Conversation with a Zen Master

Like many Westerners in the late sixties, I wanted to be somewhere else in my religious journey.  Confusion reigned in the kingdom of my mind, and I yearned to construct a framework of understanding that seemed beyond my present cultural tools.  I couldn’t seem to get “there” from “here.”

Zen and its idea of enlightenment appealed to me.  That one might sit very still and empty one’s mind and suddenly be hit by a mighty wave of comprehension beyond words – well, that would do.  Hit me with the big news and let me walk away with a sense of “I get it!”

Took a leave of absence from my dailiness and went off to Japan to get Zenned properly.  Got connected to a temple and a master.  Shaved my head and face, put on the drab grey robe of novitiate, and stood in line to get enlightened.  Figured to become a pretty holy man in pretty short order, like in about six weeks, which was when my return ticket home expired. Right.

But of course it was not to be.  Sitting still gave me hallucinations and cramps, but not enlightenment.  The food gave me diarrhea.  Sleeping on a board gave me a backache.  And my fellow monks treated me like a Western fool, laughing at me behind my back.  It was one of those times when you know enough to realize there’s something everybody but you knows, but you don’t know enough to know exactly what it is you don’t know.

But I did know it was time to leave.

To my surprise, an invitation was extended for an interview with the master of the temple.  Which was like a stock boy being asked to have lunch with the president of the company.

Since it was largely because of his reputation that I had chosen this particular temple, and since he rarely spent time with tourists like me, the master’s invitation seemed a special honor.

Manabu Khohara, Ph. D. in economics from Tokyo University, solver of all Zen koans (mind puzzles) adviser to captains of industry, writer of books, speaker of seven foreign languages, a paradigm of the treat teacher.  Wise, good, respected, accomplished.  If he didn’t have “it” all figured out, then nobody did.

After I was ushered into his private study, we knelt on cushions and bowed our mutual respect.  He out of courtesy and I out of awe.  For a long time he looked at me and into me.

Very deliberately he shifted his weight to one knee, and just as deliberately reached for his backside and scratched himself in a way and in that place your mother told you was a no-no in public.

“I have hemorrhoids.  They hurt and itch.”

There was nothing in my mental manual as to how to reply to such an opening remark.  I kept my mouth shut and pretended to be thoughtful.

“The hemorrhoids come from stress, you know.  From worrying about tourists burning down this firetrap of a temple.  From worrying about trying to get enough funding from businessmen to keep it in repair.  From arguing with my wife and children, who are not as holy” – he smiled – as I am.  And from despairing over the quality of the lazy young fools who want to be priests nowadays.  Sometimes I think I would like to get a little place in Hawaii and just play golf for the rest of my life.”

He leaned to one side and scratched himself again.

“It was this way before I was “enlightened” you know.  And now it is the same after enlightenment.”

A long pause while he silently gave me time to consider his words and actions.

Rising, he motioned me to follow him to the entrance alcove of the temple, and we stood before an ancient scroll I had often passed.  He said it was time for me to go home, where he felt I had been a “thirsty man looking for a drink and all the while standing knee- deep in a flowing stream.”  Yes…..

from the book It was On Fire When I lay Down on it.  by Robert Fughum


DM here ;-)  Grant Wood (artist of American Gothic fame)  grew up just a stones throw from where we live.  He traveled all over the world studying the masters of paint  and palate . Eventually he  returned home to Iowa, formed an artist colony and painted profusely until the day he died.

I love that line  “thirsty man looking for a drink and all the while standing knee- deep in a flowing stream.”

Someone once told me if I had to go somewhere else in order to be wouldn’t take long and I wouldn’t be happy there either.

We tend to take our baggage with us.

American Gothic  DM Style

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3 Responses to “Conversation with a Zen Master”

  1. Su Says:

    This was a good one for where I’m at right now, and I laughed at the above passage. Thanks for sharing this, I needed to be reminded that sometimes you may be looking for something that is right in front of you. I think also this post made me remember that you “have to bloom in the desert” sometimes. It doesn’t matter what you’re surrounded with. Really enlightening, DM!!! :)
    You were one of the people I was thinking about when I posted this ;-) Yea, it got a chuckle out of me too!

  2. Lindsey Says:

    I am so, so glad that this was one of the first things I read after my vacation from the blogosphere. Thank you.

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