Loving the questions

Long ago, after a day of early morning sitting, lecture, and work on the decrepit old porch of the Zen Center, Greg, a more experienced student and carpenter asked me, “So, has Zen practice sunk its teeth into you yet?”  He was asking about that moment when practice has you hooked.  I remember the excitement in this world of Zen which was beginning to open in front of me, how I loved getting a new book, or a new chance to hear another lecture.  Yes, hooked, but also awash in joy of study and learning. 

I remembered that this week, as it seemed Zen had again sunk it’s teeth into me.  I also thought of an old phrase from long ago days of psychedelic experimentation, (which is roughly around the same time as my conversation with Greg) and substituted one word in the old saying: “I think the koans are kicking in now.”

This was after a few days lost in reading the history of koans in “Zen Sand,” and a more modern but nonetheless telling of the history of the ancestors rich work, “Acequias and Gates,” by Joan Sutherland.  I seem to have fallen into the deep well of koan study, and don’t mind it one bit.

My beginnings were in shikantaza and Dogen, and that was where I remained, despite a lifetime interest koans–at least in reading them from a distance.  I was always drawn to them, but never had the opportunity until now to really work with them as part of my practice.  And I have to say though I was glad to finally have the chance, I remained cautious for a time.  I was afraid, perhaps, to fall into them too deeply.

Listening to a talk about Ummon’s four sicknesses this week by Subhana Barzaghi , I realized partly why that was.  She spoke of how we can get stuck in an opening, in a glimpse into our true nature.   We keep wanting to stay there, to return to it, or, or to recreate it.  I had a very small such opening years ago, and it was joyful and wonderful.  It made me want to dance around the zendo, and hang onto it as tightly as I could.  As Roshi promised it would, it informed and deepened my practice, and was always there beneath it.  But the fireworks, the desire to dance around, was hard to come by often.  Not the least I think because I was trying so hard to get back there.  For it was small, but just big enough and joyful enough for me to want more of it!

So I came to mistrust that experience.  Or at least classified it as a nice thing that happened that I wouldn’t want to do again.  Though I seemed on the surface to have moved beyond it long ago, to have left it behind, that very coolness betrayed the wish deep within me to have it again..

And I know that wish was a strong part of what was behind the desire to engage with koans—thinking, maybe this is the thing that will bring that joy, that feeling of knowing back to me.  Along with that of course were the defensiveness and protectiveness to not wish for too much.  To not want to say outloud that it was enlightenment I was wanting. 

But of course what I find all too often, is that what I think I want is not what I really want.  I understood that as I felt myself falling completely into koan study this week.  The dam bursting open.  Not the dam of understanding held within koans.  The dam with in me holding back from throwing myself into them.  The joy in studying them, in being able to hold one deeply inside myself.

There is the popular conception that koans are about solving the puzzle.  As much as I hear that’s not the point, as a human being I still approach them that way.  And as someone who loves puzzles, who loves getting the right answer, attaining understanding; I held to that idea that this was what the study of them is about.  Like one of those small wooden puzzle boxes you’d turn it over and over in your hand, wanting to find the spot just there where the panel would slide to the side or twist just so, and what was within would be revealed.  Failing that there is always a hammer to get to the inside. Image

I approach studying a koan that way too.  Instead I find when I throw myself into it, yes, there is a puzzle box there to be opened.   But it isn’t the koan–I am the puzzle box and it is the koan that does the opening.

I am enjoying simply studying the history and the development of koans, the fact that they are composed of two of my favorite things: words and stories and poety!  What’s not to love there?  I take such joy in that study, in being able to make friends with a koan and hang out with it.  I think of the friendship of teen agers, where we’d sit together and ask, “what do you want to do?”  And the reply was always, ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?”  It’s just like that.  The koan and I can sit and don’t have to do anything but hang out.  I want to see all that is revealed, not to be done with it, but so I can make friends with the next, and the next. 

I find myself thinking, I wish I’d started this study years ago, knowing how long it can take to complete all of them.  Then I realize how wonderful it is that there are so many.  It’s a good thing to take up now, in that I can study them for years, probably for as long as I have, and not complete them. Who’d want to be done with them anyway?

I first thought it was enlightenment I wanted to find, and hoped to find it in koans.  But I was wrong.  What I wanted was enlivenment.  That feeling I had when practice was so new and fresh, and had sunk it’s teeth into me, and I was excited to begin the journey.  Koan practice has given me that again.  I think of Rilke’s advice, which is very helpful in this practice:  “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”


Becoming transparent

I went to the barbershop yesterday.  I figure if I’m going to keep my hair short I can go regularly to have it done by a professional.  The barber is actually my new boss’s husband.  They don’t talk a lot about work at home, so I think I’m one way he can keep up on what’s happening.  It’s a single chair shop, with chairs for waiting customers lined up against one wall, and the requisite “Field and Stream” magazines in the corner.  Mike’s shop feels like the barbershops I’d go to as a kid, before there were shops full of stylists where men would go.

ImageThere’s a particular protocol in a barbershop.  It may differ from shop to shop, but especially here, it’s clear that Mike is running the show.  He makes everyone feel welcome, but he controls the clippers, the chair, and the drape, so like I said, it’s his show.  He opens at 8.  The frustrating thing about a barbershop like is that you don’t make an appointment.  Some days, I don’t mind sitting through three other haircuts, listening to the conversation and catching up on small town gossip.  But other days I’m not feeling as social, or don’t have the time.  So I’ll drive by, looking in the window to see what the wait is like.  Other times I’ll go first thing in the morning, hoping to catch him right when he opens before anyone else gets there.  He opens at 8:00, so I feel part of the etiquette is that I can come 5 minutes before 8:00, and see if he’s there and has the door unlocked yet.  He’s always there, and always says it’s fine I’m early. 

Yesterday I got there at my usual couple of minutes before 8:00 and he already had someone in the chair.  Not only was there someone in the chair, but they were damn near done with their cut.  “That takes some balls,” I thought to myself.  All that was left was the straight razor trim across the back of his neck, the dusting brush, and the heavy vibrating massager across his shoulders.  Mike is a master at remembering people, and asking questions to keep the conversation going.  In the few minutes waiting I heard about how this old guy had driven his 10 year old truck down that only has 38,000 miles on it, how he’d had a slight fender bender in this icy winter we’re having, and how he would be heading up to the legion later that day for a few cans of beer, some soup, and some cards.  I also heard how he’d once had jet-black hair, as did his father.  And that his mother’s hair was red and his brother’s was more of a brown. 

So finally the cut was finished, the cape removed, and with a little bit of slowness he stood up, talking about how it was harder to walk as he got older. 

“How old are you again, Blackie?” asked Mike.

“93!” he answered. 

 Then Blackie turned to me and said, “Well, get up here in the chair! You’re next!”

 As I said, Mike runs the show, and that’s usually the barber’s line, but Mike didn’t seem to mind.  So I took my seat, and Blackie paid mike.  The other part of the etiquette is when you’re done, you move on out the door, so the barber can focus on the next customer.  He asks the customer how he’s doing, what kind of cut he wants, as he puts the cape on them and the length of toilet paper around their neck. (This may speak to men’s general inertia, but the answer to the cut question is always, “Let’s stick with what we’ve been doing.”  Never in a barber shop do you hear, “Let’s try something new,” or, “I’m thinking of going a different color, “or, “I’d like to try to go for the style that actor in that movie had.”

But anyway, in this case, Blackie stood before me as Mike asked what I wanted.  He cocked his head and squinted his eyes….”What are you going to have him cut?  How can you get that hair any shorter!?”  I laughed and he said, “Oh wait,” as he opened his eyes a little bigger.  “Maybe there is a ¼ of an inch on top there!”  Then he laid his large hand heavily on top of my head, and rubbed back across my crown.  “He’ll have to have to take the buzzer and just do like this,” Blackie said while running that hand back and forth through my hair.  Satisfied he’d given me enough of a hard time, he turned, commenting on the fact that Mike’s door was finally working better and not sticking, and went out to his truck.

I was still a little in shock at that intrusion.  I’m not accustomed to having total strangers put their hand on my head and rub my hair around.  But I also thought, “Damn, I hope I make it to 93, and am half as sharp as Blackie.”  I thought of how I like the old guys in this shop, and the irony in that thought only occurred to me later as I was leaving–that I’m in the fraternity of old guys and getting deeper into it every day.

I was surprised at all that he’d gotten away with that I would hesitate to do even now.  Coming so early to have Mike open the shop a half hour before opening time.  Telling me to get in the chair.  Rubbing his hand over my head.  I wondered if he’d always had such an expansive presence.  Or if this was part of living to that age, that you just don’t have the time to give a shit what other people think of you.

And I thought back to when I’d go to the Y years ago to exercise.  There was a class at the same time I was there for men who’d had heart attacks, or heart surgery.  I marveled at them in the locker room when I’d go in to shower after my work out.  Their lack of self-consciousness at the incision scars down their chests.  The translucence of their skin.  I’d notice it in their hands like some exotic orchid and then, in the locker room, in their genitals–penises and testicles, delicate and otherworldly as jelly fish, seemingly lit by a light from within. 

It seems if we live long enough, that goal of practice we have just occurs to some people without even trying?.  One becomes intimate, transparent, both in their body and spirit.  Moving through the world fearlessly, with nothing left to lose any longer, simply being who they are.  I think of the line from a poem by Gary Snyder: “This life: we get old enough and finally really like it.”

Or even better…I’ve been reading and studying in Victor Sogen Hori’s book, “Zen Sand” on capping phrases for koan practice.  I finished this writing, opened to the last page and find this:

At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.

At thirty, I stood firm.

At forty, I had no doubts.

At fifty, I knew the decrees of heaven

At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ.

At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.


Analects, II, 4.  Translated by Legge.

Being ordinary

Dosho reminded us that yesterday was Katagiri-roshi’s Memorial Day, and in some discussion on our online meeting place, he mentioned about how he was “most ordinary.”  Reading that last night brought back memories of stories my mom told about seeing another side of him, and of a picture I have from long ago.

My mom used to have a bed and breakfast in Rochester.  I talked her once into donating a weekend at her Canterbury Inn to the Minnesota Zen Center silent auction.  I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, whether someone gave it to Roshi, or if someone else used it and then brought him there when a group of people were headed down to Hokyoji.  But it came about that he went there several times, sometimes with a group of priests, and sometimes with Tomoe.

I think he found it a respite from being “Katagiri-roshi, “and just being able to be “Hojo-san. “ My mother and her partner were both two expansive, wild women who liked hosting and taking care of others.  They had their apartment on the third floor, and the rooms were on the second floor.  They’d serve breakfast to their guests, along with an evening hour for tea and sherry.  If they became friends with you, they’d have you up for dinner at their place.  And they had Katagiri and Tomoe up several times.  They’d make sure to have a good bottle of whiskey for him, and cooked meals they knew he liked.  I imagine that being a teacher can be a lonely role sometimes, all the more so when you’re Japanese and surrounded by American students, who have a picture in their minds about how you should act.  At the inn with my mom and her partner he didn’t have to meet any expectations.

My mom is also a hugger, and so she’d always greet them with a hug for each of them.  She told the story of his coming one time with some priests, and when she greeted him at the door she could tell that she shouldn’t give him a hug that night.  Later in the evening, after everyone had gone to their rooms and was in there to stay, she heard a knock on the door, and there was Katagiri.  He held his arms open and gave both her and her partner a hug, saying, “I couldn’t do that in front of my students.  But I still wanted to give one to you both.”

I thought of those stories as I drifted off to sleep, and of wondered at how he must have chafed sometimes as he tried to teach us to be ordinary, and was just himself in spite of our wishes for him to be magic.  That he was able to do so was perhaps his real magic.  When I woke up this morning I went into my basement and dug through some boxes to find this picture.  The quality isn’t that good, but it’s a photo of him leaning back after having emptied the bowls of food you see there in front of him, wearing my mom’s wild red reading glasses. Image