading from a scroll. No farmer would have the luxury of such an item, or even know how to read. He travels alone, yet carries no weapons. He is either a fool or he is a high-level martial arts master. Best not mess with him though, because he sure does not look like a fool. Besides, he is one of us. He sits on the buffalo in that careless comfortable manner that shows he is intimately familiar with her. Look there, she is carrying him with gentle affection, picking the gentle sloping areas of the levee to walk on so as not to jostle her passenger too much. They are old friends.
So now that I have painted a picture for you to see, I am going to break that picture down into the parts that are important:
1. Riding Backwards – First of all, the idea of sitting backwards on a water buffalo may be laughable in a country where no one has ever seen a water buffalo before. It is really not a big deal in an area where it is normal to see five-year-old kids napping or doing their school work on the backs of the buffaloes as the animals are grazing.
Furthermore, there is no need to face front. If the water buffalo comes in contact with a stranger, it has horns to defend itself and will do so without qualms as it is wary of strangers. The danger, if any, would come from behind, where the water buffalo’s horns are not pointed towards. The best way to maintain a look out for any possible dangers would be to ride backwards as the buffalo will alert the rider of anything untoward coming from ahead, hence the real reason for Lao Tzu’s backward riding stance.
2. Tolerated Passenger – We ride on the buffalo, not as fearless leaders of dumb animals, but rather, as a tolerated passengers on a rather boring trip, and ONLY if the water buffalo already has a relationship with the rider. They are rather picky about those with whom they will allow to be ridden, and they are wary of strangers. The trip is boring because the water buffalo will not take the passenger anywhere new. It will only take the passenger on its daily routine circuit, the one that it knows very well. To train it to go somewhere new takes a tremendous amount of work as it must be re-trained. This brings up two separate but intertwined points:
Since Lao Tzu was riding on the buffalo, it means two things: a. The buffalo knows him very well. b. He is going to a place that is very familiar, on a route that is very familiar to the buffalo.
3. Lots of water and warm temperatures – Water buffaloes will not simply head out into the desert to the west, as some historical recountings have been known to state, UNLESS they actually live there and this is their daily normal route. However, because of their constant need for water, and lots of it, no farmer would keep water buffalo in the dessert because these animals would die from thirst in a very short time. They also cannot tolerate the cold. They sicken and die rapidly if temperatures go much below 35 degrees Fahrenheit. This is another reason why no farmer will keep water buffalo in desert conditions where temperatures approach freezing just about every night. The idea of Lao Tzu riding a water buffalo into the western desert becomes less and less likely.
All this indicates several key points, the most important of which being: