Roshi wears his Yankee cap to breakfast, doesn’t remove it even after we sit down. He has a large collection of hats, but he has worn this one exclusively since I bought it for him last week at Yankee Stadium. Slightly self-conscious about his shaved head, he never goes out without a hat, but the Yankee cap has the added advantage of making him look, if not like an American, at least at home in the culture. Like any Zen master, he aims to walk the streets as if invisible, attract no attention, leave no trace of himself in anyone’s mind. The robes he wears in the zendo are seldom worn outside it. He favors flannel shirts and khaki pants, Saucony running shoes, a Yankee jacket in the fall and, when the weather turns, a parka and a black woolen watch cap purchased through the L. L. Bean catalogue. In addition to hats, he collects watches and seems to wear a different one every day. He has no money (his only source of financial support being the dues we pay in the zendo), but he owns at least a dozen watches, and none are inexpensive. The fact that I wear a Timex even though I can afford a better one strikes him as a flaw in my character, even perhaps—as he sometimes hints—an elemental shortcoming in my understanding of Zen. On the street, he walks very fast and purposefully, as if he knows his way around the city. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. He has been in New York for more than six years, but outside his own neighborhood, the only one he knows is Chinatown, which he calls “my territory.”
As we walk, he talks incessantly, asking questions he’s asked me dozens of times, grabbing my arm and turning toward me so that, since I cannot help but do likewise, both of us are virtually walking sideways. I have bumped into fire hydrants and stumbled off curbs while walking with him. “Larry-san—this Greenwich Village? Side street? Avenue? Those people over there—they artist? Homosexual? Why so many standing around?” Yankee cap or not, he is not, most definitely, at home in the culture. He reads Japanese newspapers, watches the Japanese station on cable TV, and despite the fact that he studied English in high school, speaks as if he did not encounter the language until a few months ago. An expectant woman in our zendo is “four months president.” “Vagina”—a word that frequently occurs in his lectures— is “pajama.” He says “minimum” for “maximum” and vice versa. One of his favorite foods is “penis butter.” Last week, in order to obtain a license to perform marriages and funerals, one of his students took him down to “shitty hall.” The idea of English lessons, constantly suggested by one or another of his students, strikes him as absurd. “Study English? What you talking about, Larry-san? I grown man! I learn myself!” If asked how his studies progress, his reply is always the same: “Wonderful! One new word a year!” He finds this funny, but I don’t. His condescension toward language has lately been wearing thin on me. He seems to resent the fact that he has to speak, but this does not prevent his giving incomprehensible lectures in the zendo that can last as long as an hour and a half. Is the anger I feel at such moments the logical response of a mind that is being tormented or proof that my commitment to Zen is insufficient?
We went up to the Stadium to see the Yankees play the Red Sox. For days before the Yankee game, he had been working me over on the subject of bravery and cowardice. Ever since we met, he has remarked on the frequency with which I speak of fear, how many of my sentences begin with phrases such as “I’m afraid that . . .” or “What I’m worried about is. . . .” Whether this is because I am actually consumed with fear or because the shape of my relationship with him requires that I present myself in terms of certain assumptions of inadequacy, I never know for sure. Lately, we have rarely had a conversation in which he has not scolded me for my cowardice or timidity and today, as we wait for the subway that will take us to Yankee Stadium, he brings it up again. “Larry-san, why you always afraid? Forty-five years old talk like baby! What you think? Zen about quiet mind? Relaxation? No! No! Zen about bravery! Zazen mind bravery mind! Must bravery, Larry-san! Must sincere!” I know this, of course, have heard it from him before, but even so, my mind becomes alert with that particular combination of self-criticism, excitement and defensiveness that makes me, so often in his presence, annoyed with him and annoyed with myself for being so. Reminding myself that Zen masters become more brutal with students the more they like them, I tell myself that I should be thankful for his criticism, but who wants to be lectured in a subway station, on his way to a ball game, like a six-year-old? It does not help that before and after this outburst, giggling and asking his silly questions, he has been acting like a six-year-old himself. It is easy to forget that he is a Zen master, and most of the time he seems to forget it himself. Even so, he never strays too far from what is after all the only subject that concerns him, and in my case, at this moment, that means instructing me on the subject of fear. Later, in the seventh inning, when Willie Randolph, the Yankee second baseman, lays down a bunt, and I explain to him that another word for “bunt” is “sacrifice,” he snaps, “Larry-san, if you sacrifice everything, you won’t be afraid of anything.”
The admonition, of course, is a quick summation of Buddhist logic: the source of my anxiety is not the succession of objects to which it attaches itself but that volatile heap of memory and habit I have come to call “myself.” Give it up and you give up your fear; cling to it, and fear will haunt you always. There is nothing unfamiliar about these ideas, but at this moment, in the grandstand behind first base at Yankee Stadium, their effect on me is, like so much of what he says, neurochemical. I feel undermined and I feel exhilarated, free of my self entirely, and I cannot believe that it will ever return again.
Is the insight for him as remarkable as it is for me? Two years later, I have occasion to remind him of it. We are on a plane headed for Israel, where I am to assist him at a retreat with his students in Jerusalem, and we’ve both of us had a bit too much to drink. As usual, alcohol has made him silly and me a little maudlin. I am overcome with love for the practice, love for him, love for the ultimate truth that always seems to be just beyond my grasp when I am sitting in meditation. “Roshi, do you remember that day we went to the Yankee game and someone laid down a bunt and I told you that the word for ‘bunt’ was ‘sacrifice’? Remember what you said to me?”
Sipping his drink (his favorite: Scotch and Coca-Cola), he shakes his head. He is always a little annoyed when pressed for memory, either because this particular neurological function is not one of his strengths or because the very act of remembering interferes with his desire to jettison the past. When once I used the word “amnesia” in conversation with him, he looked it up in his English-Japanese dictionary. “Ah!” he cried, repeating the Japanese word several times. “Ahm-nee-jah! That’s me!”
“You told me that if I sacrificed everything I wouldn’t be afraid of anything. I’ve never forgotten that! It was one of the best things you ever said to me.”
He stares at me blankly, rattles his drink and takes another sip. For a moment, I’m convinced he hasn’t heard me. Watching him shift his lips from side to side, I know that he is engaged in the practice he claims to offer surefire protection against hangover, holding alcohol in one’s mouth for fifteen seconds before swallowing. “Nothing to sacrifice,” he says.
“You don’t have anything, Larry-san. How you sacrifice?”
“Who is Alan Watts?” Mother says.
My father points his fork at the book he has brought to the table and taps it sharply with the prongs. It’s a small thin book with a turquoise cover and several pages folded at the corners: The Wisdom of Insecurity. “Alan Watts,” he says, “is the wisest man who ever lived.”
“But who is he?”
“Well, I guess you’d call him a philosopher. A teacher of Zen.”
Mother looks at him quizzically. After all, this is 1951, nearly two decades before Zen will become a buzzword of the “Human Potential” movement; before the publication of Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, Zen and the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Zen of Running, and dozens of other such books; before the Beat Generation has made Zen its rallying cry; before there is such a thing as Zen perfume, and long before anyone other than those who practice with him is aware that Nyogen Senzaki, the only Zen master now in the United States, has begun to teach the meditation practice around which, in Japan and China, for nearly fourteen hundred years, the vision of Zen has been centered. “Zen?” she says. “What’s that?”
Without a word, Dad stands, leaves the room and returns a moment later with another book by Watts. Opening to a passage he has marked, he reads:
“Zen Buddhism. . . is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as “a way of liberation’. . . a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”
He looks at Mother to see if she is satisfied. Her smile is almost imperceptible, but I know what she is thinking. As long as we can remember, he’s been subject to these infatuations. He quit school when he was fifteen and did not read a book until he was thirty-five, but ever since then he’s been racing to catch up. Nowadays, he reads every morning from six until he goes to work at eight-thirty, and every evening after dinner until he goes to bed. Not infrequently, a book becomes transcendent for him, the answer to all his questions. And since he is by nature a proselytizer, convinced beyond a doubt that what is good for him is good for others, the book of the moment quickly appears at our dining table. Riding the waves of his enthusiasms, we have been through The Story of Philosophy by Will and Ariel Durant, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Henrik van Loon’s Story of Mankind, and in recent months, now that he’s interested in psychoanalysis, books by Freud, Karen Horney, and Erich Fromm.
Closing The Way of Zen, he takes up The Wisdom of Insecurity again and reads aloud in a solemn voice:
“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘Backwards Law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float. When you hold your breath you lose it – which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”
The reading continues for several minutes, but I hear nothing more. Indeed, the fact that I have heard this much is a kind of miracle. I am none too alert at the best of times, but usually, when Dad begins to read, I don’t hear words but pounding, a droning sound, like the hum you get with defective loudspeakers. But this time is different. The odd, reverse reasoning of the Backwards Law permeates my mind before I actually understand it. It is less a matter of thought than ventilation. Like a window has opened and a breeze is circulating in my brain. In a sudden, blinding flash, it seems to me, I have been offered my diagnosis and my cure. How can I doubt that the Backwards Law is the story of my life?
Dad’s eyes are riveted on me. “Well?” he says. “What’s your response to that?”
“To what?” I say.
“Shall I read it again?”
Without waiting for my reply, he points the book at me, crying, “For God’s sake, Larry, wake up! What is Watts talking about? Effort! Compulsion! Tension! Anxiety! Doesn’t it ring a bell for you? Don’t you realize how anxious and confused you are? How much you need to be liked, please everybody, no, don’t turn away, you know what I mean. All these hours you spend on the basketball court. Are you enjoying yourself? Having fun? Hell, no! Anyone can see that! You’re tortured! Driven by insecurity! But why? I’ll tell you why! You’re trying to make yourself secure! And it’s just that need that Watts is getting at. The need that defeats you right from the start! Don’t you see? The need for security makes you insecure!”
The coffee shop where Roshi and I are having breakfast is only two blocks from our zendo. It’s called Elephant and Castle but he calls it “Elephant.” When he wants to go out for breakfast after morning sitting, he sidles up to me soon after we stand up from our cushions. “Go Elephant?” Chronically blocked on names, he often shortens them like this or, in the case of students, replaces them with labels. One fellow is “Washington” because that is where he lives, another, who meditates on two thick cushions, straddling them like a horse, is known by no other name than “Horse Riding.”
When the waitress comes, he asks me to order for him. His appetite is robust, especially in restaurants, but he often defers to me like this. Is it because he has trouble reading the menu or because the Buddhist prejudice against discrimination (“One instant of discrimination,” says the sutra, “and heaven and earth are set apart forever”) is more than a concept for him? Is taste simply a function of ego, another thing that must be sacrificed?
He asks the waitress for a coffee refill. Before we leave the restaurant, he will drain four cups, each with two heaping teaspoons of sugar and plenty of milk. On his return to the zendo, he will make himself a cup of green tea, which packs such a wallop that in Japan they give it to racehorses before sending them out to the starting gate. Despite the fact that it makes him manic and giggly as a child, he claims that caffeine, like alcohol and cigarettes, has no effect on him.
It wasn’t he who suggested breakfast this morning. I have asked to meet with him because I am having problems and want his advice. Now I can’t remember any problems and there is nothing I want to ask him. As often in his presence, I am feeling lucid and carefree, slightly reckless, high as if on amphetamine. Either that or my brain is dysfunctional. My memory isn’t working and, like his, my mind has gone maniacally concrete. When we first sat down, I mentioned that for dinner last night I prepared the miso soup he taught me to make, and he’s been talking miso ever since – where to buy it, how it is manufactured, why Japanese miso is better than American or Korean miso, miso’s medicinal properties, a technique by which miso, placed in a circle around a woman’s navel, can improve her chances of becoming “president,” and, of course, how to handle miso in half-a-dozen recipes he’s dictated, while I write them down on my napkin. My voice is too loud and pitched about an octave higher than usual, and I am no less giggly than he is, and my language has more and more come to resemble his. “I go sleep last night eleven o’clock, Roshi, but I no sleep well.” Is this liberation or regression? If you were watching us from an adjoining table, you’d think both of us were looped or stoned, but what’s our drug? Zen? The endless expanse and compassion of the Buddhist vision? Or simply the energy released when past and future are jettisoned and one lives, as Roshi always seems to do, entirely in the present?
But when I am with him, all my moods are volatile. A single wave of passing thought can take me from joy to sorrow, love to anger, clarity to confusion. Now I am suddenly claustrophobic. His incessant talk and compulsive laughter are grating on my nerves. There is too much energy at this table. We have exceeded not only my tolerance for discontinuity but my capacity to treat it as a teaching. A few minutes ago his face was an inspiring mix of ferocity and compassion, but now his honey-colored skin looks jaundiced, his narrow eyes cold and manipulative. Why must everything he says be punctuated with a giggle? Not for the first time, this habit strikes me as weak and a bit hysterical, a leak of energy through a hole in his self-containment, absolutely antithetical to everything I believe a Zen master should be. The happiness I feel (yes, even now) seems dangerous, unhealthy, like the pleasure one takes, while calling the habit suicidal, from alcohol or cocaine.
But a few minutes later, as we leave the restaurant, I remember what I wanted to speak to him about—a feeling of disorientation, bewilderment verging on panic, which has lately come upon me whenever I sit in meditation. Nothing makes sense anymore, I tell him, and Zen makes less sense than anything. “Yes! Yes!” he cries. “Very nice! You making progress, Larry-san!”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
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