In the Sea of Ise,
ten thousand feet down, lies a single stone.
I want to pick up that stone
without getting my hands wet.
~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans
This is a wonderful koan, which I fondly remember working with my old Japanese teacher decades ago. On my behalf, he went for a swim. Fortunately, koans are moment-by-moment, and what was fresh decades ago, has changed already, and what is fresh now is different, but good; easily as grand. In sharing koans with friends, teachers sometimes talk about “Hakuin responses” and about “life responses.” Hakuin Ekaku, of course, was the great 18th century Japanese teacher who codified koan practice, outlawing the “sale” of answers to students seeking to accelerate their studies and inherit a temple property. As I became a teacher, it quickly became clear that a mere aping of a decades-old response~ while valued and still asked for ~could often lack immediacy and intimacy. A bit too easily, these responses tumbled into two-dimensional renditions of a 3D field at play. Life, however, has its demands, and it calls for a new upwelling, moment by moment. Upwelling, after all, is a synonym for a koan response. Below is a recent “life response” from a friend keeping company with the above koan:
“Ten thousand feet down there is a synagogue…
“My friend’s dad Mitch passed away a couple of weeks ago. He was a monolithic figure in the Canadian folk music scene and deeply affected peoples’ lives around the world both directly with his work starting various folk festivals and also by influencing others to do the same. His son and I played in the Duhks (a band) together and Mitch was always there with some scheme or another, and some suggestion about music or business or communism or women. I always had the strange sense that I was not speaking to a human so much as the tip of an iceberg.
His funeral was held at a local synagogue and was nicely crowded. It was almost all local musicians and people involved with music. A real who’s who! One of my dad’s closest friend’s Rubin (“The Red”) Kantorovich was the first person I saw when I walked in the door. I was putting on the kippah they handed out and he laughed and said ‘Hey, we’re wearing the same outfit! Now you’re really part of the tribe!’. I thought that was wonderful, and as I sat through the funeral service I realized that I really was part of the tribe, and that all these peopl
e here were all holding me and I was holding them. We were all stones at the bottom of the sea. Awash in grief but also holding each other with dry hands.
In fact, that synagogue and everyone in it was a single stone at the bottom of the sea and the whole universe was holding it, and everything was ok. No, everything was beautiful.
ps. more about Mitch here… https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/music/article-mitch-podolak-71-was-canadian-folk-musics-beloved-radical-patron/