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Lions Roar : January 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2010 73 I am at a medItatIon retreat at Vallecitos mountain refuge in northern new mexico, led by a Zen teacher I have been working with from Boston. this is more than a decade ago. I’m on the board of this remote enclave deep in the national forest and, tired of flying across the country, I’ve arranged for him to teach here. I’ve driven him in on the rather treacherous twelve- mile dirt road in my sturdy 1978 Land Cruiser, an old hippo- potamus of a truck with thick tires, rattling doors, and a fierce engine replete with a choke to get it going on cold mornings. I want to impress this teacher in the hope he’ll want to return. He’s smart, astute, and I’m taken with his teachings. I’d studied with a Japanese teacher for twelve years, and then a Vietnamese teacher for six. He’s american and we come from the same cultural context—at the very least I can clearly understand the language. the first day he tells a story about seeing the hairs around a horse’s mouth when he spent a year in silence in the woods of maine. I love the poetic impression he makes and I settle into deep, still sitting in this rural Southwest setting that I love so much. the next day he presents us with an eighth- or ninth-century Chinese koan—a short interchange, sometimes between student and teacher, sometimes not, that is designed to cut through condi- tioned ways of thinking, enabling a person to experience their true nature. my usual response to hearing a koan is stunned silence. my mind stops dead center, full of hesitation. Some truth is sitting right there but I can’t touch it. It’s like meeting a whale in a fish tank. We don’t know each other, but the whale is magnificent, and contained in too small a space—the limits I’ve put on my mind. But I am feeling frisky and alive—the morning is crisp—and I’m ready to tackle anything. I’m listening closely, but after the first line of the koan I am lost. I’ve been tossed into a swamp and I can’t get out. I can’t even hear the rest of it. and no matter how many times he repeats it, I can’t follow. Flowers are falling—I know that—I think it’s the resolution, the ending of the koan, but it’s beyond me. Suddenly suspicious, threatened, I feel separate from the group. these Zen people are nuts. or to borrow a saying from my father, “this is ridiculous.” I’ve met a chunk of stone from mars and there’s no communication. the rest of the week we work on this single koan. I count the days, the hours, till I can hop on my faithful hippopotamus and gear through rocky dirt roads the hell out of here. I can hardly mouth and swallow my oatmeal in the morning. the teacher tries so hard to make us see. on Wednesday af- ternoon he has us marching around in circles in the noon sun imagining we are falling blossoms. It has something to do with becoming the thing—with embodying blooms? buds? floral de- signs? wallflower? the repetitious bouquet print on my child- hood wallpaper? does it mean spring, youth, vigor, decoration, ornament? Should I become an interior decorator? I give up but in an hour I’m supposed to present the koan, to demonstrate my understanding to him in a one-to-one interview. I am a long-practicing Zen student—by this time at least twenty years. mostly I’ve practiced in a non-koan tradition, but I have Blossoms Falling Natalie Goldberg finds herself hanging suspended between a Zen koan, an ailing hippo, and a “Who am I?” cry to greasy mechanics. ILLuStratIon©IStoCkpHoto.Com/tourIng