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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
buddhadharma| 61 |spring 2008 “Where is God when stick hit floor?” My mind wandered. i’d signed up for this retreat because i was a Zen-o-phile. i’d read every book by suzuki and Watts i could find. i’d purchased a set of medi- tation cushions and i sat zazen everyday. All i cared about was enlightenment, and this sesshin was going to be great. A real Zen master, authentic Japanese chanting, simple vegan meals—man, this was the fast track to enlightenment. the Buddha pulled it off in eight days sitting under a tree; no way i couldn’t do it in a Zen cen- ter with hot and cold running water. “Where is God when stick hit floor?” What was this guy mumbling about? he must know i don’t speak Japanese. My knees were getting stiff supporting my weight on the floor. nice floor. Well- polished. this was cool. sitting across from a Zen roshi. right out of one of my Zen books. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What was your original face before you were born? Does a dog have buddhanature? “Where is God when stick hits floor?” oh my God! roshi spoke english! in fact, he had been speaking english this whole time. his Japanese accent was so thick, i hadn’t recognized his speech as english. how many times had he asked me this question? the Zen master was giving me a koan, for God’s sake, and i was ignoring him! “Where is God when stick hit floor?” “Uh, God is here?” for a second i thought roshi was going to nod, say the Japanese equivalent of “Good boy,” and give me a gold Zen sticker. instead, he slapped my forehead lightly with his palm as if to say: “Meshe- guna! have you learned nothing from all i’ve taught you? from you i get no nachas.” or that’s what he would have said if he’d been my rabbi, who found me equally dense and inattentive. roshi scowled, picked up a brass bell, and rang me out of his room. “More zazen!” during a Zen retreat, sanzen always comes during kinhin, walking medita- tion. that way you can gracefully exit the sitting room and make your way to the roshi’s sanzen room. in this particular retreat, a line of chairs were assembled outside the sanzen room. Moving up the row, chair by chair, was a highly ritual- ized process. As the person sitting in the forward-most chair left to enter roshi’s room, the rest of us would stand, bow, and advance one chair. Upon entering the sanzen room there was more elaborate bowing. You bowed from the waist, then got down on your knees, and then fell on your face, lifting your hands, palms up, off the floor three times. then you stood, moved forward a bit, and repeated the process. it took three complete bowing cycles to reach roshi. When done right, you ended up sitting on your knees directly in front of him, your knees only inches from his. this wasn’t the Zen i’d read about in Alan Watts’ books. his Zen was far looser and iconoclastic. so i expected to go to sanzen, give roshi a hug, and share with him some of my deeper thoughts on the meaning of life. But tradition was tradition, and i didn’t mind. in fact, it seemed to make the whole procedure more powerful. Most likely this was because i didn’t grow up with it. As a Jew, i knew other traditions. once, when my sister’s boyfriend joined the fam- ily for dinner, my mother made brisket. the boyfriend, thinking we’d forgotten to supply the obvious beverage, brought a carton of milk out from the refrigerator. sensing immediately that he was about to violate the law about strict separation of meat and milk, we all started shouting at him. But that was Jewish tradition. Narish- keit. silliness. What does it matter if you have milk with a piece of brisket? What did Moses know about brisket? Jew- ish law is tedious. that’s why we have reform Judaism to knock some sense into the tradition. for me, though, Zen was another mat- ter. screw up the bowing and get tossed out on your ear? no problem. it was tra- dition. there is no such thing as reform Zen. so i didn’t mind the rules of Zen. the only thing i minded was seeing roshi one-on-one. time after time, i went to sanzen hop- ing to impress roshi with my Zen knowl- edge. i mean, i had a 4.o GPA. how hard could this koan business be? “Where is God when stick hit floor?” it’s really quite simple: God is here. God is everywhere. didn’t roshi get that? now, Zen folks don’t talk a lot about God. roshi was doing this for my sake. he knew i was Jewish and he knew i was considering going into the rabbinate. so, being a master of upaya, skillfully teach- ing truth from the illusions at hand, roshi spoke to me of God. or, more precisely, he spoke to me about where the hell he was when the farschtunkenah stick hit the goddamned floor. i tried haiku. that ought to impress him: stick in hand stick on floor sunlight slips through slatted blinds “More zazen,” was his response. i tried nargarjuna’s fourfold negation of reality: “there is a stick. there is no stick. there is neither stick nor no stick. there is...” i couldn’t remember what came next. “More zazen.” i must have visited the guy a dozen times, and i still couldn’t figure out what the hell he was looking for. At last, i gave up. While sanzen is mandatory in many sesshin, roshi made it voluntary. i didn’t have to see him if i didn’t want to. And i certainly didn’t want to. But then it hit me: i was telling him where God was. i had to show him. ok. one more time. i took a seat in line to see roshi, and i rehearsed in my mind what i would do. do—not say. there was nothing to say. Zen is the transmission from mind to mind beyond words. i’d read that someplace. it was my Jewish head trapped in words that was causing me all these problems. this time, though, i’d nail it—no words. thus far i’d focused my answers on the universality of God when the stick hit the floor. But what i had to do was show roshi that the stick was irrelevant. God was, is, and always will be, whether the stick hits the floor or not. how could i demonstrate this deep insight? By grab- bing that little stick and ripping the sucker out of the old man’s hand, that’s how. My stick. My God. My answer. My God, i’m brilliant! roshi rang in the next person, and in my mind i calculated the precise distance between roshi and the door. i figured out how much i’d have to space my bowing so that i’d end up in comfortable reach of the stick with enough leverage to wrench it out of his hands. roshi was small, plump, and old. i had height and youth on my side. Plus, i had the element of surprise. i mean, no one would ever have tried this before. roshi rings me in.