There is no intensely crisp, high-level, capital “E” Enlightenment in a bar, but there can be love — great love, because all love is great.*
*Notes from a "confession" at St. Andrews, 11/11/11
There is no intensely crisp, high-level, capital “E” Enlightenment in a bar, but there can be love — great love, because all love is great.*
*Notes from a "confession" at St. Andrews, 11/11/11
I’ve been following threads lately, deeper into the labyrinth. Googling one of my favorite lines ever — “And I said let grief be a falling leaf” — from the Van Morrison song “Raglan Road”, I learned that the lyrics were originally a poem by Patrick Kavanagh. I immediately surfed over to SPL’s site and ordered his collected works, published in 1963. Once it arrived, I began reading selections randomly. Then I knuckled down and polished off all 21 pages of his early magnum opus, “The Great Hunger” which Kavanagh cannily disavows in the volume’s introduction as a “kinetic vulgarity… not fully born.” Truth be told, it stands as an eye-peelingly, soul-splittingly stark masterpiece.
Being obscure, and growing obscurer, allows an artist a wonderful freedom: a privilege I like to think I share with Kavanagh. Of course such freedom can exact a nasty price if one is not careful. My cultural cousin wasted a good portion of his forties crawling into bottles and sucking down smokes. After losing a lung to cancer, he finally sobered up somewhat, and began again versifying in beautiful earnest.
I have my friends, my public and they are waiting
For me to come again as their one and only bard
With a new statement that will repay all their waitment
While I was hitting the bottle hard.
It was in that later period that he wrote the following, which felt just like Marley’s ghost shaking chains at me when I first read it.
Having confessed he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
Lie at the heart of emotion, time
Has its own work to do. We must not anticipate
Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts. We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.
We must not touch the immortal material
We must not daydream to-morrow’s judgement—
God must be allowed to surprise us.
We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer
By this anticipation. Let us lie down again
Deep in anonymous humility and God
May find us worthy material for His hand.
Note the shifts in point of view from third person singular to second person ambiguous to first person plural. A glancing critic might attribute this creep to sloppiness, and I won’t argue that it is conscious in any calculated way. What I will posit is that it is a profound tracing of the progressive Catholic perspective: he -> you-> we.
Savor the apparently willful ambivalence of certain lines “God cannot catch us…”. Would it be a good or bad thing if he did?
“We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.”
This line captures perfectly and emphatically the junction of belief and practice where I made my own transfer from happy Catholicism to diligent Zen. And just because I served divorce papers on my Irish faith doesn’t mean I don’t still sit down for coffee or something stronger with it every now and again.
“God must be allowed to surprise us.”
God as dramatist; we as audience, willingly suspending our disbelief. Sure, if you are clever, you might get ahead of God, but why try? Stay in the moment. There are things here for you to apprehend that you are still not looking/listening/being deeply enough to experience. The world is riddled with Easter eggs hidden in the damnedest places.
“We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer
By this anticipation.”
The poet chooses his styling carefully here, “Lucifer” instead of “Satan”. Ours is not the already fallen angel’s sin of malevolence, but rather the still righteous pride of the Son of the Morning, the First in Heaven. This is not the pride of “I am better than ______” but that which says, “I understand” when in fact we do not.
This last sentence sounds a lot like a classic ending to a homily given by any conservative pastor of any parish you could name. And perhaps that’s the point. Kavanagh’s opened this poem’s bid by rejecting the Church’s holy sacrament of Penance. Additionally, anyone who knows enough to read Kavanagh probably already has some sense of his long-standing struggle with Roman Catholicism and all the damage it has done to his country and culture. So he does not feel the need to leave us with anything but the truth, even if that should overlay neatly onto some pious platitude. He’s already asked you to dig deeper, think harder, “go down on knees”. If you cannot or will not do so, he’ll give you the truth anyway, for whatever it's worth to you.
American appreciation of Irish poets is a lot like our relationship to leprechauns. We folksify the original darkling threat until it is fit for nothing but cartoon greeting cards. (Of course, we have done similarly to our own great writers. Witness the humiliating post-mortem neutering of the delightfully nasty atheist/pacifist/animal rights activist Mark Twain.) Clever American literati love to love James Joyce above all other Irish poets because he’s nifty and Continental. Ain’t nothing nifty about Kavanagh. Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound expatriated, while Kavanagh, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams stayed put. And that, as faux folksy Robert Frost liked to say, “… made all the difference.”
Tags: Buddhism, Catholicism, Ezra Pound, Having Confessed, Irish Catholic, Irish Catholicism, Irish poetry, Irish poets, James Joyce, Lucifer, Mark Twain, On Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Mullin, Raglan Road, Robert Frost, Satan, The Great Hunger, Van Morrison, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Zen
One very powerful way to court luck is to consider with some specificity just how lucky you already are. As I continue to do just that, here’s another early essay, from my days as a stay-at-home dad when our first son was still just a baby and this country was gearing up for our ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
* * *
The Zen Master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store, lived near him. Suddenly without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master, "Is that so?" was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth—that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and the father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"
— from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
It is the koan-like nature of even the simplest—especially the simplest—zen stories to keep haunting you until you crack them or, perhaps more accurately, until they crack you.
I was a teenager when I first came across this story, quoted in my sister’s college textbook Religions of the World (a book that so fascinated me that I've kept it to this day.) What struck me most back then is this bizarrely unflappable "Zen Master" and how he simply takes a baby into his care based on accusations he knows to be false. One can only imagine he is completely unprepared for parenthood (something any teenage boy can sympathize with); and the fact that he greets the challenge without seeming to blink an eye was truly astounding to me then, and now. It definitely fanned the flames of my interest in Zen. These guys, it seemed, could face anything, at a moment's notice.
Now, 15 years later, having practiced Zen for twelve years and having been a dad for one, and a stay-at-home Dad for half of that time, what strikes me as most astounding isn't the first part of the story, Hakuin taking the baby into his care, but the second: Hakuin willingly giving up the child when these frighteningly fickle grandparents came round to retrieve the kid. To me, this utterly unfathomable. No way could I do it: not with my own baby boy, not with any child with whom I had spent the first year of life. You become so invested, so attached—indeed, so in love—with a baby that it is hard to be away from them for more than a couple of days.
But here’s Hakuin, a year later, doing what must be the right thing, again merely on the word of some not-so-likeable people. What's the lesson here? I'm not completely sure. I'm still learning it. I think it has to do with the profound choices we're inevitably faced with, often spur of the moment, and how it is incumbent on us to stay as even-keeled as we can when facing them.
By all commonly accepted standards, Hakuin has every right to react with moral outrage, both at the initial accusation, and again when the family came round later to collect the baby like so much forgotten baggage. So why doesn't he? Well, the easy answer is: he's a Zen Master. Such fellows don't truck much with moral outrage. But I think the question is worth a little more digging than that.
In the West, not really knowing any better, we tend to equate "Zen Master" with "wizard" or "ascended being", or perhaps more pejoratively, "empty shell", or even worse, as a fundamentalist family member of mine once called anyone claiming to be Buddhist: "amoral idol worshipper". But what if, when you've stripped away the ritualistic trimmings specific to Zen practice, all "Zen Master" really means is "complete human being"? Then Hakuin's actions make a perfect sort of sense. He saw the truth in front of him—a child that needed care—and he cared for the child. Then later, when he saw a family who recognized their error and wanted to become whole again, he gave the kid up. I cannot think that, just because Hakuin was a Zen Master, he felt no pain at parting with the child. I infer that his practice allowed him the equanimity to face the pain with courage and without adding more suffering to the world through outrage.
The world is suffering right now, arguably more so than usual. Many of us on the Left are perhaps rightfully outraged at the ignorance, self-righteousness and high-handed hypocritical moralism that has brought us to this pass. Maybe we should ask ourselves, though, how far our outrage will get us in solving the problem. I seek counseling from a man who is the abbot of a Zen temple, and may some day achieve the official rank of "Roshi" or "Master" in the Rinzai Dharma lineage. (Hakuin is an extremely important reformist link in this patriarchy.) When I expressed to him my anger and frustration over the current political situation, he told me the best thing I could do for the political future is bring my son up well. Talk about long-term solutions to short-term problems!
So those are some of my thoughts on Hakuin and his baby. I feel like there's more to say, but... I have to go take care of my boy. He's turning one in a week. And you can call me a hypocrite, but I thank the lord I ain't no Zen Master, and ain't nobody taking him away from me.
* * *
My son turns 10! at the end of May. Being his dad is easily one of the top three things I have ever done in my life. That will never change nor can anyone ever take that away from me. In that, I have it over on even Hakuin.
I understand that my current hunt for luck has a facetiousness about it, like a billionaire arguing that he’s not as rich as everyone thinks he is. I’m the Mitt Romney of being blessed. I have so much I don’t even know how much I have. Like Hakuin, I’ll take it, knowing that in a year, or at any moment, it can be taken back. True luck doesn’t rest in the having, but the being. And being cannot be done anywhere but here or any when but now.
Luck is a sympathetic magic, to be coaxed with metaphor and token. So I have decided to troll for a streak of it by posting a run of early essays that I wrote for Everything2, a quasi-prophetic mash-up of Face Book and Wikipedia, if the former only allowed text and the latter had a sense of humor.
The following essay was written in 2003 during the build up to invasion of Iraq.
* * *
It's got to be the oldest Zen joke in the West . . .
There's a barbecue at the Zen Buddhist Temple, and the Zen Master's working the grill. A young monk reverently approaches. The Roshi looks up, smiles and says, "Wanna hotdog?"
The monk replies: "Please, Master, make me one with everything."
Besides being pretty darned cute, this joke, I've always suspected, has something deeper to say about Western attitudes, toward Zen in specific, Eastern thought more broadly, and most generally of all, our poorly perceived relationship to each other and the universe at large.
I've been a practicing Buddhist for twelve years now (ironically enough, ever since around the time of the last war brought to you by the Bush family.) For most of that time, I've kept my mouth shut about my practice, for a couple of simple reasons. First and foremost, it's just considered bad Zen form to prattle on about it. "Him who'll tell ya, don't know. Him who knows, won't tell ya" (my hillbilly stab at Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching). Secondly, upon hearing that I'm a Buddhist, most people tend to react to the novelty of it, rather than the substance. "That's wild!". . . "That's crazy!". . . "Only you, Paul!". . . "We'll see how long that lasts!" Since Buddhism is decidedly not a religion of conversion, I see little up side in telling people I follow it. But in these darkening days of terror and hatred and waste, I've begun to feel that it's incumbent on me to pipe up about a practice that has helped me face these things; and while it may not be everyone's cup of tea, it may just offer some unique and rarely considered perspectives on our world and our place in it.
So what's the problem with “make me one with everything?” In a nutshell: you can't make someone, even yourself "one", any more than you can make yourself obey the law of gravity. You are one with everything, whether you like it or not, and that oneness necessitates inevitabilities and responsibilities that all of us as human beings ignore at our peril and the greater suffering of everyone.
For instance, some examples of the inevitabilities: you will die, I will die, everyone who will ever read this will die. Death is inevitable. Pretty simple stuff so far, right?
Here's another inevitability, directly related to the first: you will suffer, I will suffer, everyone who reads this will suffer (though hopefully not because they read this).
And another: what you do, and don't do, reverberates throughout existence. You can't avoid this through hiding. You can't wall off your section of existence and hope that all the awful and inevitable things happening on the other side won't creep across. They will. Why? Because any wall you build is an illusion. Why? Because you are one with everything, whether you asked for it or not, whether you like it or not.
So that brings us to our responsibilities. And these are not Buddhist responsibilities, per se. Remember, one doesn't become one with everything because one is a Buddhist; you just are, and because you just are, and because as part of the unique blessing/curse of being a sentient human being, you know you are, you have to acknowledge that your responsibility is to everyone and everything.
Americans love being heroes. We're shocked when we hear that most of the world doesn't see us that way. "Don't these ungrateful bastards realize we saved their asses in WWII?" (I've said these very words myself on many beer-sodden occasions.) But from the one with everything perspective, storming Normandy and all the rest of it was less heroic than the Hollywood media machine would have us fool ourselves into believing. We saved ourselves by storming those beaches, just as much as anyone. And while there's nothing ignoble about self-preservation, it's not necessary to lord it over a bunch of people who happen to live in Europe, and who lost a lot more lives than we did.
Americans are very comfortable being powerful, because we are so convinced that we are right. And much of the time we are. Alas, the universe responds with an profound "So what?" For just as you can't make someone "one with everything", you cannot coerce someone to be free, and you cannot force someone to give up force. You can only force them to force you to use more force. The Buddha recognized such recursively misguided action as a trap. He compared it to trying to still the ripples of a pond by patting them down with your hand. (In the case of our recent actions in Iraq, I'd compare it to smacking an oar down on the water. These violent ripples we're currently creating won't go away in our lifetime.)
Regarding these actions, many Americans throw up their hands and say, "Better them than us." But the point is: there is no "them", only us. Some of our glibber war advocates say "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." I just wonder if enough thought and pause was given to the question, "Do we really need the omelet? Aren't our geopolitical love handles big enough?"
From the Buddhist perspective, every bullet fired, is fired at your own head, or, if you find it more terrifying, your own child's head. The upside of this is that every kind act—every bow, every smile—is an action done for—a bow made to—a smile smiled for—everyone. In our actions in the world, it is our responsibility to ask ourselves, very simply: are we adding to its suffering, or healing it? Every day we must ask the question, and every day, change the answer based on what the day gives us and what we give in return (though of course, we are the day, and it us.)
This is the Buddhist practice in a nutshell.
Call me crazy.
I decided at the beginning of this year to focus a little bit more than usual on luck: to court it a bit, if that makes sense. Luck is one of those wonderful inventions that cannot really exist— not in any empirical way— but that nevertheless human beings can still learn a lot by considering. For instance, I spent a lot of last week constructing an essay I felt compelled to write defending my chosen art form from prevarications that would weaken it. Contrary to what some assumed, it brought me no joy to make my arguments. It felt like duty. But then, as luck would have it, someone I did not know read that essay and reached out with an email to thank me for it. We became Facebook friends and I noticed that this person had a professional relationship with one of my favorite places on earth, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I flashed on a long forgotten essay I wrote nearly nine years ago for an on-line gathering site for weirdoes and writers and weirdo writers called Everything2.
I repost it here as a burnt offering to luck.
I don't believe in God.
I pretty much don't believe in God.
Okay... here's the deal:
I believe in God. . .
. . . but only in one place: the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Apparently, the universe is constructed in such a manner that the omnipotent, omniscient—though obviously not omni-present— deity known for the most part in these parts as "God", only exists-- as far as I can tell-- when I exist within the walls of this largest Gothic cathedral in the world.
I can vouch for this phenomenon going back to late 1999 when I first stepped inside the church, its cool echoing darkness enveloping me immediately. I was living up on the edge of Harlem at the time, and began going often. I'd walk in past the periodic light shafting down from the stained glass, sit on one of the chairs (the nave has no permanent pews) and strike up an ongoing conversation on hold since my earnest Catholic childhood.
Hello Old Man. It's me.
These were not supplications, but rather heartfelt chats between one very good old friend and another. I didn't have to genuflect or cross myself to gain access to this communication. It's certainly telling that I don't feel this presence at all at, say, St. Patrick's Cathedral down on 50th and Madison, shouldered up against Rockefeller Center and all those other much taller skyscrapers. If God lives there, he's the God of Pinstripes and Napoleon Complexes and Rudy Giuliani.
We moved to Queens in the late fall of '99 and my visits to St. John's became rarer but no less ardent-- in fact, maybe more so, since a two-train, 45-minute pilgrimage was involved.
And then, less than two years later, the world changed for New Yorkers and for everyone. I found myself in Our meeting place almost every other day, two trains or not. The conversations grew ever more urgent, but also so private that I couldn't even bring myself to write about them in my personal journal:
St. John's again.
Talking with God.
Wondering: Is faith a means or an end?
Or is the question nonsense?
Sometimes I'd cry. Sometimes I'd feel God feeling me cry and letting me know that it was understood.
On December 7, 2001, while I watched TV in the living room, my wife took a home pregnancy test. From the bathroom I heard a calm but distinct, "Uh-oh." Back then I didn't know just how damned accurate those things have gotten, but still I had a gut inkling that this time it was for real. I had a whole new thing to talk to God about, a whole new way to be scared.
Old Man, help me be a good old man.
On December 18, 2001, I turned on the TV just to be dosed with a whole new horror.
St. John's is burning; a five alarm fire.
What a lousy, lousy year.
In my head I drove a pathetic devil's bargain worthy of Winston Smith in room 101. "Take the goddamned Twin Towers", I practically prayed to Satan, "Just leave me my St. John's."
The firefighters, already crowned in glory, waded into the burning church which was home to, among so many other things, the largest memorial to fallen FDNY prior to 9/11. Commanders on the scene rapidly made the decision to use high-tech lasers to find their way through the smoke instead of following the common sense course of action: smashing through priceless, irreplaceable stained glass to vent it (adding a James Bond-esque/art connoisseur quality to their already enormous reputation for heroism). Within hours the fire was extinguished. But who knew how long the church would be closed to visitors?
In March of 2002 I got a short-term temp gig up at Columbia University. I walked by St. Johns on my lunch break, saw where soot still blackened the stones of the northern transept. My heart heavy and anxious, I climbed the front stairs and went in. It still smelled of burnt wood inside, and the gift shop, where the fire started, was still boarded up, but I knew instantly that the conflagration had done nothing to fumigate my Old Friend from the place. I sat down to chat.
In the end, you can only ask Him for a sample of his Grace, a slightly wider perspective than the one you're sitting in. It seems like a small thing writing about it now, but such an epiphany is really the only miracle there is. Art can offer it sometimes. Perhaps that's why I decided to become an artist.
And becoming one I am still.
Now I live in Seattle and have no place to talk to God.
Him what knows, won’t tell ye.
Him who’ll tell ye, don’t rightly know.
The Hillbilly’s Tao
When I tell people I’m a Zen Buddhist the conversation usually goes something like this:
I’m a Zen Buddhist.
You? You’re a Zen Buddhist?
You are? Mr. Angry Pants? Mr. Be-Careful-of-Daddy’s-Martini? Mr. Picks-a-Fight-with-You-‘Cuz-He-Likes-You?… You’re a Zen Buddhist?
Yes. Really. I mean, ask yourself, who needs it more? Do you really want to imagine what I’d be like if I hadn’t been meditating on a daily basis for the last 21 years?
Thankfully, these conversations do not happen very often. The first rule of Zen Club is you do not talk about Zen Club. Plus, seriously, I find it awkward and somewhat humiliating to discuss Zen in a culture that uses the word to promote everything from skin moisturizer to coffee blends to sex lube. Barnes and Noble contains a whole section devoted to Zen in every one of its superstores, but I can count on one hand clapping the people I know, outside of my temple, who have ever seriously practiced. I suppose it’s easier to sit and read a book than it is to just sit. Wait. I don’t suppose; I know. But hard or not, just sitting’s how the magic happens.
I usually practice zazen, or “seated meditation” by myself, at home or on my special bench overlooking Elliott Bay near my work or down by Green Lake on the weekends. However the community of practice, or “sangha”, is one of the three wheels that make the Buddhist tricycle go. So I understand it is my responsibility as well as my inordinate blessing to practice with a temple as often as I can. That’s where Dai Bai Zan - Cho Bo Zen Ji comes in.
I first starting going to Dai Bai Zan - Cho Bo Zen Ji (translated as “The Listening to the Dharma Zen Temple on Great Plum Mountain”) back in 1991. (You can check out the temple’s website here.) My good friend and collaborator in the Seattle theatre scene, John Sylvain, turned me on to the place. Back then the temple was a tiny living room in the International District behind the Wonder Bread Factory. The rest of the house was where the abbot Genki Takabayashi lived. I remember being so intimidated the first couple times I went to beginner's night that I had to steel myself to open the front door of the small house that had nothing but a wooden sign painted with the words “Clear Quiet Clean” to identify it as a zendo. Could I really sit still for twenty-five minutes without moving or making a noise, then get up, stretch for half a minute, then do it again for almost half-an-hour?
A wizened little Japanese man, like some embarrassingly trite Hollywood stereotype of a Zen master, the abbot Genki Roshi, would sit next to the huge bell, stiller than stone. Most weeks, Genjo Marinello, the American-born vice-abbot would sit next to him and lead the question-and-answer period afterwards; but one night it was just me and Genki. It was like sitting with a ghost. I struggled with, and eventually let go of, my irrational fears that the old man would forget I was there and fall asleep or just decide to go all hardcore Zen on me and sit for three hours without a break. As I breathed, I calmed down. The two meditation periods passed like fleeting dreams. Genki Osho served tea. Bowed. And then left me there alone. In that moment I began to understand what all the hype over Zen was about... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Absolutely gorgeous, clear and life-affirming.
Genki Roshi had little English and never spoke at “Introduction to Zen” nights, though he often served the tea. (If you've never been served tea by a genuine Zen master, well, all I can say is, you're missing nothing-- the huge, beautiful, inner-eye-opening nothing that I mention above.) However, at longer half-day and week-long retreats the Roshi would give a commentary on some selection from the Buddhist canon. Genki would sit like a monument for an interminable moment before speaking, then squinch up his face and growl softly:
Booodhaaah?... Booodhaaah?... No Boodhah... No BOODHAH!... YOU da Booddhah!... No Shinking. [No thinking]. Shtraytuh cuhhting. [Straight cutting].
YOU da Booddhah!... You da BOODHAH!"
Genjo sitting beside him, would then translate. "Genki Roshi asks you to consider Mumon's commentary on the 33rd Case, Baso's 'No Mind, No Buddha'...." It wasn't uncommon for Genjo to take ten minutes "translating" something Genki said in 30 seconds.
After a year or two the temple lost the lease on the little house in the I. D., and was forced to take up residence in the back room of an Aikido dojo on Aurora Avenue up around 76th Street North of Greenlake. This was a strange and difficult transitionary period in my life as well. I was going through a divorce, living hand-to mouth on temp jobs in a comfortable enough but tiny studio on Capitol Hill: alone, no phone, no TV, no social life, no car. About all I could count on was, if zazen was scheduled for an evening, and if I made the hour-long two-transfer bus trek to the temple, someone—maybe just one someone-- Genjo or Genki or some other ranking member of the temple—would be there to just sit with me.
I usually keep my mouth shut during Q & A sessions, but one night, when it was just me and Genjo, and I had endured both sits with a big sore heart and tears rolling down my face, I asked if he had any advice on how to get through really, really hard times. His answer was simple. Maintain the practice, and remember to have compassion: compassion for others of course, but first and foremost, compassion for myself. He told me to sit, and listen to my pain; witness it; notice that with each breath, somehow, I was getting through it.
Five years later Genjo Osho officiated at my wedding to the most inside-and-out beautiful woman I have ever met. Shortly thereafter, Heather and I moved to New York City, but I never sought out a temple there. I guess I was too afraid of the Yuppie Zen factor that plagues big rich cities like New York and San Francisco. When our first baby boy came into the world, we decided to move back to Seattle, where I resumed attending Dai Bai Zan - Cho Bo Zen Ji, back in its own house again on Capitol Hill.
This past Fall, the temple relocated to a larger building on Beacon Hill at 1733 S. Horton St., just five blocks of the Beacon Hill Light Rail station. In January, I finally had the honor and pleasure of sitting zazen in these new digs. Then in February I attended a “mini-sesshin”. (A mini-sesshin is a half-day meditation retreat. A full sesshin can last a week or more.)
Contrary to what Amazon would have you believe, the best introduction to Zen practice is not downloading the latest book to your Kindle, but rather practicing zazen itself. Dai Bai Zan – Cho Bo Zen Ji offers an excellent and extremely accessible introduction to seated meditation at the Tuesday night “Introduction to Zen” which begins promptly at 7:30 pm. (Allow yourself at least ten minutes extra: the last thing you want to do is barge in late on a zazen session.)
If you are as intimated as I was 21 years ago, then contact me and I’ll go with you. That’s what sangha’s all about.
Recently I was having some drinks with some of the NewsWrights United team after a rather intense creative session. Somehow the string of topics led to haiku or Zen or something that put me in mind of the great whore-loving, haiku-scribing Zen Master from the 15th Century, Ikkyū. I mentioned him. Everyone laughed. They thought I was making him up. I wish I had been. I wish I had that kind of imagination. But no, once again, the truth outshines my paltry attempts at fiction. To follow is an essay I wrote about Ikkyū some years back for a text-only proto-social networking site called Everything2.com.
here I am simply trying to get into your head
you think you were born you die what a pity1
Zen masters are infamous as a group for their peculiarity and iconoclasm, so to set yourself off as peculiarly iconoclastic among them is quite a feat, and yet such was the attainment of Ikkyū Sōjun, the abbot of Kyoto's Daitokuji Temple, who called himself "Crazy Cloud".
sin like a madman until you can't do anything else
no room for anything more
Ikkyū was born in 1394 A.D., the bastard son of Emperor Go Komatsu and his favorite lady-in-waiting2. When the Empress got word of the pregnancy, she banished Ikkyū's mother to one of the poorest sections of Kyoto. At six he began his Zen training as an acolyte at Ankokuji Temple. He would strain sorely at the reigns of temple discipline for the rest of his life, but it was there that he began quickly mastering the dual arts of poetry and calligraphy. (The modern Western disconnect between composing verse and physically placing it on the paper would be as absurd to the medieval Japanese mind as dancing having nothing to do with choreography.)
I've burnt all the holy pages I used to carry
but poems flare in my heart
After his first master died, Ikkyū sought another in the legendarily severe abbot Kasō. His new master lived up to his reputation, leaving Ikkyū to wait outside at the temple gate for five days and then pouring a bucket of water on his head before admitting him. Some ten years later Ikkyū achieved enlightenment upon hearing a crow's caw. He went to Kasō with the good news, but his master scorned: "This is only the enlightenment of an arhat. You are not a master yet."
The disciple replied. "That suits me fine. I despise masters."
Kasō barked out a laugh. "Yes! And with that, you are a master."
one of you saved my satori paper I know it piece by piece you
pasted it back together now watch me burn it once and for all
Kasō died when Ikkyū was thirty-five years old.
my dying teacher could not wipe himself unlike you disciples
who use bamboo I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands
Astounded with grief, Ikkyū spend the next four decades of his life bouncing around from temple to temple, whorehouse to sake bar.
ten fussy days running this temple all red tape
look me up if you want to in the bar whorehouse fish market
a crazy lecher shuttling between whorehouse and bar
this past master paints south north east west with his cock
when I was forty-seven everybody came to see me
so I walked out forever
don't hesitate get laid that's wisdom
sitting around chanting what crap
At age seventy-seven the fiery monk fell in love with a blind teen-age girl named Mori.
I was like an old leafless tree until we met green buds burst and blossom
now that I have you I'll never forget what I owe you
your name Mori means forest like the infinite fresh
green distances of your blindness
I'd sniff you like a dog and taste you
then kiss your other mouth endlessly if I could white hair or not
Five years later, two years into his ninth decade of life, Ikkyū was appointed abbot of Daitokuji Temple, his beloved master Kasō's old job. This particular Zen lineage would, two hundred years later, produce the famous master Hakuin as just one of its important dharma heirs.
if there's nowhere to rest at the end
how can I get lost on the way?
Ikkyū died at the age of 87.
the wild pines want it too
It's the keenly direct, contemporaneous feel of Ikkyū's verse that stands out for me. Compared to him, other prominent figures in the Zen canon feel like constructs, mouthpieces-- important, but not intimate. Ikkyū is unquestionably a person, talking to you, not 600 years ago, right now.
don't worry please please how many times do I have to say it
there's no way not to be who you are and where
fuck flattery success money
all I do is lie back suck my thumb
all koans just lead you on
but not the delicious pussy of the young girls I go down on
why is it all so beautiful this fake dream
this craziness why?
stare at it until your eyes drop out
this desk this wall this unreal page
nature's a killer I won't sing to it
I hold my breath and listen to the dead singing under the grass
don't wait for the man standing in the snow
to cut off his arm help him now
the crow's caw was okay but one night with a lovely whore
opened a wisdom deeper than what that bird said
self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you're happy really you are happy
only one koan matters
1All translations of Ikkyū’s verse are from Stephen Berg's excellent Crow with No Mouth. If you're at all intrigued, buy it. You'll read it for the rest of your life.
2When his mother died, she left behind this brief note:
I have finished my work in this life and am now returning to Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell and whether I am always with you or not.
If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for 49 years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.
Not born, not dead.
P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not even understand this letter. This is my will and testament.
3Even as a young boy, Ikkyū exhibited some of Zen's cagier instincts. His master owned a rare and precious antique teacup, which one day a fellow acolyte of Ikkyū's happened to break. When the master showed up, Ikkyū took the pieces from the other boy and hid them behind his own back. Facing the master he asked: "Sensei, why do people have to die?"
The master replied, "This is the natural way. Everything has to die having fulfilled its allotted time to live."
Ikkyū showed his master the pieces of his precious cup: "Sensei, it was time for your cup to die."
Berg, Stephen. Crow with No Mouth. Copper Canyon Press, 1989.
Stevens, John. Masters: A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet. Kodansha International, 1995.
Reps, Paul & Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Tuttle Publishing, 1985.