Roshi Meets Rhino

Zen and the Art of TransmissionJanwillem van de Wetering

Courtesy of Overlook PressTHERE ARE THOUSANDS OF BOOKS on wordless Zen. Remember the libraries in Kyoto? Closets bulging with scrolls, shelves groaning under volumes. A zillion wordless words commenting on, explaining metaphors. Forgotten your Japanese? Check the universities of Hawaii or Leyden. Fax for info.

Within hours the machine responds. Hakuin (1686-1769), freelance patriarch, spends final no-rank years living in happy poverty amongst peasant practitioners, teaching that direct knowledge of the truth is available to all. Ask the university to cross-reference "rhino"? Roshi's Rhino dangles from your temple's fax machine.

L'histoire se répéte.

Now is always, here is everywhere. What happens is that Hakuin's seventeenth-century Japan equals twentieth-century America: an overflow of masters, some fair, some middling, some clinically crazy. Some hold on to their students, most go the other way: combining constant change with high living, roshis charge high fees that encourage quick turnover.

You want insight? You've got it.

Drunken-sailor masters throw transmissions around like there is no tomorrow. Serious soul-roshis, citing End of the World, stage simultaneous designations of a baker's dozen of dharma heirs. Female students bogged down in patriarchies arrange for quick-fix diplomas elsewhere.

"I fly to Kathmandu. Guru meets my plane. We transmit right there at the airport. Guru drops body, flies up. I fly down."

Some channel their title from the dear departed.

Some transmit themselves.

All change their names: Buddy Baba, Vritz Vratz Vroom, Singh Tum Gnat, Moonie Kloonie.


Next have a disciple rent a barn and hang out your shingle: high rates, low teachings.

All was well as long as the average faced the average. Hakuin's talent and intelligence outshone his teachers' insights, so the roshis of the day graduated him out of (their) sight, bounced him along to colleagues who soon added their blessings before sending Wonderboy on his way again.

"Your insight equals mine, take this robe of mine, take this bowl, go far away now."

Hakuin was young. Honors, prizes, medals flatter an ego that hasn't been seen through yet. If his respected masters told him he was It, then Hakuin be it. Here is one happy holy hiker, backpacking assorted roshi-certificates, on a narrow winding mountain path circling Mount Hey. One-thousand-percent enlightened Hakuin on his way to astonish Japan's spiritual seekers, hiking north.

The rhino species is not indigenous to Japan. No Japanese could imagine anything like a rhino. This is the seventeenth century, nobody heard of dinosaurs yet, of science fiction, Nintendo, cyberspace. No Saturday morning storybreak. A Japanese seafarer, reaching Indonesia, catches and crates a baby rhino, takes it home to a mountain farm. Once the enormous beast is full-grown the former captain herds his pet to a Kyoto fair, to show the rhino for money. Here is the giant two-horned white Sumatran rhinoceros, trundling south.

Bogus Roshi meets Real Rhino.

Afterward Hakuin sits at the side of the path, head in hands, trembling, crying over a very intricate structure of fine roshi-approved knowledge, smashed once and forever.

Rhino of doubt moves right along.


Janwillem van de Wetering is the author of Empty Mirror and Glimpse of Nothingness. This excerpt comes from After Zen, a work in progress.

Image 2: Hakuin, self-portrait, ink on paper. Courtesy of Overlook Press.

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