Public Image

The Zen Center was still and cold. I had ridden the old Fuji, with 27” knobbies, through the crunch of mid-winter snow because… because I had to. I got there early and shivered in part from the cold and partly from the nervousness that Kiley would appear. Partly, too, because it felt like visiting the ghost of an abandoned self—a creation I had intended to one day inhabit, built around Kiley, now evaporated in all aspects. One day warmth and light, now turned blue-white and an empty space set in winter’s stark relief.

Kiley never materialized in the hall and after sitting Roshi gave a talk on becoming aware of ourselves.

“If you lean against too many walls, walls made of other people,” he said, “you are sure to fall down.”

I never thought of myself as leaning on Kiley—it always felt, most days, like running like hell after the bus.

Roshi: “The Self you have constructed around others is like a cheap paper mask, which others with whom you become intimate never fail to see for what it is. And all the rage which you put into maintaining and elaborating the mask is so much waste: it will still fall apart. It must fall apart. I suggest, instead of waiting for that inevitable moment, that you simply remove it.”

Honestly? I never really knew whether Roshi was full of shit or not—whether this was all some kind of New Age bullshit he was making up, and he a pure and gentle bullshitter unattached to the need to make sense. But as I rode home on the salt and grit-strewn streets, and the cold air bit into my face, I felt like the calm of his talks, the angular relation of his words to the already-bullshit of most of my days, gave me an excuse to go beyond where I started before I arrived.

But when I stepped off my bike beside my mom’s garage door I realized that I had only expanded for a second, then came to a sharp point around a single question: “Where was Kiley?”

It was a question that stayed with me even as I went over to Cindy’s house later in the afternoon.

Cindy. She really did want me to go on my own journey. But the thing was…? I never understood whether it was for my sake or for hers. It wasn’t like she needed my permission for anything, and she telegraphed her intention to never have anything to do with Minneapolis or Washburn High again after graduation. The way she’d slam an application to RISD or Cranbrook or MICA against my locker door and launch into her stump speeches for liberation and choice. The way… she kept calling me anyway, telling me to “get on a bus and disappear into a future you write, Finn.”

“What if my future can’t be written?” I asked as I looked at her drawings. She was smoking in her bed—she was good at making choices, just not always the right ones—but I didn’t feel like joining her. One of her drawings was of an Ouroboros with Reagan’s head. She had stacks of drawings, each one amazing. None of them finished, exactly… always something left provisional or explicitly undone.

“You can still leave… you can still get on the bus.”

“I’ve already been on the bus,” I said.

“Get on it again, then,” she said, pushing herself up against the wall behind her bed. “You never grew up with any of these people anyway,” she said. “Who the fuck cares where you live? Your mom is going to marry a guy with a fake face and you won’t even talk to your dad. What’s keeping you here in Minneapolis?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “… because it’s who I am.”

“Can’t you be who you are—aren’t you already who you are—anywhere?” she asked, adding, “I mean, I don’t know a lot about Zen, but sounds like you’re stuck on some shit.”

“I just… I think Minneapolis isn’t what I’m stuck on. Minneapolis,” and I’m not kidding, I actually fucking said this to her and I meant it, “is the theater of my Self.”

“Finn…?” Cindy asked, “… Nevermind, I already know the answer. Let’s go to Little Tijuana. I’m driving.”

I had started sleeping over at Cindy’s house once or twice a week and the strange thing was it made us fall further apart. The thing about Cindy and her choices is that they seemed too dependent on her skill, her art. I had… what? A half-assed ability to ride a bike and the ability to get my homework done, even when baked. That and a record collection. Wasn’t part of what Roshi was saying that if you bet everything on external application, then… if luck comes and you draw your cards and he hands you no trumps… your paper world falls apart?

That was one thing my bus ride from Duluth taught me, right at the beginning: the need to get elsewhere was its own kind of prison. Didn’t matter if you were running toward dreams or away from nightmares… the need to run was more confining than being able to sit still.

The next Saturday was one of those rare warm days. When I rode to the Zen Center, the sidewalks shined brown and the streets glistened black in the sun’s light. Kiley was already seated when I arrived and I sat a few spaces away from her, in front of her, but without saying anything as I stepped past her to sit.

Roshi’s talk was about others, almost like he knew that Kiley and I would be sitting silently in the room together, away from one another.

“Whether it is in love or in anger, you cannot focus your emotions on the connection to the Other: you will always have intense feelings, but they must be seen as disruptions to your connections, not as arising from them.”

I don’t know how this made me any less of a dirtbag for selling pot to the Chi Sigs, but it made me less bummed that Kiley felt that way: I felt that way, too—why blame it on her?

More Roshi: “You are already a connection… one self-tangled knot in the web. And you will always feel the tug and pull of Others. That is why you must loosen the threads of your Self: it is how you can learn to give to and take from others without becoming more-tightly bound in your own concerns. If you need from the web and the connecting threads are loose? You can gently ask and be given without pain; if you are tugged on by another’s needs or desires? You can freely give without being bound.”

Like I said, Roshi… made some shit up. But it was shit that had me crying half-lotus tears there in the hall. The clean smell of the incense, the calm, low rustling of others sitting in silent trust… blew open a hole for the empty, howling chaos and the pretend, the puppet, the paper-mache mask to flow out, streaming down my face.

I didn’t get to talk to Kiley that day. I couldn’t confront her with my face and nose that red; with that much shame still stuck inside of me. It was all I could do to learn that Zen would never plug the holes in my soul… or that wrapping them in Kiley would prevent the sadness from continuing to pour from them. Roshi had blown everything wide open in the last weeks and it seemed that the only sane achievement would be to learn to live with what radiated out… that I was not sane, and maybe shouldn’t ever try to become so.

I remained the last person sitting in the hall, quiet in the Zen Center with the sun shining more powerfully than it had in months, letting my face dry as I contemplated the fact that I may never learn to crawl out of the madness; may never escape through the holes in my original face.


Obaku’s “The Waste Eaters”

Obaku told the monks: “You are all filling your mouths with waste. Keep studying Zen like that—you’ll never finish. Don’t you know there is not a single teacher of Zen in our country?” A monk piped up, “But there are acolytes and lectures. What about those?” Oboku said, “Of course there is Zen—but there are no teachers of Zen.”

— from Charles Waters’ translation, Lotus in Ashes: Koans from the Mumonkan and Hekiganroku


This is the sixteenth section of Zen Arcade, a novel by Joel Turnipseed. We will be publishing a new section every other Sunday until Summer 2015. Read them here or get an email notification when the new section is available.

# # #