Natalie Goldberg finds herself hanging suspended between a Zen koan, an ailing hippo, and a “Who am I?” cry to greasy mechanics.
I am at a meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico, led by a Zen teacher I have been working with from Boston. This is more than a decade ago. I’m on the board of this remote enclave deep in the national forest and, tired of flying across the country, I’ve arranged for him to teach here. I’ve driven him in on the rather treacherous twelve-mile dirt road in my sturdy 1978 Land Cruiser, an old hippopotamus of a truck with thick tires, rattling doors, and a fierce engine replete with a choke to get it going on cold mornings.
I want to impress this teacher in the hope he’ll want to return. He’s smart, astute, and I’m taken with his teachings. I’d studied with a Japanese teacher for twelve years, and then a Vietnamese teacher for six. He’s American and we come from the same cultural context—at the very least I can clearly understand the language.
The first day he tells a story about seeing the hairs around a horse’s mouth when he spent a year in silence in the woods of Maine. I love the poetic impression he makes and I settle into deep, still sitting in this rural Southwest setting that I love so much.
The next day he presents us with an eighth- or ninth-century Chinese koan—a short interchange, sometimes between student and teacher, sometimes not, that is designed to cut through conditioned ways of thinking, enabling a person to experience their true nature. My usual response to hearing a koan is stunned silence. My mind stops dead center, full of hesitation. Some truth is sitting right there but I can’t touch it. It’s like meeting a whale in a fish tank. We don’t know each other, but the whale is magnificent, and contained in too small a space—the limits I’ve put on my mind.
But I am feeling frisky and alive—the morning is crisp—and I’m ready to tackle anything. I’m listening closely, but after the first line of the koan I am lost. I’ve been tossed into a swamp and I can’t get out. I can’t even hear the rest of it. And no matter how many times he repeats it, I can’t follow. Flowers are falling—I know that—I think it’s the resolution, the ending of the koan, but it’s beyond me.
Suddenly suspicious, threatened, I feel separate from the group. These Zen people are nuts. Or to borrow a saying from my father, “This is ridiculous.” I’ve met a chunk of stone from Mars and there’s no communication.
The rest of the week we work on this single koan. I count the days, the hours, till I can hop on my faithful hippopotamus and gear through rocky dirt roads the hell out of here.
I can hardly mouth and swallow my oatmeal in the morning.
The teacher tries so hard to make us see. On Wednesday afternoon he has us marching around in circles in the noon sun imagining we are falling blossoms. It has something to do with becoming the thing—with embodying blooms? buds? floral designs? wallflower? the repetitious bouquet print on my childhood wallpaper? Does it mean spring, youth, vigor, decoration, ornament? Should I become an interior decorator? I give up but in an hour I’m supposed to present the koan, to demonstrate my understanding to him in a one-to-one interview.
I am a long-practicing Zen student—by this time at least twenty years. Mostly I’ve practiced in a non-koan tradition, but I have my pride. I want to show something but I’m dumbfounded—and he’s also half a friend. You don’t want to appear this stupid in front of a friend. And I’m going to. I don’t even have a clue. Maybe if I’m 100 percent stupid, that will do the trick. But I’m not 100 percent anything. I just want to go home.
I remember a story Joseph Goldstein told in this very place at a retreat the year before. He’s just returned from Burma and Thailand, where he has been practicing hard under difficult conditions in small rural huts. He is about to bring a whole fresh lineage of Buddhism to America. In fact, he’s already led several retreats in the U.S. when he goes to do a weeklong sesshin with the venerable Zen teacher Sasaki Roshi at Bodhi Mandala in my very own New Mexico. Sasaki knows of Joseph’s experience, so he gives him a more advanced koan. In Sasaki’s lineage each student presents the answer three or four times a day, and the practice hall heats up as each practitioner strains to figure out the appropriate answer that Sasaki will give sanction to and pass him or her on to the next koan.
It is the middle of the week and Joseph has humiliated himself over and over in the small meeting room with Sasaki. He can’t answer the koan—not even close—and each time the roshi quickly cuts him off and rings the bell, signaling Joseph to leave. Finally Sasaki takes pity on Joseph and changes the koan to one of the most obvious and elemental: “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?”
Joseph smiles. This one is easy. He knows the answer even before he leaves the room. You just chant. Nothing else. So in the few hours before he returns to Sasaki he practices in his head four lines from the Heart Sutra.
When it’s his time again, he settles himself on the zafu opposite the teacher and is about to present his answer, is about to chant his heart out, when suddenly what flashes before him is his fourth grade music teacher, Mrs. Snodgrass. “Goldstein, when the class sings, you mouth the words. You’re tone-deaf.” And all at once Joseph’s voice cracks. He croaks out half a line of the chant and falls apart, naked, exposed.
He looks up. Sasaki is smiling. “Pretty good. Pretty good.”
Now I’m sitting opposite my teacher and I’m a squashed duck in my fourth grade seat. “I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
In a flash he jumps on top of me. I’m lying on my back and he’s staring into my eyes. I shrug like a dead horse and say, “I still don’t get it.”
“No,” I shake my head.
He clumsily crawls off.
Finally, the week ends. After many goodbyes I’m at the steering wheel. Thank God. The old jeep has been sitting idle for seven days. I pull out the choke and the motor vrooms. Yippee! We are on our way. He is next to me. I’m driving him out to Taos. Teacher–student roles have been suspended. We are chugging along when the engine drops dead right in the middle of the dirt road. My head jolts forward. I do not miss a beat. We are getting out of here. I start it up immediately. It chugs along for another ten minutes and then dies. People leaving later will be coming up behind us if we need a lift, but I want out now. Besides what would I do with the old Land Cruiser? We start it up again and it darts forward for another mile. Then another. Each time I have to start it again.
We decide on a plan. Get it to the main road and leave it. Hitch a ride to Tres Piedras, which consists of a gas station on the corner, a diner next door, and a hot pink adobe across the highway that always says “Gallery Open” and never is. They have some mean Dobermans behind a chain link fence so no one would think of shopping there anyway. The gas station has mostly empty shelves but they usually sell Tootsie Pops—I know because I stock up on cherry ones before I head for retreats at the Refuge. I’m pretty sure there is a mechanic and garage too, but it’s Sunday. Maybe I can ask them to tow the jeep on Monday. I have it all thought out.
We finally get to hardtop, park the jeep on the shoulder, and hitch a ride.
The woman behind the counter at the gas station points next door, “They’re in there. Working on a car. Go on in.”
I step over the doorjamb. Two burly men, shirts off, bellies hanging over their pants, grease to their elbows, are under the hood of a Chevy pickup. One skinny man missing three front teeth is to the left, giving them advice and leaning under, too.
“Excuse me,” I say gingerly. “My car died on the road. I’m wondering if you could tow it to Taos.”
“Sure,” the big man on the right says, but none of them looks up. “Leave the keys over on the table,” and he juts out his arm in the table’s direction, but still does not look up.
“But wait,” I say, “how will you know where to take it?” This is crazy. “I want it to go to Doc’s on Pueblo Sur. Do you know where that is?”
The same big man slowly stands up and turns his greasy hands in a rag. “You mean, Doc is out of jail?”
“Doc in jail?” I’ve been bringing my cars to him for twenty years. When I’m stuck he even comes up to the mesa to get me. He was brought up in Taos, married his high school sweetheart at sixteen, lives a few blocks from his shop, and now his son Wendell works with him. Last time he was sick I bought him a subscription to an auto mechanics magazine. I consider him, with his gentle, steady ways and soft smile, a guru of sorts.
The big man sees the horror on my face. “Naa, I’m only kidding. Sure, we’ll bring it in the morning to Doc’s.” Then he leans under the hood again and reaches for some wires.
“But wait, don’t you need to know who I am?”
“We know who you are.”
He must be kidding. “Who am I?” I ask.
“You’re Natalie Goldberg. We’ve read your books.”
“You’ve… read… my… books?” My mouth hangs open.
“Yeah, whatya think? We were illiterate? New Mexico is one big family.”
I place the keys on the table and back up, bumping right into the Zen teacher who is standing in the doorway. He has seen the whole thing.
“Now I’m impressed,” he says, his forehead creased with two lines, and he laughs.
The next time I see the teacher is two days later. He and his wife come over for chicken soup. A large bottle of saki a friend gave as a gift is on the table. I don’t drink, so it is untouched. He drinks the whole thing. I think, it must be hard to be a Zen teacher.
Six months later I hear that he has slept with several of his female students, including his wife’s best friend, and his whole spiritual community has fallen apart. For a moment I flash on our interaction in the meeting room. Do you get it? he asked, lying supine on top of me. I wonder if he meant something other than the flower koan? But then I decide no. I’m naïve but I trust myself in this case. Sometimes you have to hedge your bets. This particular time I think he was taking a big risk to help me. I’m a teacher myself and I know the true effort one can make. We also can fail miserably.
Now I hang suspended between the koan, my broken jeep, and my cry to the mechanics, “Who am I?”
That small troop of practitioners marching about in the high July sun, trying to imitate blossoms, the light off the ponderosa needles, and the two spring-fed ponds where beavers swim still haunt me. I want to burst forth and meet that afternoon in a new way. As a writer this story should be enough, but it’s now years later and I still carry the whole situation with no resolution.
But maybe the tip of the pen on this spiral notebook, as I sit on a chipped red painted Algonquin chair on this portale in Santa Fe, on an early Thursday midsummer morning, ten feet across the way a clay birdbath thrown by a potter my age, who is now dead of cancer and lived up the River from here, where a fat robin bathes every morning in the high desert water, his feathers drenched and close to his body, is enough. Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to give this story over to you, to not hold onto it any longer. To know that spring is robust and fall is the beginning of the colored descent and there is nothing you can do about either but receive it all and surrender to no perfect answer and allow no conclusion, is good enough.
What do you think?
This essay was included in The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2016).