The Buddha is said to have observed: "Life is pain." A pretty thought, no doubt, but I always assumed that he was referring to himself, not to us. We had a special understanding with God about things like that, we thought.Then there is my friend the Swedish Buddhist, who is also given to sage aphorisms. "Pain," he likes to say, stroking his tiny goatee, "is a great teacher." What the hell does that mean? All it teaches me is: always keep the vicodin pills within reach.I had a CT scan of my lower back---what we cognoscenti call the lumbar region or, as I prefer, the lumbar yard. What a mess. There is a certain amount of stenosis, which I suppose is related to halitosis and makes my back a social pariah. The arthritic degeneration has reached the point that I could be called a degenerate.A couple of the discs are flattened, the spaces between the mullions have filled up with moss, and the abutment seems to have slipped off center. "What can I do about this, Doctor?" I asked Doctor. "Well," he said smoothly, "You could try walking on all fours."
If I tried going on all fours, then the visiting cat would assume I was just another domestic animal and begin to take liberties. However, after I get up in the morning, I sometimes use two canes so that I am, in fact, approximating the gait of a four-legged animal. This method of locomotion doesn't lessen the pain, but rather keeps me balanced, upright and moving as the pain works itself out.
It is less severe now than it was a couple of months ago, and after I have hobbled about the house for a while, the pain in my back and leg diminishes to something the Buddha would have shrugged at. At this point, I can do a few stretching exercises, and then sit against a hot pad making up koans for the rest of the morning, or until the urge to work passes.
Sometimes I drop in at the University during the afternoon anyway, just to see if it is still there. But how can one know that the University which is there today is the one that was there last year? Members of my department, noticing me in the office, sometimes politely ask who I am. I tell them that I am trying to find out. "Do not search for what cannot be found," they say, and I reply:
For our sakes
the clams and fish
give themselves unselfishly
So far nobody has called the security guards. However, the Chairman of my department has suggested that we get together on Tuesday after next, just to discuss what I am doing in the Department these days, exactly. I must try to remember:
Cover your path
With fallen pine needles
So that no one will be able
To locate your
True dwelling place.
§ § §
I should have realized that back trouble would be my fate, because my maternal grandfather was actually named BACK: Ernest Back, who emigrated from Bohemia to New York in the 1890s.
Grandpa Ernest ended up running a butcher shop, and attained a modest level of prosperity. But he certainly didn't find the streets in the New World paved with gold, as he had expected in his youth. I think he was disappointed by America, in the end. My mother told me that as he grew older, he spent more and more time getting together with his cronies from the old country to drink beer and speak Czech. He died when I was small, and I remember him only dimly.
I have much more vivid memories of his wife, my grandmother Julia who taught me innumerable card games, and of their apartment on 138th St. in the Bronx. The apartment fascinated me because the 3rd Avenue "El" went right past, a few feet from the living room. Whenever I was there to visit the grandparents, I used to station myself at the living room window. I loved to watch the people in the train, as they sped by the window watching me watching them. This experience is one of the strongest memories I have left from early childhood. For me at age five or six, watching the El trains go by was true zazen.
What a warped character I grew up to be, knowing every card game under the sun due to grandma Julia, and worshipping the 3rd Avenue El. Twenty years later, on a visit to New York City, I felt something inexplicably wrong with 3rd Avenue but couldn't put my finger on it at first. After an hour or so, I finally realized what was wrong: the El wasn't there any more. They had torn it down. I immediately recalled the words of a Zen Master:
The Zen of the great vehicle
Is beyond all superlatives.
Once self-nature equals no nature,
You will be free of this empty chatter.
I suppose the great vehicle had begun to show its age, with grass growing between its mullions and stenosis of the tracks. So the Planners decided to tear it down, because the El trains weren't going as fast as they once did.
In my case, much the same thing might be said, but I don't propose to tear anything down, not right away. Perhaps what I should do is to join all the other geezers and bring my dilapidated lumbar joints to a hot, dry climate. Couldn't I persuade the University of Palm Springs (if there is such a thing) to extend me an appointment as Visiting Professor? Of course, I am now of age to be retired, so I could be a Visiting Professor Emeritus, and wander vaguely around the campus on my walking stick, talking to myself. Or rather talking to my lumbar roll, which I carry around with me everywhere, like a Teddy bear. Sometimes the lumbar roll answers back, saying:
Use no-form as form,
Wander without settling down,
Use no-thought as thought,
Nirvana is before our eyes,
This place is the Lotus Land.
--- Dr. Phage