One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Sunday, February 27, 2022

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.

Blue Cliff Record Case 10

Let me begin with a snippet from the few introductory lines that Hsueh Tou calls the pointer: “If on the other hand, you neither face upwards or downwards, how will you deal with it? If there is a principle, go by the principle. If there is no principle, go by the example.”

The koan

After Mu Chou’s formula introductory question, “Where are you from,” in a reversal of roles, the shouting teacher gets shouted at.
Then Mu Chou said, "After three or four shouts, then what?"
The student had nothing to say.
Mu Chou hit him and said: You thieving phon[e]y.


It was sometime in the Fall of 1993. If Mu Chou asked me where I’d come from, I would have said “Hartford Street Zen Center,” but he would not have recognized our lives there. A small temple in the heart San Francisco’s gay ghetto, it had never been your typical Zen Center even before AIDS. After I moved in 1989, more than 80 men and one woman died in its 13 bedrooms. Our everyday life was centered around doctor’s appointments, dispensing medications, talking with friends and family about wills and funerals, performing funerals, cooking food as well as two periods of zazen every day plus a pretty standard Soto ritual. We tried to organize some of the more formal Buddhist study typical in Western Zen centers, but the grief support groups had more attendees. I have to add that my daily ritual usually ended with a bout of heavy drinking in a local bar a block away. It was more than a full time job.

The concern of our zendo was the pain and fragility of life. It was inescapable. You could try to run away, and we all did from time to time in our own way. But now Issan was dead; Steve Allen had resigned as abbot, and left for Crestone. And it was the end of Maitri Hospice being part of the Temple. Phil told me to get rid of it. It was Issan’s project, and he had other ideas about Zen masters’ dying. In retrospect I think that he hated trying to live his life with everyone dropping dead around him. He might have accepted Issan’s invitation to move in because they were old friends; they had been in Santa Fe together, and they were Dick’s first real dharma heirs. But actually I really think that one of his main motivations was that he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. He had set himself to master Zen, and though he had done his work deeply and thoroughly, he was still a human, and a frail old man.

We had been sitting all day, and I went into Phil’s room just before the closing bell. I remember quite clearly what transpired. It could be fairly labeled passive-aggressive. From time to time, I have been less than proud of my behavior although I let myself off the hook with the recognition that I am also human.

I forget the exact reason I was so pissed off, but I was. Of course I was burned out and disappointed, perhaps something about the changes at Hartford Street, perhaps Phil’s brushing me off, but we all were a bit “reactive,” Phil included. That is the way with anger’s confusion--whatever remains, the angry mind latches onto like a life raft in a raging sea. With all that experience of dying, anger turned out to have been a clever student and strategized its survival with the cunning of a fox.

I remember that I’d determined beforehand that in this dokusan I would not say anything. Just sit like a fat lump and keep my mouth shut. If I felt even the slightest inkling of the beginnings of a word, much less the formulation of a question, I would shut it down. I would kill an errant thought before it even showed its face. I would not recommend this strategy for inching towards happiness, but on occasion it is interesting to test if it is even possible. Perhaps yelling the nonsensical “Katz” has some salvific result as it involves more of the spontaneous, emotive parts of the psyche, but my Mother had taught me that shouting was always bad manners. Despite the fact that we learn that great Zen teachers favored this theatrical gesture as a pedagogy, I still believe my mother. Western teachers have tried to polish this skill, but when I hear them affecting a Katz shout, it feels contrived. Or embarrassing. It is still better than cutting off fingers and other outlandish external “shoves” designed to facilitate the dropping off of body and mind. Shouting is not a principle in Zen, nor is it really an example of anything but the coordination of breath and vocal cords.

So for whatever reasons I could never be a shouting student, and I sat. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was shouting inside, though I did feel a few interior bumps. And once in a while Phil began to look up and begin to say something, but then he stopped too. And so on for a very uncomfortable span of time.

Then Phil faintly smiled and said, “Let’s go back down to the zendo and join the others.” I remember or imagined a feeling of disappointment in his voice. That was it. He didn’t call me a phony. Do you spell it with an “e”? Did he see through to my anger? It makes no difference. All things considered, he was very generous.

I said in the beginning that Mu Chou would not have recognized our lives at Hartford Street Zen Center. Perhaps I’m selling him short.

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