Roshi Meets Rhino

Zen and the Art of TransmissionJanwillem van de Wetering

IT'S A COLD NIGHT, you've gotten up at 2 :45 A.M., rushed to the outhouse in your flapping robe. You slid your way across a sheet of ice to the zendo, the meditation hall. You spent painful and sleepy hours in that drafty building, legs tucked in as best as they tuck. Strained muscles smoldered, irritated nerves flamed. Frogs croaked in the pond behind the zendo, sounding like little old men discussing the same complaint forever. You got whacked by a grim-looking stick bearer, twice on each shoulder. He does it again on his way back to the altar. Finally Teacher's little bell called you out to the cabin, but another student hasn't finished sanzen, the daily confrontation, in there. You stand between buildings catching arctic sleet. There was a mouse sitting on your bare foot, warming itself. Renewed tinkling makes you move, makes the mouse slide off. You stumble inside the sanzen cabin, make your bows to the teacher.

It's New Koan time. Koans are Zen traps, or Zen carrots that get dangled near your nose while the Zen stick, kesaku, whacks your back. Koan pulls, kesaku pushes.

Koans are Zen jokes, when you get the joke you move up a square. You passed the last bunch, translated wisdom collected in one of Teacher's imported notebooks, and now he's made one up for you, and whispers it along:

"Roshi meets Rhino: where did Roshi go?"

Teacher sounds the sanzen bell, asking you to go now.

Where did you go? Back to the zendo, to chew on the riddle for the rest of the season.

So what are you going to do?

Not much.

Unless Teacher gives you some clues you'll never get nowhere on this one, and Nowhere is the place to go in Zen, right?


For let's face that home truth: the whole trouble that got us into Zen (or any other organized spiritual quest) is that we feel we are Somewhere samsaric, where it hurts, and we would like to get rid of the pain, of the darkness, of the doubt, and the place where doubt stops is nirvanic Nowhere.

No ego, no separation, no duality, no pain.

That's the home truth? That's what gets you to hang out on ice, with a mouse on your foot?

Hopefully, yes.

"Show me your original face, the face you had before your father and mother were born."

"Hey, I looked that one up a long time ago. I'm doing this career-thing now."

The quest loads itself with goodies.

For who?

For you?

Like what kind of goodies?

Could be anything. Could be a white Ferrari. Could be luxurious quarters in a restored T'ang Dynasty temple on a Maine island. Could be cover girls, or boys, for disciples to take to a roshi congress in the Catskills.

Could be status.

Status is good. Roshis get respected.

"So what became of your kids?"

"My kids are doctors and lawyers."


"So what became of your kid?"

"My kid is teaching doctors and lawyers now."

"Wow...your kid became a...?"

"...a roshi."

Roshis slurp longer noodles.

"You're going to be a roshi now?"

And then to think that "roshi" means "old person." It's not so hard to become an old person, all that takes is to keep getting up in the morning, until the payoff. Once the deal is done You-Roshi sleeps in, sends a message down to the zendo or just doesn't show up. That's okay.


Roshi-anointed are said to know everything: what came before the universe, why babies are born with AIDS. Roshi-titled dance on the tip of the tail of the tiger. They meet in the infinite, that precise point where parallels meet. Zen masters could explain, if they cared to, why Homo Sapiens infests an otherwise perfectly beautiful planet.

How did that knowledge get to them?


By whom?

By other roshis.

Talking about other roshis: Roshi meets Rhino, where did Roshi go?

You haven't got the faintest so you're getting clever now. You're somewhat versed in in-talk, you remember there's something about "being" in Zen phrasing. Has to do with nonbeing, it seems. Now, if Roshi went, if he disappeared, if he is done with being...well, maybe he never was. You say so at your next sanzen meeting.

"Roshi was never there in the first place," you say.

Surprise—the teacher accepts that answer, then reverts to his frown.

Good answer, not a great answer. So you fight back and forth. You become obsessed with Roshi versus the Rhino, you try anything to explain how come Roshi gets lost. Rhino ate him? Your teacher laughs. Don't you know that the rhinoceros is a plant eater? Surely you have looked the creature up. By now you're an expert on rhino-lore. You learned that large rhinos populated America once, and that the longtoothed tiger ate them, but that was before people. You're aware that rhinos mark their territory with great piles of undigested. You know rhinos pop up in surrealist art. That and $2.50 doesn't buy cappuccino.

Good luck comes to those who keep trying. Kwannon, lovely Bodhisattva of Compassion, arranges for a scholar to visit Teacher's hermitage and, during dinner, to mention the term "rhinoceros of doubt."

Your ears perk up. "What?"

"Don't you know?" Scholar asks. "Rhinoceros," in Zen parlance, means "doubt," like "bull" stands for "ego."

Never heard of Hakuin's rhino of doubt? Where have you been?

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