Special Karma is a personal novel that tracks my experience as a resident at a Rinzai Zen monastery over an eight-month period. In it, I have tried to convey both the natural beauty of the setting, the everyday activities and challenges of monastic life, and some of the philosophical tenets underlying Buddhism. As well as dealing with a Zen teacher whose sexual advances were always unwelcome and often destabilizing, I ‘came home,’ for the first time, to a spirited community of friends and fellow seekers. I hope that the following three excerpts will give a fair idea of the flavor and scope of my book. Those searching for the juicy bits will find them in the last excerpt.
FROM CHAPTER ONE – JULY – PAGE 1:
Birds fly—not because of their physiologies. They fly because of FLYING.
Iris sat with her notebook in her lap, pondering her handwriting. Her style of looping and curving, a fastidious cursive style, was practically Arabic. She thought of birds suddenly flying, looping against the sky.
She combed her fingers through her dark blond hair, cropped short like a boy’s.
Similarly, she wrote, I cannot say I am here for any ‘reason.’
Her small room was achromatic, but outside her window bright pine boughs were carouseling in the breeze, throwing off sparks of sunlight. Inside, Iris’s little room contained nothing but a futon on a tatami mat, a low rectangular table, and a plump cushion, on which she sat. Above her head, a fly traced a lazy series of arcs, silently cruising the warm air currents.
But at least I am here, she wrote, bending her head low over her notebook. How could she say it? That she had for so long seemed cranky and intractable while in actuality she had been slowly assenting to this new step. And then, had taken refuge in a paradox—that one’s life can be constructed on a foundation of absolute emptiness.
Everything is a dream, she wrote.
Outside the window, Bonnie, one of the residents, yelled, “You fruitcake!” and the American monk Michael shouted back, “Watch out who you call a fruitcake!”
“Zen monk fruitcake!” Bonnie yelled.
To others it will seem pathetic, pathological. To sit on a black cushion for hours—someone who had given her pain would call that pathological. That man would actually smite his forehead if he could see her now. But Iris knew things that were beyond his scope of appetite. She knew how to feel the world as extension—an extension of self or of nothing you could put your finger on. She had seen the rift in the fabric, and this prevented her, finally, from doing anything.
Except to be here—where else could she be?
FROM CHAPTER ONE – JULY:
Flitting quickly, like a bat, through the silent monastery in a thin robe; obviously she was late.
Not late; Iris stood at the threshold of the zendo and bowed. Vast and wildly fragrant, the tatami mats smelling of hay or grass, the zendo had displaced a portion of the surrounding forest yet was itself an expression of nature.
The Roshi sat in his seat at the head of the women’s line; Eliot was at the end of the men’s. Sandra was in the second seat, and across from her was the funny boy who, when asked, seemed to have forgotten his name. And a half-dozen others, not yet settled.
Iris found her place and sat down on her cushion, yanking one leg up across the other. She nested her hands together, then arched her thumbs to form an oval. The long tatami stretched out before her, ending at a low wall. She gathered herself into her breath.
Now someone was sitting down beside her: Cathy.
The instant Cathy sat down, the inkin rang. Now Cathy was twisting, adjusting her robe, rocking, touching the corners of the flat under-cushion with her head. Now she was perfectly erect.
Now she was utterly still; she might have evaporated for all that Iris could tell, looking straight ahead.
As Iris counted her breaths, the quality of the surrounding air seemed to change, revealing a layer of granularity. The texture of existence, she thought with some pleasure, like a mountaineer attaining an early summit in thinner air. But in the next minute she was reminded of her legs locked together and of an impinging strain in her knees that was, with each passing moment, less and less endurable.
Until she thought they would crack apart.
The zendo grew dim as the sun began to set. Birds twittered excitedly as they darted through the trees, as though trying to decide which one to sleep in.
Iris envied them with all her heart.
Time, Iris’s enemy, stretched and dilated as an escalating pain ravaged her, dismantling her equilibrium and her ego. She was amazed to have reached this level of pain. It wasn’t going to be possible to do this, she finally realized. She wasn’t seasoned. It wasn’t—
“S I N K !!” The voice was like the crashing of a tsunami. It was the Roshi.
“S I N K !!” he boomed again. “NOT think! S I N K !”
He rose from his seat and swept slowly, interminably, through the zendo, brushing his bare feet along the floor. “Each one of us,” he announced, “is born alone, and he will die alone. This is personal experience!”
Ghostly, he continued to encircle the zendo. A few moments later his voice could be heard from another spot. “At THIS moment, each of you have an extraordinary chance, which may never come again. So! When you sit on the cushion—do it with all your might!”
The bell rang out, and the sound covered Iris like a shower of cool water. She extricated her tangled legs as though from an accident.
After a short period of walking meditation and two more sittings, Iris hobbled back to her room using one of the outdoor verandas. As she stepped back into the building, she came within an inch of colliding with Eliot, who was blindly stepping out.
“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed, as she had clearly violated the boundaries of his patience and his privacy. Then she realized that she had also broken the rule of evening silence. His eyes met hers, and, in apparent confirmation of her countless transgressions, he frowned at her. Then he brushed past her and walked off.
She didn’t know what he was. She watched him ascend the outside stairway to the residents’ quarters, elegant and brittle in his dark robe; and draped as well in an aura of rapt loneliness.
FROM CHAPTER THREE – SEPTEMBER:
The sixth day of nearly unbroken meditation had ended when the Roshi found Iris in the hallway and said, “I should like to speak with you. It’s all right?” She followed him into his study.
It was a small room across from the staircase leading up to his quarters. The floor was covered with a thick white rug, and in the center of the room was a low, black, square table. A dramatic calligraphy hung in a niche; beside it was an arrangement of branches bearing scarlet autumn leaves. Iris was accustomed to seeing the Roshi’s study in daylight, when one saw through its windows the lake, mountains, and the long, twisting road that ended just here, just below. But now the windows that belted the study were entirely screened with white shoji. At night, the room looked to Iris unnaturally stark, with the black table placed in the center of it like a tile on a game board.
With a vague sense of unease, Iris sat down at the table.
The Roshi produced a book of photographs which, he said, a student had recently sent him.
It was filled with photographs of nude women, as Iris had somehow known it would be. As the Roshi turned the pages, the photos struck her as remarkably cold, exposing the imperfections of bodies that conveyed an impression of use. The images had about them an atmosphere of crime—so open did these women seem to mishandling. They stood naked in their kitchens or sat awkwardly on couches, nailed by the camera and the unsavory intellect behind it. More than anything, she wished them dressed.
The Roshi seemed not entirely pleased by the images. “This one is really not so bad,” he finally said after turning the page once more. It was a young woman with teased brown hair and dangling earrings, straddling a chair backward so that the bentwood back somewhat obscured her own front. The girl wore a wistful smile.
“I should go now,” said Iris, getting up.
“Why!” he demanded.
Why? bounced around in her head for several moments.
“Iris,” purred the Roshi, and he clasped her hand. Iris felt its dry pressure, remembering the countless times she had admired the simple beauty of his hands. And now she felt nothing, no surge of arousal, but only—as it happened—impatience. She looked down at him, but he was not at all looking at her. With closed eyes, he was savoring the magic of holding her hand against her will. He let it go, and his face became rigid, angry.
She bowed to him until he bowed back, and then she left the room.
Outside his door, she nearly collided with Eliot again. He looked at her with a question that leadened the air between them.
“Did the Roshi want anything?” he finally whispered. Meaning—concerning their jisha work.
“No!” she almost shouted, seared by his presence. She stormed away as though he was the one she hated now, and he watched her dimly, working desperately on his koan.