At a friend's house one evening towards the end of the 70's, I came across a book called "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
", which is a compilation of Zen stories
s, and related writing
s collected by Paul Reps
. I had never heard of Zen before, but what I read in that book struck an immediate chord
with me in a way that nothing ever had before. Over the course of the next year I read every book about Zen that I could find, and immerse
d myself in meditation
. I even chose a koan for myself (a koan is a kind of illogical riddle
which is chosen by a Zen Master to aid
of a Zen student
). Before too long I could feel what I thought for sure was the spirit
of Zen flow
ing through me, and I was certain that enlightenment
lay just around the corner. But still it elude
d me. Referring back to my reading, I reasoned that the one thing I really lacked was a Roshi
(a term often used to refer to a Zen Master) to give me that final piece of guidance
and make the whole thing fall into place.
I lived in London at the time, and after searching for a while I came across the numbers of two Zen classes. The first one I called had no Roshi, so I dismissed it. I had better luck with the second one. The old woman on the other end of the line said yes, they did have a Roshi, and why did I ask? My heart leapt! Could I just speak to the Roshi then please? No. The Roshi was not available... but if I wanted to, I could come along to the Center and they would take a look at me. I was extremely put off. Why did they have to look at me? What could be gained from that? I felt sure that if I could just talk to the Roshi for a few minutes, he would recognize my understanding and I wouldn't have to be bothered with this nonsense. I asked nicely: please, couldn't she just put the Roshi on the line? No, just come along to the Center and we'll take a look at you. Well, it really pissed me off, but I sensed that there was no way around her, and in the end I had to agree to go to the Center. It was the only way to get to talk to the Roshi.
I traveled up to Central London right away, found the place, went into the reception room, and there was the dreaded old lady at the desk. I explained that I had come to see the Roshi. Really? Yes, I spoke to you earlier on the phone. You did? I was exasperated and angry. I wanted to scream JUST GET OUT OF MY WAY AND LET ME GET ON WITH MY ZEN!! I realized that I was starting to turn red and sweat.... and it also seemed to me for a second that something in that obstinate old woman's eyes was laughing at me. At ME! Well, she explained, the Roshi was only available to those in the Zen Practice class... and I could only join that if I went through the Zen fundamentals class first. I was horrified. Fundamentals?? I explained that I certainly did not need fundamentals. I just needed a little help with my koan, and I needed to see the Roshi. Oh, so I had a koan did I? And who gave me that? I replied that I chose it myself... and again I noticed the look. Could she really be laughing at me? Actually, she explained, it was normal to attend the advanced Buddhist class before starting the Zen fundamentals class... and in fact perhaps it would be better if I took the Introduction to Buddhism class first....
I honestly don't know what I said. I just know that I had to get out of there, that I was angry, and red in the face, and uncomfortable, and sweaty, and I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, and I hated that petty smirking old woman, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to get past her.
Have you ever had the feeling of deflating? I felt it on the train on the way home. I felt the hot air of my stupid, pig-headed pride and ignorance escaping under the weight of my own self-importance, and I almost wept with frustration and embarrassment.
As soon as I reached home, I called the center again. The same old woman answered. Without any preamble I said that I wanted to join the Zen class, but understood that I would have to take a whole bunch of other classes first, so please, could she just tell me where to start? Oh, she said, there’s no need for all that. There’s a Zen Practice class next week that you can come along to.
It will probably not surprise you to know that I did indeed attend, and that when the Roshi entered, it was the old woman from the reception desk.
I actually tried to ask her about that first meeting one time, and she fixed me with a look that would have stopped a truck, and told me that she did not work on reception. I never raised the issue again.