Lawrence Shainberg solves the famous Zen koan “How do you buy a car you already own?”
It’s easy enough to pack my bags, stow my gear in the trunk of the Honda, and head back to the city, but what am I to do about the fact that the car I drive does not belong to me? I avoid the matter until several weeks later, when I receive a phone call from the treasurer at ZCNY, who informs me that an insurance bill has arrived. Clearly, I’m in a bind, but next morning, during zazen, I see the way out - another brilliant, tax-deductible solution! ZCNY will simply donate the Honda to the Soho Zendo! Who cares that Roshi doesn’t know how to drive or that everything the zendo needs is within three blocks of our building? Aren’t we incorporated? Tax exempt? The IRS won’t question our need for transportation and it certainly won’t question our right to receive charitable gifts.
Roshi’s English is hardly equipped for “tax deductible” or “pass-through donations,” not to mention “Well, you see, Roshi, even though it looks illegal, it’s really not.” When informed of my intentions, all he hears is that the zendo will own a car as a result of my generosity. “Very good, Larry-san! You very nice. Thank you! Thank you!” And even in his inscrutable eyes I see the light I saw in the eyes of my sangha mates at ZCNY, more than one of whom, when they hear that I have “taken back” the car, look at me with pity and offer that I have “learned nothing” from my practice.
Within a couple of weeks, the transfer is complete. Bill of sale, certificate of title, new registration (signed by Roshi), notarized philanthropic statement attesting to the fact that a one-year-old Honda hatchback with 31,657 miles has been donated by ZCNY to Soho Zendo. My name, of course, is not to be found on the documents. I am invisible, owner of nothing, but using the Honda more than ever since there’s nobody asking to borrow it. It’s as if I’ve discovered some ultimate magic trick that permits me to have my cake and eat it too. ZCNY forwards the insurance bill to Soho Zendo, where it is paid by its treasurer with money donated (and deducted) by me. Similar shenanigans cover garage fees, repair bills, even gas.
Finally, after zazen one evening, Roshi stops me at the door. “Larry-san, you have appointment? Maybe you talk business for a minute?” When everyone else has left, and he’s made us a cup of tea, he spreads out the account book on the table and leafs through it until he finds the page he wants. “Garage fees.” “Insurance.” “Manhattan Auto Repair.” He points them out one by one. “Larry-san, how come this? Maybe you explain.”
“Oh, that’s for the car, Roshi.”
“Car? What car?”
“The one I donated to the zendo.”
“When you donate? I not see car.”
“But I explained - ”
“Zendo pay gas, zendo pay garage. Who drive car?”
“Well, I do, Roshi, but - ”
“Zendo pay car and you drive it?”
“Well, you see, the zendo doesn’t actually pay, Roshi. I made a donation - ”
“Yes, last month. And the month before that too. I’m giving the zendo the money to pay for the car.”
“But you drive?”
“Well, not exactly, Roshi. That’s what I’m trying to explain. I made donations - ”
“Larry-san, please! Donation, not donation, nothing matter. You make donation, you make donation. Thank you very much! You drive car, you pay for car, understand? You insincere! Irresponsible! Losing lot of virtue all this talk.”
Again and again, I try to explain things to him, each time with less success. He isn’t arguing anymore - always a dangerous sign with him - he’s just staring at me. Finally, he closes the matter in characteristic fashion: “OK, Larry-san, forget it! Anything you want, you do!”
I don’t sleep at all that night. My solution to the car problem is suddenly a mirror and what I see in it is not pretty: fake generosity, fatuous rationalization - all of it worse for occurring in the context of Zen. Next morning I telephone a couple of used car dealers to determine the Honda’s fair-market value. I write a check for that amount payable to the zendo. And that’s how it happened that I solved the famous koan: how do you buy a car you already own?
Lawrence Shainberg is a writer living in New York City. His most recent book,“Ambivalent Zen,”is available from Pantheon Books.