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My Zen Master blurted out “F*ck!”one day.
I expected a lot of things to come out of my Buddhist teachers’ mouth—kong-ans, sutras, stories—but “F*ck” was not one of them. This teacher is about 80 years old, and is highly respected and loved within the Korean Zen community in the United States. He’s a retired university professor and world-renowned translator. I have been lucky enough to practice with him in person as well as virtually over the past five years.
One day, this teacher was trying to use the platform to move a student from the larger practice group into a breakout room to conduct a kong-an interview. It was early in the pandemic and everyone was adapting to our Zen practices on Zoom. It did not go as planned. I was dutifully meditating waiting for my turn and watching my teacher’s face scrunch up as he feverishly stabbed at buttons on his laptop. I could see the anxiety rising up as he tried to find the right button to send this poor student into the cone of silence, all to no avail.
Forgetting that he had unmuted himself, he pulled a Ralphie from A Christmas Story. After numerous attempts and getting nowhere, in what seemed like slow motion, he let out an elongated, muted yet recognizable—”F*ck!”
I can’t be sure who else heard it but I’m fairly certain several students’ eyes popped open like blowfishes. Little beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I tried to contain what was sure to be a full-throated guffaw and prayed my own contorted face wouldn’t give me away onscreen.
Somehow, my teacher finally succeeded at sending the student to the breakout room. When it was my time to be interviewed, I told him what I heard. He feigned ignorance of his transgression, although I’m pretty sure I saw a twinkle in his eye.
You see, there is a Zen Master stereotype. Do a Google image search. Seriously! What you will find is a plethora of ancient, grim-faced meditators sitting somberly in dark robes, staring into the vast emptiness ahead.
These are not party people.
But in an instant, hearing my Zen Master blurt out “F*ck!”, I was greatly relieved. He was one of us after all!
As I practice more and more, I’ve come to learn that most of the teachers I’ve encountered have a similar impish demeanor—at least the ones I like.
There seems to be a mischievous nature to being a good Zen teacher.
One learns to answer without really answering,
to guide without guiding,
to teach without teaching.
Good teachers are not above everything. They are right there in the middle of everything.
And this is a lesson for all of us.
In Zen, our formal practice of sitting in meditation or chanting of sutras can seem austere and serious. Yet, it isn’t purposely so. What our practice consists of is watching our thoughts and turning our eyes inward to see what’s really inside.
>> Who am I?
>> What is this?
These are not questions to be answered but only to be held lightly, as one would hold a delicate object. If we become too self-conscious of holding on then it becomes grasping. And when we grasp something—especially something fragile—we’re likely to lose it or break it.
Back to my cussing Zen Master.
There is Zen saying that goes like this, “There’s no need to paint legs on a snake.” A snake is already complete.
My Zen Master’s Zoom fiasco is already complete. There was no need to make it anything but what it was. He was frustrated. How does one respond when frustrated? Sometimes we say, “F*ck!” Sometimes we say other things too.
Trying to be or saying anything that doesn’t reflect the actual moment we’re living in, can be like painting legs on a snake.
In holding this moment lightly, we learn to respond to life as it is. If the moment, as it is, is messed up, then our response, if authentic, reflects this messiness. Putting a good spin on a crappy situation is just putting lipstick on a pig.
Or painting legs on a snake.
Or wishing a Zen master didn’t swear.
I’m just glad this one did.