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Lions Roar : September 2007
Phil’s apartment was replete with photos of his family, includ- ing one of his grandfather, Wendell Willkie, the 1940 contender for the presidency against FDR, and another of an aunt sitting in the backseat of a convertible with Dwight Eisenhower. Best of all, a former boyfriend of Phil’s lived in the back bedroom. He too was studying Zen at the time. At night we’d often share a simple dinner of steamed broccoli and rice. He was a modest fellow, saving all the plastic yogurt containers and calling them his fine Tupperware collection. We had known each other years before, when he and Phil visited me in the Southwest. DURING THE DAY, I had little to do but wrestle with these Chi- nese ancestors who embodied the koans. I wanted to understand what was meant by their interchanges. Luoshan runs into Yantou and asks: “When arising and vanish- ing go on unceasingly, what then?” A perfectly good question, if you were thinking about the na- ture of the universe. We often ask, “What should I do with my life?” Usually it’s asked in despair: I’m lost. Help me. We want a concrete answer: Become a dentist and everything will be all right. But there is a deeper cry in the question. How should I live knowing the world is a confusing place? First, Luoshan asked Shishuang his question: “When arising and vanishing go on unceasingly, what then?” Shishuang replied: “You must be cold ashes, a dead tree, one thought for ten thousand years, box and lid joining, pure and spotlessly clear.” Luoshan didn’t get it. Too complicated an answer. He only became more confused trying to figure it out. He went seeking Yantou and asked his question again: “When arising and vanish- ing go on unceasingly, what then?” Yantou shouted and said, “Whose arising and vanishing is it?” Maybe the shout would have been enough. Imagine that you’re an earnest student going from teacher to teacher, saying, “Please clarify this,” and one of the renowned, respected ones screams in your face. Maybe then you’d step back and see yourself. But Yantou offers more than his shout. He asks, exactly who are you that is expe- riencing this coming and going? This time Luoshan is enfolded into his own question. Engulfed in radical nonseparation, he wakes up. I understood what was happening to Luoshan. But my under- standing wasn’t good enough. The koan wouldn’t come alive un- til I demonstrated that understanding. There is an old adage in writing: don’t tell, but show. I could tell you what happened in the koan, but to show it, I had to become Luoshan and exhibit his—and my—insight. That’s how I would pay true homage to the lineage of old Chinese practitioners I’d come to love, by making their work and effort alive and vital in me right now. To stay Nata- lie Goldberg from Brooklyn, with her usual collection of needs and desires, pains and complaints, wouldn’t work. Becoming some idea of Chinese—or Japanese—wouldn’t work either. These koans might have come through a particular culture but what they are aiming at is the core of human nature. Who are we really? What is this life about? I had to learn to become a fool, a barbarian, the moon, a lamppost, a fallen leaf—any angle necessary to answer the questions posed by these ancient fellows. But I couldn’t get stuck, not even as a single, perfect plum blossom. My mind had to become greased in its skull, a pearl rolling in a silver bowl. No settling; no abiding; no fixed residence. The koan mind does not dwell; instead it is alive—and empty—like a dust mote in a ray of sun. In other words, I had to let go and to see fresh, like a blind donkey. Tell me, how can something sightless see? I PACED ST. PAUL’S streets, past Scott Fitzgerald’s old home on Summit, the vast houses on Crocus Hill, the River Gallery, and the Harvest Bread Bakery. I crossed the bridge on the mighty Mississippi, reveling in the long, slow display of burnt leaves that marked the coming of the dark season. I wanted to know who these Chinese brothers—and the occasional Chinese sister, such as Iron-Grinder Lui, the woman of Taishan, and the teacake seller—were. I was used to studying Western literature, full of elaborate stories, subplots, metaphor, and flashbacks. These Chi- nese tales were so digested that only a few lines were enough. Leaning over our supper plates one evening, Phil’s old boy- friend from the backroom beseeched me, “So Aunt Natalie, tell me a bedtime koan before we drop off.” It was his second year of practice, and his early enthusiasm met my old determination. I lunged into the koan about Luoshan. I described the rough road, the jagged mountain where I imagined the interchange had SEPT 66-71.indd 68 SEPT 66-71.indd 68 6/25/07 5:05:49 PM 6/25/07 5:05:49 PM