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Sanzen in LA

June 1972: Los Angeles

For three weeks I stayed in Los Angeles. Lodging in the home of Carl and Linda Gordon and visiting UCLA to give a talk and work on a problem in lambda calculus17.

It was a happy time. My recent girlfriend Donna and her daughter Buffee had visited me for a long weekend. After having brought them to the airport, I went for a short ride in one of the many deserts that surround LA. Driving for a while I saw from the right a small cloud of dust approaching the path I drove on. Comming closer it turned out to be a running man. He gestured me to stop. Almost exhausted, he had run in order to be able to hold me: his car was broken down. We drove to the nearest garage, half an hour away, and he could get a four-wheel drive for towing his car. Being in a good spirits I returned to the place where I stayed. Work on the problem went well18.

Having got a taste for Zen I looked in the phonebook for a Zendo in LA. Found the `Los Angeles Zen Center'. It turned out to be one in the tradition of the Rinzai school. Sitting was done facing the center of the hall. A period lasted 25 minutes. Kinhin, the walking, was not done slowly. On the contrary, it was in the outside garden and in a fast marching tempo we walked vigorously. One morning session consisted not of two, but of three sitting periods. Together with the two walk rounds of 10 minutes the total practice lasted about the same time as the ones in Los Altos in the Soto tradition.

After the practice I read on a bulletin board that in coming evening there would be Sanzen. ``What is that?'', I asked a fellow student. ``Zazen is our sitting practice like this morning. During Sanzen we will get interviewed by the Master and get a koan to solve'', he answered. That sounded interesting. In fact, in spite of the half year Zen in the Bay Area, I had never heard the word Koan, so distinctly memorable from the lesson of Bloem and the writings of Suzuki. Yes, I wanted to go.

Returning home, it was still only 6:30 a.m., I had to ride 20 km to the part of the city where I was staying. Because of the time of the day this went smoothly. Arrived I could not resist writing an amateur haiku.

Leaving the Zendo,
the freeways are convenient.
Rain over LA.

A few days later in the evening time for Sanzen was there. We started the practice as usual with a sitting period. After a bell sounded we remained sitting. A woman got up as first and left the hall for a corridor on the side. Another student left in the same direction. And so on. After a while I felt it was my time to leave the meditation hall. The corridor was long and dimly lit. Most students were still in it, sitting one behind the other on their knees, bottom on heels style. We heard a small bell. The person in front got up and went into a room to the right. All others moved forward one place. The resulting suspense was like in the better thrillers: our expectation got aroused.

When I had finally reached the front of the waiting queue, a fellow behind me already had noticed that I was new to this all. ``When you enter the room of the Master,'' he whispered ``make three prostrations like this'' and showed me. The small bell rang again and I had to go.

Entering the room on the right, there ! was the Master, small, Japanese and in his sixties or seventies. He was actually not in that room, but in one further room having a large circular entrance from the place where I was. Remembering that I had to make these three bows, I only wondered whether to do them in room I stood, or in the room behind the circular opening. It was not hard to decide to do the first. Whether this was correct or not I did not know, but with his ``Art nouveau'' stick the Master made a few jerky cirkels indicating I had to come in his room proper.

His eyes were not unfriendly, but stern compared with those of Kobun. After observing me for a few seconds he asked: ``What are you doing in Los Angeles?'' ``Mathematics'', I answered. ``Are you student or teacher?'' he asked next. ``Teacher.'' Then he started to give a small lecture. About the number zero, about the Buddhist concepts of nothingness and no-mind. Then he came with the koan: ``How much equals one plus one.'' My guts telling me that it was better not to answer the obvious, I said: ``That depends on the number-system we are in.'' ``Do'nt say that. Give me an answer!'' he objected. Then I ventured ``One plus one equals zero.'' ``That is correct!'' he exclaimed. ``I will give you a second koan. How does one drive a car with no-mind?'' I knew the answer, so I thought and the following words came in my mind. ``While driving with no-mind, one starts viewing the car as an extension of our body. It is the body that accelerates or slows down. Everything flows so naturally that it is done with no-mind'' and I started to convey this. The Master started to listen carefully, but after two seconds he rang the small bell. It was the sign that the next student could come in and that my answer was not correct.

Driving home at 9:30 p.m. the LA traffic conditions were totally different from those during the very early morning. Not driving with no-mind I was pondering over the Sanzen session. It made me drive slowly. Irritated by this someone behind me used his claxon. Then I suddenly knew the answer to the second koan19.

next up previous contents
Next: Other meditation places Up: THE QUEST Previous: Zen in Los Altos
Henk Barendregt