Tuesday, August 07, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (1 of 3)

[My Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, turned 100 years old this past April. I sat with him when he would travel from his center on Mt. Baldy, outside of Los Angeles to Smith College where I was studying Buddhism under Professor Taitetsu Unnu. I am sharing this with you in honor of Roshi’s birthday. He doesn’t remember me, but I will never forget him.]

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"
"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

The question was repeated over and over. The questioner was Sasaki Roshi, my Zen Master. I was sitting across from him, our knees almost touching, his eyes staring intensely into my own.

Unfortunately, I wasn't listening.

This was the second day of a sesshin, a Zen meditation retreat, and my first opportunity to experience sanzen, a one on one meeting with the roshi. The purpose of sanzen is to work on a koan, a Zen puzzle designed to break down your discriminating mind and open you to the profound simplicity of ordinary reality. After an elaborate ritual of bowing, standing, walking, and bowing again, the student makes his way to the master, ending up sitting on his knees directly across from the roshi. In this intimate setting the roshi challenges the student to answer the koan the roshi had assigned the student. I knew all this as I prepared to meet with roshi. What I didn't know was that roshi spoke English.
All my previous encounters with Sasaki Roshi had been through a translator. Roshi lectured in Japanese and the translator relayed his words in English. I assumed that was because Roshi spoke no English. So, as I sat across from him in sanzen I had no expectation of actually speaking with the man.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Roshi simply sat in front of me, his right hand tapping a gnarled piece of mahogany on the hard wood floor exposed between us. His lips moved, sounds emerged, but I heard no question.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

My mind wandered. I had signed up for this retreat because I was a Zen–o–phile. I loved everything zen. I had begun to read about Zen a few years before, and could not get enough of it. I had read every book by Suzuki, Blyth, and Watts that I could find. I purchased a set of brown zen meditation cushions and sat zazen everyday. All I cared about was enlightenment. While my friends were experimenting with drugs, I was inhaling the dharma. While my dad kept encouraging me to date the Cohen girl down the street, all I wanted to do was spend my evenings with the koan.

This sesshin was going to be great. A real Zen Master, authentic Japanese chanting of Zen texts, long periods of sitting, little sleep, simple vegan meals. Man, this was the fast track to enlightenment. The Buddha pulled it off in eight days sitting under a tree; no way I couldn't do this in a zendo (zen center) with hot and cold running water.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

What was this guy mumbling about? He must know I don't speak Japanese. With the exception of the translator, Tai Unno, my Buddhist Studies professor from Smith College who arranged this retreat, none of us speak Japanese. So why bother talking at me?
My knees were getting a bit stiff supporting my weight on the hard wood floor. Nice floor. Well-polished, real smooth. The light shining in from the window to my right played in lovely patterns around my knees. This was cool. Sitting across from a Zen Roshi. Right out of one of my books for class. "What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your original face before you were born? Does a dog have Buddha nature?

Where is God when stick hits floor?"

Oh my God! Roshi spoke English! In fact he had been speaking English the whole time. His Japanese accent was so thick that I didn't recognize it. I must look like a fool. How many times had he been asking me this question? He's giving me a koan for God’s sake, and I’m ignoring him. Ignoring the Zen Master!

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

"Uh. God is here?"

For a second I thought Roshi was going to nod, say the Japanese equivalent of "good boy" and give me a gold zen sticker for pulling my rear end of out the fire. Instead, he slapped my forehead lightly with his palm as if to say: "Mesheguna! Have you learned nothing from all I've taught you? From you I get no nachas." Or that is what he would have said if he had been my rabbi, who found me equally as dense and inattentive.
The second passed. Roshi scowled, picked up a brass bell— the kind I imagine schoolteachers rang to start and end class decades ago— and rang me out of his room. "More zazen!"


Unknown said...

does the ear go to the sound or does the sound go to the ear?

absolutely thrilled to read of your encounter with the "venerable old teacher".

Anonymous said...

Cool entry, enjoyed reading. Thanks.