A Straight Road with 99 Curves
Coming of Age on the Path of Zen
(Stone Bridge Press)
Greg Shepherd went off and did what most of us were thinking we should have done fifty years ago. That is, pack up the old tote bag and shuffle off --- not to Buffalo --- but to Tokyo. To become a Zen master. Why not? The world was a mess, Americans were committing ourselves to pacifying the Vietnamese, burning up Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and --- worst of all --- drafting disinterested college kids to go off and show the world that we were the home of the brave.
Shepherd went where his heart led him, being Zen-bound. It wasn't exactly Tokyo but --- better Hilo, Hawai'i --- where he could practice his zazen and go surfing and smoke dope and worry ... all at the same time. The rare thing that makes this memoir vastly different than those of the rest of us drop-outs of the 60s is that he actually stuck with it, made a serious effort to become a sitting Buddhist.
But the reality of it was a little tougher. Sitting on the zafu for hours at a time requires knees of steel, a straight back, and the ability (try it) to get the mind to shut up its incessant babbling for long enough for the Truth (the supposed real you) to bubble up from underneath. Theoretically the end result of days and weeks and months of sitting with your legs bent under you like spaghetti --- several times a day --- is something called "deep kensho."
I suddenly "became" my breathing, the process of which now had neither name nor function, but rather just was.
Being young and naive, Shepherd jumped up to tell his master, Mr. Sekida."I proceded to babble excitedly about what had just happened."
"You've done it, my friend! You've locked eyebrows with the Buddha!"
Or so I wished. Actually, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, perhaps maybe so," in answer to my blatantly point-blank question, "Does this mean that I've had kensho."
"Perhaps maybe so." A typically vague Japanese answer to my question ... a typically Zen answer as well, one surely calculated to test my confidence in my experience.
§ § §
99 Curves is jam-packed full of these near-mystical experiences, and the next-moment let-downs. Like all of us, Shepherd wants to get to the Truth; unlike most of us, he's willing to sacrifice years and years (study, sitting, poverty, aching back, aching knees, sensory deprivation, humiliated over and over again) in order to achieve it. And does he? Does he finally penetrate the ego, finally to kiss the edge of nirvana, get close to the ecstasy-to-be-had-by-mere-mortals?
Who knows? For he finds out that in the long run it makes little or no difference. We look to Buddhism to stitch up our broken hearts and souls, to make us more peaceful, to give us the Final Insight as to Why we are Here, to ultimately know Where we are Going. But as one master has stated, "Yesterday I woke up, went out and plowed the field, brought home the oxen and ate supper and then lay down to sleep. That night I achieved enlightenment. Today I woke up, went out and plowed the field, brought home the oxen, and ate supper and then lay down to sleep."
The fun of Shepherd's book is the style. He looks back on his mad pursuit with a sweet disingenuousness, a wry what-could-I-have-been-thinking? At one point he sets off for Japan --- via Hawai'i --- to study Zen under Yamada Roshi. When he first meets Roshi, he watches anxiously as the master extracts a silver object from his pocket. He imagines it as a gift for his followers, "a token of appreciation for your efforts, I now present to you --- the Silver Buddha-Wand of Diligence."
But instead, he unhasped the cylinder, took out a thick black stogie, and struck a match, asking of no one in particular, "Does anyone mind it I smoke?"
When Shepherd finally makes it to Japan, to the seat of Zen --- to study with the master's master, the first thing he notices are "the chemical rainbows swirled in the series of rivers the train passed over. The stifling, urine-yellow air of August was so steeped in acidic molecules of chemical waste that my eyes burned despite the train's air condition." When he arrives at the San Un Zendo in Kamakura, he meets with Yamada Roshi for a few moments. The master soon stubs out his cigar and says, "Sore ja." "An elliptical conversation-ending expression that in this context translated as 'Time for you two to be on your way.'" It is this dismissal, and the subsequent dismantling of Shepherd's romantic beliefs about Zen, and Japan, and his master (and indeed himself) that gives such gentle power to 99 Curves.
It is a bildingsroman for all of us about when we went out into the world and found out that they had cut away all the romance and beauty that we had so been looking forward to finding. It is Tom Jones' journey all over again, Jude the Obscure's final abandonment, Young Törless forced to be on his own ... the countless others of us who set out to conquer the world with love or faith or hope (they told us we could do it) and then find that when we get to the tower of change, they've came in the night, moved it somewhere else, far out of our ken, far out of reach.
It is all nicely encapsulated in Shepherd's hope-filled return to his first Zen home, the one in Hawai'i. He and his peers are preparing for a sesshin, an intensive meditation retreat, but "A raucous, perpetually partying University of Hawaii fraternity had moved into the house behind Koko An, and from all appearances their lease stipulated that upon pain of eviction they were to make as much noise as possible and direct all of it at us."
Sure enough, on the last night of Aitken Roshi's first sesshin, we were just settling in for the evening zazen periods when, as if on cue, the floorboards began to rumble with Bill Wyman's bass guitar and Mick Jagger's leering "Pleased to meetchu! Hope you guess my name!!" They had the Rolling Stone's "Sympathy for the Devil" cranked up to a cardiac-massage-inducing volume that dominated the neighborhood for several blocks in all directions.
--- Richard Saturday