Nothing on My Mind
An excerpt from Erik Fraser Storlie's memoir of "Berkeley, LSD, Two Zen Masters and a Life on the Dharma Trail."
It's not gold we're after this summer of 1965, but the meaning of life. We will practice the precipitous psychedelic yoga and achieve Perfect Enlightenment. Leary, Alpert, and Metzner announced the plan at Harvard. Guided by their example and the ancient Tibetan wisdom in their manual, we'll take LSD once each week. We'll concentrate this experience by sitting meditation. Here in the Flute Reed Mountains of Minnesota, free from city corruptions, we prepare for our imminent enlightenments.
In the back of his little Hillman Husky station wagon, Lon has brought three zafus-round black meditation cushions-and a tatami, a rice straw mat a few inches thick and about three feet by seven. We place the tatami mat against the north wall in the front room opposite the big windows. It helps bridge some of the rotted floorboards.
Here we will do zazen. Here we will eat meals formally seated on our cushions, even washing our traditional Japanese oryoki bowls individually at our seats with hot water, as is done in Japanese monasteries. Our diet will be simple and strict, mostly rice and beans. We have a twenty-five-pound sack of each, bought at a distant grain elevator to conserve money.
But I'm uneasy. Zen meal practice is going too far. Doing things Reverend Suzuki's way at Sokoji Temple was one thing. But this feels like doing it Lon's way.
Farmer, however, is cheerful about the experiment. "Yeah, that's cool. I like sitting on zafus for meals. We don't have to come up with any more chairs. And you know, washing our bowls at our seats saves trouble. We don't have to do dishes except for the pots."
Inwardly I fume. I'm trying to keep up some appearances in the nearby mountain village, where I've come to know a few of the locals. I know that the locals think the mining claim just a lark. But I sure don't want to look to everyone like a drug casualty on some cult trip.
I'm outvoted, however. "We'll see how this all works on acid," I think to myself grimly.
The day before our first trip, we discuss details at length. My approach is basic. "Well, let's drop after breakfast, do zazen, and hang out in the cabin until we've come down enough to hike a little bit, maybe up to the mine. Later we could head to the hot spring."
"Yeah, that'd be cool," says Lon. "But listen." He takes a serious, conspiratorial tone. "Let's really push this thing as far as we can tomorrow. You know how hard it is to stay one-pointed. The lamas say it's like rolling a needle down a taut thread. We've got to keep perfect balance. Why don't we fast for the rest of the day? Then tomorrow we can get up at five and do zazen. At five-forty we can read the section in Leary's book about holding on to the Clear Light. At six let's drop and keep on sitting-and then just do as much sitting as we can for the rest of the day.
"We've got to break out of karmic game playing. I know I'm into ego games all the time. We can break free into the Clear Light. That's where it's at. If anybody gets into a bad place, we'll read sections from the book."
"Yeah, but what's the point of fasting that long?" I ask.
"Well, you know, it'll clean out your system and the stuff'll hit harder."
"Hey," I say, "it's not like it isn't hitting pretty hard anyway."
"Hey, come on you guys," urges Lon. "You don't know what can happen. Unless we really push the limits, we'll never get there. You guys know the incredible groove you can get into when you're not trapped in ego games."
Farmer casts his vote. "Yeah, it's okay with me. I'll do it. Why not try? It's worth it."
"Well, okay, man," I say slowly. "But let's forget this five in the morning stuff. It'll still be near freezing."
"Right on man, good point," says Lon. "Let's get up when we get up and then do it."
We roll out the next morning about eight, hungry and shaky at the thought of what we we're about to do. Yesterday our disagreements absorbed some of the dread we know we all feel but don't discuss. Lon gives us each two large capsules filled with a lumpy white powder.
"How much is this?" I ask.
"Well, can't say exactly," Lon smiles. "It's from a good source, and he says take one for a little trip and two if you're serious."
"We're damn serious," I laugh, nervous as hell.
We wash the big caps down with icy water from the spring. I shiver at the lumpy feel of the cap going down, a slight nausea rising to meet it.
We clear our sleeping bags out of the front room and line up the black cushions on the tatami mat. We bow toward our cushions and then away, sit down, and spin around to face the wall, just like at Sokoji Temple.
I settle into sitting in the chill, empty room, my stomach growling with hunger, then filled with butterflies.
Minutes pass. Nothing happens. Have we been ripped off? My stomach is queasy now. Then I shut my eyes and see streamers swirling behind my eyelids, intricate patterns dancing in vivid colors. I open my eyes to orient myself and find the straight yellow-brown lodgepole logs two feet in front of me beginning to ripple along the edges, as if I'm gazing down through a current of clear, rushing water.
Yeah. The stuff works. And it comes on fast. Lon's right about the fasting. Sitting on my zafu, legs crossed, thumb tips touching, I'm solid, grounded, a mountain giant watching the descent of glaciers over eons of time.
I shut my eyes again to enjoy the intricate dance of colors unreeling behind my eyelids, fiery gasses incandescing in the embers of a fire.
A doubt intrudes. Where's the Clear Light? Leary says it should come first, the first Bardo, the first dimension after the ego dies. I'm seeing colors and patterns. Is my karma so bad that I flip immediately into hallucinatory visual forms? On either side of me, Lon and Farmer breathe deeply, erratically.
Suddenly signals arrive from my intestines. Urgent signals. I've got to shit.
Panic strikes through me. My God! Now I've got to break the spell. Lon will think I'm just trying to fuck up his trip. He knows I didn't want to do it his way. He'll be angry. I don't want anger right now.
But my guts are on fire. A huge mass of heavy, hot, dark mud moves slowly, glacially, undeniably down through caverns in my lower being. I feel a child's panic. Something's going to happen-I've got to do something quick!
Breaking the deep morning silence, I grab for the straw mat with my fingertips, spin around on the cushion like a phonograph record, and leap to my feet in a crescendo of morning light. I bolt through the back door in my socks and run a hundred feet to the privy.
Fumbling with buttons, dancing from leg to leg, clamping buttocks tight, I stoop, kneel down, and gingerly apply bare skin to the chill, rough, unfinished boards of the old privy hole. The dark, warm stuff floods from my body through wriggling tubes and pipes that cry out in sheer pleasure-a visceral, stupendous relief.
Jeans around my ankles, sweeping dirt and cobwebs off the floor, hands resting idly at my sides, I'm five years old. My body does what bodies have done for millions of years. I lightly stroke the rough-sawn lodgepole pine boards with my fingertips. I watch a spider make repairs to her web, spun over a gap between two logs that lets the morning light shaft through, then gaze wonderingly out the open privy door toward the Flute Reed Mountains.
Sudden panic. The other guys! They're going through this, too. They've got minds, too. What are they thinking? About me running out the back door? Of course, Farmer doesn't care. But I can feel Lon thinking dark, ugly thoughts: "That asshole Storlie. Always trying to control the trip. Just had to fuck it up." Or maybe he's thinking, "The poor son of a bitch. He's freaked. Just couldn't handle it!"
I wipe, carefully get up, painstakingly pull up my jeans, button buttons, and start slowly around the cabin for the front door, walking cautiously between the woody sagebrush plants, eyes on the uneven ground. Tiny pine twigs and needles stick to my wool-socked feet.
I notice Lon and Farmer now, carefully coming through the front door, walking with slow steps that feel ahead for the solid ground. I rise to my feet. No words are spoken. We gaze at each other with shocked and frightened eyes and quickly look away. Together we gaze on the mountains. Then slowly, awkwardly, we drift and wander apart. We can't bear each other. Rivalries and resentments can't inhabit these spaces. Within a few minutes they've each melted into a different part of the woods and I can't remember what direction they've taken.
We don't find each other again until afternoon, and it's evening before we really talk about what happened. We fire up the old wood range back in the lean-to kitchen, start water for tea and dishes, and heat up leftover rice and lentils. Sitting on our zafus in the front room, slowly eating, we quietly talk.
"Man, what an incredible trip," I say. "I can't believe it. Did you see the mountains? You know, I didn't want to stop doing zazen, really. I had to take this horrible shit. I almost didn't make it."
Lon and Farmer laugh nervously. "Yeah, I hung in there for as long as I could," says Farmer, "but the logs started crawling around so bad I couldn't look at 'em anymore. I just had to move around."
"Those are mighty caps," says Lon. "I could've sat longer, maybe, but it would've been hard."
"Where'd you go?" I ask.
"Down in the meadow. I just kept wandering and wandering until I was down by the creek, and then I sat for a long time watching it. It's not much bigger than a trickle, but I kind of fell into it with my eyes. Well, and with my ears, too. I'd watch it swirl around little bars of sand and gravel and hear the slurpings and gurglings, over and over again. It was like my whole body flooded with that one little creek."
"I went up behind the cabin onto that high outcrop and lay out in the sun," says Farmer. "The sun got hotter and hotter and I flipped into some nightmare place where I was Prometheus stretched out and chained for the vulture. I could feel the beak ripping out my guts. I wanted to come down and find someone, but I was sure I'd never find the cabin. Things finally cooled out and I walked through the woods and ended up over by the pond. It's full of frogs. I bet I watched them for two hours. It was like I could see a whole little society-there was a king and queen and all their courtiers."
"What is this stuff, really?" I ask. "What does it do? How does it do it? Everything else I've ever had is just kid stuff."
"It's something else," says Lon, shaking his head.
Farmer smiles a broad smile. "Hey, they never told us about this at the Unitarian Society."
"That's for sure," I say. "Hey, let me do the dishes. Maybe you can get a fire going in the fireplace. It's getting cold."
We finish eating, and I carry plates and cups back to the kitchen. The sun has set and the old cabin begins to grow dark. I light a kerosene lamp and lift it onto a shelf up behind the warm stove. It stands next to three red coffee cans filled with rice, beans, and brown sugar. I set a dented enamel dishpan on the edge of the stove and fill it half full with water from a bucket on the stove, then add some cold water bucketed up from the spring outside. Stirring in plenty of soap, I drop in cups and plates and spoons.
Warm now, cozy before the stove, I swirl the soapy water idly. I'm a child again, the cups and bowls marvelous craft riding on surf raised by a hand. I reach for my white coffee cup and, holding it before me, observe it for long moments in the gentle pulse of yellow lamplight. I dip it in and out of the soapy water several times, then begin scrubbing the inside with the dish brush.
"What," I ask, "is all this, really?"
Here's my cup, shaped from wet clay into a hollow cup galaxy that curves back into itself, then burned by fire into fine-grained ceramic stone. The soap transmutes moving water into a thousand bubbles that reflect rainbow light. Ten-fingered, hairy animal hands calmly, lightly, and deftly manipulate a small galaxy in space.
I gently return the cup to the dishwater. My visual field wells with colored objects. A red bowl, bobbling on the waves, dissolves into capillary beds, networks of interlocking channels through which blood, transparent like water, flows and flows.
"Where does it exist?" I ask, reaching again for my cup. "In the retina? In the visual cortex?" Surely it's out there too in the solid world, now a rainbow of flowing colors whirling themselves into forms-the rough pine bench, the battered wood range, red coffee cans on a shelf, a lamp quietly glowing, log walls yellow in the lamplight. Standing before the dishpan, I hold my cup. The corners of the little kitchen darken to black in the fading light.
It's August in the summer of 1966. I drive to San Francisco from the mining claim to visit Lon and to sit zazen with Suzuki Roshi. I stay at Lon's apartment a few blocks from Sokoji Temple. The San Francisco scene is wild. Freaks from all over the country have gathered, are hanging out, grooving, awaiting some "New Age" that's just around the comer.
Lon is in the thick of it. A stream of characters flows through his apartment. Weird, costumed men and women-saints, cowboys, beggars, whores, madonnas, amazons- all spout bizarre theories and describe ecstatic transcendences. They're excited, naive, delighted to be on the edge of this breaking wave.
But my focus now is Zen alone. Lon and I go mornings and evenings to sit zazen at Sokoji. I know I can't handle another psychedelic trip, so I decline opportunities as unobtrusively as possible. I'm not eager to tell anyone about my freak-outs.
After a few days, Lon suggests that I participate the next Sunday in an intensive afternoon of sitting meditation with Suzuki Roshi. "This is the trip," he says. "We've got to learn it. Like that record of the monks chanting at Eiheiji we listened to last night. Man, it's obvious that they're there. They've made it! Imagine moving through life in the monastery with total acid consciousness."
Eagerly, I ask to join the group. I'm accepted and told to get meditation instruction from Katagiri Sensei, a Japanese priest who arrived recently with his family to help out at the temple. On the Saturday night before the sitting, he meets a few students in a hall at Sokoji, where he's placed a row of round, black cushions. He's much younger than Suzuki Roshi and speaks very broken English. He doesn't smile, and the corners of his mouth seem to be turned firmly down. After making patient attempts to correct our postures, apparently unimpressed with the results, he finally dismisses us, saying, "It takes some time. It's okay. Just try hard." "Seems pretty strict," I think, as we all file out.
Meditation begins the next afternoon at one. There are about twelve of us, both men and women. Suzuki Roshi brings us to a small room. Spaced around the wall are the round black cushions, each placed on a rectangular black mat large enough to cushion our knees and legs as we sit.
After instructing us on taking our seats, Suzuki Roshi bows toward his cushion, then back toward us. Two experienced students return his bow. He sits down and bows again. Now we all manage to bow in return, and he begins.
"My talk today will be about what we call the Heart Sutra. Maybe you have chanted it with me at service. We call it the Heart Sutra because it is the heart of a very big sutra. I think it is pretty difficult, maybe pretty confusing for you. It is pretty hard even for Zen priests." The Roshi smiles and chuckles at this.
I'm intrigued. I've been puzzled by this teaching when we've chanted it in English.
"This is a very important teaching," Suzuki continues. "So I will try to explain something to you. This sutra says that form is emptiness and also emptiness is form. This is true. This is hard to understand, but it is actually so. The sutra tells us something else, too. It tells us that form is also form. And emptiness is also emptiness. Do you understand?"
No one responds. I'm puzzled. I do remember the words form and emptiness from services, but have no sense of what their meaning and relationship might be.
Suzuki Roshi tries again. "You understand, of course, the word form. Everything has a form. A tree has a form. A bird has a form. Human beings have a form. But these forms really are emptiness. Of course, form is form. A tree is a tree. A human being is a human being. That is true. But it is emptiness, too. Can you understand that? Everything is emptiness, too. And emptiness is also form. Emptiness cannot be emptiness unless it is form. But it is really emptiness, too."
The talk goes on, and Suzuki Roshi struggles, patiently and cheerfully, to explain this thing that seems so plain to him. He phrases and rephrases the lines from the sutra until, finally, I'm lost in the words form and emptiness, and they lose even the meanings I know so well-like the word cat, in the child's game, after it's repeated a hundred times. Then my mind's wandering. I listen to a truck grinding up the steep street outside. I watch a pretty girl with close-cropped dark hair dressed in severe Zen black across the room. With an annoyed glance, she catches me staring, and I drop my eyes down to the mat.
Now I'm drawn back to Suzuki Roshi's talk. I hear him saying, "This teaching tells us about buddha nature. This is very important. We always want to think that Buddhism is ahead of us, so we are working to catch it. But Buddhism is right here. When we sit down here on our round cushion, this is Buddhism. When we pick up our teacup and drink tea, this is Buddhism. When we get up and go to our meal, this is Buddhism.
So the sutra says, 'No attainment. There is nothing to attain.' Because you have already attained this buddha nature. But that doesn't mean we should stop our practice. This buddha nature makes it possible for us to practice. It is really so. Everything is this buddha. The word buddha is buddha. The letter b in buddha is buddha. The letter u in buddha is buddha. The letter d in buddha is buddha. All things are buddha. You are all buddha. Do you understand?" Suzuki Roshi chuckles softly. "So to know this, we sit together. This is our practice."
He stops talking. He sits easily on his cushion, his whole being light and sparkling.
"But to know we are buddha," he goes on, "does not make us so important. We are not so special. Everything is buddha. It is really a relief for us not to be the most important thing in the world, don't you think?" Then he bursts into a peal of laughter. We all look up expectantly, and after clearing his throat, he says, "When I was a boy in Japan, I helped an English lady with cleaning. In her hallway there was a little statue of the Buddha. When I would enter her house, I always bowed to the Buddha. It is very important to me. My master bowed so much to the Buddha that he made a callus right on his forehead. Can you imagine that? So I always ask you to make nine bows at the service. This is to bow to the Buddha, not just outside you to a statue, but inside you too. Now, that lady saw me bowing to the Buddha and she got very angry. She scolded me."
Again Suzuki Roshi overflows with chuckles that shake his small shoulders. "She scolded me for bowing to that Buddha statue. Of course, she is a good Christian lady. For her that statue is just a decoration. Maybe she thinks that I believe the statue is really alive. She is very concerned to correct me. Of course, it is just a Buddha statue. But it is good to bow to it. We just bow to the buddha that is in all things."
He pauses, looking around the room, then asks, "Are there any questions?" A few students make hesitant, feeble attempts to question him. Finally, laughing, he says, "It's okay. We can sit now."
We sit for several forty-minute periods. After the first period, Suzuki Roshi doesn't sit with us but after ringing a little bell leaves the room, his robes rustling, the old hardwood floor squeaking under his tread. I imagine he retreats to a little office he has. I imagine him sitting at a desk and taking care of correspondence to Japan, or conferring with an elderly man in the Japanese congregation who seems often to visit him. After each forty-minute period of zazen, he returns to lead us in kinhin-walking meditation.
Toward the end of the afternoon, he rings the bell to begin what I assume is the last period of zazen. Soon we can stand up, stretch, and go home to supper. I've never sat this many periods of zazen at one time. My knees, neck and back are stiff and painful.
As we near what must be the end of the period, I can tell from the rustling of clothing and creaks and squeaks from the floor that others are as uncomfortable as I. Sitters all around me, quietly, stealthily, they hope unobtrusively, are shifting position to minimize the pain. I know we must be nearing the end of the forty minutes. "These folks are just weak," I think. "I'll tough it out. I won't move."
Long minutes go by, but no Suzuki Roshi appears. The old building is silent except for rising afternoon traffic din out on Bush Street-and a quiet crescendo of rustling and floor squeaks from students who can no longer bear their silent agony.
Then it dawns on me. "He's testing our practice. He wants us to sit hard. Well, I'll show him hard sitting. I'm certainly not going to move. I can handle another few minutes. This is real Zen."
But more and more minutes slip painfully by, and suddenly it's way beyond a few minutes more. It's endless. "We've got to have been sitting over an hour!" I say to myself. Still, there's no sign of the Roshi. All around me in the room are the sounds of sitters shifting their bodies,
sighing, and even a few quiet groans as knees are unlocked and straightened.
Horrified, I think, "It's not a test at all! He's forgotten we're here. Why doesn't someone go get him? Or do something? I can't myself, of course, because I'm a newcomer. And if it really is a test, and I interfered, I'd be a complete idiot.
Finally, in agony, composure gone, I join the weaklings. I surreptitiously allow my right foot and ankle to slowly, slowly slip off my crossed left leg-and point my toe down toward the floor so it only falls a few inches and barely makes any thump on the mat. My right knee shrieks at the release of tension, pulsing wildly with the beat of my heart.
Suddenly the bell is ringing. With all the quiet commotion in the meditation room, Suzuki Roshi has crept in to ring it. There's blowing of breath, sighs, and we all turn on our cushions toward the middle of the room and come creakily to our feet.
Suzuki Roshi says, "Thank you for your hard effort. That is all we need to do today." And he's gone.
The sesshin begins-seven days that mark the end of that summer. I worry. I've sat for four or five days at a time before, but never for a full week. Still, I'm eager to test my practice.
The sesshin is hard. We sit from five in the morning till nine at night, each period of zazen followed by ten minutes of slow walking meditation. We're off our cushions only during a daily two-hour work period after lunch and during meals, mercifully taken at tables outside in the shade of great trees. As we sit in silence waiting to be served, warm breezes carry the smells of delicious vegetarian foods.
By the last sittings before lunch and bedtime, I'm in agony-knees burning, my back a complicated knot of pain. Stubborn, I refuse to change position. In the snap of the fingers, in the blink of an eye, enlightenment will pass me by.
Roshi lectures morning and evening. Many of the students are new to Zen, and he talks often about the pain. On the second evening of the sesshin, he says, "I know you are practicing very hard. Now after two days many of you are feeling some pain. But if it is possible for you, don't move. Just sit. Don't move your body. Don't move your mind. Sometimes it is very hard, but that is our way. Try to experience the pain as just pain. It is pain, but that is part of our human life. It is actually okay. I can feel the pain too. When I was a young man and had to sit many sesshins, sometimes I imagined my whole body was being swallowed by a great snake. It was so hard.
"Zazen is hard for you, too, of course. It is true. But remember too that zazen is also soft and gentle. Please try to sit with a soft mind like bread dough-you know how it sticks together, and then with fire becomes something wonderful to eat."
By the end of this second day, the pain in my knees has built to a crescendo, intense waves of fierce, dark energy rising up through my body. But Roshi's acknowledgment somehow removes fear, and the waves flow peacefully into the bubble of consciousness that fills my body, a turbulent stream disappearing into deep, calm waters. For a time I mark only purity in the intense dark waves.
Then I'm listening again, aware of Suzuki Roshi's voice going on. "Of course, it sometimes seems too hard, but our practice can help your life very much. The Buddha's zazen is a huge umbrella. In India, you know, it's very hot. You need an umbrella to help keep off the sun." Suzuki Roshi opens an imaginary umbrella, holding its handle with his left hand and extending his right hand high above his head. "Please remember, you can come underneath it here and sit with me. There's plenty of room. It gets bigger and bigger the more people who come inside. You may not believe this, but it is actually so."
During the sesshin, Roshi continues work on his rock garden. Someone tells me that as a young monk his work was stonemasonry. I see him selecting stones from the creek. His helpers carry them to shore, then later move them a few hundred feet up to the garden at the front of his cabin. Occasionally I see him standing there during breaks, observing his stones. Sometimes he comes to a decision and swiftly moves one to its place.
On the fourth day of the sesshin, after lunch, I'm chosen at the work meeting to help Suzuki Roshi and Alan, one of his regular students. This is a privilege. I've never worked with Roshi before. Excited and nervous and eager to work, I arrive early at the rock garden. A few minutes later, Alan arrives. He's tall and muscular, deeply tanned, his head shaved. We stand together, silent, sweating in the hot afternoon sun, waiting for Roshi to come out of his cabin.
To my surprise, Alan begins whispering intently to me about serving Roshi tea earlier in the sesshin. "Listen, man, he was in there during zazen preparing his lecture. I bring in the plate with tea, a cookie, and an apple. Then after lecture, I go get the dishes. The apple was eaten down to a core so thin it hardly existed. It was almost a piece of string. You could see every seed."
Alan puts his hand on my shoulder and stares closely into my face. He whispers fiercely, "See, man, that's what a Roshi is. He's someone who takes time to do absolutely fucking everything absolutely fucking completely. When he eats an apple, he eats it! He really eats it!"
I nod nervously, eager for Alan to stop talking, hoping that Roshi doesn't come out of his cabin and catch us whispering. We're supposed to maintain a strict silence, though I see the regular students, and occasionally Roshi himself, break the rule. And I wonder at this tiny man who looks like a picture from an oriental travel book. What goes on in his mind as he sits in a little screened summer cabin deep in American wilderness, surrounded by hippies, quietly eating an apple down to the thinnest wisp of a core?
In a few minutes Roshi steps out of his cabin. He wears loose work clothes, legs bare from the knees down, a kind of karate outfit. On his bare feet are zoris-simple rubber beach clogs. He carries a mason's hammer and rock chisel. I stand stiffly at attention, not sure how to greet him. He bows matter-of-factly to each of us. We return the bows, and he leads us quickly down to the creek side, where he takes off his zoris and clambers into the rushing water.
Standing crotch deep, he beckons us. Alan and I pull off our work boots and follow him in. He begins working a huge light-colored stone lying a few inches below the surface of the rushing water in the middle of the creek.
My diffidence evaporates. How wonderful to be off my cushion, outside in the hot sun and cold creek. The past two days I've spent work periods in a dim corner of the primitive kitchen, washing and chopping endless vegetables, scraping stubborn blackened crusts out of the bottoms of huge rice pots, adding new hot spots to a back already a mass of pain. But now, at last, I can straighten up, stretch out, throw my arms straight back to each side and stare up at the blue sky- burning knee joints flexing, back muscles unknotting, my whole body an antenna for sunlight and breezes.
Roshi hammers steadily on the chisel, its edge placed somewhere on the stone hidden beneath the foaming water. Alan and I stand happily in the creek next to him and look on. Students move up and down the path, busy on various errands. Everyone's expression is easy, serene in the hot sunshine. It's bliss simply to be off our tormenting cushions, moving our bodies, free for a time from pain and the intense effort of concentration.
After a few long, delicious minutes, Roshi pauses in his hammering and turns to Alan. "Please, Alan, you hit the stone. It is too big for us now, but when it splits we can carry each piece up to the garden. Please, strike it right here." He points to a slight cleft, a margin in the light-colored stone, dimly visible a few inches under the rushing, bubbling water.
Alan, bare-backed, bends to the task. Then Roshi turns to me. "What is your name? I'm sorry. I forget so often."
"Erik," I say. "I'm Lon's friend from Minneapolis."
"Oh, yes, I remember. Thank you for coming again to Zen Center. Please carry those stones up to my cabin." He points to a number of smaller stones waiting at the edge of the stream.
I pull on my boots and carry stones for about twenty minutes, then take a breather by the side of the creek and watch Roshi and Alan still working the stone in the middle of the stream. Alan is tiring and slowing down. Roshi says, "It's pretty hard. Let Erik hammer the stone for a while." Then, looking up at me, "Erik, please, you can try too."
I pull off my boots again and enter the cool, rushing water. Roshi hands me the hammer and chisel. Alan stands beside him, tired, solemn.
"Here, you try the stone too. Right here." He points to the cleft, faintly visible beneath the foaming water. I feel it with my fingers-a slight indentation snaking its way around the top of the rock. Positioning my bare feet on the slippery round stones of the stream bottom, I grip the chisel firmly in my fist and begin striking with the hammer over and over again, each blow splashing water up onto my chest and face.
My head and back are hot in the afternoon sun, my legs and hips icy in the rushing creek. I strike the chisel over and over, gripping my toes on the round rocks, struggling to balance, to position the chisel for a solid, accurate blow on that faint margin beneath the rushing water.
Long minutes go by. My blows are slowing down, and I hear Roshi saying above the rush of the creek, "Here, please, I will try again. It is very hard work, don't you think'
As we watch, Roshi works the stone again. Then Alan takes another turn. Then I go again.
It's cool in the creek. Intense sunlight heats my back and neck and dances on the waters surging around the stone. As my hand and arm return from each stroke, I see sparks of watery sunlight reflected up from flecks of mica in the submerged rock.
For half an hour, we alternate at the hammer and chisel, all three standing close, the icy water from the hammering splashing first on the hammerer, then on the two who wait. The sound of steel on steel pulses over the surging creek, ringing out into the little mountain valley.
Alan and I sense the end of the work period coming. We work furiously, pressing against fatigue, flailing at times and losing our balance on the slippery rocks, pressed downstream by the icy water. we want to succeed, to accomplish this task for the Roshi. He watches quietly.
Finally, in what I know will be one of my last turns-frustrated, aches reawakened all over my back-I straighten up for a second and glance at Alan, who raises his eyebrows quizzically.
Roshi, waiting to take his turn at the stone, smiles at us, his face wrinkling with delight. "Of course, I know you cannot believe the stone can split. But I know it can. We must keep hammering that place. It will split. Sometime it will split." Then with a rising, inquiring, teasing intonation: "Maybe you are not so sure? But I know. Someday you will know it, too. All we have to do is just keep striking the stone."
A young woman dressed in black zendo clothes, her face freshly washed and her moist brown hair pulled back in a bun, hurries over to the creek side. She says anxiously, "Roshi, work period is already over. You will miss tea."
"Oh, I'm very sorry. I always make a mistake." He bows to the messenger, then to us. We return his bows, and he turns to walk swiftly back to his cabin to change, balancing on bare feet over the smooth rocks in the streambed.
As Alan and I pick up our work boots on our barefooted way to our cabins, I see, side by side on a large stone next to the rushing water, Roshi's zoris. He walked right by them. About to pick them up, I glance at Alan hurrying toward his cabin, hesitate, then leave them and rush back to clean up and get to the first period of zazen before the bell.
Back in place on my round black cushion in the zendo, I think about the stone. Will it really ever split? If one of the young American work leaders had kept me there hammering in the middle of the creek for two hours-for nothing-I'd be furious. But hammering with Roshi, I was happy. He wasn't hurried or impatient with the stone-or with us. It was Alan and I who got anxious at the end of the work period when the stone wouldn't split.
Still, I don't want to hammer stones that never split. But Roshi's a stonemason. He knows what he's doing. His rock garden grows steadily more beautiful up there by the cabin.
One fine day the stone will split and we'll triumphantly carry the opened halves, heavy fruit, back up to the garden. Beaming, Roshi will say, "Of course, you would not believe that the stone could split." The halves will lie there in his garden and he, for one day or many, will observe them, patient, until he knows right where they go. Then, like a hawk, he'll swoop, and each opened half will find its place.
That evening after supper, during the short break before zazen, I see him in the rock garden with three of his old familiar students-three big shaven-pated men-wrestling with another huge stone. They strain to start it moving. Roshi throws the whole weight of his small body against the stone. Finally with grinding sounds from small bits of gravel beneath, it slowly slides toward a shallow pit he's dug for it. After it settles into the hole, he directs his crew to rock it back and forth so he can observe it in slightly different positions. Finally it's bedded just right.
Afterward, as we all survey the placement, one of the students teases him. "Roshi, why do you want to work so hard? You know, this is our break."
"Oh, I think this is really a problem for me," he says, very quietly, in deference to the rule of silence. Suddenly, he's deadly serious. "Sometimes I think that I enjoy working too much. I am really so attached to work. Thank you." He bows to the three men, who bow in return, and turns to walk into his cabin.
I walk down to the creek to retrieve Roshi's zoris. I carry them back to his cabin and set them down carefully, neatly, side by side, just outside the screen door. If only he'd chance to the door, see me, and speak. There's nothing I want more than to talk to him. But I don't dream of knocking.
Hesitating there, I peek through the screen and see an apple on a plate, a new green and red apple waiting to be eaten down to filigree. When will I eat my apples without haste, completely, with a mind filled with red ripeness and summer? There's no sound in the cabin.
Filled with longing, I walk quietly back down the path and turn right toward the zendo.
© 1996 Erik Fraser Storlie. Printed by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
Erik Fraser Storlie studied with Suzuki Roshi in the 1960's at the San Francisco Zen Center. Following Suzuki Roshi's death, he became a student of Katagiri Roshi and helped found the Minnesota Zen Center. This article is adapted from his memoir, Nothing on My Mind, from Shambhala Publications. Erik Storlie teaches English and humanities at Minneapolis Community College.