Tozan and his flax endure the Florida boil

Florida is heating up. Undeniably. And no matter how many times certain friends tell me they love the summer time fry, I simply can’t believe them. Impossible. I would much prefer October gloom, nor’ easters, or the few fridgid winter days we get down south to anything east of May. Looking foward to flat surf and summer doldrums, all made worse by unbearable temperatures, seems thick-skulled and at most a coping mechanism. Although it could quite possibly be plain and simple masochism, like how some people get off on being beaten, or with a high-heel spiked up their ass. Unfathomable.

This seasonal anxiety is probably due to my lack of air-conditioning, or my fair coloring, but none the less I am overcome by the suspicion I am living in the wrong climate. The thought that things might get hotter, via climate change, makes me quesy. My entire back is covered with sunburnt blisters after going shirtless into the Atlantic during mid-day, and my herb garden is looking parched. Also the windows in my girlfriend’s car no longer work and the air stutters in the heat. I sleep too much and dream of the arctic. 

Today I awoke and spent most of the morning in front of the fan,organizing old folders and snatching at various pieces of memorobilia from the past: collections of foreign paper money; Japanese teen magazines bought from vending machines; scraps of papers scrawled with phone numbers I no longer recognize; and  Hungarian photo booth pictures of a strange man with a long mullet and no front teeth who I also have no recollection of. Odd ends dug from the recesses of cluttered drawer space sprawled across my bedroom floor.

Sweating profusely, I flipped through a pamphlet on Nyogen Senzaki, who was one of the first Japanese to teach Zen Buddhism in the West, and then I came across a capping verse to a certain Koan that struck me, and kicked me out of my funk. The effect it had on me convinced me to post it on this blog.

For the uninitiated a koan is basically a concise “zen story,” often annotated with an unanswerable question. Zen student’s are assigned these and made to meditate on them. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?,” things of this sort. Most of the Koans are thousands of years old and often times they are accompanied by capping verses, or commentary which comes in the form of short poems tagged on to the end by certain Zen masters throughout the centuries. Usually the ones responsible for anthologizing and preserving the Koan stories. This Koan in particularwas the story of Tozan and his flax. It is very short, like this:

A monk asked Tozan, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “Three pounds of flax.”

In a Rinzai Zen Monastery a student might be given this question to sit on, periodically going in front of his teacher to try to explain it. It seems non-sensical, non-sense being the major tenant in Zen. Eventually through contemplation and proding from his teacher the student might have some insight, at which point he will be given a more difficult question, some thousand in all.

The meaning of the story according to Senzaki is this: Tozan was a flax farmer like many people in the area where he lived. He worked hard and did his job well, seeing it as his spiritual work. The student came to him with this profound question “what is the Buddha” as if the awakened mind was some holy object outside himself that he could not find it. Supposedly Tozan was weighing Flax at the time and while reading the scale he replied “three pounds of flax,” he then continued on with his work.

So the point I take it, as illustrated by Senzaki is that there is no Buddha besides this awakened moment which we are ignorant of. He writes “no matter what your everyday task is it will turn into Zen if you quit looking at it from a dualistic attitude. Just do one thing at a time and do it sincerely and faithfully, as if it were the last task in the world.”

Now, I read this story and really liked it. I was dripping sweat all over the pamphlet but no longer felt so irritated. Then I read Setcho’s closing verse, Setcho being some ancient Zen patriarch who collected and commented on all these stories, and it was just beautiful, I thought I had to share it with someone, I showed it to my girlfriend, and then I decided to post it on here. So here:

Time Passes without hesitation

There is no gap between

The question and the answer.

To meet Tonzan in this way

Never will happen again.

That lame turtle is blind

Wandering in the wilderness.

One flower after another

Bursts from a spring branch.

One design joins another in a

Beautiful brocade.

Bamboo sprouts south of the river,

Timber grows in the north.

Officer Riku and monk Chokei—

Why criticize laughing or crying!


In the pamphlet Nyogen comments “Each action is correct at the moment, if there is no gap between thought and action.” I set the paper down and no longer feel quite so bad. I even boil water for tea, walk outside and look at the garden.





1 Comment

Filed under Zen Buddhism

One response to “Tozan and his flax endure the Florida boil

  1. backto1

    Reading your blog was a lot more fun than today’s Dharma discourse!

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