Two days after I drive my new Honda hatchback into the parking lot at the Zen Community of New York, a young woman named Heidi stands and speaks in a heartfelt voice at our weekly meeting of residents: “I think we all owe Larry a vote of gratitude for his generosity.”
At first I have no idea what she is talking about. It’s true that the community’s location is inaccessible to public transit and that several residents (including Heidi) have borrowed the car already, but I am still of the opinion that the Honda belongs to me and no one else. The fact that it is registered in the name of the community is a mere formality, suggested by Bernard Glassman Sensei, our teacher, so that I can make use of our tax exemption in paying for the car and its expenses. What is Zen if not pragmatism? What is a Zen teacher if not a man with an eye for the loophole? What are titles, registrations, personal checks, and tax deductions but the transient, superficial imagery of the relative world which we dissolve every moment with our zazen?
“Look at it this way,” Glassman said. “The community owns a car and you’re a member of the community. Why shouldn’t you be able to use it? Or turn it around. The community needs a car and you’ve donated one to us. What’s wrong with that? Even if you’re using the car, you’ll still be using it for community business, won’t you? Even the strictest IRS audit wouldn’t question your deduction.”
I’ve never found it easy to doubt people who gaze at me with admiration. How magical it seems that all eighteen of my fellow residents not only adore me but consider me proof of our teachings here—have I not “let go” of myself? Transcended attachment to property and money? Dissolved the boundaries between myself and others by allowing them to “share” in my good fortune? As Glassman says, we’re here to “open” to each other, to dissolve our sense of privacy and “specialness.” Buy a car, give it up. Take my money, take my ego. I am basking in the glow of the image I see in their eyes, a self so realized that I don’t even register my “generosity,” much less care if it is appreciated.
Next day Heidi borrows the car to pick up her boyfriend at the airport. Naturally, they take the long way home, stopping for dinner and other activities appropriate to reunion. It’s a fine spring evening and I have a mind to take a ride myself after zazen, but by not returning until well after midnight, they offer another happy challenge to my selfishness, the absurd instinct that leads me to persist in thinking that I and they are separate. Aren’t we all, as Glassman likes to say, teachers for each other? The next morning one of our carpenters makes a run to the lumberyard, which leaves the fine maroon carpet of the Honda’s trunk covered with sawdust. Anger rises, but later that day, when I loan the car to our cook to visit her parents in New Jersey, I get a whiff of freedom that leaves me lighthearted, almost intoxicated, as if it’s not just the car but my ego, my karma, my ignorance driving out of the parking lot.
Within a week the odometer passes nine hundred miles, and half a dozen duplicate keys have been made. Within two weeks, people don’t ask to borrow the car, just tell me when they’ll need it. One of our less functional residents takes it on an all-night jaunt to “dissolve” his mind. “What a practice!” he exclaims. “You can’t fix on anything when you’re watching the landscape rush by at eighty miles an hour.” Serving as meditation monitor, leading the group in walking meditation, I make certain to take us by the window that looks out over the parking lot, so I can see if the car is there. Less and less, when it isn’t, do I know where it has gone.