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Beings are Numberless

The Zen temple is on the 4th floor of an olive green building. Most people don’t know it’s there. The 1st floor is an art gallery, the 2nd is an advertising firm, and the 3rd is the temple’s storage, office, and resident space. The stairs wind upwards and leave most winded. It’s an urban space, the smallest building next to skyscrapers, the Mississippi river, and two doors down from a beautiful cathedral. Their bells chime every hour and lend to the ambiance of our temple. Whenever I’m leading, I try to harmonize, striking the gong, the metal, the han, or drum in between the ringing.

The central business district is not very “New Orleans.” It may be the only place in the city where people show up on time. It’s far from a neighborhood. The street is alive from 6:30 am until 6:00pm. Everything closes and it’s hard to find something to eat. Even the hotel bars are empty because the French quarter is so close. Most business people or convention people spend their nights there.

I shouldn't say that the streets are dead, though. The cathedral is appreciated, the Zen temple is hard to spot, but the rehabilitation center (where I go to meetings sometimes) and the homeless shelter are abjured by most of the suits and slacks that rule the CBD. Doctors, lawyers, Zennies, drunks, Zennie drunks, addicts, and homeless people share one small street. I won’t mention there is also a confederate museum, a WWII museum, and two art museums with their own factions.

Every once and a while, someone spots our subtle sign, which is tan and black, and hung at the 3rd floor level, that states simply, in bold letters, “ZEN TEMPLE.” Most of the time, “ZEN TEMPLE” attracts people who perceive the fraying fabric of the universe. And they come in hoping we can bind it up again.

Jeff and a laborer were working on the roof of the garage. We actually need sangha members so badly that we have to hire help! If there is sin in Zen, this must be it. I planned to go help, but first went into our foyer, where I lock my bike. I turned around and was startled by a woman staring through our large glass doors. She was pressing the intercom, and I figured I’d let her in. We don’t sit on Wednesday nights, so I figured she was on her way to the advertising firm. She was young and attractive, and I couldn’t imagine she wanted to go to the temple anyway, as we rarely attract women with our posted Kodo Sawaki quotes and macho-tough-guy Zen stuff. Women come and go, but it’s mostly a bunch of guys, half grumpy, half indifferent. She surprised me when she said, “I want to talk to someone from the Zen temple.”

I said, “I’m from the Zen temple, you can talk to me.”

Tourists from the French quarter want to smell some incense and see a Buddha statue and are usually satisfied with a tour. She was eerily reticent. On the 2nd floor stair well, she hummed a song. On the 4th floor stair well, I started to say that our orientation was tomorrow, and she answered, “Oh, I already did one.”

I knew this was trouble, but not until that point. I was alone with this woman and I didn’t know what she wanted. And now that we were standing in the reception area outside of the dojo, with her vapid gaze, I panicked. Just on the inside.

“I really needed a calm space.”

“This is pretty calm.” I said.
“Do you have any food?”
“Are you okay?”

She spun around like a child and groaned, “I’m hungry. Can I go to the bathroom?”
I lead her to the back and she walked behind me. “The bible says that a temple should admit everyone, no matter how shabbily dressed they are,” she whispered, “They may be angels in disguise.”

Having no idea what to say, and without thinking, and with GRE words floating around my head, all I could say was, “You look perfectly seraphic.” She went into the bathroom, and I went into the kitchen, ready to make her a peanut butter sandwich so I could send her on her way. I’d give her a piece of cake, my apple, soup, anything- the moon- just to get her going. I was afraid, and I’m not sure why.

She came back out and stood silently. I broke the silence, starting the orientation, “We sit Zazen here.”
“Oh, can I sit now?”
“Um, well, you can come back tomorrow morning at 6am or at 6pm tomorrow night.” I said.

There were some newspapers on the kitchen table, and she asked, “Do have the comics?”
I started looking, but she found them first, looked at particular picture, named the comic, and handed it to me, pointed at a heart, and smiled at me.

I looked at it, tried to find meaning, still afraid, I said, “cool.” and handed it back.

Somehow we started walking back downstairs. On the 1st stair well she sighed, and said, “I get kicked out of everywhere.”
“You feel like you’re getting kicked out?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t what to do. I’m not a priest, just a student.”

She walked toward the rehab and the shelter, but I’m not sure they were open to her.
I’m not sure what I could have done differently, but I felt like I had a perfect opportunity to help someone like I dream of helping them. Striving to practice for others, sit for others, sweep the steps for others, is hard to stomach, but when given this opportunity to help someone directly, I felt trapped in paradox.

People, westerners maybe, often look to Buddhism to solve their problems. Maybe they’re hungry, maybe they’re stressed, and I must admit I came to Buddhism looking for specific merit. I was quiet about it, though. Had I come to the practice saying, “I want power, like Jedi power, samurai power, ninja power.” I don't mean to sound childish. The power I really wanted was total self reliance. No interdependence, nothing, just me.

I might have been turned away. The more I strived for this power, the faster I wore myself out. Actually, there was no one to turn me away. Since I swore everyone was off base, I didn’t seek a teacher or a sangha. Buddha did it all with his head,heart and knees, why couldn’t I? Eventually, I came to some scary places through sitting, and I quit before it got too ugly. I came to my teacher and my temple with exhausted faith. Though wary, I was pretty easy to deal with.

But my point is, these personal goals, which are deterred in Zen practice, can lead someone to the path. They hardly need to be deterred, as the practice will let you know with time. People quit or people settle.

I’m wondering if I pushed her away. What tradition should I look to? Should I have offered her tangaryo? Should I have handed her a broom? They made Kodo Sawaki work in the kitchen for a couple months before they admitted him to zazen. Freshly shot in the mouth and out of the war, perhaps that was the best therapy around.

I know she wasn’t ready to jump into practice. I doubt she would have made it through 10 minutes of zazen without freaking out.

But maybe she could have called someone. Maybe I could have walked her somewhere. Maybe I could have seen my grandmother’s Buddha nature and force fed her the contents of our refrigerator. I was too afraid to see anything.

And I guess this is why not having at teacher around is dangerous. What did she get? Me. And I told her I wasn't a priest, like that means anything.


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