Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Zen literature offers many stories about masters whose character was demonstrated by a cryptic statement, or even a wordless act. My talk today is adapted from a Japanese account that first appeared in an 18th-century collection with the curious title of Blowing a Solid Iron Flute Upside Down.

Don’t ask about that iron flute. I’ll talk about it some other time.

First, let’s consider something.

People usually go to hear someone who is reputed to be learned talk about something. Tibetan Buddhists travel long distances to hear the Dalai Lama speak. Christians and Jews go to church or to synagogue anticipating a discourse by a minister, a priest, or a rabbi.

A question: Why do people want to hear someone give a speech? Listening to a talk is not an entertainment. It’s not like watching a television soap opera.

A few possible answers: The speaker’s words may be beneficial to a listener. They may be enlightening or inspiring. They may offer fresh thoughts. They may encourage thinking. They may suggest answers to questions. They may open new ways of seeing oneself and the world.

On the other hand, they may be sleep-inducing.

All of these reasons as to why people go to hear someone speak are good reasons, and they lead to a story.

At a morning lecture a Zen master addressed a group of novices. Later in the day the master was stopped by one of the monks.

The monk said, “Master, I have a problem. Will you solve it for me?”

The master fixed a beady eye on the monk. Then he said, “I will take care of your problem at the next lecture.”

Later, all the monks gathered for the evening talk. The master called out, “Will the monk who told me he had a problem come up here right now.”

The monk walked up to the master, who was seated in front of the audience. The master grabbed the monk by the shoulders and gave him a good shake. Then he tweaked the monk’s nose, hard.

“Pay attention, monks,” the master said. “This fellow has a problem he wants me to solve.”

The master pushed the monk to one side and returned to his room without saying another word.

Think about this.

What is going on? Why was the master so brusque? How could such a severe teacher be respected?

What is the point of this story?

As starters, here is a question.

In the beginning of your practice is it possible to meditate intensely if you do not have a question, an uncertainty?

Problems come in all shapes and sizes. There are big, fat, serious concerns, and there are frivolous questions. A problem is whatever one makes of it.

I personally don’t care for the word “problem,” so I seldom use it. Humans create their own problems. If a person experiences no setbacks in life, you can bet he or she will manufacture impediments to suit him or her self.

That is to say, humans dote on problems.

Recently I received an inoculation that supposedly will prevent me from ever contracting pneumonia. If only there was an injection that would prevent problems throughout life.

I used to work with a fellow whose favorite expression was, “We have a problem.”

First, I didn’t care for the “we” part. Maybe Paul—who was otherwise a fine editor—had a problem meeting a deadline, or writing a chapter of a book. But his practices didn’t include me.

Second, I felt Paul invented problems just to make his life more interesting.

In a compassionate spirit, I used to think that perhaps I could help Paul work through what he perceived to be a problem. But after a few tries I learned I couldn’t perform a miracle and make everything hunky-dory for him when he was letting the notion of problems master him instead of the other way around. So I quit trying.

Was it Dale Carnegie who said “There are no problems, only solutions”? Or was it Julius Caesar? Or was it Lao Tzu?

Everyone experiences glitches in life. More often than not these snags are minor flaps that people use as excuses to spoil an otherwise fine day. I don’t mean to jeer at problems. I just don’t like to assign much importance to much of what most people consider to be problems.

If you are hanging by a vine over a hungry tiger and a mouse is nibbling the vine, you might have a problem. Remember what the fellow did who found himself in this situation? He ate a wild strawberry and savored its sweetness.

Are any of you familiar with TANSTAFL? I’ll spell it: T-A-N-S-T-A-F-L. It stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Lunch.

Do you know the origin of the expression “free lunch”?

In the early 1900s taverns and bars laid out huge sideboards of ham, turkey, cheeses, pickled eggs, breads, and peanuts, all at no extra cost to patrons. No one had to pay for what he ate, only for what he drank. This was a free lunch, right?

Not quite. Everything on the spread was salty. The more a barfly ate, the thirstier he became. Which meant he had to run up a hefty drink tab to quench his thirst.

Remember, there ain’t no such thing as free lunch.

I think I’ve drifted.

I was talking about the monk who said he had a problem, and the master who yanked the monk’s nose, then walked away without giving an evening lecture.

Again I ask, rhetorically, for there is no real answer, what’s going on here?

What might the master’s actions signify?

If I were to speak directly to the monk, I might say, “My friend, meditation and so-called problems are mutually inclusive. The point in meditating is finding out how to recognize a so-called problem and to immediately deal with it. You, sir, don’t need to ask the help of the master. The master solved your so-called problem in the morning. Didn’t you realize that? In the evening his non-lecture was clear and eloquent.”

Nyogen Senzaki, a Zen master who lived in California until his death in 1958, told of a personal experience that relates to what I’ve been saying.

Once a lay person visited Senzaki’s zendo for a tour. In the meditation room he asked, “What is Zen?”

Senzaki whispered, “We don’t talk in the meditation room. We meditate.”

The two of them walked into the library. “But what is Zen?” the visitor asked again.

Senzaki said, “In the library we don’t speak. We read books.”

Finally they reached the kitchen, and, sure enough, the visitor asked “What is Zen?”

Senzaki said, “In the kitchen we cook without conversing.”

As the master escorted the visitor to the zendo exit, the fellow opened his mouth to say something. Before he could speak, Senzaki shook hands, turned around, and closed the door behind him.

I wonder if the visitor understood what Senzaki was telling him.