Wednesday, June 20, 2012


One night, a long time ago, a slight Japanese man came to the Zen center I attended in New York.

At the time, I was hip-deep in a terrific solemnity about Zen practice, enlightenment, compassion and the like: Zazen, or the seated meditation that receives some emphasis in Zen practice, was the credible, pedal-to-the-metal way to attain true understanding... other ways might exist and be useful, but for me, zazen was the golden fleece.

The slight Japanese man had been invited to talk to the assembled students who practiced zazen. His thesis and emphasis: Singing offered not just an example of enlightenment, but enlightenment itself. And as an example, he had all of us get up off our meditation cushions, gather round, and sing "You Are My Sunshine."

It felt strange and childish to be singing a simple, simplistic, so-easy song in the middle of a spic-and-span meditation hall with its beautiful altar at one end and meditation cushions the only other real adornment.

When we finished the chorus, the teacher of the zendo put on an arrogant smirk as if he had been humoring a small child by allowing this Tinker Toy exercise. How could this song possibly measure up to the highly-disciplined zazen he instilled in his students as they clawed and scratched their way towards  'enlightenment?'

And I, being hip-deep in a terrific solemnity about Zen practice, snickered and sneered within ... just like the teacher who taught pedal-to-the-metal zazen and coincidentally (or more likely inherently) taught sneering and snickering. I looked down and imagined I was lifted up.

But today, so many years later, I would like to apologize to that slight Japanese man for the stupidities of my youth (I was perhaps 35 at the time). Apologize not because I agree that singing is the one true way, the perfectly anointed way, the way most likely to inspire attainment, but because I agree that singing is a one true way, a perfectly anointed way, and a way most likely to inspire enlightenment. Perfection is an equal-opportunity employer ... if you doubt this, just try to find the time or place or circumstance that is not perfect.

I hesitate to say this -- to make my apology -- because "a way" so often inspires ecumenical and idiotic drivel and, worse, laziness," but my desire to apologize overrides my fears. Any way can inspire both geniuses and idiots, dolts and those with an iron determination. Every day is a good day ... it's nothing fancy ... it can't be helped.

Before any snake-oil salesman said "joy," there is joy. Before any smile-merchant advertised his wares, there was smiling. And before any singing, there was song. What is it like in the 'before' time, the home no one ever left? Well, singing is a good way and a true way, assuming anyone might allow it... and even if it doesn't work, still it's a bit of reprieve in uncertain and tearful times.

Perhaps it is like the old Baptist hymn, "How Can I Keep From Singing?"

Or not.

Anyway, I apologize.


  1. Joyfulness is Still DukkhaJune 20, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    Shall we meet you at the Karaoke Bar of True Dharma?

  2. Roshi teaches many such examples.

    Thanks, brought a tear to my eye, this tale.