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Bodhidharma and the Emperor



I keep coming back to Bodhidharma and the emperor, to the experience of the endlessness of koan study. Deeper and deeper and deeper without end.


When I first heard that there were Korean Zen lineages in which students worked with only one koan, I was horrified. How can anyone stay with one koan for a lifetime? Now, it’s beginning to make sense. 


Maybe there was something misleading in the way Zen history was presented. As I read the accounts, it sounded to me as if students finished their koan study, received transmission and then went off, to travel around, testing their understanding with different teachers or perhaps just living on a mountain or among regular people, deepening, deepening, deepening.


This story seemed to confirm my experience of koan study. Bernie was in La Honda when we began koan study together 9 months after Jishu died. It probably took each of us that long to be ready to pick up the ball. Doing koans via email didn’t work out. Bernie sent me to Roshi Bob Kennedy to do my koan study. When I finished with our four koan collections, I was to come back to Bernie to do the Five Ranks and complete my preparation for transmission. That’s the way it seemed to happen. That’s how it looked. I finished koan study with Bob and went back to Bernie.


The surprise is that I never finished koan study. I’ve been studying koans ever since. It wasn’t until I was into koan study with my students that I realized how far I had come in the years since I’d “finished” but also how much farther I could still go. Finally, I arrived at the realization that my work with my koans will never end. Now, I think I am beginning to understand the Koreans.


I look now at the Zennies who claim to have finished with koans, not with the jealousy which I once felt for the “good” Zen students, including those who were always sitting extra periods during sesshin. Now, being “finished” seems to reek of Zen stink. If you think you’ve finished, you have missed the boat. Kyudo Roshi’s teacher, the great Soen Roshi, warned the Zennies, “After you’ve showered, rinse the soap off. Don’t walk around covered in suds to convince the rest of us of your cleanliness.” 


I keep coming back to the same koans over and over again. So many of them could have been my Korean koan of a lifetime.


I joyfully keep coming back to Bodhidharma and the emperor, one of the koans that keeps taking me deeper. “Who are you?” I am never done with that question, and I love it. 

“Who are you?”


This morning, I answered, “I am a writer.”


I am fascinated that that answer has come out of my mouth. You might have thought that was the kind of answer I put behind me 30 years ago during my first Ox course with Jishu. You’ve likely heard my story. I was new in those days to the Zen Community of New York. I was studying with Jishu for the first time. She paired us off for an exercise in “Who are you?” 

Paired with Jennifer Dohrn, we took turns. First Jennifer asked me again, “Who are you?” and repeated the question with whatever I answered: social worker, activist, Jew, son, lover. My answer didn’t matter. When Jishu rang her bell, Jennifer and I switched roles and I became the questioner.


I worked with that experience for a long time, and it did take me deeper. I saw it. Whatever role we attach to sets us up for suffering. I had been a stepdad. I had been proud of being a stepdad, but when that marriage ended, I lost those relationships. I lost that role. I was thrown back into therapy to deal with the loss. 


The Bodhidharma koan gave me a new language for that experience. My attachment to a role, to my answer to “who are you?” had set me up for suffering. Stop attaching to roles. That was the pathway to the end of suffering, an introduction to letting go of attachments. That was the great wisdom in Bodhidharma’s answer when the emperor asked, “Who are you?”


“Don’t know.” Completely free, without attachment to roles. No roles, no self.

I have not always found it an easy path to stay on, but in this morning’s experience, I am seeing something different. 


“Who are you?”


“I am a writer.”


There is no permanence in my voice. Not so long ago, I was not a writer. I was a mental health administrator and then a social entrepreneur, building charter schools. This morning, “I am a writer.” I wasn’t a writer yesterday. I don’t know about tomorrow. Today, I am a writer. 

How long will I be a writer? I have no idea. I have finished the third draft of my first novel, and I am feeling that it may soon be ready to go out in search of an agent. We’ll see. I have finished the first  draft of a Zen memoir. Ideas for three new novels are percolating, including an idea for a sequel to the first novel. I have been working on a second Zen memoir for years. A couple of other books, collaborative projects, are in various stages of discussion. I’ve started writing detective stories. Five years of writing easy.


How far will I get on them? I have no idea.


I wrote yesterday. I am writing today. I expect to be writing tomorrow, but I actually have no idea how long I’ll be writing. How long will my body allow me to write?


What will come next? Will I be a writer tomorrow? 


“Don’t know.” I am channeling my inner Bodhidharma as I say that. Bernie grieved when Jishu died, although some looked skeptically at his grief. “Aren’t Zen masters supposed to be free of attachment?”


I am a husband. I am a father. Everything can end, and in the ending, there will be loss and suffering. I get it. My cardiologist has me checking my blood pressure and my pulse every morning. “Who are you today, Ken?” I am taking my pulse. I smile. “I’m a writer.”


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