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.”


Lunch break at work…I pull out the computer to write.  I have a drawer full of jawbreakers, and I’ll have a few of them and call it lunch.  There was food at the meeting earlier, so I’m good anyway.  The jawbreakers come from a client who always has his pockets filled with them.  Each time he comes to my office to go over some paperwork, or for help with paying bills, he reaches into his pocket.  Pulling a handful he drops them into my hand like a pile of jewels.   And I am reminded of the importance of giving and receiving, and how so often the rules of this job and this role don’t allow me to accept very often.  They also don’t allow my clients to give of themselves very often.  So I’ll savor this jawbreaker and think of the kindness of Dan, bald and big-bellied, a Buddha in a parka who always makes me smile.

 The jawbreakers remind me of being 10, how I’d get a quarter and go to the store to buy a brown paper sack of them filled with them on a Saturday.  Back when penny candies really were just a penny.  I’d stretch them out over that whole day, trying with each one to suck on it until it was completely gone, and always instead end up chomping down on it before there was nothing left.  An experiment to see it pass from form to nothingness that I was never able to wait for, but instead had to hasten along.

 Saturdays in my mind are filled with so many memories of sweetness in that way.  The penny candy.  Cartoons and cereal fresh out of bed.  Riding my bike as far as it would take me.  Going to the movie theater to see a matinee for fifty cents.  I wonder why with such sweetness already in my life that I needed that bag of candy.  Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” talks about how so many people in the pioneer days in America spoke of heaven being a place of “sweetness and light” because there was so little of it in their actual lives.  There were no lights other than the that from the fireplace or stove.  Sugar and fruits were non-existent.  So they’d dream of a place where what they lacked was there in abundance.

 I don’t think my life lacked that sweetness at that time.  In the way that some people just like sweets, and some don’t, I was always on the side of those who liked it.  And I was pretty good at savoring it, even with that tendency to always bite the last of the jawbreaker.  But I could entertain myself, loved being outdoors.  Give me a good book or a pile of Boys Life magazines, and I’d read all afternoon.  There were places that were sweet to me, the beauty of the woods across the street, the little pond in the center of that woods, and farther down the path, the rotting little shed that still stood in the bottom of the hollow.  Even the air in there was sweet, filled with the smell of dirt, and rotting wood, the kind of wood that was wet and spongy, and seemed to still hold a shape and semblance of wood though magic only.  Green light slanting in the windows after filtering down through the trees overhead, a bench against one wall and only jars with rusty mason lids, or no cover at all.

 And still that urge for sweetness.  A sweet kiss.  The silence of a snowy winter night, or the brutal clarity of stars when it’s 20 below.  I was aware in times of depression how sweetness was a balm and a protection against pain, misery, and what…boredom?  A chocolate donut, provided a few minutes where the world and my life for a moment were a pleasure, a brief respite.  Life is brutal and short, some say.  Which might be true, but even when I don’t see them there are such moments, fleeting as they are, of sweetness.  And at times such as in depression it seems we can’t find them, or don’t see them.  But they are there. 

 The third noble truth the truth of joy.  Or is it sweetness.   To breathe is sweet, each breath a wonder, to have a body and senses even with pain or craving is sweet.

 There was a man walking across an open field, when suddenly a tiger appeared and began to give chase. The man began to run, but the tiger was closing in. As he approached a cliff at the edge of the field, the man grabbed a vine and jumped over the cliff. Holding on as tight as he could, he looked up and saw the angry tiger prowling out of range ten feet above him. He looked down. In the gully below, there were two tigers also angry and prowling. He had to wait it out. He looked up again and saw that two mice, one white, the other black, had come out of the bushes and had begun gnawing on the vine, his lifeline. As they chewed the vine thinner and thinner, he knew that he could break at any time. Then, he saw a single strawberry growing just an arms length away. Holding the vine with one hand, he reached out, picked the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was delicious.

 I loved that story the first time I read it.  Even as I was frustrated that it didn’t seem to have an ending.  “But what happens to the man?” my mind shouted out.  I wanted to know, how does it turn out.  Is he saved?

 These days I know that the story is sufficient.  Caught for this short moment between birth and death, with danger and uncertainty around me, the moral being that in any moment there is sweetness to be found.  Life gives us strawberries.  And jawbreakers.