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Lions Roar : January 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2011 64 of his head. he looked like a Mongolian warlord. he pursed his lips and blew through them. “Ooooook.” i carefully drove the length of camp through fog that becomes clouds when seen from below the mountain. We passed two cooks heaving steaming silver cauldrons up the driveway. it was time for tempatsu, the tradition of eating udon noodles in a thin broth on the last night of Rohatsu. “tempatsu, Roshi,” i said, and was overjoyed when he seemed unconcerned that we would be missing it. the Japa- nese like to slurp their noodles; apparently it is a culturally accepted way of expressing culinary approval. and so natu- rally all forty of us americans sit there in our pacific north- western zendo, pucker our lips, and inhale our noodles as noisily as possible, looking for all the world like delegates from the first annual Japanophile convention. My first year here, the slurping apparently wasn’t of a sufficient volume, and so one of the zendo officers felt compelled to break the silence and announce: “slurping okay.” When my teacher dies i will have many such memories of americans engaging in formal Zen practice. fortunately, i will have other memories too. i wheeled Roshi through the double doors of the sutra hall, which was in various states of preparation for the following day’s ceremony. Roshi’s eyes slowly traveled right, then left, taking in the scene. One of the priests produced her Blackberry and began recording our teacher on video. i watched this old master on her high-tech screen as she dictated the date, the time, and the people present. Most of what our teacher does now is accompanied by this kind of hullabaloo. We can’t take for granted that he’ll be around much longer. in many ways this ancient man has become like a child whose every breath and bowel movement we must monitor. this isn’t sycophantic hero-worship: the guy is a living relic, as if someone performed incantations over a classical koan text and out he crawled, flinging teacups and shouting non sequiturs. he is literally the last of his kind, a pre-WWii- trained Rinzai Zen monk with core Buddhist principles hardwired into the very marrow of his bones. every teaching he gives is like a piece of fruit fallen from a tree that is about to go extinct from this planet. Be that as it may, i was exhausted and, frankly, annoyed by the proceedings. let me ask you something: how many times do you think a Zen monk bows during an average morning of full-on formal practice? i once counted. We’re talking forty to sixty bows here, and that’s not including the nine full prostrations you perform variously in sets of threes. You bow when you enter the zendo, bow to the tea server, bow to get up and sling the kesa portion of your robes over your shoulder, bow to the “zendo guardian” on the way out to your private meeting with Roshi, whom you will then bow four times to, twice before you even say howdy. “if you’re ever in doubt about what to do,” i tell new stu- dents, “just bow. You can’t go wrong.” earlier that day i had taken a controversial bathroom break at a time not normally allowed for such bodily func- tions. i entered a stall and slumped on the toilet seat in my under-robes, only to discover that in fact i didn’t have to go at all. i guess i simply wanted a moment away from formal Zen practice and subconsciously drifted to the only place on camp where i was assured one. hell, i think i just wanted to escape all those bows—the bows, and the punctilious and heavily policed oryoki-style meals, and the cloying and ubiquitous kyo-nishiki incense, and the weighty forced silences of the zendo, and our american mispronuncia- tion of the Japanese mispronunciation of the Chinese mispro- nunciation of the sanskrit mispronunciation of the original pali chants—and the googolplexian other contrivances that make monastic Zen life what Chögyam trungpa Rinpoche once called “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm. But it is a practical joke, very practical.” sitting on a toilet i had no intention of using, i whispered my sacred mantra, given to me by my very first teacher, which was pop culture, mostly Mtv, mainly ’80s new wave, specifi- cally the vapors single hit: “I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so!” at eleven that evening, i was still sour on all things Zen. Roshi must have smelled the nastiness oozing from the bald pores of my febrile skull, because he immediately banished me to a tiny crawl space behind the altar. he did this in the name of cho- reographing tomorrow’s ceremony. to reach this place of exile i had to climb over the white sheet-draped altar with its ceremo- nial pound cake platters and towering tea and fruit stands, and i felt very foolish standing in this dark stuffy space in my elabo- rate “seven layered” robes. though what i quickly discovered is that sometimes feeling foolish feels very very good. it breathes air into that dark stuffy crawl space between your ears. every time i tried to poke my head around the curtain Roshi would point at me and laugh. “ha ha ha shozan-san.” i felt like the hapless protagonist in a Beckett play, consigned to some ridiculous fate by a mad taskmaster. “a-hahahaha- hahaha!” Roshi cried, jiggling askew that hat that looked like a small television made out of fur. “shozan’s in his little cage,” said the nun i’d been fighting with all week. Roshi turned next to the priest who would be pinch-hitting Change a tradition and you change its meaning. But follow it to the letter and you become its slave: who wants to be a spiritual company man, a bean counter of the cloth?