What to Do With the Stories That Haunt You…
For Reasons You Don't Understand
Illustration Credit: Trees and Stars by Natalie Goldberg
I am at a meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico with a Zen teacher from Boston I have been working with. I’m on the board of this remote enclave deep in the national forest. Tired of flying across the country, I’ve arranged for him to teach here. I’ve driven him in on the 12-mile dirt road past aspen groves and an old, abandoned original settler’s log cabin, through green meadows and along sheer cliffs. We’re in my sturdy 1978 Land Cruiser, an old hippopotamus of a truck with thick tires, rattling doors, and a fierce engine replete with a choke to get it going on cold mornings.
I want to impress this teacher in the hope he’ll want to return. He’s smart and astute, and I’m taken with his teachings. I’ve already studied with a Japanese teacher for 12 years and then a Vietnamese teacher for six. He’s American, and we come from the same cultural context—for once, at the very least, I can clearly understand the language.
The first day, he tells a story about seeing the hairs around a horse’s mouth when he spent a year in silence in the woods of Maine. I settle into deep, still sitting in this rural Southwest setting that I love so much.
The next day he presents us with a koan, a short teaching story from eighth- or ninth-century China that is designed to cut through conditioned ways of thinking, enabling a person to experience one’s true nature. My usual response to hearing a koan is stunned silence. My mind stops dead center, full of hesitation. Some truth is sitting right there, but I can’t touch it. Like meeting a whale in a huge fish tank. We don’t know each other, but the whale is magnificent and is contained in too small a space—the limits I’ve put on
But I am feeling frisky and alive—the morning is crisp—and I’m ready to tackle anything. I’m listening closely, but after the first line of the koan, I am lost—I’ve been tossed into a swamp and I can’t get out. I can’t even hear the rest of it. And no matter how many times he repeats it in the lecture, I can’t follow it. All I get is “flowers are falling” in the ending.
Suddenly suspicious, I separate myself. These Zen people are nuts. My father’s voice comes to me: This is ridiculous. I’ve met a chunk of stone from Mars and there’s no communication.
The rest of the week we work on this single koan. I count the days, the hours, till I can hop on my faithful hippopotamus and gear through rocky dirt roads out of here.
The teacher tries so hard to make us see. On Wednesday afternoon he has us marching around in circles in the noon sun, imagining we are falling blossoms. It has something to do with becoming the thing, with embodying . . . blooms? Buds? Floral designs? The repetitious bouquet print on my childhood wallpaper? Does it mean spring, youth, vigor, decoration, ornamentation? Should I become an interior decorator? I give up.
In an hour I’m supposed to present the koan, demonstrating my understanding to him in a one-to-one interview.
I am a long-practicing Zen student. Mostly in a nonkoan tradition, but I have my pride. I want to show something, yet I’m dumbfounded—and he’s also half a friend. You don’t want to appear this stupid in front of a friend. And I’m going to. I don’t even have a clue. Maybe if I’m 100 percent stupid, that will do the trick. But I’m not 100 percent anything. I just want to go home.
I remember a story Joseph Goldstein told in this very place at a retreat the year before. In Burma and Thailand he had practiced hard under difficult conditions in small rural huts. In 1972, when he returned, he was about to bring a whole fresh lineage of Buddhism to America.
A year or two later he went to a weeklong sesshin with the Zen teacher Sasaki Roshi at Bodhi Mandala in Jemez Springs, in my very own New Mexico. Sasaki knew of Joseph’s experience and so gave him an advanced koan. In Sasaki’s lineage, each student presents the answer three or four times a day. The practice hall heats up as each practitioner strains to figure out the appropriate answer that Sasaki will give sanction to and then pass him or her on to the next koan.
It is the middle of the week and Joseph has humiliated himself over and over in the small meeting room with Sasaki. He can’t answer the koan—not even close—and each time, Sasaki quickly cuts him off and rings the bell, signaling Joseph to leave. Finally Sasaki takes pity on Joseph and changes the koan for him to one of the most obvious and elemental: “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?”
Joseph smiles. This one is easy. He knows the answer even before he leaves the room. You just chant. Nothing else. So in the few hours before he returns to Sasaki, he practices in his head four lines from the Heart Sutra.
When it’s his time again, he settles himself on the zafu opposite this Zen teacher. He is about to chant his heart out when suddenly what flashes before him is his fourth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Snodgrass. “Goldstein, when the class sings, you mouth the words. You’re tone deaf.” And all at once Joseph’s voice cracks and he croaks out half a line of a chant and falls apart, naked, exposed.
He looks up. Sasaki is smiling. “Pretty good. Pretty good,” the teacher says.
Now I’m sitting opposite my teacher and I’m a squashed duck in my fourth-grade seat. “I don’t get it. I just don’t
In a flash he jumps up on top of me and pushes me to the floor. I’m lying on my back and he’s staring into my eyes. I shrug like a dead horse and say, “I still don’t get it.”
“No.” I shake my head.
He clumsily crawls off.
Finally, the week ends. After many good-byes I’m at the steering wheel. The old car has been sitting idle for seven days. I pull out the choke and the motor vrooms. We are on our way. Thank God.
He is next to me. I’m driving him out to Taos. Teacher/student roles have been suspended. We are chugging along when the engine stops dead right in the middle of the dirt road.
I start it up immediately. It chugs along for another ten minutes and then dies. People who will leave later will be coming up behind us if we need a lift, but I want out. Besides, what would I do with the old Land Cruiser if I have to leave it in this remote place? I start it up again and it darts forward for another mile. Then another. Each time I have to start it again.
We decide on a plan. Get it to the main road and bank it. Hitch a ride to Tres Piedras, which consists of a gas station on the corner, a diner next door, and a hot-pink adobe across the highway that always says, “gallery open” and never is. The gallery has some mean Dobermans behind a chain-link fence, so no one would think of shopping there anyway. The gas station has mostly empty shelves, but they usually sell Tootsie Pops in a cardboard box. I know because I stock up on cherry ones before I head for retreats at Vallecitos. I’m pretty sure there is a mechanic and a garage too, but it’s Sunday. Maybe I can ask them to tow the Land Cruiser on Monday. I have it all thought out.
We finally get to the blacktop. I park the Toyota on the shoulder and we hitch a ride.
The woman behind the counter at the gas station points next door. “They’re in there. Working on a car. Go ahead in.”
I step over the threshold. Two burly men, shirts off, bellies hanging over their pants, grease to their elbows, are under the hood of a Chevy pickup. One skinny man missing three front teeth is to the left, mostly giving them advice and also looking under.
“Excuse me,” I say gingerly. “My car died on the road. I’m wondering if you could tow it to Taos.”
“Sure,” the big man on the right says, but none of them looks up. “Leave the keys over on the table.” He juts out his arm in the table’s direction but still does not look up.
“But wait,” I say. “How will you know where to take it?
I want it to go to Doc’s on Pueblo Sur. Do you know where that is?”
The same big man slowly stands up and turns his greasy hands in a rag. “You mean, Doc is out of jail?”
“Doc in jail?” I’ve been bringing my cars to him for 20 years. When I’m stuck he even comes up to the mesa to get me. He was brought up in Taos, married his high school sweetheart at 16, lives a few blocks from his shop, and now his son Wendell works with him. Last time he was sick, I bought him a subscription to an auto mechanics magazine. I consider him, with his gentle steady ways and soft smile, a guru of sorts.
The big man sees the horror on my face. “Nah, I’m only kidding. Sure, we’ll bring it in to Doc’s in the morning.” Then he leans over under the hood again and reaches for some wires.
“But wait, don’t you need to know who I am?”
“We know who you are.”
He must be kidding. “Who am I?” I ask.
“You’re Natalie Goldberg. We’ve read your books.”
“You’ve—read—my—books?” My mouth hangs open.
“Yeah, whatya think? We were illiterate? New Mexico is one big family.”
I place the keys on the table and back up, bumping right into the Zen teacher, who is standing in the doorway. He has seen the whole thing.
“Now I’m impressed,” he says.
He nods, his forehead creased with two lines, and he laughs.
The next time I see the teacher is two days later. He comes over for chicken soup. A large bottle of sake a friend gave as a gift is on the table. I don’t drink, so it is full. He drinks the whole thing. I think, It must be hard to be a Zen teacher.
Six months later, I hear that he has slept with several of his female students, and his whole spiritual community has fallen apart. For a moment I flash on our interaction in the meeting room. “Do you get it?” he asked, lying prone on top of me. I wonder if he meant something other than the flower koan? But then I decide no. I’m naïve, but I trust myself in this case. Sometimes you have to hedge your bets. I’m a teacher myself, and I know the true effort one can make. We all can fail miserably.
Now I’m left suspended between the koan, my broken car, and my cry to the mechanics: “Who am I?”
That small troop of practitioners marching about in the high July sun, trying to imitate blossoms, the light off the ponderosa needles, and the two spring-fed ponds where beavers swim still haunt me. It’s a long time later and I still carry the whole situation, with no resolution.
But maybe the tip of the pen on this spiral notebook, midsummer, sitting out on a chipped, red-painted Algonquin chair on this portal in Santa Fe, early Thursday morning, is enough. Maybe the clay birdbath 10 feet across the way, where a fat robin bathes every morning, fluttering in the high-desert water like a beached skunk, its feathers drenched and close to its body, is enough. Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to give this story over to you, not to hold on to it any longer. To know that spring is robust and fall is the beginning of the colored descent, and there is nothing you can do about either but receive it all and surrender to no perfect answer and allow no conclusion.
What do you think?