What Was I When?

by William Dean

Simple things. A rock. Running water. A straying leaf, wayward in the wind. The old man walked along appreciating such things, not even aware, probably, of the status of sensei, Zen Master. Like a struggling train up some distant hill, I followed.

"What is the meaning? What am I supposed to be learning here?" My mind kept asking, over and over. Droplet upon droplet of question marks. The Chinese water torture, wearing down by slow degrees, until all questions are answered truthfully.

We both were silent. Such was the rule. Don't ask, don't tell. I always felt then that even before I'd opened my mouth, the wrong things would come out. Okay, not come, but spill and spew like unwanted lava down my own useless slopes, hardening eventually into some husk over me until all anyone would see would be this crusty shell. There goes the lava field, they'd mutter: nothing growing there.

The old man sometimes paused in our walks. He'd pick up a small pebble, his eyes dancing over the small surfaces as if examining the corners and reflections of a mirror.

Then, unerringly, he'd place the pebble back exactly where it had lain before and move on. I didn't dare pick it up. That would be copycatting.

"You are not me," he had said before. "I am not you. We are the same. If I do a thing, do not do it because I have done it. Do it because you must. I am not the path to follow, you are."

Dichotomy is impossible in Zen, of course. There are no opposites. Not even what seems irretrievably yin or yang escapes the undeniable "it is." At the very end, it is. But even my feeble attempts to grasp this essence, the old man would laugh at.

"What end?" he would ask and keep laughing. "If you can know an end, you have not even begun the journey."

Western ideas. That was the problem. Linear thinking. Cause and effect. Rules and equations and the stuff of motion and progress. How can I get from Point A (unZen) to Point B (Zen)? It baffled me. It worried at me because, according to the old man, there was no such thing as unZen. How could there be, when the Truth was simply "Zen is." I tried to logic my way around the insurmountable. Wait a minute. If "Zen is," and that's all there is, then I'm already there. I'm already enlightened. I'm a Zen Master, too, I just don't know it. Or accept it.

Right. Faith. Accept without questioning. Just be. And then somewhere along the way, it didn't matter where, I'd stumble. Catch my very physical foot on some very physical root of a tree or loose stone just waiting to trip me up. And, like a special clockwork automata, the old man would turn slowly, look at my foot and giggle.

"Questioning still?" he'd ask. The first few times, I'd answer. "Well, I was thinking..." "No, not really, I was just, you know, trying to accept..."

He'd nod absently. "Thinking...trying. What are those?"

Like an idiot, I'd keep trying to answer him. "Well. Working things out. I really want to learn."

"Working? Learning?"

Eventually, I did learn. I learned to keep my mouth shut. I still stumbled sometimes, but when he'd look back, I'd just shrug or smile. Then he'd nod and continue walking. But it's so hard to shut the mind off. "You're learning," it would taunt me. My ego would start to bloom up and my pulse race faster. I wanted to high five myself, and then some contrasting thought would burn its way up -- like when an old film catches fire and the image bursts into flame on the inner screen of the mind. "Shouldn't do that. No ego. Wanting is the way of suffering," I'd remind myself. And then the pun would grab my attention. Remind myself. Re-mind. That was what I needed to do. Or was it un-mind? I had to reach that promised nirvana, that sartori where there was no mind, no me. Just Zen being Zen.

But how?

They say when you come to a wide river where there is no bridge, you have to swim. The other alternative requires the patience of a holy man: to sit down and wait for the river to dry up or change course. The Zen Master does none of these. This was another teaching of the old man.

"What then?" I asked.

He'd smile. "Perhaps you are already on the right side of the river?"

Back to the Chinese water torture. Questions answering questions until all questioning ceases. At this rate, I figured, I'd never understand Zen. "Why can't you just give me a straight answer?" I asked back, still caught in the loop.

"Very well," he said with another giggle. "No more questions. No more answers." Don't ask, don't tell. So our walks continued in silence.

Despite the immutability of "Zen being," the human flesh eventually drops away from life as we know it. The old man grew older, more feeble, died. A younger man took his place. Me.

I am what you pass by when you walk along. A leaf. A rock. Running water. I am Zen. I always was. Aren't you?

©2001 by William Dean

William Dean studied under the direction of kung-fu Red Belt Art Wong when he was fifteen years old. At the age of nineteen, he was attending zen lectures by Alan Watts. One of his prized mementoes is a brief handwritten note to him from Dr. Timothy Leary: "Thanks for your help --- Best from Timothy Leary." He also writes erotica under his own name and pen name Count of Shadows, including monthly columns, and is the Associate Editor of Clean Sheets Magazine.

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