Conversation With A Zen Master

Conversation with a Zen Master

Like many Westerners in the late sixties, I wanted to be somewhere else in my religious journey.  Confusion reigned in the kingdom of my mind, and I yearned to construct a framework of understanding that seemed beyond my present cultural tools.  I couldn’t seem to get “there” from “here.”

Zen and its idea of enlightenment appealed to me.  That one might sit very still and empty one’s mind and suddenly be hit by a mighty wave of comprehension beyond words – well, that would do.  Hit me with the big news and let me walk away with a sense of “I get it!”

Took a leave of absence from my dailiness and went off to Japan to get Zenned properly.  Got connected to a temple and a master.  Shaved my head and face, put on the drab grey robe of novitiate, and stood in line to get enlightened.  Figured to become a pretty holy man in pretty short order, like in about six weeks, which was when my return ticket home expired. Right.

But of course it was not to be.  Sitting still gave me hallucinations and cramps, but not enlightenment.  The food gave me diarrhea.  Sleeping on a board gave me a backache.  And my fellow monks treated me like a Western fool, laughing at me behind my back.  It was one of those times when you know enough to realize there’s something everybody but you knows, but you don’t know enough to know exactly what it is you don’t know.

But I did know it was time to leave.

To my surprise, an invitation was extended for an interview with the master of the temple.  Which was like a stock boy being asked to have lunch with the president of the company.

Since it was largely because of his reputation that I had chosen this particular temple, and since he rarely spent time with tourists like me, the master’s invitation seemed a special honor.

Manabu Khohara, Ph. D. in economics from Tokyo University, solver of all Zen koans (mind puzzles) adviser to captains of industry, writer of books, speaker of seven foreign languages, a paradigm of the treat teacher.  Wise, good, respected, accomplished.  If he didn’t have “it” all figured out, then nobody did.

After I was ushered into his private study, we knelt on cushions and bowed our mutual respect.  He out of courtesy and I out of awe.  For a long time he looked at me and into me.

Very deliberately he shifted his weight to one knee, and just as deliberately reached for his backside and scratched himself in a way and in that place your mother told you was a no-no in public.

“I have hemorrhoids.  They hurt and itch.”

There was nothing in my mental manual as to how to reply to such an opening remark.  I kept my mouth shut and pretended to be thoughtful.

“The hemorrhoids come from stress, you know.  From worrying about tourists burning down this firetrap of a temple.  From worrying about trying to get enough funding from businessmen to keep it in repair.  From arguing with my wife and children, who are not as holy” – he smiled – as I am.  And from despairing over the quality of the lazy young fools who want to be priests nowadays.  Sometimes I think I would like to get a little place in Hawaii and just play golf for the rest of my life.”

He leaned to one side and scratched himself again.

“It was this way before I was “enlightened” you know.  And now it is the same after enlightenment.”

A long pause while he silently gave me time to consider his words and actions.

Rising, he motioned me to follow him to the entrance alcove of the temple, and we stood before an ancient scroll I had often passed.  He said it was time for me to go home, where he felt I had been a “thirsty man looking for a drink and all the while standing knee- deep in a flowing stream.”  Yes…..

from the book It was On Fire When I lay Down on it.  by Robert Fughum


DM here 😉  Grant Wood (artist of American Gothic fame)  grew up just a stones throw from where we live.  He traveled all over the world studying the masters of paint  and palate . Eventually he  returned home to Iowa, formed an artist colony and painted profusely until the day he died.

I love that line  “thirsty man looking for a drink and all the while standing knee- deep in a flowing stream.”

If I have to go somewhere else in order to be wouldn’t take long and I will not be happy there either.

We  take our baggage with us.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you my regular readers! 😉 DM

Looking at the ocean



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7 Responses to Conversation With A Zen Master

  1. Your stories touch me. This one made me cry. On Thanksgiving and other holidays, my cells seem hardwired for depression. My mother has been gone four years, (I cooked nearly every Thanksgiving for her the last 18 years of her life until she was 101), we were unable to go visit family in California, my son chooses other traditions, and I chafe and wonder if I got into the wrong stream. Yesterday I stopped myself and realized that I am knee-deep in a flowing stream. My gift of my husband (8 years married) sits reading, the lamb roast sits in marinade, a new kitchen floor is in the shop ready to be laid as a Thanksgiving present–and besides that it’s a beautiful day here in Central Washington…temperature may reach 57…and later we’ll take a walk on the hills not yet covered with snow. I bet you won’t reach 20 degrees!
    I remember Iowa winters! And summers!! My son was born in Iowa City in 1982 after I made two different sojourns to Fairfield seeking enlightenment from you-know-who. I never sat with the Maharishi and long meditations made me cranky and made my joints hurt, but I treasure that time in some odd sort of way. Besides, that’s where I met my son’s father who gave me the son I treasure. Thank you for this lovely post and all the others. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
    Thank you Martha. your comments made me smile, Thank you for taking the time to let me know you connected w/ this one 😉 DM

  2. micey says:

    Love how you started this post, especially because I thought it was you who went to Japan and had this great secret! Ha! Happy Thanksgiving to you and Mrs DM and all the kids and grandkids! We started the day at 55 degrees in south Florida, currently 72. Sending you Florida warmth and Florida hugs!
    Thanks Michelle 🙂 I passed your greeting on to the Mrs. as well. DM

  3. Great story DM -thanks for sharing. How very true – we are always looking for happiness/contentment, etc… outside of ourselves and thinking the grass is greener on the other side. If only I had _________ I’d be happy. I don’t get the impression you are one of those people though. I think you have figured out what it’s all about and are a pretty content guy.
    Hope you and your family had a lovely Thanksgiving.
    We did have a good Thanksgiving Laurie!… How about you and M? Are you heading out to the farmstead this weekend? Thanks for taking the time to stop by the blog. DM

  4. Bill says:

    Delightful story. Thanks for sharing it. How many of us are dying of thirst while standing knee-deep in a flowing stream? Way too many of us, for sure.
    Thanks Bill. You are welcome. DM

  5. shoreacres says:

    For me, the best thing about exposure to Eastern forms of thought has been accepting that I’m a Westerner. Many of my friends who have fallen into yoga, meditation, and so on keep talking about self-emptying. Seems to me that self-acceptance is the better path, particularly since the selves we’ve been given are gifts from God.

    But that’s a complicated discussion, and more than I can handle tonight. Suffice it to say I’m glad our paths have crossed, and I’m always delighted to read your posts. I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with contentment — and not a little good food!
    Thank you Linda. I too enjoy hearing from you. Was thinking about you last week, while you were on your trip/ away from access to an internet signal. 🙂 We had a nice Thanksgiving. Mom made her famous pasta and shrimp salad which is one of my highlights, and secondly, I did not come home feeling “yuck” from over eating. Very hard to do at our family get together’s..there is always a lot of good food. DM

  6. As your posts do, they prompt me to think and linger a while before I comment. This one has lingered a while, because it’s so true.
    I have been a member of the same faith since my husband and I married. I was raised Presbyterian and my husband was Methodist. My dad was pretty firm that we shouldn’t join a church until we had decided as young adults, so we never “joined” the church as children. Heeding my dad’s advice, I guess I found someone who thought the same in my husband. I could have gotten distracted along the way, but something told me to stay on my Protestant course. I didn’t have all the answers, but I figured I could grow into them, especially when you consider people are people,and I don’t think God favors one over another.
    I have been dismayed by the directions various congregations have gone, and I have been very thankful for the support of other congregations. Still, I’m glad we have weathered storms and enjoyed calms. I don’t think the answer to problems is to jump ship so to speak but to buckle down, tie down the masts, adjust the sails, be sure the rudder is secure and move on through the water cutting the wake. There’s a natural tension in that. You can feel it when it’s right, and you know when it’s not. Boats sail depending on the conditions. Yes, I can sail in any lake.
    I can’t be thirsty with water, water everywhere. Perhaps I’ve digressed and missed the point.
    Thank you Georgette for your comment! Enjoyed how the post stimulated your thoughts in various directions. DM

  7. Such a wonderful post. Have a wonderful, stress-free, couple of minutes in that time we’re expecting to have peace on earth. Surely an LOL if ever there was one. All the best to you and yours, and thanks for commenting on my blog!
    And thank YOU for stopping by here as well Therapydoc. I LOVE your blog, so full of practical wisdom. DM

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