Thursday, August 09, 2007

First Koan, Last Koan (3 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 third and final installment.]

That's it! No more sanzen for me. How embarrassing; the old guy tossed me around like I was a sack of flour. My butt hurt; my ego was bruised; and I was through with Roshis and Zen forever.

Except I couldn't leave. No one left sesshin. So what? All I had to do was put in my time on the cushions, take a couple of slow laps around the zendo and wait the whole thing out. So what that I can't get enlightened. It isn't as if it will go on my permanent record.
I returned to zazen with simple annoyance. I sat there and nursed my shame until I could turn it into anger at Roshi. And why stop there? It wasn't his fault Zen was stupid. Bodhidharma brought it to China from India, and from there it made its way to Japan and from Japan to Massachusetts. Why not blame Bodhidharma? I mean here is a guy who cut off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep during zazen. Is this a role model?

After awhile I stopped fuming. I was bored. I just sat there. Hours passed. I knew I was getting drowsy but wanted to avoid drawing the attention of the guy with the keisaku. There is a name for the guy, but I can't remember it. I could look it up, but telling you this story has rekindled my annoyance at the whole thing and I don't feel like getting up and looking for the right book. Look it up yourself if you want to know.

A keisaku is a long thin wooden slat used to slap the fatty part of your back around your shoulders. The slap wakes you up. It hurts like hell. Three quick strikes to each side of the body. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Then you turn a bit and expose the other side: Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Then you bow in gratitude. The stinging relaxes the knotted muscles and facilitates wakefulness. It works, but I would rather avoid it.

During the next round of kinhen, walking meditation, Roshi rings the bell signaling sanzen. Just in case I forgot, my mind starts yelling at me: We are not going in there! No way in hell are we going to submit ourselves to the embarrassment of trying to answer that stupid koan. Where is God when the stick hits— HITS— the floor. Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not I.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

Roshi was right in front of me, sitting on his cushions, tapping his stick on the floor. I have no idea how I got there. Without any sense of volition or self consciousness, I must have walked out of the meditation hall, bowed correctly to take my place in the sanzen line, moved up chair by chair, and performed the intricate bowing the now plopped me face to face with Sasaki Roshi. One mistake in the ritual and I would have been sent back to the meditation hall. No mistakes, save one: what was I doing back in sanzen.

"Where is God when stick hit floor?"

I don't know exactly what happened next. I can only reconstruct my actions based on where I found myself afterward. It seems that at the instant Roshi's mahogany stick touched the well polished wood floor of the sanzen room I straightened out my elbows, made a club of my hands, and flung myself on the floor next to roshi, screaming at the top of my lungs: God is here!

I suspect this because when I regained self-consciousness I was lying next to Roshi, my body stretched as long as it would stretch, my hands clasped, my throat raw, and my ears still ringing with the scream "God is here".

I scrambled to my knees, retook my place across for Roshi and waited for be banished from his presence forever. The old man was laughing hysterically. I'd like to believe he was laughing with me, except I wasn't laughing. I was embarrassed, red faced, and on the verge of tears. Roshi thought that was funny as well.

"Goodah ahnsa," Roshi laughed. "Goodah ahnsa! Seventy five percent. Now, more zazen." Roshi rang the bell, I bowed myself out, walked back to the zendo and took my place on my cushion.

Seventy five percent! That’s it? A “C”? I haven’t gotten a “C” since Freshman German. I wonder what it would take to get a “B” out of this guy?

I never found out. Despite additional sesshin with both Roshi and others, when it comes to enlightenment, I am average. It is the best I have ever done.

• • •

As fierce and formal as he can be during sesshien, Sasaki Roshi can be just as relaxed and jovial after it is over. I watch enthralled as one after another of my fellow zen students hugged Roshi and thanked him for the sesshein. I wanted to do the same. After all, I had not gotten enlightened, but I didn't flunk out either.
I waited for an opening, and slipped in close to hug Roshi and say good–bye. I should have known better. Once I got within reach, Sasaki Roshi shot out a hand, pinched my butt hard and said square into my face: "Roshi or Rabbi— choose now!"

I hate that. Not the pinching, though that hurt, but the choosing. Roshi had commented on the size of bottom earlier in the sesshein. He was using my rear end as model as to how to sit, or rather how not to sit, on the meditation cushions. One time he lovingly (I guess) made a comment on the fact that my bottom covered so much of the cushion that it was hard for him to use me as a visual aid. Now he was telling me that, as wide as my tuchus is, it is not wide enough to sit in both the zendo and the shul. I would have to decide where to park my butt if I was to get anywhere with my religious training.

He was right. I had been waffling back and forth for months. Not rabbi/roshi, I had no illusion about become a Zen Master, but davvenen or zazen, Jewish prayer or Buddhist meditation. The way of mitzvot/holy deeds or the way of metta acts of compassion. I was drawn to both. Yet there was something powerful in each that kept me from committing wholeheartedly to either.

Three things drew me to Zen: its simplicity, its practicality, and its nondual understanding of reality. Sit and see that Buddha was right. At the time I had not come across the equivalent Jewish teaching "Taste and See that God is good" (Psalm www). To me Judaism was very complicated and legalistic. You lived as if you knew what was going on, you were never expected to figure it out for yourself. At least that is how Judaism had been presented to me as a child.

Nondualism was a tremendous draw. The idea is that all the opposites are actually polarities. Rather than viewing the world as black or white, sacred or profane, Zen (and Buddhism in general) said it was black and white, sacred and profane, and that you could not have one without the other. Further, you could discover that since each needed the other, neither was real in and of itself. And, if you got that down, you could step beyond the whole system and live in harmony with everything as a manifestation of sunya, the emptiness that is the essence of reality.

This made so much sense to me. Not that I understood all its ramifications on a philosophical level, but that on a very deep gut level I knew this nondual understanding was true and that the dualistic world view of conventional Judaism was wrong.

Conventional Judaism teaches that God and nature are separate. God fashioned nature the way a potter makes a pot. The world is an artifact of God. While the pot cannot help but reflect some of the genius of its maker, it is in no way to be identified with its maker.

This made no sense to me at all. I knew I wasn't an artifact. I sensed an overwhelming unity with God. Not a simple connection, but a deep oneness. My rabbi thought I was delusional. To me the delusion was that we could be anything but at one with God.

Of course Buddhism doesn't use the word God, and rarely gets caught up in these kinds of theological wrangling, but I was not yet a Buddhist, and could not let go my God–centered feelings or vocabulary.

Three things drew me to Judaism as well. First, my family. Judaism is nothing if not family. My family, on both sides, has Jewish roots going back to Abraham and Sarah. The thought of severing that tie was hard to think.

Second, I loved the language of Judaism: both the God-talk and the holy days. While my understanding was limited, I could not escape the intuition that there was something very powerful and transformative being taught and practiced here. How could I let it go if I did not even know what I was holding?

Third, I respected the humanism of Jewish teaching. Here was a religion for householders, parents, and families. Judaism had thousands of year’s experience trying to help people be holy even as they earned a living and made mortgage payments. The mitzvot between people: learning to practice generosity, healing speech, and kindness— these things tugged mightily at me.

I had thought I could integrate the two. That was my hope and my goal. And here was Sasaki Roshi, my ass in his hand, telling me to choose.

I looked Roshi in the eye and smiled. "I am going to be a rabbi," I said, with a conviction that comes from somewhere other than my conscious mind. "Thank you, Roshi, for showing me that."

Roshi smiled, pinched my tuchus even harder and hissed: "Good. Be Zen rabbi!"


Paul said...

I loved this story. Thank you for sharing it.

You should put Storyteller back on your business card.

How did it end up in

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Judaism, Buddhism, Dharma, how could Truth ever be separate except in our rational minds?

Blessings and again thanks for the laughs.