Zen and the sound of one hand clapping
Zen and Cheesecake
Back in my early twenties and that‘s around 1970, yes I‘m an old fart, when I was living in Llanelli, South Wales, I decided to take up Karate. Wado-Ryu style Karate to be precise. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in karate practice. I made a lot of friends and I believe it did a lot to increase my confidence as well as improving me physically. It’s a sport that I would heartily recommend.
I overheard one of the instructors, a local guy, John I think his name was, talking to one of the black belts about Zen. I had never heard the word before so I asked him “What is Zen?” He replied, in what I found out was the enigmatic way that Zen people love to use,
“Don’t go looking for Zen, Zen will find you.”
So I went looking for Zen.
A week or so later I found out that a Japanese man with a name suspiciously like Suzuki was going to give a lecture on Zen at Swansea, the big city about ten miles away. So off I went.
It began interestingly enough. The lecturer, Mr. Suzuki, in a nice suit, walked to the front of the audience eating a slice of cheesecake. He didn’t say a word. Then this young lad walked up to him and asked “What is Zen?” At that point Suzuki squashed the cheesecake in the lads face. The lad walked away, people were laughing and I was wondering what the hell was going on. Suzuki then gave his lecture. He began with a reference to Buddha then went into different forms of meditation and talked about quieting the mind. No word about the waste of cheesecake and in the question and answer section, no one asked him. I wasn’t going to be the one so I let it go, but I was fascinated and interested. I got the address of a Zen centre in Llanelli and within a week I had signed up.
A bout six weeks after joining I heard about a Zen retreat that was going to take place near Machynlleth in mid-Wales. I signed up for it and somehow got accepted. That shouldn’t have happened, this was way too advanced for a beginner but I slipped through the cracks and, like a good little Padawan, off I went.
When I arrived I was greeted by this guy with a clipboard. There was no “Hiya Pete, thanks for coming.” Not even a “Watcha, How’s your belly for spots?’ It was “Freeman?” makes his mark on the clipboard, then “Here’s your robe and the key to your room. Be in the meditation hall in 10 minutes.”
“And a Merry Christmas to you.” I thought to myself, making my way to my room. A reasonable little place, not big, what we prefer to call “Cozy” So I got changed and toddled of to the meditation hall as instructed.
In the Meditation hall the boss introduced himself. He’s called “Roshi” a Japanese word that we must call him out of respect. He gave us a speech kind of setting up the ground rules and a word or two about what he wanted from us. Which seemed to amount to “Sit still, be quiet and do what the nice man says.“ He led us through some stretching exercises, then I had to sit in a very uncomfortable position and think about my breathing. That wasn’t so bad and I figured it’s what I had signed up for anyway. What I wasn’t prepared for was the Monitor.
This fellow would walk around the hall with a stick in his hand. Every now and again, usually when I was least expecting it, he’d appear and smack me on the shoulder with his stick. Apparently this was done with love and compassion but I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks to be smacked around without doing anything about it and I was beginning to get quite irritated.
What made it worse was when I was called to go into Roshi’s office. The Monitor would indicate towards me with his slapping stick and motion for me to follow him. Of course he wouldn’t speak because that would disturb the others in their meditation. I Don’t suppose it occurred to him that someone was getting mightily disturbed by the smacking. He opened a door and I went into this small office. There was the boss (Sorry, Roshi) sitting cross legged on a mat and he would say “Demonstrate your Buddha nature by the sound of one hand clapping.“ I had no idea what he was talking about and he made me feel about two inches tall. I walked out of the office feeling like a right plum. No sooner had I sat down than here comes my man to smack me again. I was glad when suppertime came around and we could all get a snack and go to bed. That night the only enlightenment I received was “Bugger this for a game of soldiers.”
The sound of one hand clapping
have to admit that I had a good nights sleep and I woke up feeling refreshed. I enjoyed breakfast and went to the Meditation Hall where we once more had a speech from Roshi, some stretching exercises and we sat down to contemplate breathing. I’ll be damned if my man didn’t waltz around and smack me again.
Shortly after that I got called into Roshi’s office, I assumed for another one of his Buddha questions. As I got to my feet I said to the Monitor, “Please accompany me.” The guy looked puzzled but he came along. When we got to the office door I opened it and motioned for him to go first. As he passed by me I slapped him on the back of his head. I hit him so hard that he staggered. He whirled around and the words have yet to be invented that could describe the look on his face. It was a joy to behold, well for me anyway. Then I turned to Roshi and said, “What’s your next question?”
To be fair, Roshi didn’t move a muscle I believe the corners of his eyes crinkled a bit but I‘m not sure. He looked at the somewhat paralyzed monitor and said “Please excuse us.” The man left, keeping his eyes on me all the way. Roshi and I sat down and had a long chat. Turned out he was an okay bloke. He agreed that I had gone to this kind of retreat far too early in my studies. We had a very pleasant and interesting conversation and I learned a lot. I had expected to be thrown out but he told me I could stay for the weekend. If I wanted to meditate, fine, if I wanted to just wander the grounds, that was OK too. There was a tea room with a small library where I was welcome any time and I could just relax and enjoy my stay. That’s what I did and it was a very relaxing time. I talked a bit with the Monitor and we got to be almost friendly. We even shook hands when I left but he never hit me again and he never turned his back to me either.
That "Ah-Ha" moment
One thing I should mention. That morning after my first night, I’d been to breakfast and I was walking to the meditation hall. There were some beautiful gardens there and everything looked and felt fresh and clean. That’s when I had one of those “Ah, hah” moments and I realized something. When that kid had asked Suzuki “What is Zen?” Suzuki had answered the question perfectly.