During the recent skit night at City Center, I filled in the breaks for scene changes by presenting some less-well-known Zen stories for the delight and illumination of the monks in the audience.
One of the stories was:
A monk asked Joshu “What was the true intention of Bodhidharma coming from the west?”
Joshu replied “There is moss growing on your teeth.”
I got that conversation from James Green’s book The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu. But a few people have come up to me since skit night to ask if I’d made it up. You either have too much faith in me or too little in Master Joshu.
I picked this book up shortly before the fall 2013 practice period at Tassajara, and read through it by sharing the book with three of my friends. We would all sit at one end of the table. I would read one of the short Zen stories, then pass the book to my right and the next person would read the story and pass the book along, etc. It was a good way for me to read this kind of book, as it forced me to take a bit of time to mull over each story before moving on to the next. One morning at study hall, I read a particular story that was quite odd (as many of the stories were). Then I read the explanatory footnote and laughed like a loon. I passed the book along and watched eagerly as my friend read the story, looked confused, read the footnote, and cracked up – which of course set me off again. By the time the last person had read the footnote, all four of us were completely beyond hope – crying, snorting and pounding on the table.
So the tanto came over to ask what was causing this disturbance. I couldn’t talk so I just handed the tanto The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu and pointed to the encounter we’d just read. The tanto read the story, read the footnote, then looked at us and said, incredulously “Seriously? That’s it?”
We lost it. We laughed so hard that we fell out of our chairs. The tanto shook his head and walked away with The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu under his arm. I couldn’t believe it. The tanto confiscated Joshu! I was kind of proud of old Joshu, still causing trouble in the monastery after being dead for more than a thousand years.
I thought of this story because I’ve recently heard a few people new to Zen Center ask me why everyone seems so serious and dour all the time. My initial reaction was We’re not! What do you mean? But I don’t want to deny their experience.
I wonder if it’s the silence and the lack of eye contact during the formal programme that makes Zen students seem grumpy? I’ve always been fairly shy, so the lack of talking doesn’t really bother me, and it was easy to get used to. Also, the robes and the bowing and the chanting in Japanese can be weird and intimidating.
I wonder too if Zen students look at paintings like the one at the top of the post, with Zen Ancestor Bodhidharma glaring out at them (Bodhidharma didn’t have much choice about the glaring, according to the legend he cut his eyelids off so that he wouldn’t sleep in zazen). So we take our practice very seriously. But I know that I wouldn’t still be practising in this way, with these people, if it did not give me great joy (I am certainly not in it for the money!). Somehow, the solemnity is obvious at first brush, while the joy can be harder to communicate. How can you know the kindness and friendliness I feel for you when I don’t speak to you or look at you? This is a real question – if you have advice I would love to hear it!
Please take very good care of yourself.
PS – The story in the Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu went like this:
Once the master was in charge of keeping the fires at the monastery. One day, while everyone was out tending the garden, the master went inside the monk’s hall and shouted, “Help, fire! Help, fire!”
Everyone rushed back to the monk’s hall, but the master had closed and barred the door. No one knew what to do. Finally, Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) took the key from off its hook and threw it into the room through the window.
And the footnote said:
In temples doors are locked from the outside.