THE BOOK OF HOUSEHOLDER KOANS: Waking Up in the Land of Attachments by Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao
What if we dropped any talk of Buddhism, or Zen, and looked at the everyday situations we find ourselves in: some silly, some poignant, and some unbearably cruel and painful. Yesterday it was the pandemic. Today it is George Floyd. Tomorrow it will be something else.
In The Book of Householder Koans, Roshis Eve Myonen Marko and Wendy Egyoku Nakao cook up a feast of sixty-six short stories of everyday life, presented in the form of The Blue Cliff Record, the Mumonkan, or, more recently, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. In each story, the protagonist is a Zen practitioner negotiating and struggling with the intricacies of modern living from a Buddhist perspective.
Like all Zen parables, these are gripping and lyrical, completely relatable and yet exotic. The authors come with the highest authority, the broadest experience as Zen teachers in the West.
Their stories will inspire and linger with you. Here is what they have done for me. The story below, presented in the format of the book, is based on my personal experience and offered as an homage, or at least fan fiction, bowing, palms up….
When everything is enough, there is not enough.
When there is not enough, everything is enough.
Silly talk for silly men.
Drunken Ikkyu shows up at the Zen Center door in a dirty trench coat, straggly hair belying his earlier “incarnation” of Asian Zen monk when he first arrived in the city. The young Western sitters are, of course, shocked.
Where is the moral downfall?
Ikkyu was the first Buddhist I ever met. He was a young monk of about 24, newly arrived in the West, living in a barren apartment. I, all of 18, had just read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and had seen a flyer on a lamppost. Now I was off to meet a Zen master! Going up the stairs to the apartment, I was terrified he would beat me with a stick and hurl me down into the street below.
Instead, he turned out to be rather meek. We sat on ochre carpet ends that had been cut into squares, opposite each other on the wooden floor. He apologized for his bad English and suggested I find a Western teacher he knew, who was a student of Philip Kapleau. I did.
Fast forward several years. I’m living in the Zen Center, and Ikkyu shows up one night for the evening sit, looking every bit the homeless person in tattered smelly clothes, drunk, and making a scene. Shocking.
Fast forward several years. I’m living in another city and discover Ikkyu is living in a basement apartment around the corner. I visit, and meet his live-in girlfriend. He’s not teaching, but he still self-identifies as a Buddhist priest. So does she.
Fast forward several years. Ikkyu is a monk again, with a small temple in what had originally been a neighborhood synagogue. He has a reputation for orthodox practice and has been successful in building a loyal Sangha from his ethnic community. We reconnect in a deeper way, and I become a donor to the center, although not a member.
Fast forward several years. Ikkyu has moved to a cavernous old building that had originally been a movie theatre with an enormous parking lot. It is now sparsely populated by gaunt western students in outfits that look vaguely like hospital scrubs. There are centers abroad as well. We joke about having known each other for more than 30 years.
Fast forward several years. The old theatre building is sold, making Ikkyu one of the richest Zen monks in the country. His lifestyle does not waver. He takes all the money and invests it in another Dharma Center building in the inner city of another (expensive) metropolis.
Ikkyu is one of North America’s leading Zen teachers.
What do we know?
How does the passage of time nourish our growth?
Even our Enlightenment is impermanent.