The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Old monk. Photo: public domain

A change from the usual–a little short fiction that arose as a prolonged daydream I had while I should have been counting my breaths as a novice meditator during my first three-day sesshin at the zen center.

The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Baka had come to the monastery as a promising young man, recommended to the abbot by his village priest, and within a few years he had progressed well along the dharma path, quickly memorizing all the daily sutras and meal chants, always showing proper respect for his elders and demonstrating compassion for the least of beings. He carefully carried spiders out of the dormitory and he kept a keen eye out for ants and bugs when sweeping the walkways. He chanted the morning service with great nen and was able to sit still for long periods in the zendo with a quiet mind. 

But as his practice developed, he began to notice the behavior of others, that they would become fidgety, that they relied on the sutra book to get through morning service, that they sometimes bunked off from work practice to look at girls. Some snuck food into the dormitory; some drank sake late at night.

It seemed to Baka that he was the best of the lot–the most sincere, the most dedicated of all his brothers. The jikijitsu never had to hit himwith a stick. Baka would return to the zendo for extra zazen after the day’s schedule was complete. He would sit sometimes for half the night alone in the hall, not moving a muscle.

Baka began to take over the heaviest jobs, digging out boulders to expand the garden plot, hauling firewood from halfway up the mountain. His brothers seemed pale and puny in comparison.

One day the tenzo came out of the kitchen as Baka was rolling yet another boulder off from the edge of the garden. Baka was happy that one as venerable and respected as the abbot’s friend, the man responsible for the community’s physical well-being, was observing the quality of his work practice. But the tenzo just smiled and shook his head, then returned to chop vegetables for dinner.

Another time, as Baka struggled under a huge load of hardwood he had cut up in the high forest, the tenzo again came out, smiled and shook his head as Baka went by.

The tenzo was old, near to ninety. He walked with a stick. He grunted when he sat down and he farted when he stood up. It was said he had a weakness for shōchū, which made him sing and then fall asleep. So, who was he to shake his head at Baka’s efforts?

Nursing his grievance, Baka’s mind wandered so much during the abbot’s teisho on the koan ” Nansen Kills the Cat,” that he failed to answer “hai” when called on by name. The tenzo, sitting on the other side of the dharma hall, smiled and shook his head.

Baka sat again late in the zendo, but found no peace. He had watched two visiting Tibetan monks once as they engaged in dharma combat, a ritual debate on the meaning and import of the sutras. Inside Baka’s mind he and the tenzo argued like that for half the night.

Finally, Baka went to the tenzo to ask him why he was so dismissive of his sincere and strenuous effort. The tenzo pointed out that a little more garden space had been needed, but Baka had dug up more land than they would ever plant. And he pointed out that the woodshed had been filled weeks ago, and that the wood Baka was cutting now would sit out in the rain and rot before it could be used. “Do just what is needed. Maybe work less, maybe do nothing sometimes,” the tenzo suggested.

Thinking of his many extra hours in the zendo, Baka considered that he might be the best at doing nothing, too. So, he challenged the tenzo to see which of them could sit zazzen the longest without getting up from the zafu. To Baka’s surprise, the tenzo accepted, and set the contest to begin the next day after morning service.

That morning they remained in the zendo while everyone else went on to breakfast, served for once by the tenzo’s assistant. They walked to facing places. The tenzo laid his walking stick by his zafu and they both turned to bow to the Buddha on the altar, then turned and bowed to their zafus, then turned again and bowed to each.

Baka dropped into a perfect half-lotus position in one smooth move onto his cushion. The tenzo grunted and slowly ratcheted himself down to his cushion, cracked his neck from side to side, rolled his shoulders, shifted his head back on his neck, went still, and then broke into a smile.

For the first hour nothing happened, same for the second, same for the third. Every now and then, a curious face would peek around the edge of the zendo doorway. The tenzo never moved, only kept up a serene smile.

In the fourth hour, Baka began to feel a little discomfort in his knees. After a while that began to fade, but in the fifth hour he began to feel some itching. He refused to scratch.

The tenzo just breathed in and out, unmoving except for that slight rise and fall, holding up his small smile like a flower. Hour by hour the day passed as the two sat and sat and sat. Baka’s bladder was complaining, but he would not listen. Little daggers of pain poked the small of his back. He could no longer feel his feet.

He kept his face stony and still as darkness fell, but his mind was jumping like a flea, responding to alarms from one part of his body or another, feeling resentment at the effortless stillness of the tenzo, feeling anger at his unbroken smile.

In the feeble flicker of the altar candle, the tenzo’s face appeared old one moment, young the next, plain as a fart one moment, an ethereal beauty the next. Baka blinked and suffered on through the endless night.

When the monks came in just before dawn, panting from running a fast kinhin around and around the outside of the zendo, they found the pair still sitting. Baka croaked that he couldn’t get up, couldn’t unbend his legs. He asked the jikijitsu to push him over onto his side to rest until feeling returned to his lower body.

The jikijitsu then pronounced that his old mentor, the tenzo, was the victor, and asked if he needed any help in rising. The tenzo’s smile was sweeter than ever, but he made no answer, having returned to the wheel of rebirth sometime in the middle of the night.

The abbot came in to pay respects to his old friend and told the monks, “Yes, I knew he was dying. He said he wouldn’t last much into spring. But he said he still had some teaching to do. He said Baka was sincere and hardworking, but that he couldn’t get out of his own way. But who knows? In 20 or 30 years, he told me, Baka might be fit to make the soup.”

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1 Response to The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

  1. Paul Davison says:

    A really great story. Your time was not wasted in your meditation sidetrack. And that photo really sells it. That is exactly how I would image that the tenzo would look.

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