September 27, 2011
Two articles from Tricycle, Noa Jones's "Where the Buddha Woke Up" and features editor Andrew Cooper's "The Debacle," were just published in the Penguin anthology The Best Spiritual Writing 2012. The anthology also contains an article by Tricycle contributing editor Pico Iyer from Portland magazine. Since the Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, we thought we'd include here the opening section from "The Debacle," a uniquely Jewish start to a Buddhist essay.
I was standing in the back corner of the well-appointed front room of the San Francisco Zen Center’s Guest House. My pants were down around my ankles, and I was davening—rocking back and forth in the rhythmic movement that traditionally accompanies Jewish prayer—as I recited from the copy of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint that I held open before me. In the center of the spacious room, near the high bay windows that look out from the renovated Victorian’s second floor, four tall, fair-skinned Zen Center priests in golden robes stood, erect and dignified, conferring intently in hushed voices. Noticing my presence, they turned and each fixed a stern gaze upon me. I felt that I should stop, but I couldn’t. In fact, flushed with self-consciousness, my davening became more rapid and my chanting louder, until, frantic, my voice was no longer recognizable as my own.
That was when I awoke. It was nearly pitch black, and I was in a strange bed. I couldn’t recall where I was. The scent of the sandalwood soap on the nightstand and the brushing of the branches against the windows were the first clues, and in a minute it came together. I was in the same guesthouse I had been dreaming about, though in a different room. It was the second day of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s first teaching tour of American dharma centers, a tour that I had spent much of the previous year organizing and on which I was now, in the spring of 1983, accompanying him as his assistant. I sat up in bed, clammy with sweat, and to the surrounding darkness, the chilly San Francisco night, and to myself, I for some reason muttered, “I’m Jewish.”