If you asked me why I do koan study with my students, I would have a different answer now than I would have had a year ago. For years, my answer would have been, “Because that’s how I was trained.”
“Did it help you?” you might have asked in response.
“Something did.” That’s all I could say.
Now my answer would be different. “Because I learn so much.”
One of the Zen students I have been working with for years, Janet Sirotta, has been working with a classic, a very simple koan, one of many very similar koans, that never meant a whole lot to me, some of the koans that I don’t know how I “passed.”
A monk asks, “What is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the West?” This question seems to have been asked by so many monks in so many ways.
In Janet’s koan, Hsiang Lin answers, “Sitting for a long time is tedious.”
Janet has been struggling with this koan for a while. I know the feeling; it is one of those koans in which the teacher seems to respond with a non sequitur.
Janet tells me that she and Mike have been re-watching Shtisel. I know the mini-series about an Orthodox Israeli family. Dee and I watched it too. We loved it. Janet says now the teacher’s words in the voice of a Jewish grandmother. I get it. I can picture it.
A little girl enters the kitchen where her grandmother is working at the sink. “Bubbee,” she says, “what is the meaning of the Ancestor coming from the West?”
Her grandmother turns, drying her hands on a towel. “Boobilah, come here.”
The little girl steps forward into the embracing hug.
“Sitting a long time gets so tedious.”
In recent months, I have been seeing in so many koans that the teacher who seems to be responding with a non sequitur is actually answering the question.
Ananda asks Mahakasyapa, “In addition to the robe, what teaching did you receive from the Buddha?”
His elder brother answers, “Ananda. Take down the flagpole.” A non sequitur? No, a direct answer. Not in so many words, but a direct answer. Take care of what is right in front of you. Not in theory. In action. Just do it. Whatever it is. That’s what the Buddha taught.
Janet’s koan, in a way, goes deeper. I learned this “deeper” way years ago working with the I Ching.
The Sage always answers your question. It is so easy not to see the answer as an answer when it is not the answer you were expecting. “This is no answer,” is often the first response. “This is a non sequitur. This has nothing to do with my question.” It takes a while to realize, “Yes, this is the answer, not the answer I was expecting, not the answer to the question I was wanting, but yes, this is the answer.” Eye opening.
But sometimes in working with the I Ching, we find something deeper. Sometimes the Sage is answering not the question that I asked but the question I was afraid to speak, even to the Sage, even to myself.
Janet’s teacher has answered the question which the monk was afraid to ask.
I can feel it in my bones, that monk’s experience. “I can’t sit another minute. Let me go in and talk to the teacher, stretch my legs. I will ask him an important question.” What a wonderful teacher, responding not to my silly talk but my reality beneath my silliness.
Memories rising: Grandma’s kitchen was very narrow, a window at the end of an aisle, sink and counter on one side, fridge and stove on the other. I was still so young when Grandma died but I remember her kitchen and the tiny meatballs with raisins in a sweetish sauce. I loved them, so unlike Mommy’s “Italian” meatballs in tomato sauce, and the wonderful Mandel bread, sort of Jewish biscottis.
Grandma lived in an apartment in Brooklyn, continued living there after Grandpa died when I was so young I can barely remember him. I loved their living room, the record player, probably an antique already with a handle to crank it, gigantic, taller than me, and the first Persian carpet in my life, dark red with intricacies of blue and orange and gold. I loved the pattern and spent hours walking around the carpet, following the design, while Mommy and Grandma talked in the kitchen.
“Grandmotherly.” It seemed so disparaging, so caustic when Mumon said it. Mumon composed the koan collection which we all studied first. “Grandmotherly” was his word for the teachers who he thought were way to gentle with their students, way too “giving.” His high regard, it seemed to me, was reserved for teachers who were cold and curt.
I took his “grandmotherly” as a personal criticism. I wasn’t a good enough Zen teacher because I didn’t push my students hard enough.
I am feeling much happier with Janet’s channeling, not a harsh, dismissive teacher. Rather a teacher who is way too grandmotherly.
“Come here, Boobilah.”
My kind of Zen teacher.
Thank you, Janet.
Thank you, Hsiang Lin.
 Blue Cliff Record, Case 17.