The Mom gives instructions.
The boy looks at his shoes and dances.
The Mom repeats the instructions.
The boy looks into the air as though dust motes are speaking to him and continues to shuffle his feet.
The Mom gives instructions for the third time, voice rising in frustration.
The boy dances away and says, “Mom, why do you have to be such a bitch?”
Bitch! is what got the Mom’s attention, and the attention of everyone else in the zendo. Not just because of the word’s shock value, but because of the effect it had on the Mom who told it and on all the householders in the group, most of whom were parents. They knew a lot about parents’ exhaustion as they try to balance their profession with raising young children, the discouragement at not being available enough, strong and tireless enough, the intensity and the feelings of inadequacy, even despair, which sometimes arise. Bitch! caused the mother to stop and see her son in a new light, which meant that she also saw herself differently. It swept the ground from under her, subverting the habitual pattern she’d depended on before, and left her in a state of not-knowing.
It’s the first koan in The Book of Householder Koans. Most traditional Chan koans came out of questions or give-and-take between teacher and student that arose from situations in daily monastic life. The koans here came out of the world of work and relationships, the romance of couples and the demands of family, the travails of the classroom and the challenges posed by one’s children and elderly parents. It’s about the dying father, the angry sister, the perplexing student, the needy child, and the disappointed lover. It’s about the householder life as the ground of spiritual practice.
The Book of Householder Koans will be published by Monkfish Book Publishing Co. in 2016.