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Buddhadharma : Winter 2009
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 09 96 The Mummy, the Marine, and Me KIMSCAFURO It was 1965 and I was a college senior. Back then, Buddhism was exotic outside Asia or the Asian diaspora. So when a Buddhist monk gave a talk at my college, the auditorium was full. All I knew about Buddhism was what I’d read in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which meant that I hardly knew anything about it. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe some- body very peaceful in a limp sort of way, somebody pleasant who would say vaguely spiritual things and make people feel good. What I saw was two men sitting in chairs on the stage, the monk and his attendant–translator. The attendant was a tall, muscular American with a shaved head that had partially grown back into an exceedingly short buzz cut, and a lot of body hair that poked out of his robe (the kind where one arm is bare). He looked like a Marine. In the political circles I ran in at the time, this was not a good thing. The monk was very small, with taut skin, especially on his head—skin so tight you could almost see his skull. He looked like a mummy. This, too, was not a good thing. And they sat very, very still. Whenever I talk about this I say, “I’m from New York City and I’d never seen anyone sit still before,” which sounds like a joke, but it’s true—I’d never seen anyone sit still before, not that kind of still. And I found it horrifying. Where was their individuality? Their curiosity? Their personality? Why weren’t they looking around the room at us, making conjectures, com- ing up with ideas, having feelings, smiling or frowning, or tapping one foot or something? The talk began. People had written questions on index cards that were collected as we filtered into the auditorium, and the talk consisted of question after question being pulled out, read, and answered. It seemed to me that there were three or four answers—one of them I remembered as “the butterfly sits on the lotus leaf,” which, now that I know a little about Buddhism, seems improbable—and as I listened it seemed to me that these answers got recycled at random. But that too is improbable. What is certain is that I could not connect the answers to the questions. As I sat there I became more and more agitated until I couldn’t take it anymore. I left the auditorium and as soon as I was outside the building I started screaming. I ran to my friend Nancy Grove’s dorm room, and when she let me in I started blubbering: I’ve just seen the most terrible thing, these people were like zombies, they didn’t make any sense, I never want to be around anything like that again, it’s horrible, one of them looked like a mummy and one of them was like a Marine, the mummy didn’t seem human... Somehow Nancy managed to calm me down. What I had seen was something that challenged the assump- tions of my world so radically that it was both unbearable and unfathomable. My world was a world in which you identified so closely with your thoughts and opinions that without them you didn’t exist. A friend described himself once as intellectu- ally restless, thinking nonstop, always needing stimulation, and that’s a good description of how I was. It was too threat- ening at the time to think that my most basic notion of self was completely deluded, that what I thought of as the neces- sary ground of my humanity was, in fact, a distraction. It would be nice to say that I was shocked into some kind of realization and soon began Zen practice, but it was nine years before I started a personal meditation practice (picked up from the New York Times Magazine), and another two years before I met my teacher and began practicing with a sangha. But the seed had been planted. I am grateful to that unknown monk from Tibet and his not-a-Marine sidekick who planted that seed of confusion and doubt. JUDITH ROITMAN lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and is the guiding teacher of the Kansas Zen Center and the Red Earth Zen Center in Oklahoma City. She began practicing with Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1976 and received inka (full authorization to teach) from him in 1998. Journeys By Judith Roitman NOTE TO READERS: Does anyone know who the monk and translator were? Let us know at: firstname.lastname@example.org