IT’S A COLD NIGHT, you’ve gotten up at 2 :45 A.M., rushed to the outhouse in your flapping robe. You slid your way across a sheet of ice to the zendo, the meditation hall. You spent painful and sleepy hours in that drafty building, legs tucked in as best as they tuck. Strained muscles smoldered, irritated nerves flamed. Frogs croaked in the pond behind the zendo, sounding like little old men discussing the same complaint forever. You got whacked by a grim-looking stick bearer, twice on each shoulder. He does it again on his way back to the altar. Finally Teacher’s little bell called you out to the cabin, but another student hasn’t finishedsanzen, the daily confrontation, in there. You stand between buildings catching arctic sleet. There was a mouse sitting on your bare foot, warming itself. Renewed tinkling makes you move, makes the mouse slide off. You stumble inside the sanzen cabin, make your bows to the teacher.

It’s New Koan time. Koans are Zen traps, or Zen carrots that get dangled near your nose while the Zen stick,kesaku, whacks your back. Koan pulls, kesaku pushes.

Koans are Zen jokes, when you get the joke you move up a square. You passed the last bunch, translated wisdom collected in one of Teacher’s imported notebooks, and now he’s made one up for you, and whispers it along:

“Roshi meets Rhino: where did Roshi go?”

Teacher sounds the sanzen bell, asking you to go now.

Where did you go? Back to the zendo, to chew on the riddle for the rest of the season.

So what are you going to do?

Not much.

Unless Teacher gives you some clues you’ll never get nowhere on this one, and Nowhere is the place to go in Zen, right?


For let’s face that home truth: the whole trouble that got us into Zen (or any other organized spiritual quest) is that we feel we are Somewhere samsaric, where it hurts, and we would like to get rid of the pain, of the darkness, of the doubt, and the place where doubt stops is nirvanic Nowhere.

No ego, no separation, no duality, no pain.

That’s the home truth? That’s what gets you to hang out on ice, with a mouse on your foot?

Hopefully, yes.

“Show me your original face, the face you had before your father and mother were born.”

“Hey, I looked that one up a long time ago. I’m doing this career-thing now.”

The quest loads itself with goodies.

For who?

For you?

Like what kind of goodies?

Could be anything. Could be a white Ferrari. Could be luxurious quarters in a restored T’ang Dynasty temple on a Maine island. Could be cover girls, or boys, for disciples to take to a roshi congress in the Catskills.

Could be status.

Status is good. Roshis get respected.

“So what became of your kids?”

“My kids are doctors and lawyers.”


“So what became of your kid?”

“My kid is teaching doctors and lawyers now.”

“Wow…your kid became a…?”

“…a roshi.”

Roshis slurp longer noodles.

“You’re going to be a roshi now?”

And then to think that “roshi” means “old person.” It’s not so hard to become an old person, all that takes is to keep getting up in the morning, until the payoff. Once the deal is done You-Roshi sleeps in, sends a message down to the zendo or just doesn’t show up. That’s okay.


Roshi-anointed are said to know everything: what came before the universe, why babies are born with AIDS. Roshi-titled dance on the tip of the tail of the tiger. They meet in the infinite, that precise point where parallels meet. Zen masters could explain, if they cared to, why Homo Sapiens infests an otherwise perfectly beautiful planet.

How did that knowledge get to them?


By whom?

By other roshis.

Talking about other roshis: Roshi meets Rhino, where did Roshi go?

You haven’t got the faintest so you’re getting clever now. You’re somewhat versed in in-talk, you remember there’s something about “being” in Zen phrasing. Has to do with nonbeing, it seems. Now, if Roshi went, if he disappeared, if he is done with being…well, maybe he never was. You say so at your next sanzen meeting.

“Roshi was never there in the first place,” you say.

Surprise—the teacher accepts that answer, then reverts to his frown.

Good answer, not a great answer. So you fight back and forth. You become obsessed with Roshi versus the Rhino, you try anything to explain how come Roshi gets lost. Rhino ate him? Your teacher laughs. Don’t you know that the rhinoceros is a plant eater? Surely you have looked the creature up. By now you’re an expert on rhino-lore. You learned that large rhinos populated America once, and that the longtoothed tiger ate them, but that was before people. You’re aware that rhinos mark their territory with great piles of undigested. You know rhinos pop up in surrealist art. That and $2.50 doesn’t buy cappuccino.

Good luck comes to those who keep trying. Kwannon, lovely Bodhisattva of Compassion, arranges for a scholar to visit Teacher’s hermitage and, during dinner, to mention the term “rhinoceros of doubt.”

Your ears perk up. “What?”

“Don’t you know?” Scholar asks. “Rhinoceros,” in Zen parlance, means “doubt,” like “bull” stands for “ego.”

Never heard of Hakuin’s rhino of doubt? Where have you been?

rhinos1 copy


THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF BOOKS on wordless Zen. Remember the libraries in Kyoto? Closets bulging with scrolls, shelves groaning under volumes. A zillion wordless words commenting on, explaining metaphors. Forgotten your Japanese? Check the universities of Hawaii or Leyden. Fax for info.

Within hours the machine responds. Hakuin (1686-1769), freelance patriarch, spends final no-rank years living in happy poverty amongst peasant practitioners, teaching that direct knowledge of the truth is available to all. Ask the university to cross-reference “rhino”? Roshi’s Rhino dangles from your temple’s fax machine.

L’histoire se répéte.

Now is always, here is everywhere. What happens is that Hakuin’s seventeenth-century Japan equals twentieth-century America: an overflow of masters, some fair, some middling, some clinically crazy. Some hold on to their students, most go the other way: combining constant change with high living, roshis charge high fees that encourage quick turnover.

You want insight? You’ve got it.

Drunken-sailor masters throw transmissions around like there is no tomorrow. Serious soul-roshis, citing End of the World, stage simultaneous designations of a baker’s dozen of dharma heirs. Female students bogged down in patriarchies arrange for quick-fix diplomas elsewhere.

“I fly to Kathmandu. Guru meets my plane. We transmit right there at the airport. Guru drops body, flies up. I fly down.”

Some channel their title from the dear departed.

Some transmit themselves.

All change their names: Buddy Baba, Vritz Vratz Vroom, Singh Tum Gnat, Moonie Kloonie.


Next have a disciple rent a barn and hang out your shingle: high rates, low teachings.

All was well as long as the average faced the average. Hakuin’s talent and intelligence outshone his teachers’ insights, so the roshis of the day graduated him out of (their) sight, bounced him along to colleagues who soon added their blessings before sending Wonderboy on his way again.

“Your insight equals mine, take this robe of mine, take this bowl, go far away now.”

Hakuin was young. Honors, prizes, medals flatter an ego that hasn’t been seen through yet. If his respected masters told him he was It, then Hakuin be it. Here is one happy holy hiker, backpacking assorted roshi-certificates, on a narrow winding mountain path circling Mount Hey. One-thousand-percent enlightened Hakuin on his way to astonish Japan’s spiritual seekers, hiking north.

The rhino species is not indigenous to Japan. No Japanese could imagine anything like a rhino. This is the seventeenth century, nobody heard of dinosaurs yet, of science fiction, Nintendo, cyberspace. No Saturday morning storybreak. A Japanese seafarer, reaching Indonesia, catches and crates a baby rhino, takes it home to a mountain farm. Once the enormous beast is full-grown the former captain herds his pet to a Kyoto fair, to show the rhino for money. Here is the giant two-horned white Sumatran rhinoceros, trundling south.

Bogus Roshi meets Real Rhino.

Afterward Hakuin sits at the side of the path, head in hands, trembling, crying over a very intricate structure of fine roshi-approved knowledge, smashed once and forever.

Rhino of doubt moves right along.

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