“Guess what, Aussie? The book came out! It finally came out, Aussie, here it is!”
No human was around when two cartons of The Book of Householder Koans: Waking Up In the Land of Attachments arrived at the front door. Harry was on a chair in the living room, resting after an icy excursion into the woods, but Aussie was on the futon under the fichus tree in my office and she raised her head, half concealed by leaves, as I dragged the boxes here, opened one up and took out a book.
I wasn’t happy at first when I saw the two cases. It’s one thing to labor privately over the koans of other people’s lives—How Heavy Is My Mother’s Diaper? Shadows, What Is Best for You, My Child? The Infinite Black Abyss, Blaming God—making each koan your own, each situation from someone else’s life your own, always asking: How do I practice with this? How do I live this?
It’s a whole other thing to see one day, after years have gone by, a case of books and you know it’s now out in the world, out in public. It’s no longer yours.
All my insecurities came up: Is this any good? Will other people wish to read it? The practice of Zen koans has been around for well over a millennium, comprising dialogues between monks. Some years ago (can’t remember how many) I heard in the zendo a mother describe a tough exchange with her son, and it hit me that these are indeed our practice fields, the situations we face at work and at home make up the soil and grit of our practice.
“Let’s produce a collection of householder koans,” I announced without thinking to the group sitting there that evening.
And I did, I thought to myself as I unpacked the books. We did. The inspiration behind it was genuine enough, but will it reach people? Will others connect with it and see their own lives in these koans?
At first, I didn’t want to open the box. Then I did. I picked up the top book and brought it up to my nose to smell the pages, the words. Looked at the gorgeous cover art generously donated to us by the artist Helen Berggruen. And thought of all the people who’d made this possible, and especially the many Zen practitioners who took my request to heart and sent me their stories of edges and heartbreaks they face day in and day out.
I had a manuscript of close to 100 pages when I approached Paul Cohen, at Monkfish Publishing, and he agreed to publish it provided I created more content. That’s when Bernie had his stroke. Time passed, we went to rehab centers, the Taub Clinic in Alabama, the months turned fuzzy and many things went by the wayside. What now? I wondered. Is this going to be another project that I won’t finish, another good idea that won’t come to fruition?
A good friend suggested: Find a collaborator. She reminded me, as I need to be reminded often, that I don’t have to do things all on my own.
I turned to Wendy Egyoku Nakao, the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, the motherhouse to so many Zen centers around the world. Egyoku took her time. She reviewed what I had, sent me some initial thoughts, thought and thought some more. Finally, to my surprise (I knew how busy she was), said yes. “But it’s going to take me time,” she warned. “I can’t begin to get to this till winter.”
Monkfish, to their credit, agreed to wait.
During the winter some terrific koans began to arrive on Egyoku’s desk from students at the Zen Center. “I have to reflect on them,” Egyoku said. “You can look at each one from so many different angles.”
She was thorough and deeply respectful of the lives shared with her. Slowly, she wrote her reflections. Phone discussions were held. I flew out to Los Angeles for a week of work. “How’s it going? ” Bernie asked me. “Slowly,” I said.
That’s what I remember now, how slow it all went, how much patience it demanded from a very impatient woman. Moi.
We make our plans and God laughs. What we thought was something we could leap into without hesitation or delay becomes something you fit in between calls to doctors, talks with rehab counselors and physical therapists, research on the latest remedies to major stroke. It slips from top 5 priorities to number 25 when you can only get to number 3 on any regular day before calling it a day and going to sleep. Wondering if you’ll ever get anything of your own done again.
And the truth is, no. Nothing of mine got done again because nothing is mine. No effort here was only mine, it took a world to make it happen, not just the world now but the world of long ago, when Chinese monks began to record quixotic dialogues between Zen masters and students (What is Buddha? A shitstick, or The cypress tree in the garden), talked of golden fish that pass through the net and pointed at wild ducks, wondering where they went.
The entire universe manifests when you plunge into your own life. As Dainin Katagiri wrote, “If you do something wholeheartedly, all sentient beings come into your life.”
You can buy The Book of Householder Koans on Amazon here. Please also consider ordering it from your local bookstore.