At night I lie in bed, unable to sleep. Worst-case scenarios run through my head—and then I remember that they’re not worst-case scenarios at all. I’m living them. My teacher died, our community has torn itself apart in his absence, and I’m 42, single, and still not totally sure what I want to do with my life.
Plus I have the prostate of a 70-year-old man, which is not as fun as it sounds. At night I pee in an old plastic mozzarella cheese bucket I keep by the side of the bed, because I pee a lot and the bathroom is too far down the hall. I mean, it’s not in another zip code or something, but the stone hallway tile is really hard and cold, and anyway, don’t judge me. One man’s sad little habit is another man’s life hack.
I live at and manage a city temple founded by my teacher 50 years ago. The halls are haunted by his absence. The place is full of ghosts. At night they all seem to take up residence in my room—in my head. I can’t stop worrying. Mostly I worry about how the temple will survive on my limited charisma and Cracker Jack insights. Who will want to come study with me? Is it my job to be spiritually impressive, to draw in new students, or is this just ego?
I never wanted to make a career out of Zen. I simply wanted to find a way to live. Making a living at being wise seems to come so naturally to some people. They write a few books, smile from a few lifestyle magazine covers, and suddenly they’re filling auditoriums. Bastards. I belong to a different class. Not a spiritual superstar, but not a freshman practitioner either. Not enlightened, but I can help a rookie upgrade her practice. I deal in small volumes of local dharma.
I’m a middle way manager.
After my suiji-shiki, or priest/teacher ordination ceremony, they put me in the temple tearoom as a kind of dharma show pony. There I stood, in 30 pounds of hand-sewn garments, trying to make sense of my new red and gold fan, when a Japanese woman, about 50 years of age, approached me, went down on her knees before me, and began bowing and saying “Shozan-san! Thank you! Thank you!” “Okay,” I said, bowing my head, “Yes, thank you.” “Thank you! Thank you Shozan-san!” She stayed down there an awfully long time and I began to go red in the face. “Okay, yes, thank you too. Okay . . . ” “Thank you Shozan-san! ”
There were tears in people’s eyes. Everyone looked so in love with their idea of me just then. And who was I to argue? Much of your job as a new Zen priest involves pretending that you actually are the kind of person that people keep mistaking you for. You are constantly walking the thin line between growing into your new role and faking the part.
That being said, whatever you do, don’t try to hide your weaknesses. This is the spiritual equivalent of the guy who combs the hair down by his ears up over the shiny bald spot on the top of his head. No one’s fooled. The only thing worse than trying to look younger than you are is trying to look wiser than you are.
Of course you can’t win, because once you’re open about your flaws, students judge you every bit as harshly as you used to judge the teachers in your own life. They even compare you to your own spiritual heroes, often with a look on their face as though they’ve eaten a bad piece of fish, and suddenly you realize that those deep souls who inspired you are somehow now your competitors—and you go from admiring to envying them.
I started thinking about how many truly extraordinary Buddhist teachers there are in this world, and how lucky I am that they all live so far away.
Envy is born from insecurity. We often think that insecurity comes from a weak ego, but in my experience it is the result of an inflexible ego that has mistaken itself as the center of the universe, which keeps contradicting it on this key point. Whatever its origin, envy is not the proper response to spiritual decency in others. Yet there it was, rising up in me just the other night after I had peed in my cheese bucket. I lay back down and started thinking about how many truly extraordinary Buddhist teachers there are in this world, and how lucky I am that they all live so far away. I mean, how could I compete for students with the Dalai Lama?
I tried to puff myself up by thinking about the book I wrote and its dozens of fans. Then I remembered who is shelved next to me at Barnes & Noble. Thich Nhat something or other. There are about 500 titles in the Eastern religions section, and at least one thousand of them are written by him. Who writes this many books? How does he do it?
I went on in this vein until the sun started to rise and I had to pee again. I stumbled out of bed and stepped right into my bucket of urine—at which point I utterly freaked out. I thought I’d fallen into a frigid pool of death or something. I screamed and kicked my foot, and the pee bucket shot right through my paper shoji screen and across the room, where it hit the wall and landed with a thud.
I cleaned up my mess, cursed a great deal, crawled back in bed, and lay there like the middle-aged ersatz Eckhart Tolle I am. No way I was falling asleep now. I replayed the pee bucket incident again and again in my head, audibly groaning each time. The worst person to be embarrassed in front of is yourself, because out of everyone you know you’re probably the least willing to forget any of the stupid things that you do.
Humility, however, brings clarity. Sometimes you’re just too busy thinking about yourself to really see yourself clearly. That’s when life puts a banana peel—or a pee bucket—in your path. That morning I clearly saw just how heavy I had grown with the burden of trying to be someone who I am not. I needed to go back to the core of Zen practice: doing simple things completely, not trying to do big things for a large audience. I’m a monk, not Tony Robbins. If people get something out of practicing with me, great. But I can’t carry anyone into the zendo with me, either through charisma, insight, or marketing. That’s just not what this path is about. People have to bring themselves to the practice. And when they do, I’m there to practice with them.
My job as a middle-aged middle manager of the middle way is the same as that of any lay practitioner, right on up to the most enlightened being on the planet: we all must commit wholeheartedly, moment after moment, to the life we have, instead of fantasizing about a different life while putting down or envying those who are supposedly living it. When I start feeling jealous of others, it’s a warning sign that I’ve become a little bit too entranced by some idea of myself and have lost touch with the reality of my life. Someone else seems to better represent this idea of myself than I do, and suddenly I want his life instead of my own.
Zen practice, however, teaches you to completely be yourself—if you don’t, who will? Someone’s got to hold down your corner of the universe, and no one else is qualified. If you are not fully present in your life, there will be an absence in the world where you should be. That absence won’t be big or small, it will be the exact same size as your presence: perfectly you-sized.
After the Japanese woman finally got up from her knees that day in the tearoom, a tall, funny-looking monk friend of mine took her place before me. He saw my expression and growled. “Don’t forget the most important thing about being a Zen priest—wear your responsibilities lightly!”
It was one of those rare moments where someone says something that you didn’t know you needed to hear, and it makes all the difference. A well-put spiritual phrase usually happens like this, by accident or chance, in response to some particular need. Genuine teaching arises in small moments, person to person. At least that’s always how it’s been for me. When you’re fully present in your life, the teachings have a way of finding you—and when you’re not, a bucket of piss becomes the Buddha and wakes you up.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.