“Body old,” the Zen master says, but still he can summon the power to hug the whole world. Shozan Jack Haubner wonders what will happen to Zen after the master dies.
It is the final evening of Rohatsu, the most intense retreat on the Zen monastic calendar (the “monk killer,” Japanese practitioners call it), and we are taking a drive down to the sutra hall, where the following morning we would perform the traditional Jodo-e ceremony in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For the first time in anyone’s recollection, our teacher would not be attending.
“I coming diiiiiiiificult,” he’d said in his broken English. “My body ooooold.” His face, ancient yet lineless, bloomed into one of those buoyant expressions that the elderly and infants have in common.
I crouched on the driver’s seat and a nun guided our teacher from his wheelchair down onto my upturned palm. Not five feet tall, this man is nonetheless profoundly dense. I heaved and strained until he was comfortably positioned in the passenger seat. Have you ever felt the butt of an impossibly old man? Well, there’s not much of it to feel. It was as pliant and yielding as overchewed bubble gum, and my fingers went straight to the bone. I could feel his skeleton. He is that exposed to the world. “There is just the thinnest membrane separating him from death,” my priest-mentor told me recently.
“Okay Roshi?” I asked, using his honorific.
“Yeahhh,” he sighed. He was cocooned in two cashmere blankets and a massive scarf that went around his tiny yet rotund body three times. He wore an enormous fur hat that towered on the top of his head. He looked like a Mongolian warlord. He pursed his lips and blew through them. “Ooooook.”
I carefully drove the length of camp through fog that becomes clouds when seen from below the mountain. We passed two cooks heaving steaming silver cauldrons up the driveway. It was time for tempatsu, the tradition of eating udon noodles in a thin broth on the last night of Rohatsu.
“Tempatsu, Roshi,” I said, and was overjoyed when he seemed unconcerned that we would be missing it. The Japanese like to slurp their noodles; apparently it is a culturally accepted way of expressing culinary approval. And so naturally all forty of us Americans sit there in our Pacific Northwestern zendo, pucker our lips, and inhale our noodles as noisily as possible, looking for all the world like delegates from the First Annual Japanophile convention. My first year here, the slurping apparently wasn’t of a sufficient volume, and so one of the zendo officers felt compelled to break the silence and announce: “Slurping okay.”
When my teacher dies I will have many such memories of Americans engaging in formal Zen practice. Fortunately, I will have other memories too.
I wheeled Roshi through the double doors of the sutra hall, which was in various states of preparation for the following day’s ceremony. Roshi’s eyes slowly traveled right, then left, taking in the scene. One of the priests produced her Blackberry and began recording our teacher on video. I watched this old master on her high-tech screen as she dictated the date, the time, and the people present. Most of what our teacher does now is accompanied by this kind of hullabaloo. We can’t take for granted that he’ll be around much longer.
In many ways this ancient man has become like a child whose every breath and bowel movement we must monitor. This isn’t sycophantic hero-worship: the guy is a living relic, as if someone performed incantations over a classical koan text and out he crawled, flinging teacups and shouting non sequiturs. He is literally the last of his kind, a pre-WWII-trained Rinzai Zen monk with core Buddhist principles hardwired into the very marrow of his bones. Every teaching he gives is like a piece of fruit fallen from a tree that is about to go extinct from this planet.
Be that as it may, I was exhausted and, frankly, annoyed by the proceedings. Let me ask you something: How many times do you think a Zen monk bows during an average morning of full-on formal practice? I once counted. We’re talking forty to sixty bows here, and that’s not including the nine full prostrations you perform variously in sets of threes. You bow when you enter the zendo, bow to the tea server, bow to get up and sling the kesa portion of your robes over your shoulder, bow to the “zendo guardian” on the way out to your private meeting with Roshi, whom you will then bow four times to, twice before you even say howdy.
“If you’re ever in doubt about what to do,” I tell new students, “just bow. You can’t go wrong.”
Earlier that day I had taken a controversial bathroom break at a time not normally allowed for such bodily functions. I entered a stall and slumped on the toilet seat in my under-robes, only to discover that in fact I didn’t have to go at all. I guess I simply wanted a moment away from formal Zen practice and subconsciously drifted to the only place on camp where I was assured one.
Hell, I think I just wanted to escape all those bows—the bows, and the punctilious and heavily policed oryoki-style meals, and the cloying and ubiquitous Kyo-nishiki incense, and the weighty forced silences of the zendo, and our American mispronunciation of the Japanese mispronunciation of the Chinese mispronunciation of the Sanskrit mispronunciation of the original Pali chants—and the googolplexian other contrivances that make monastic Zen life what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once called “the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm. But it is a practical joke, very practical.”
Sitting on a toilet I had no intention of using, I whispered my sacred mantra, given to me by my very first teacher, which was pop culture, mostly MTV, mainly ’80s new wave, specifically the Vapors single hit: “I’m turning Japanese I think I’m turning Japanese I really think so!”
At eleven that evening, I was still sour on all things Zen. Roshi must have smelled the nastiness oozing from the bald pores of my febrile skull, because he immediately banished me to a tiny crawl space behind the altar. He did this in the name of choreographing tomorrow’s ceremony. To reach this place of exile I had to climb over the white sheet-draped altar with its ceremonial pound cake platters and towering tea and fruit stands, and I felt very foolish standing in this dark stuffy space in my elaborate “seven layered” robes. Though what I quickly discovered is that sometimes feeling foolish feels very very good. It breathes air into that dark stuffy crawl space between your ears.
Every time I tried to poke my head around the curtain Roshi would point at me and laugh. “Ha ha ha Shozan-san.” I felt like the hapless protagonist in a Beckett play, consigned to some ridiculous fate by a mad taskmaster. “A-hahahahahahaha!” Roshi cried, jiggling askew that hat that looked like a small television made out of fur. “Shozan’s in his little cage,” said the nun I’d been fighting with all week.
Roshi turned next to the priest who would be pinch-hitting for him at the ceremony the next day. “More on floor!” he cried, gesturing for the priest to put his hara, or diaphragm, flat on the carpet while performing his great bows. This particular priest, with his eggheady Ken Wilbur glasses and exhaustless penchant for mischief, knows Zen form inside and out, and has a unique talent for tweaking it just enough so that you know he’s doing something wrong but you can’t quite figure out what it is. He sprawled on the floor, looking like a gunshot victim, trying to mash his hara into the carpet, doing some abomination of the breakdance move “the Worm.”
“No no no,” Roshi cried, and began to rise up out of his wheelchair in that time-slowing way of his. Dealing with an extremely old person is like dealing with an extremely drunk person: they can tip in any direction at any time. People scrambled to box him in and grab a limb. The great thing about Roshi, I realized, as he stood, balanced, and then produced possibly the longest flatulence I have ever heard in my entire life, followed by, “Ohhhhhh, gas come out,” is that he allows you to see both the “Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz” manifestation and the “wrinkled old man behind the curtain” manifestation. Both are equal. To favor the spiritual is to be “too in love with heaven,” he claims. “And the problem with heaven is—no toilets and no restaurants there.”
“Oh no uh oh,” the nun murmured as Roshi descended to his knees before the bowing mat, his joints sounding off like confetti poppers and all of us gasping and groaning in sympathetic agony.
First he crunched into what’s known as child’s pose in yoga, his hands outstretched before him, his shins flat on the carpet—the most prostrate stage in a Zen great bow. But then he began to slowly, inexplicably, stretch his legs out behind him one nano—and much-argued-against—inch at a time, until he was lying flat on his stomach with his face pressed into the bowing mat. It was really quite extraordinary, like watching someone suddenly do a double backflip while waiting in line at McDonald’s. He balanced on the fulcrum of his tight, rounded stomach, arms and legs outstretched like a kid pretending to fly.
From my confinement behind the altar I craned to catch a glimpse of “the Roshi show” over a votive candle and practically set my koromo sleeves ablaze. Surely some mind-blowing lesson awaited us at the end of all this significant effort! But then, maybe the effort itself was the lesson.
“This…how Tibetans do it,” he grunted.
The priests looked at one another, pens paused over their notebooks. “What, Roshi?” someone asked.
“This…how Tibetans do it,” he repeated, his face muffled on the bowing mat.
“Apparently in the Tibetan tradition they go all the way down and lie flat like this when doing their full prostrations,” the priest with the Ken Wilbur glasses explained.
That was the big lesson.
But already Roshi was rising, and the two priests and nun scrambling to help ease his rickety, tendon-trembling ascent. Now he was going to show us how full bows before the altar and Buddha statue were done in the Zen tradition. Whatever. I was over this little lesson, mentally downshifting as I often do when I privately figure that my teacher is having a senior moment.
I was studying the bloody end of a cuticle I’d been nervously gnawing all week when I looked up and saw my teacher staring straight at me—straight through me. He was at the top of the bowing mat, squared off in front of the altar, looking very samurai, his hands passing just over his heart, that invisible sword. Behind me was the Buddha statue he was ostensibly addressing with his momentum-gathering gestures. He looked ever so slightly past me to it. And so I saw how he sees the Buddha.
I have never been looked at this way in my entire life. It took me completely off guard. Have you ever been fixed with a gaze of total love that was not a smile? He was, in fact, utterly expressionless. How do these Zen masters do it? I thought. Catch you so off guard with something so simple?
I watched him find his balance at the top of the key; I watched him extend those tiny, withered hands, the fingerprints worn smooth, out in front of him; I watched him open his arms and widen them in a looping circle, hands meeting at the palms in a prayer gesture or gassho.
“Taking whooooooooole world into your arms. Hugging whole world,” he said.
For that’s exactly what he did. He took the whole universe into his frail gray arms and brought it back into his chest like a great samurai sheathing his sword, unlocking for me in a single phrase and motion what had for six years been a largely meaningless gesture, repeated by rote, day upon day. “Turning Japanese”—aping the customs and rituals of a spiritual tradition so foreign to me—didn’t seem like such a bad thing now. Watching my teacher in action, it hit me all at once what a tremendous container the rituals and customs are for a truly enlightened mind, and what a profound opportunity they afford for a cathartic gathering and releasing of group anxieties and energies.
“Etai—etai!” Roshi suddenly cried, Japanese for ouch. A few simple movements. The result—utter agony. The wheelchair appeared behind him, and as he collapsed into it my heart sank along with him, for I finally realized what I had witnessed that evening: certain crucial aspects of a tradition—and so, a whole way of life—literally dying before my eyes.
Rinzai Zen customs and rituals don’t come naturally to us Westerners, but in our sangha, our community of practitioners, we heartily participate in them because in the context of this great teacher and his powerful manifestation, they make sense. But what, I wondered, will happen to these customs and rituals when he’s gone? Will we have learned what’s really behind them, or have we just been blindly participating in them, riding on the coattails of our teacher’s understanding? I don’t think most of us will truly know the answer to this until he’s gone. A great teacher is what an old friend used to call a quality problem. Sometimes it’s hard to get out from under his or her enlightenment and learn to think and practice for yourself. But we will all have to, and soon.
When he sighs deeply and stares out his window, past the snow-capped mountain peaks, retreating deep within himself, Roshi looks like a great mythical animal who knows its time has come, and who must soon go off into the forest to die alone. His tenuous health is like a bubble shifting under a carpet: one day his blue-veined feet are swollen but his back is okay; the next, his sciatica is on fire but he “came out”—got unconstipated—that morning; then his eyes are dried out and his mucus is green, but his energy is genki—good, strong.
Where his reach once extended to every aspect of sangha life, a gulf of responsibility now opens up behind him that we must fill. But the question on everyone’s noodle-slurping lips is how? Change a tradition and you change its meaning: this is how traditions die. But follow it to the letter and you become its slave: who wants to be a spiritual company man, a bean counter of the cloth?
About a year ago Roshi got the flu, which can be lethal at his age. Three of us bore him down a flight of stairs to the Town Car, folded him into the front seat, and sped him to Cedars–Sinai, where I and his attendant stayed with him for a week, sleeping on the floor and in chairs upholstered with, it seemed, large slabs of granite.
I saw him naked for the first time. I helped him urinate and defecate. I spoke to nurses and doctors on his behalf, and he and I watched trashy medical dramas on the TV together. The standards of formality significantly lowered, and a new intimacy developed. We even joked around. “White rice, white flour, and white sugar,” he proudly stated when I asked him his secret to living a long life. He reminded me of how my grandmother used to feel as we braved icy parking lots to her favorite diners: newly game for life with this whippersnapper at her side.
More important, watching Roshi in a non-monastic setting gave me new insight into just how seamlessly he had made the Zen tradition his own—and vice versa. An uneasy tension had always existed between my free-spirited self and the hyper-disciplined, even militaristic conventions of formal Zen practice. But that week in the hospital I began to see that the proper relationship between an individual and a tradition is one of tension—healthy tension. This is what produces spiritual growth, both in the individual and the tradition itself: not the individual’s solo efforts nor the tradition’s overarching forms, but the two locked into a single struggle/dance, from which a new kind of person—and practice—emerges.
With the full force of the tradition behind him, my teacher searched within himself (the “backward step,” as Dogen called it) and eventually broke through, turning himself inside out, and taking the outside in. The tradition became personal and the personal universal. As the religious historian Karen Armstrong has pointed out, the tendency in our age is either to reject the traditional and remain isolated, secular individualists, or cling to religious forms and ideals and become fundamentalists. But the truth, like all truths, lies somewhere in between: We can’t do it on our own, nor can the tradition do it for us. When the individual and the tradition are perfectly wed, intermingled, and indistinguishable, a spiritual heavy hitter—a genuine master—is born, and an institution is revitalized.
In short, the tradition must be dissolved within the individual, and the individual must dissolve within the tradition. That’s the middle way.
Toward the end of our strange, harrowing “vacation” in the hospital, I opened an Odwalla juice, poured it into a paper cup, delivered it to his bedside, and flat-out asked my teacher, who was swathed in a nest of blinking lights and wires and looked, with his soft pink skull and silvery hair net, like an alien lifeform preparing to return to his home planet (the “space fetus,” I dubbed him that day): “Roshi-sama: are you afraid of dying?”
It didn’t take him long to answer: “Not afraid of dying. Afraid I die and no one understand my teaching!”
Over the next two days I watched him literally come back from the dead. “Hospitals where people go to die!” he shouted at us. “I not die till I one-hundred-twenty-eight!” Resurrecting, he calls it: “There is no true religion without resurrection.” I have watched him do this time and time again. Get sick, slip into an exhaustion-coma, loiter on death’s door—and then a day later he is reborn, fresh life rippling through him as he waves his gnarled manzanita stick in our private meeting. This is why I stick around, don the robes, participate in the rituals, I think, ducking. Because some teachings transcend tradition.
Roshi has often said that he will not die until true Buddhism is born in this country, but what will an American Buddhism look like? What does it look like? If my practice is the proverbial raft to the other shore, then which of the customs and rituals will I take with me when my teacher dies, and which will I throw overboard?
These questions were haunting me on the final evening of Rohatsu, as I drove Roshi from the sutra hall back to his cabin. But my worries cleared when the clouds briefly parted above and below, and a twinkling vista of stars and city lights opened up. I studied Roshi’s one exposed hand, liver spot-marbled and gripping the handle above the door for support. Is there anything more beautiful than old, banged hands that have been put to good use over a lifetime? A tradition, I thought, is like an old man: it must be taken care of; taken with a grain of salt; taken for what it is: precious, limited, a window into the past, and, properly plumbed, a door to the future. There we stand at the hinge, making it all happen—or not…
When the time comes, I decided, I’ll leave off noodle-slurping but bring with me every last one of my bows. Noodle-slurping I can live without, but the practice of taking the cosmos above and the metropolis below—“the whooooooooole world”—into my arms, and sheathing them in my heart?
That is nonnegotiable.
Body old, check. Going to the sutra hall difficult, check. And yet here we were at 11 p.m., loading him into the old Lexus. He should be resting at this late hour, I thought. What does he want to show us? Exhausted and ornery, I was in no mood for a lesson. Which is to say, I was ripe for the kind my teacher excels in providing.
This article was first published in the January 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
Illustration by Hilde Thompson.