Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Marco" .... and how Roshi X made a benevolent fire turtle

Roshi X is a real person. I only cloud his ID with this little bit of fun because I am sure I cannot honestly tell how much of my disappointment is my responsibility vs. his. Sure I feel (more than “believe”) Roshi X could have done better. So this is a post about feelings, really. This is a post of how I feel and not  about what Roshi X really did. It seems after coming up with the term Roshi X, I find it is also an allusion for me to “Racer X”, and, in a similar way to Speed Racer, Roshi X is a thorn in my side who may, nonetheless, wish only the best for me.  

My “Buddhist name” is Nankin Rouren (sorry, Melville), but I haven’t taken that name on fully yet. It is too bittersweet. All the following anger, sadness and regrets associated with that name embarrass me like a gardener who is actually fully tangled in vines but tends to talk about the beauty of the clear and open lotus. Sometimes I think I am a zen mess.

Nearly 5 years ago now, I was browsing in a bookstore for something “uplifting and religious.” Looking for just the right book to help me feel less alien in the philo-spiritual landscape I saw myself in. I considered myself Christian, but only in the sense of Jesus Christ Superstar or The Matrix. I didn’t believe in a man sitting in a floating throne, or divine insemination. I considered myself a Quaker and had long ago joined a meeting…, I liked silence, and queries and kindness and simplicity, but I was extremely “lapsed.” In a cloud of suburban ennui I reached out at random in a book store and picked up Roshi X’s first book.

Flipping to a random page or two I really liked what I read. It was accessible. It made sense. It was not chock full of mystical revelations or saccharin platitudes. I did not have to “just” anything (i.e., “just believe”, “just know”, “just have faith”, “just realize”). It was written from a certain level of mud and water that I enjoy so much in Ryokan. And I wallowed happily in that mud.
So, here was a writer, Roshi X, I could really connect to. What next? Well, long story a bit shorter, I decided to go to one of his sesshin’s. I followed the bread crumbs in his book to hook up with the event. I studied the preliminary instructions dutifully. I wrote all the various notes up into a guide and shared them out to others on the mailing list for that year. I even practiced one day of the schedule at home to make sure I would not go crazy from stilling so much each day.

I went… it was wonderful, the details left for some other post.

So this was great stuff. I was really hooked. I started following Roshi X on his blog. People complained different things about Roshi X, who is a bit of a rebel in the field, and I occasionally became a Roshi X apologist. I read more of his books. I came to feel his message was important and worth sharing.

Coincident with a new book publication Roshi X was looking for places to speak. I offered to help him get gigs and get around in my part of the country. In the same plan, I asked if he could give me jukai. He said yes.

A long season of work ensued. I got the basic sketch of what was involved with Jukai from info written by Roshi X’s teacher. Found the instructions for a rakusu. Diligently gathered real rags to make it from. Sewed and sewed and sewed. Also in this time I used my best project management skills to find speaking gigs for Roshi X. Called around to bookstores and Zen centers, and got him booked in at some good locations. So it was all cool, all wonderful. He was coming, I was going to have jukai.
My rakusu was complete. I pushed to gather authentic props for the ceremony. I traveled several miles out of town to secure a genuine pine branch. I needed an image of Buddha, so I painted one… a very large picture (in all the other mess that has come out of these events, I have no regrets about creating that picture). I carefully brought my wife and young daughter up to speed on what was going to be happening to take all the “cult” edge off that I could. “Daddy is going to be a sort of monk”.
Roshi X came, we travelled.

I drove him from point to point in a very large route: Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas. I received Jukai in my home with wife and daughter as witness.

It was cool.

It was also miserable stressful. It was also traumatic. Sometimes I think I should have never done it.  

The great, and tragic, turning point of the traveling was learning that Roshi X was a big fan of Jesus Christ Super Star.

That album (the studio version, by the way, not the movie sound track), probably saved my life in my teenage years. That’s a separate hundred pages of blog I probably don’t have the skill to write, but that album set me up with everything that gets me through any hard time that has every struck my life in the 40+ years that have followed. All that I carry as hope or compassion or appreciation of mystery comes from that one record. It is very important to me.

One might think, and I certainly did, that this would indicate an inherent commonality between Roshi X and I. Since he is my age peer, I saw it as the harbinger of a great friendship. We had the same philosophical interests, the same love for JCSS, we were the same age. Here was finally the friend of a lifetime.  

But that was not the case.

There was an odd hint in the whole affair that now echoes ominously in my recall. At some point in our travels, no doubt an early point, Roshi X said “you probably won’t like me.” I thought it was an odd and slightly sad thing for him to say at the time. I kindly brushed it off, but in retrospect I think he was right.

In our travels the crushing Buddhist formality really got me.

I stepped wrong. I didn’t know stuff. I felt out of the conversations of wonderful and lofty ideas.
At one Zen center in a beautiful old house in a beautiful old neighborhood…. I joined in for Zazen. I didn’t know which zafu I could sit on. I had no idea how to muck about my rakusu for Chodai Kesa No Ge. They did the damned English version and I did not know it, and couldn’t read their little cheat sheet in the dim lighting of the room. I had no idea how to get in line for Kin Hin. My leg fell asleep in zazen and I felt rushed to get in the fucking line so we can fucking start kin hin. After kin hin, some bell rang. I thought we were done. I went up to my room to get ready to leave. I was completely stressed out and feeling completely out of place and unwelcome . I started sobbing. I am generally not a crier, but this place had pushed me to my limits. I was alone and confused and there was not a soul in this bastion of compassion who was interested how things were going for me. I decided to try a shower to calm down. I was walking heavy footed back and forth across the floor of my second story room from suitcase and bed to shower. I was worried sick about what the “rules” were for washcloths and using hot water, and every goddamed thing I was trying to do. In the shower – more breaking down, more sobbing. Done with my shower, I worried how I should hang the used wash cloth. Do I have to dry off the soap? Can I flush my dental floss or is that wasteful of water? Where should I put the towel? Should I fold it? Should I leave the sheets on my bead or take them off?

My nerves were wracked in this hell of Buddhist “what is the most skillfull” way. Then a knock at the door. The head priest is there and she informs me they are trying to meditate downstairs… could I be more quiet? I could have died, and I think part of me did. Turns out my room was right above the room they use as the zendo. Who the hell knows how much of my trodding and sobbing was heard below, but I felt like it all was. Why the hell didn’t anyone explain to me clearly that there would be another session of sitting after kin hin! Who puts a guest room above their zendo?! This was absolutely a “naked a school” dream in reality. This was the worst social trauma I’ve ever felt since getting beaten up in high school with no understanding of defense.

When we finally got to leave that place I was in such a hurry, I nearly ripped my rear-view mirror off on the gate post of the driveway.

I’m sure everyone meant kinder vibes that what I recall, but most of what I recall was a huge sense of “I don’t fit in.” It didn’t help that I was traveling with an up and coming Zen super star, promoting his books, promoting his story. I was definitely 5th or 6th fiddle. It was kinda cool to be able to ride his rakusu tails a little, but ultimately I feel I was of little importance.

And, on a personal level, Roshi X turned out to seem largely shallow and narcissistic. Though appropriately thankful for my efforts, I never felt a vibe of friendship. In many ways I wanted/needed his friendship, but he did not need mine. The trip was about him, his books, his wonderfulness. {or perhaps my jealousy and unquenchable sense of loss from years ago}

He couldn’t complete the “name panel” on my rakusu while we were traveling so he took it with him when he left. It took a very long time to get done. He kinda lost it amongst his stuff during a relocation. He was pretty uncommunicative after he had left. I felt like I was being taken as a chump and that the rakusu I had labored so hard on was lost. I emailed him to just return it, I didn’t care if it was done or not. To quote myself from all those years ago (pretty embarrassing now, but gives a good sense of where my head was)….

“I don't know what the non-communication thing is about. It certainly hurts. (yes, yes, attachment, blah, blah, blah) . "You win". I will go away. Could you please return my rakusu though? I put a lot of fucking "naive" effort into it.‘

He suggested I “settle the fuck down” and to not presume things of him, “that’s not how this works.”  I never understood what the “this” was he was referring to.    

That exchange was years ago. That shattered most of my hope of being friends with this guy. He has famously said on his blog since then (speaking generally) that he does not want students, and describing how flawed some people are who have asked to be his students. In every word I just hear him disapproving of me.  

This is the sticking point. This is where I feel blind and I want to see clearly. I am uncomfortable about this, and I want comfort. I don’t understand, and I want understanding. I want help framing all this, and I can’t seem to find it.

Roshi X has often written blogs that contain what I read as “it ain’t me, it’s you.” It is often put in (what I think of as) pseudo-loving-Buddhist-non-compassion. “You got to take responsibility for yourself”. “If our interaction made you feel bad, that is your delusions at work”. This triggers in me some old school days memories of “Fuck off, loser, you don’t belong here”

With him, and with all the Buddhist formalities in our trip, I felt scared. The words were nice but the vibe was “you don’t rate”. I was too odd for acceptance. I was the na├»ve newbie. My rakusu was the topic of buzz because it was not uniform, nor the right color. Roshi X is somewhat of an outsider in the Zen establishment, so people even seemed to wonder even if my Jukai was bona fide. “Who did you sew with?”…. I had no answer. I read the instructions and did it myself. …I and not one who has been sitting for 20 years. I don’t sit morning and night. My views don’t seem count in the “heavy” conversations. I haven’t written books, or become a priest, or have the heart sutra memorized.

So this silly name I got with all that trauma is Nankin Rouren. Roshi X likes monster movies, so Nankin’s kanji means “fire turtle” after Gamera. Which I like. The last name is my English name realized with kanji. Contemporary dictionaries render the kanji as “labor union”, but Roshi X was looking at some old dictionary and trying for “bringing benevolence.”

Sorry….this post is falling of the tracks a bit.

Part of this is a great and an almost tearful lament…. I thought Roshi X would be a friend. Would be someone I could finally connect too. If I was creating a profile on I couldn’t have found a better match (at least speaking predictively. In retrospect not so much). But it did not happen. Roshi X,  left after our road trip, and after the rakusu kerfuful there has been really no communication. I feel I was Charlie Brown running to kick the football and Lucy snatched it away laughing. What a waste of hope. What a schmuk…. Is how I feel.  

I think Zen is important. I think Zen has something useful to say. I still sit and read and comment and follow things Zen,  but, to put it honestly, I am afraid of the Sangha…. afraid of a “teacher”. I don’t ever want to worry that a teacher thinks I am “not enough.” I don’t ever want to feel that a sangha is tisking me for stepping in with my left foot instead of my right foot. I’m sick of robes just so and rakusu’s just so and put your shoes here, no toes facing out.... fool! I am sick of black and brown clothes and speaking in hushed tones and false smiling and “we have to have compassion for everyone” knowing full well many curse the garbage folk on the weekend if they don’t but the cans back just so.

I accept that I carry much of this perceived negativity between my own ears.  I want a teacher who reaches out to me. Asks me how I am doing. Who is interested in how I see things. I want a teacher/sangha that accepts anger, despair, silliness and selfishness as human traits and embraces them and gently guides them when, and only if, they happen to be truly unskillful, rather than just because they are contrary to tradition and the way people what the zendo to seem. Where can I find this?

I am not completely bullish. I am fairly plastic. I get that I bring my baggage into the conversation. Coincidentally "firery turtle" may not be far off. I think I know that my life is my responsibility. But I also know that I am looking for a teacher/sangha who wants to help me …. to extend a hand down…. I want a sangha/teacher that lives in mud and water and not in the library with black robes and uniform breathing. Where can I find this?

This is the center of my chaos. It is a poor narrative. It is written ‘cause I am looking for a “Polo” to this clumsy “Marco”. I post it not because I think it is “right” or well written, but in case someone else who is likewise muddled, and stumbles upon it, might feel less alone.    


As I write this I think this perhaps is the most important part of this piece. In making sure I got some of my attributed quotations right, I checked my old email records. I see Roshi X being a decent person. Perhaps his harsh-ish words quoted above were a reasonable response to the harsh-ish words I sent him in my misery. As I said at the start, this is more about how I feel and felt, than what he actually did.
What’s the point? Should I post? I guess so. It might prove useful for someone else, or even me as I narcissistically read and re-read what I’ve put out in public domain (yes….I do that).    



genkaku said...

This was a first-class post. I read it from start to finish ... and I almost never do that at my age. It was first-class for a number of reasons. not the least of which was the utter similarity it had/has to the experience of others.

Mostly, it smelled honest and honesty -- of whatever sort -- is closer to the 'Zen' mark than any other characteristic I can think of. Or anyway, that's my vote.

Feeling left out, vanquished, uncared-for ... in mundane and personal ways ... yes, it hurts. embroils, confounds. Pretending it shouldn't exist and therefore doesn't is idiotic. Soooo ... keep it honest and in whatever you decide to do, that honesty will pay dividends.

Best wishes,


Lauren said...

thanks, adam... I like your highlighting the mundane. That's really where I think "the great mater" is saying hello, doing dishes, and a hand on the shoulder at the right time.