An arms manufacturer’s son visits home after moving to a Zen monastery.
The phone rang, I answered it, and it was my dad. This made it exactly once that he’d rung me since I’d moved to a Zen Buddhist monastery several years earlier. Oh no, I thought, who died?
It was New Year’s Eve 2007, the Year of the Pig. I was in the electronics cabin, camped in front of the PC, perusing year-end website summaries of the Iraqi Horror Picture Show. Though intimately acquainted with personal failure (I’m something of a Renaissance Willy Loman), I had never known dysfunction on a national level like the Iraq War. There was a palpable sense in the air that something terrible was happening, and we were responsible for it. There was blood on our hands. Oops, America was crying, like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, large, dumb, and dangerous, looking up at George from the crushed child in his arms: We’ve really fucked up this time.
“Yello, is Jack there? This is his old man,” Dad began, recognizing neither my voice nor my ordained name when I answered the phone. He waited in silence, I suppose, for me to go find myself, which is pretty much how he’d approached my tenure at the monastery. Few American parents want this for their child. They never say, “God, I hope Zippy grows up and becomes a robed celibate without a paycheck. That’s the ticket!” You give your son the greatest gift of all, the gift of life, and here he is running off to a mountaintop and questioning it, trying to figure out where he was before he was and where he’ll be after he is no more. Some gratitude! I have no spouse, house, kids, car, or career, not to mention a single lock of hair on my head. I scrub dishes, meditate, try to stay out of the cold. It’s a simple life—the value of which I have never, not once, been able to communicate to my father.
“Pops, it’s me,” I confessed.
“Mr. Magoo!” he cried, his nickname for me from my scrunchy-faced infant days. No one had died after all, which left us with little to talk about. Like the war in Iraq, our conversation started off strong but went quickly downhill from there—and I had no exit strategy.
“How’s the machine shop?” I tried.
“Business is great!” he boomed, embarking upon the kind of work-related monologue that for me is on par with watching a houseplant photosynthesize.
“Uh-huh,” I inserted at the appropriate cues, or “Hmm” when that seemed stale. I was still on the computer, stealth typing so he wouldn’t catch on. All of the leading websites were hot to find that one image or metaphor that would serve as the CliffsNote for 2007, which was all but a thing of the past, a beast stuffed and mounted, awaiting observation. I nosed down a trail of hyperlinks far off the mainstream Internet path until I stumbled upon a lonely little rant-filled homepage that said it all.
Just then, I caught my dad saying, “…but if the war ends we can expect a 33-percent drop in sales.”
On my screen was a single snapshot of the blown-open head of an Iraqi infant. Somehow more of her dusty blue bonnet had managed to survive the IED blast than her face. Open on the desk, my journal received the first thought to steam into the mental void rent by this skull-rattling image.
I scribbled, “The Death of God Left a God-Sized Hole.”
“Still,” Dad continued through my silence, “2007 was our best year ever!”
This got me thinking—who does he mean by our?
Pops hadn’t always been a winner. He came home successful for the first time in our lives when I was ten, and we were never the same. Inheritor of a struggling machine shop from his “son-of-a-bitch old man,” he labored for years retrofitting a bank of World War II–era machines, rendering them accurate to within one five-thousandth of an inch, an eighth the diameter of a human hair. One night he walked through the front door with a completely different expression on his face: he was a man who had outpaced the demons of failure. He gripped in his hands the completed product. Glistening and stinking like a jarful of dirty pennies (also my father’s smell), it was still slick with lubricant from the machining process. My two brothers and I took turns holding it—holding our futures: cars, clothes, college. We were like the Clampetts gathered on the front lawn as up from the ground came the bubblin’ crude. It was the first of what would become hundreds of thousands of rifle barrels.
I often worked in the shop through high school and college, drilling bits of metal on some large machine or another and generally wishing that dad owned a used bookstore or a tanning salon near an all-girls’ college. I graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy, which is right up there with a degree from clown school, and frequently found myself unemployed in my post-college, skylarking years. It became tradition, whenever I would visit home, to work in the shop for a day or two to earn some extra cabbage. The custom continued after I demolished Dad’s remaining hopes that I might make something of myself and became “Magoo the Monk.”
“So, you wanna come into work today?” Dad proposed one morning when I was visiting home. Fine by me. I needed respite from the question I’d resolved to answer before my two-week family visit concluded: Would I ask for ordination when I returned to the monastery? Or, after two years, was it time to flee monastic life and pursue my spiritual journey elsewhere? (I was thinking along the lines of shorter hours and more hallucinogens.) As Dad would say, it was a “shit or get off the pot” moment.
“This is the first step in the life of a rifle barrel,” Dad explained later that afternoon, guiding me through the 13,000-square-foot labyrinth of turning lathes, Pratt and Whitney spindle drills, and blipping CNC fluters. I whiled away the workday at the sandblasting station, stripping rusty shells off chrome steel moly barrel blanks, Frank Zappa pumping through my headphones. I was on my eighteenth piece of steel, thinking nothing of it, thinking nothing at all, lost in a Zappa coma, when a chill suddenly ran the length of my spine, slicing me right down the middle like a blade of ice. I racked the barrel I was working on beside its peers and scaled a ladder leading to a platform above a row of massive cryogenic freezing tanks. I squinted out across the shop. Silver Afro wigs of steel shavings burst festively from reamer gutters. Air hoses hissed—Phhhtt! Breathing deeply, I took in that strong, heavy smell from my childhood, the smell of my father, of oil-wet steel and progress, the smell of things getting done.
“We make 300 barrels for ‘B-Rifles’ a month,” Dad had told me earlier of his key client, “ninety-nine if not a hundred percent of which are being shipped overseas to Iraq.”
I’ve seen deer shot in my lifetime. I’ve heard and smelled what guns do: the opened-up redness; the great, splattered shock; the gutted and blue-marbled spread of the dead, unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint. It’s something captured in the eyes of your kill, like a Polaroid snapshot in reverse—fading away, instead of sharpening into focus, by the time you reach it. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine what it might be like to take a human life with one of my father’s guns. What got me was the echoing memory in my heart of my mother’s wails at my grandmother’s funeral. She broke down outside the church, and I had to take her into my arms. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine these same wails coming from the mother of a dead Iraqi teen, and I was a very clear link in the chain of events leading to this death. I was tangibly part of the process by which this war is alive and real in our world. I had my hands on the gun barrel—I was shaping its destiny along with my father, my brothers, the U.S. government, the American people.
As I sat on that cryo tank with my back against the aluminum ladder, I kept saying to myself, I don’t want my hands on that barrel. I just don’t want to hold it in my hands and do work on it, no matter how insignificant that work may be. I felt unmoored from my own genes, like I could no longer own the family name. In the forest sage tradition of Indian mysticism from which Buddhism sprang, the first step on the spiritual path was to leave home. Perhaps this moment was the first step in my eventual ordination, for it was then that I realized, without any rancor or bitterness, but a kind of lonely sadness, that I was no longer just my father’s son. I was my own man now, and my true home was somewhere beyond the physical boundaries of my childhood address.
I thought of Indra’s net, the metaphor Buddhism uses to explain our oneness. The universe is a web of interconnectedness, everything in it a diamond, each reflecting and reflected in all the others. Instead of gems, I imagined bombs, one going off, setting off the rest.
In the Buddhist view, I depend on you for my existence. All things depend on each other, equally. Welcome to the doctrine of dependent origination. It’s teeter-totter metaphysics—I arise, you arise; you arise, I arise. Forget about our presumed Maker, the divine machinist in the sky. Take a look at this moment right now. You are you because you are not something else; therefore, what you are not—the chair beneath you, the air in your lungs, these words—births you through an infinity of opposites. It’s like the ultimate Dr. Seuss riddle: Without all the things that are not you, who would you be you to? There’s no Higher Power in this system to grab onto for support; we are all already supporting each other. Pull a person or people the wrong way, and you immediately redefine yourself in light of what you’ve done to your neighbor.
As I camped out there on the leviathan cryo tanks and my dad and brothers began to call around for me down below, I did what I do best: I sat on my ass and thought about something—in this case, about how starkly the Buddhist paradigm of interdependence contrasted with the ideal of independence I was weaned on.
It is now, with a measure of discomfort—and, strangely, pride—that I admit to being raised a child of the religious right. Its trajectory was mine. The movement was conceived at the same time I was, by earnest and disgruntled parents, as the flower-child era wilted and marijuana and free love began their eventual festering into crack and AIDS. Its voice changed along with mine in Reagan’s eighties, and came into power—with Ralph Reid and the Christian Coalition—as I came of age and rejected it in college. Now, it is as though this thing from my childhood, a private and ugly disease I thought only I had, has infected the entire country. But I can’t snub it outright, because I know its heart. I sucked its milk.
Back then, my parents were radical conservatives—ultra-individualists. They loved their Brady Bunch–sized family as deeply as they feared for us and the world they’d brought us into. As such, they begot an alternative world, a new world within the New World, more American than America itself. They had all three bases covered: Mind—Mom homeschooled us; Body—we were on a special health food diet and were born at home; and Soul—ours was a Vatican II–defying Latin mass held at Marchese’s, an Italian dance hall that renegade old-school Catholics rented from what I was sure was a Milwaukee Mafioso. (St. Peter’s it was not. A disco ball hung from the ceiling over the makeshift altar, and there was a large stocked bar lined with ashtrays back by our cherubic choir.)
Completing this circle of uber-wingnut self-enclosure was the family business. H Barrels, Dad’s company, enmeshed us in a subculture of John Birchers, urban warfare “survivalists,” and perpetually frazzled housemoms prone to whipping a teat out in public to feed one of their several yammering “little angels.” These were my people, and we took our cues from the very top. I remember thinking that God the Father was like the ultimate rugged individualist. He stood completely alone at the center of the universe, a deitific John Wayne, the Commander-in-Chief from whom the very stars and neutrinos took their marching orders. Like Frank Sinatra, He did it His way, from the ground up. He created something from nothing—talk about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps! This Supreme Being franchised the operation of existence to us inferior human beings, begot in His image and likeness, who were then expected to emulate His formula.
If extreme, our ethos of individuality was hardly unique: it’s what made us American. In school we memorize the Declaration of Independence, not Interdependence, after all. Walt Whitman did not suggest: Fit in, harmonize! “Sound your barbaric yawp!” roared the poet laureate of the land that gave us Paris Hilton and the Hummer.
If the bedrock of your upbringing was man’s individuality—his right to make choices and bear arms and fend for himself—over his interconnectedness, his mind, body, and soul over his heart, then you could make peace with the idea of selling gun barrels. The burden of responsibility was on the person you were selling them to. What he eventually did with the guns was his business, not yours. Morally, you were in the clear. Your responsibility ended where his free will began. Not yet a Zen Buddhist monk but no longer a Catholic conservative, I had to ask myself that day at Dad’s shop the question Where was I? Where did I stand on making rifle barrels for grunts and jarheads in Iraq? Could I even finish out the workday, or was it time to yank Pops into his office for the Bloody and Rueful Confrontation?
To further complicate things, earlier that morning my brother Teddy had shown me a photo that a U.S. Marine had emailed my father. (Servicemen are always emailing my father—he’s the Enzo Ferrari of the gun set.) “He’s standing over a dead Iraqi, holding a .50 caliber sniper rifle with one of our barrels on it,” Teddy said. “He’s grinning from ear to ear, and his boot’s on the corpse like it’s a trophy kill, like those pictures of Dad standing over the water buffalo he shot in Zimbabwe. It made me sick.”
But then Teddy studied the photo closer. It turns out the dead Iraqi was wearing a shrapnel-and-C4-packed explosive vest. When he took the bullet from my father’s barrel, a barrel built in this shop on these clacking, whirring machines, he was sprinting toward a U.S. checkpoint. Did my father aid in the taking of a life, or in the saving of dozens—dozens like the soldier in the picture and that blue-bonneted Iraqi infant? The “Barrel Baron” makes a markedly superior product, and for better or worse our country is requesting it. If he takes the moral high ground and tells B-Rifles to stuff it, that he’s donating his barrels to MoveOn.org to melt down and cast into buttons, our soldiers go into battle without the best possible equipment. Who does that serve?“My first job is to protect my family,” he once explained. “Then my country.”
Back when I was a nervous kid, a bed wetter, it fell upon my dad to wake me up every night at 3 a.m., when the only sound in our old farmhouse was the antique clock at the bottom of the stairs. He would lift me in his great arms and carry me to the cool green tile of the bathroom he’d remodeled himself. There, I remember him softly telling me, so as not to wake Mom down the hall, the story of how, on the night I was born, he dreamt I was a P.O.W. in Vietnam, and he and his hunting buddies had to bust me out, “guns a-blazin’!”
“And I’d do it, too, if I had to,” he whispered. “You know I would.” And I did. All he ever wanted was to protect me, and help me grow and become strong, capable, and self-sufficient. His love of guns, ironically, is an expression of his desire for peace and a safer, happier world—his desire to protect and empower the weak, the disenfranchised and lonely, of whose ranks he and his eldest son have always been card-carrying members.
“Magoo?” he now called, crunching down concrete paths strewn with steel curlicues. From my perch, I could see the bald spot atop his old familiar pate. The sudden storm of sobs precipitated by this image solved both nothing and everything for me, and was lost forever under the cacophonous din of machinery.
“Ya know, one day you’re gonna wake up and realize you missed your nieces and nephews growing up!” Dad growled as our New Year’s Eve phone call—along with his patience—neared its end.
Once a creepy cast of right-wing outsiders, the Addams Family in scapulars, we Haubners are in something of a golden era right now: the siblings are married and employed; the grandkids (all nine) are charmingly prepubescent; the parents are still sharp and healthy enough to enjoy it all. Christmas is the one time of year when we all converge to celebrate four generations of survival together, and every year, because of the start of our formal winter training at the monastery, I miss it. In fact, I was the first child, in 32 Christmases straight, to miss it, and my father, who has perhaps worked the hardest and suffered the most to make this Golden Era possible, cannot wrap his head around this. The reason for his mysterious New Year’s Eve phone call, I finally understood, was to get to the bottom of Magoo the Monk.
“Please tell me why you’re buried in that forest scratchin’ your nuts and smellin’ your fingers, missing the Christmas ham with us every year” was how he put it. “’Cos I ain’t gettin’ any younger, ya know, I’m fallin’ apart faster’n a Chinese motorcycle.”
It was a valid question. I could see it in the classic koan books many years from now: Big Jack asked his knuckleheaded son: Knucklehead, why bother with a spiritual practice, especially if it takes you away from your family?
Like many American dads, my father’s religion was his career. It gave him thrust, purpose, kept him up at night and got him out of bed every morning. He put everything he had on the line to start H Barrels. Had he failed, I would have carried his failure into my adult life and would have been compelled to succeed at any cost. Instead, I watched him become extremely successful, and I watched success fail to fulfill him. From the ashes of his unhappiness rose the phoenix of my spiritual calling. I can’t stand in judgment of him, because I am the result of him—any insights or developments on my path began their journeys through the barrel of a gun. I have inherited his spiritual discontent, and have devoted myself to overcoming it—or at least exploring it—with the same single-minded passion with which he has pursued guns.
As I sat on the phone with him, reaching deep inside for the right words to explain all this, how much he means to me and why I’ve set out on the course I have, the answer was right there in front of me all along. In my journal, instead of “The Death of God Left a God-Sized Hole,” I’d accidentally scribbled “The Death of God Left a God-Sized Whole.”
For years, I was convinced that the death of a spiritual father figure—the death of God—was cause for eternal mourning and headshaking and teeth-gnashing. Now I’m beginning to see that it may be the very path to liberation. The first thing people want to know when they find out I’m a Buddhist monk is whether or not I still believe in God. If they’re atheists I tell them no; Christians, yes (or the other way around if I’m feeling truculent). But the truth is more complex and personal, and it mirrors my feelings toward my father. I still believe in Dad’s sincerity, integrity, and intentions, for instance, but long ago I stopped looking to him for answers or intervention, for him to rescue me—“guns ablazin’!”—from whatever personal Vietnam I might be suffering through. As with God, my relationship with my father has been marked by disillusionment, reassessment, and, finally, a search for deeper understanding. While I agree with him that our first job is to protect our families and then our country, for example, I don’t think our responsibility stops there, not anymore. In this day and age, it extends to the whole planet.
God’s death creates a wide-open chasm of responsibility that we must fill. For me, the God-sized hole, through the prism of Buddhist thinking, has become a God-sized whole.
After hanging up the phone, having resolved nothing, I said a quiet prayer back in my cabin, the kind I learned as a kid—a true prayer, the type that releases itself from within and is a kind of call, a cry, a blind thrust in what always turns out to be the right, the only, direction. It did not begin with “Our Father,” although I did have my forebears in mind. It went, simply, “Help,” repeated over and over with increasing intensity, until suddenly I came out the other side of the request. Instead of begging for help from some unknown source of the universe, I was telling myself to give it. The plea was its own answer, its own solution—a vocation.
I stayed on my knees for quite a while, as the year’s first snowfall soundproofed the mountains outside. Then the distant snap of townie gunshots broke the silence and rang in the New Year.
Shozan Jack Haubner is a Zen practitioner living in California. At his request we've used a pseudonym.
Image: The Water Pistol Contortionist, David Chan, 2008, oil on linen, 150 x 180 cm