Zen Confidential: The Persimmon, The Poet and Making Peace

I have now hit the one month mark of living and practicing in a Zen Buddhist monastery. There are days when I feel “Zencarcerated,” as one of the clever men here calls it, and other days when the frustration is so profound I can only run it off-dashing through mud and snow in a t-shirt, sweating off the urge to scream. Sometimes those feelings can shift from hour to hour. Mindfulness is not for the easily discouraged.

On this day we are gathered in our holy place at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The snow is beginning to melt and so are we as fifty of us sit lotus on navy blue mats in the Zendo at mid morning. We are learning about a Japanese Zen hermit poet named Ryokan.

Though he has been dead for centuries he speaks of his love of Persimmons and Dharma, of his begging bowl and one his only piece of clothing-a single robe- through Kaz Tanahishi who translated the poet’s words into English in his new book; “Sky Above, Great Wind: The life and poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.” We feel the cold of Japan through his words. Ryokan sleeps on his grass pillow as it snows and rains. He describes his pain in quick Haiku. We learn of the some three hundred ways the Japanese have of describing snow and rain. Ryokan knows them all roaming and sleeping outside with only his vow of poverty and his love of the Dharma and nature to warm him.

The seventeenth century poet cries his loneliness like wind in Spring and finally he shares his death poem as a man of seventy and in love for the first time:
“Now it reveals its hidden side
and now the other—thus it falls,
an autumn leaf’
Ryōkan Taigu, 1758–1831

Our other Ryokan teacher, the author Natalie Goldberg (“Writing Down the Bones” and eleven other titles) is asking a question in a break from reading our hermit lover; “Why did you come here?” She gives us ten minutes to answer. What I write is shocking;

“I came here because I wanted to know something I did not know, to meet someone I never met and to sleep in a stranger’s bed. I wanted to walk in rags with a begging bowl. I came here because I didn’t know where else to be and I couldn’t keep being “me” who’s face I no longer knew. I came here to get lost and fall in love and to be found and never need love again. I came here to cut my toenails with no one looking and to disgust myself with the odor of my need. I came here to die and lay down with the bugs beside me and feel what they feel. I came here to let go of needing a reason, I came beyond reason. Why did I come here? No reason, I suppose. Maybe just every reason brought me. Maybe it’s okay to be all of that and nothing and to sleep in the heart of a beggar I have never met and lay my head on his lap. Maybe I could be loved.”

I read it back to myself and thought; “What a little wimp”

I tossed the assignment aside and fell back in love with my old, dying poet Ryokan. But then Natalie Goldberg brought our reasons back to us again at the end of our work shop this morning. This time she did not ask any of her probing and revealing questions. Instead she gave us answers.

Her voice came almost to a whisper as she leaned forward and scanned her audience urging us not to take short cuts or try to hide from ourselves or from our pains and our flaws. Dark eyes bright and clear, her voice lilting in a New York, Jewish accent, Goldberg is a small woman with a kind yet formidable way about her, she made it clear that if we were not listening before, now was the time.

She delivered this news: what we could learn from Ryokan was not about writing or even Zen, although they are the same thing to her and to Ryokan, as close as bones and blood. What we can learn, she said, is that you can’t get around suffering. No matter what path you choose, simplicity, poverty and devotion to the Dharma or acquiring lots of money to take care of you, you will have profound suffering. You will be broken. You have to let your life break you and believe in it. It is not tragic. Being broken and yet honest within it is living a true life.

That, she said is what Ryokan said in his death poem; he revealed his hidden side, his front and back as he fell. There was nothing he kept for himself-his brokeness nor his beauty.

There it was, the reason I came. I wanted to fall and leave nothing unrevealed. I came to be broken and beautiful.


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