Wednesday, August 08, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (2 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. This is the second of three installments.]

The practice routine during a Zen retreat is pretty straightforward. Up at 4:00 AM; chanting for thirty minutes; sitting meditation for thirty minutes; walking meditation for fifteen minutes; sitting meditation for thirty minutes; breakfast, clean–up, showers and personal hygiene; then hours of sitting and walking meditation. Twice each day, once during the morning and again in the afternoon, there is the opportunity for sanzen, personal dialogue with Roshi.

Sanzen always comes during kinhen, walking meditation. That way you can gracefully exit the sitting room and make your way to the roshi's sanzen room. In this particular retreat a line of chairs were assembled outside the sanzen room. Moving up the row, chair by chair, was a highly ritualized process. As the person sitting in the forward most chair left to enter Roshi's room, the rest of us would stand, bow, and advance one chair.

Upon entering the san–zen room there was more elaborate bowing. You bowed from the waist, then get down on your knees, and then fall on your face, lifting your hands, palms up, off the floor three times. Then you stand, move forward a bit, and repeat the process. It took three complete bowing cycles to reach Roshi. Done right you ended up sitting on your knees directly in front of him. Your knees only inches from his own.

We practiced before hand so that if we chose to see Roshi in san–zen we would not insult him or centuries of tradition by bowing incorrectly. This was not the Zen I had read about in Alan Watts. His Zen was far looser, spontaneous, and iconoclastic. I expected to go in their, flash a big smile, give Roshi a hug, and share with him some of my deeper thoughts on the meaning of life. But tradition was tradition, and I didn't mind. In fact it seemed to make the whole procedure more powerful for me.

Most likely this is because I didn't grow up with it. As a Jew I know from tradition. Once my sister's boy friend joined the family for dinner. My mother made brisket. The boy friend, thinking we had forgotten to supply the obvious beverage, got up from the table and brought a carton of milk out from the refrigerator. Sensing immediately that he was about to violate the law about strict separation of meat and milk, we all started shouting at him, waving our hands furiously, as if to warn him of an on–coming car about to crush him against the wall.

But that was Jewish tradition. Narishkeit. Silliness. After all what does it matter if you have a glass of milk with a piece of brisket? Did Moses know from brisket? Jewish law is tedious, tiresome, and basically beside the point. That is why we have Reform Judaism to knock some sense into the tradition.

But Zen was another matter. Screw up the bowing and get tossed out on your ear? No problem. After all it was tradition. And there is no such thing as Reform Zen.
So I didn't mind the tradition or the routine of Zen. The only thing I did mind was having to see Roshi one on one.

The man was intimidating. Short, round, and fierce. I have a photograph of him; it looks like the 8 x 10 black and white photo country western stars send to their fans. In the photograph Roshi has his hands tucked into his belt and he is laughing. At least I think he is laughing. He could be about to spit fire.

Time after time I would make my way into sanzen hoping to impress Roshi with my Zen knowledge. I mean he was talking with a kid who was working on a 4.O GPA, at least when it came to courses on religion. How hard could this koan business be?
"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

It really is quite simple: God is here. God is everywhere. Didn't Roshi get that?
Now Zen folks don't talk a lot about God. Roshi was doing this for my sake. He knew I was Jewish. He knew I was considering going into the rabbinate. So, being a master of upaya, skillfully teaching Truth from the illusions at hand, Roshi spoke to me of God. Or, better, asked me where the Hell He was when the farschtunkenah stick hit the goddamned floor.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

I tried Haiku, that ought to impress him: Stick in hand. Stick on floor. Sunlight slips through slatted blinds.

"More zazen."

I tried Nargarjuna's fourfold negation of reality: There is a stick. There is no stick. There is neither stick nor no stick. There is, I couldn't remember what came next.

"More zazen."

I must have visited the guy a dozen times and couldn't figure out what the hell he was looking for. At last, I gave up.

While sanzen is mandatory in many sesshin, Roshi made concessions to us and made it voluntary. I did not have to see him if I did not want to see him. And I certainly did not want to see him. But then it hit me! I was telling him where God was. I had to show him. OK. One more time.

Kinhen, walking meditation. Hands clasped to our chests, eyes aimed downward, gaze resting lightly a step ahead. One foot raised, another placed. The next foot raised, the other placed. Fully conscious of each movement of my body, I moved at a snails pace around the room. No point, no destination, the journey is all. Boring.

Then the bell announcing sanzen. All right! Now I'm ready.

I bowed myself out of the room and took a seat in line to see Roshi. I rehearsed what I would do. Do, not say. There was nothing to say. Zen is the transmission from mind to mind beyond words and scriptures. I had read that someplace. It was my Jewish head so trapped in words that was causing me all these problems. This time, though, I'd nail it— no words.

Here was my plan. Thus far I had focused my answers on the universality of God when the stick hit the floor. But this time I would show Roshi that the stick itself was irrelevant. God was, is and will be whether the stick hits the floor or not. How would I demonstrate this deep insight? By grabbing that little stick and ripping the sucker out of the old man's hand, that's how. My stick. My God. My answer. My God, I'm brilliant!
Roshi rings in the next person. I am in the on deck circle. I calculate the precise distance between Roshi and the door. I figure out just how far I need to step and pace my bowing so that I end up in comfortable reach of the stick with enough leverage to wrench it out of his hands. Roshi is small, plump, and old. I've got height and youth on my side. And the element of surprise. I mean no one would ever have tried this before. Roshi rings me in.
Bow, stand, step. Bow, stand, step. One more time: bow, stand, step. Bow, kneel, and wait for that unsuspecting little stick.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Hits, hits the floor. I am a stickler for grammar, but it doesn't matter— here comes the stick. I lunge for the wood, wrap my fingers around it, and yank. Roshi's grip is to be broken, I'm to sit back triumphant with stick in hand calling out to the amazed and humbled Zen Man: No stick, no sound, just God! As I dance my way between the goal posts to pick up my Super Bowl Enlightenment Ring. At least that is what was supposed to happen.

Short, round Zen masters are often stronger than they look. I did managed to grab the stick, but Roshi did not let go. Instead he grasped my wrist and flipped me over his shoulder. I let him keep the stick; I was too busy tumbling onto the floor behind him.
"More zazen," he said as I bowed and left.

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