The dragon glared down from the wall, its eyes like moons and those weren’t the only eyes on me. Zen forefathers going back five centuries watched from the walls, while the monastery’s current master, the abbot of Hosshinji, Temple of the Awakening of the Heart, sat radiantly alive on his cushion in front of me.
The wind rattled the windows around the temple perimeter. My clean-shaven head felt the December cold penetrate like needles. I had slept only three hours a night for the past three nights, and had five more to go. My swollen knees ached insistently from sitting in full lotus fourteen hours a day.
Physical pain was one thing, but I would have preferred facing a real dragon to facing the master. A personal interview with a Zen roshi was being opened up like a clam. Sometimes he was congenial, sometimes stern. Other times he spat out a nonsensical question, then before I could collect my thoughts rang the bell to leave. But I had put my faith in this man. I wanted what he had, and it wasn’t going to rub off. I had to pay for everything.
The master didn’t say a word. Eyelids half-closed, he was immersed in a dimension I couldn’t begin to fathom. I didn’t know what to say. This interview was to evaluate my progress, for me to ask questions. But there was no progress, no questions. I tried to be aware, aware of who I was. That was my koan: Who am I? It was my anchor, my Zen riddle, designed to propel me beyond ordinary modes of thought and on to enlightenment.
My legs pleaded for relief. An hour of sitting on my heels in seiza waiting to see him had taught me a new meaning of pain, but I stubbornly resisted the temptation to shift positions. The master sat rock still. What about his legs? He had to interview every sesshin participant—three hours of suffering. How could he bear it? He felt the same pain I did, didn’t he? Wait a minute, I was drifting.
“Who are you?” He broke the silence, pouncing on the opening as if he had been waiting for it.
I jumped. “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
The master looked irritated. “Do you know what you mean by ‘you don’t know?’”
How should I know what I mean? That’s what I came here to learn. Focus! Who am I? There was a right answer and he expected me to know it. “No,” I stumbled, at his mercy. “No, I don’t know.”
“You fail!” he thundered, scowling.
What was that supposed to mean? Was he kicking me out of the temple? I’d only been here three weeks! It took Buddha himself six years to reach enlightenment. The master eyed me severely as he leaned forward and rang the bell, ending the interview. At the sound the next interviewee would be starting his prostrations in the main hall before moving on to the Founders’ Room. I executed my prostrations and rose to leave. It was forbidden to speak on the way in or out, but I had to say something. I bowed deeply from the waist and blurted, “I’ll try harder!”
The master looked up sternly at the infraction, then smiled. “I’m relieved to hear that.”
Not nearly as relieved as I was. Emerging from the Founders’ Room, I entered the long Ancestors’ Hall with eyes lowered and hands clutched to my chest, right fist under left palm, proceeding mindfully back to the meditation hall. The next disciple was on his way in. I was glad that wasn’t me.
But next time that would be me, again and again, as long as I chose to stay. And after the chain of events that had brought me here, losing the opportunity to get what I came for was something I couldn’t let happen.