Where Is the True Place?
By SHOZAN JACK HAUBNER
am alone: my monk peers have traveled to northern California for a
retreat. I stroll the Zen monastery grounds, touring the arid, stony
terrain as though for the first time. Tears arise as I sit atop an
enormous boulder I have cursed countless times after smacking into it in
the black of night. The sun is setting, and, with the help of a great
deal of smog, the sky looks lit as if by cinders from God’s own
campfire. Every corner of this property throbs with meaning for me—as
only a place can that you are about to leave for good.
duck into cabin one, the site of my first night on this mountain. I
inhale the rickety shack’s musky aroma. Mouse turds speckle mattress
covers. Nonetheless, for me this is a sacred shrine. Memories rush in of
that dream, the night of my ordination, the one I’ll never forget, the
whole thing but a single image: a skeleton puts his hand on my shoulder
as I weep in a corner.
How can I leave the monastery now? I think. Not now, not when these mountains have finally become my home!
some reason, pretty much out of nowhere, my teacher recently set in
motion the process of my “promotion.” Surely someone will stop this
madness, I’d thought. But no. I have just discovered that our community
has agreed that I am to be made a priest, which means I will leave the
monastery to teach. In other words, right around the time you stop
wanting to desperately escape the monastery, it’s time for you to go
share what you’ve learned there with others.
think of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s observation to the effect that living
at a monastery is like walking around in a mist. At first, you merely
feel dampened by the monastic structure and rhythms. But if you stick
with it long enough, eventually you discover that you’re soaked to the
bone in formal Zen practice. You have become this new way of life, only
it is no longer new. Where before you were full of yourself, now you are
full of Zen—which is to say, empty.
off the mountain, and starting a city temple somewhere is not the end
of my training, I assure myself, but the beginning of a whole new phase
of it. No one stays here forever; it’s a place for people like me to
grow up, not grow old.
I have grown old at the monastery, I sigh. Or at least middle-
aged—which is to say: newly old. I am touching the hemline of forty, a
gown—more of a mildewed, old bathrobe, actually— which I will slip into
next year. Exhibit A: my wee, gray gut, flopping slightly over my belted
robes, like the chin of a child peeking over a fence. Plus, my hips
have little jowls. When did that happen? Professional athletes and cops
are now younger than me. Cops! “The Man” is my junior!
But I’m still twenty-five, aren’t I? Haven’t I always been twentyfive? Every adult I ever ignored warned me that this day would come. But I didn’t listen.
There’s only one consolation for getting old, I decide: becoming wise. Am I wise? A wise-ass, yes. But wise-wise?
Am I nascently wise, at least? Wise-lite? I realize you can never field
this question yourself; the answer has to come from others, and to
prove it true, you can never believe them.
I try for some lower-hanging fruit and conclude that I’m certainly
stupider in all the appropriate Zen ways since arriving at the
monastery. Wise will come much later, if at all, when I become stupider
still, with my stupidity finally, hopefully, ripening into simplicity.
is key. If you lose simplicity as you accumulate years, then you begin
to look and feel very old indeed. After my first summer training season,
friends asked what I had learned from my Zen master—himself now a
hundred and five years old, though not a day over three years old at
heart. During our private meetings, I explained, my teacher shook my
hand or hugged me, over and over. It was so basic, but what I learned
was how to embrace and how to let go. This is the secret to life, I
tried to explain. When to hold on, and when to let things pass. I went
on and on, but I didn’t actually hug anyone. That’s where I went wrong. Young men know the answers to everything and the meaning of nothing.
Now, instead of having a staged environment to support my practice, I will actually have to do what
I had learned at the monastery in the real world. “Just make yourself
master of every situation, and wherever you stand is the true place,”
Zen master Rinzai said. I left the world and made a spiritual home at
the monastery. Now it was time to leave the monastery and make a
spiritual home in the world.
stand outside the meditation hall under a light night snowfall and
perform some heavy breathing exercises, the kind that help me relax.
Which is to say, I have a cigarette. I’m not a smoker, mind you. I quit
that habit years ago. Yet here I am again, back where I started, puffing
away and staring off into the same set of fabulously snowcapped
mountains that greeted me when I first arrived at the monastery eight
years and a full head of hair ago.
yesterday the stooped septuagenarian at the post office had tilted her
head up like a bird and shook her little freckled fist and exclaimed,
“This mountain range is one of the fastest growing in the world, you
know.” She’d told me this seven or eight times by now.
“Amen!” I cry. Yet I never know what she means exactly. How can a mountain grow? If a mountain is growing, what isn’t? Is grow really
the right word? I decide now that it is. It feels right to me. I can
relate to these mountains. I feel their seismic shifts within. I know
what they’re going through.
Shozan Jack Haubner is a Zen practitioner and humorist.