I was a puddle on my mat. Ki-Ki prattled on about lifted knee caps and relaxed faces in a ceaseless stream of directions for each pose. Bikram always feels like swimming laps in a hot tub, and every once in a while becoming stuck in the filter. Ki-Ki’s directions are always very Zen like, urging us to focus, be in the moment, but I was thinking about our temple’s 25th anniversary and my Roshi’s 76th birthday.
As I rode to my father’s house, I thought about Robert and whether or not he’s a true teacher. You know, whether or not he’s a “master.” It takes courage for me to think about these things because I’ve dedicated the last two years to this temple and this teacher. And the facts are not reassuring. Sometimes I feel like I’ve fallen into a rogue lineage.
Kodo Sawaki did not give Deshimaru dharma transmission. Maybe he died before he could, but I’ve heard that’s not entirely the case. Deshimaru was a bit rough and tumble. By all accounts, I know that he drank, smoked, and did his fair share of womanizing. I’ve also heard that the Paris dojos could get a little out of control- lots of sex, lots of partying, and too much drama. Deshimaru went to the Soto-Shu to be formally recognized as a teacher.
And Deshimaru didn’t give Robert dharma transmission. Robert also went to the Soto-Shu, after studying with Deshimaru for 20 years.
Is the Soto-Shu a quik shop of Zen certification?
By the time I got to my Dad’s house, I didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it, and settled that Robert is turning 76, has been practicing Zen for 36 years, and he hasn’t told me to jump off any bridges. He’s told me to eat my vegetables, sit up straight, and to ride one horse without looking back. He’s my teacher, and he needed a birthday cake, and I didn’t know what kind he wanted, and that’s what I should be thinking about.
Wedding cake. Chocolate cake. No, I like chocolate cake. Healthy cake? Carrot Cake! I know it’s not really healthy, but there is a pound of carrots in one double layer carrot cake. And about 3 cups of sugar when you count the cream cheese icing. What really made this carrot cake special was the lemon zest/juice in the icing. Its tangy taste produced a thirst for more and more of it.
The cakes were done by 1 am and I woke up at 7am to start the icing. By the time I was done garnishing, it was 11. By the time I got back to the temple and went over the grocery list with Jeff, it was 12. After visiting the farmer’s market, whole foods, and a Middle Eastern place, it was 1:40pm. Jeff was driving like a maniac and I was stricken stiff with the idea that if I could just keep myself from being jostled around, I could keep my brains from escaping if we crashed. I became the seat belt.
2:00PM, the party was at 4:00PM, and my helpers forgot to come. Here was my menu: Humus, Bruschetta, and 40 Vietnamese spring rolls. Jeff complained that there wasn’t any meat, so I put some Sangha members on that task, because I don’t cook meat. You know how it’s ironic that most meat eaters don’t hunt? Well, this one doesn’t even want to microwave a piece of flesh. However, if you offer me an oyster po-boy, sure enough, I’ll get down on that.
I started the spring rolls first. I had a punch bowl full of cabbage, green onions, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and carrots. Each roll would get a couple slices of avocado.
Roll. Roll is the operative word.
My first “roll” looked like a membrane with bright guts. It looked like a kombucha fetus. And it was 2:10. I had 39 to make.
After making a few “Spring Burritos” I had a great idea. Why don’t I follow some directions? Oh, it says 2 table spoons, not two handfulls of filling. This changed everything, and I was on my way.
Help arrived. Elliot first, who brought shrimp cocktail. Then Jeff, who brought Zen.
Elliot was making the brucshetta, toasting slices of baguettes in the oven. Jeff looked in and said, “Is someone watching these?”
“I just put them in.” Elliot said.
“How toasty do you want them?”
“Oh, lightly browned.”
“Flyingpig, how toasty do you want them?” Jeff said.
“Um, until you can hear them being poured into a bowl.” I said.
And that was an awkward exchange, as Jeff tried to assert that I was Tenzo. He kind of threw his hands up and asked what the Tenzo wanted. Both of these guys are older and have been practicing longer. I wanted to say, “The Tenzo wants you to touch your nose, then use your brain and do what needs to be done.” Instead, I told Jeff to make the humus. Then his wife volunteered, and I asked her to make the peanut sauce. I never moved from my spring roll assembly line- Dip the rice paper, a small hand full of filling, one slice of avocado, tuck-tuck, tighten, roll.
By 4:30pm, the food was on the table and people were showing up. There was a pile of dishes. I jumped in. Jeff took me aside and said, “You’re the Tenzo, let others do that. Survey the scene. What needs to be done?”
I turned on the track lights and arranged some food and watched people wash dishes I wanted to wash. At this dojo, people treat the residents like golden children. For many who come to practice here, we’re some kind of symbol, though we mostly keep the lights on, the floor swept, and the gongs going. I feel uncomfortable because of conversations like this:
A guy pulled me aside and whispered about Robert:
“So Robert’s…” And he wanted to say something about enlightenment, but instead made all kinds of strange gestures with his eyebrows.
“The teacher. The Roshi.”
“And how do you become that?”
“Another teacher recognizes you as ready to teach.”
“And your position here?”
“I’m a student.”
At that, he looked kind of confused. Because he’s a student. And I’m a student. Anyway, aside from some others that really know me, and have been here longer, most people who come in here won’t really interact with me. You know, I’m allowed to date now, but I doubt if that’s ever going to happen, because as soon as people see where I live, they take a step back. I figure they think one of two things: I’m too pious, or I’m in a cult.
So I wanted to hide in those dishes, but Jeff had a lot to teach me, if I would let him. Next lesson: How to sing happy birthday to a Roshi who upon finding out that we were calling a birthday party for him diverted the attention to the founding of our temple. And I knew, knew, knew, with every last scintilla of force in the universe, he didn’t want a friggin’ song and some candles. But Jeff prompted me.
I recruited some other core members that Robert would recognize to sing back up in the second line. I cut the cake, lit the candles, and started singing. He was trapped on the couch, talking about some photos with some newcomers. He blew the candle out, said thanks, and handed the cake back. Turns out, he doesn’t like cake at all. His wife liked it though.
John Coltrane, Robert’s favorite, played in the background. People were starting to filter out. I sat at the coffee table, tired and relieved. There were picture Albums that started in the 70s, pictures of Deshimaru dedicating bells, dedicating temples, kissing pretty girls on the cheek. Robert sat down and Jeff joined us. Robert started pointing out his shadows, and naming people we might know in the pictures. Bucolic and bohemian, it was nothing like our temple. There were fields and horses, naked monks and nuns (we still use that term) bathing in streams, pictures of talent shows where everyone looked a little like David Bowie- a little bit like a man, a little bit like a woman.
And then there was this one picture of a beautiful woman, and I saw Robert pause, and then he explained. “Great gal, she could sing, could dance, but you know what she did? After that sesshin, she went back to Paris and got all dressed up. She went sat in this apartment, next to the dojo, where monks lived, poured gasoline all over herself and set herself on fire.”
And then we got into Robert’s students.
He kept pointing- “He’s dead, bone cancer. He jumped off a bridge. This guy went to Brooklyn, where they didn’t think much of him, and he jumped. This one had aids, died. This guy shot himself. I’ve got a great influence on these guys, huh?”
Again, he’s never asked me to jump off a bridge.
And then he paused on his “puddy cat.”
“Oh, this poor guy, he ate morning glories. Really horrible. Paralyzed, and man, he suffered.”
That was the end. He gave us hugs, said thank you, and left. A couple people hung around and drank. Jeff and I relaxed, he with a glass of wine, me with a cup of chamomile tea. We joked about the friction, about Robert.
Robert. I think he carries a lot of regret about becoming a teacher. He says Deshimaru asked him to teach, and he’s just following orders now. He’d rather teach cats and plants.
Jeff said, “He treats us like plants. Sprinkles a little here, and a little there. He’s not trying to get immediate results.”
I thought about all the monks he used to live here, who have scattered. I thought about how there are only five of us who keep this place running. And I thought about why I always want to leave.
Robert is never going to give intellectual candy. He doesn’t say things to sound eloquent or Zen. Instead of considering what his words look like, he considers what effect they’ll have on his students. He can seem erratic. I see him treat other students so gently, while I feel he is tough on me.
I don’t trust him exactly, and maybe I am a little afraid of him. I think that’s what keeps me poking around. And I don’t mind the effect; I stand up straighter and strive.