I’m teaching householder koans at Zen Life and Meditation Center in Chicago this weekend. I deeply appreciate the members practicing together with me, not to mention hanging out with old friends like teachers Robert Althouse and June Tanoue. We began Thursday evening and I will finish on Sunday, returning home to Massachusetts early Sunday evening.
My host, Zen teacher and hula master June Tanoue, asked me to come early and take the opportunity to see Chicago with her, the Art Institute and other places. I thanked her and said no; for some odd reason I like to leave home and arrive somewhere just in time, and return as soon as possible. It’s probably a recipe for a boring life..
The only time I’d visited the Chicago Art Institute was in December 1984, when I was a writing fellow at the Ragdale Foundation and took a day off to see the city.
The Ragdale Foundatiion is in Lake Forest, a very wealthy suburb of Chicago where many of the 19th century robber barons built their mansion homes (the movie Ordinary People was filmed there). Usually in mid-day I’d put on my coat, leave my work in my room, and walk up and down those streets. I never saw anyone outside those grand houses other than men from Latin America doing landscaping and repairs, and it often occurred to me that if a Martian had landed in Lake Forest s/he would conclude that they were the immensely wealthy people who lived in those homes.
I remember two things from my day in Chicago proper. The winds off the lake gave me a raw and immediate hit on one reason why that city is called the Windy City (there are more reasons). Walking around was no joy.
The second thing I remember vividly was making my way to Lincoln Park. By then it had started to rain. I saw a bookshop and thought to go in, but saw it was crowded with people talking among themselves, crowded around an elfin figure seated at the table signing books and talking to people with the most expressive face I’d ever seen. I started crying because I recognized James Baldwin.
I should have gone in, bought a book, made prostrations. Instead I stood out in the rain and looked at him through the windows sitting in the warm, lit-up bookstore. Streams cascaded down the window and I got soaked.
It was during those two months at the Ragdale Foundation that I began to sit.
In Zen practice we don’t invoke the bright sun as signaling enlightenment, but rather the hazy moon. I think of that when I remember the woman standing in the rain and looking inside through windows streaming with water outside, misting over inside.