“Why can’t the person of great strength lift their leg?”

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 20

In journalism, we look for a ‘hook’, a device wherein something of immediate interest meets a long-arch story. Without that simple device, a story has little meaning. In Zen, the long-arch story can be a 1,200-year-old koan and the hook our personal experience on meeting that koan. In the fall retreat we held last week, where we introduced the above koan, I was hooked.

When I was in high school, a group of six of us, who mostly did snow-shoeing and back-packing together, found out that one of our high school teachers, Mr King, was interested in Zen. We approached him, and he agreed to teach us meditation. For some months we got up at 4:00am on Wednesdays and Saturdays, jumped into Dana’s flat-bed truck, and climbed the hill going up to Mr King’s house on a ridge overlooking Mt Diablo, east of Berkeley.

Mr King had been born in the U.S., but was taken by his mother, a physician, back to her home in the Philippines, when she split with her American husband. War in the Pacific was brewing, and the Japanese invaded the islands. Living under the new poverty brought on by the occupation, Mr King, as a child, contracted polio, and was forced to walk with metal braces most of his adult life. Only when he sat Zen did he take off the braces and fold his legs into the lotus posture.

Mr King was a person of great strength, and yet he could not lift his legs. The teaching he transmitted was deeply true. In the early morning, we were encouraged to sit and shout Linji’s ‘Katsu!’ at the least inspiration, and somehow he was able to get Zen luminaries, like Nanao Sasaki, the poet, to come talk with us.

One time, sitting in his Spanish lab, I understood a very simple fact: ‘empty’ is a word someone made up to describe that which was beyond words. The empty universe stretches to the farthest corners, existing before creation itself. Yet emptiness needs the world, as a movie screen needs the movie, to show itself.

In the 44 years I have know him, Mr King and I have never discussed his condition. I am so very sad. And I am so very grateful.