A monk once asked his teacher, “I am alone and destitute, teacher. Please given me some aid.”

The teacher said, “Venerable student!”

Yes teacher!”

“You have already finished three glasses of the finest Sonoma wine, and you still say you have not moistened your lips!”

~ Gateless Barrier, Case 10

At a recent retreat we were leading, before his talk, my co-teacher David Parks, broke out in an Elvis song:

Oh since my baby left me, I’ve found a new place to dwell.

Down at the end on Lonely Street, at Heartbreak Hotel.

I get so lonely baby, I get so lonely baby, I get so lonely I could die.

He talked about how we always want to live in the house or hotel other than our own, and it made me think of the above koan and a time some years ago when I checked into my own Heartbreak Hotel. It was the first day of sesshin in the spring of 1986, and I was living in Japan, sitting Zen at the SanUn Zendo, in Kamakura. Going into the 5-day retreat, my world was turning upside down. A month previously I had broken up with my girlfriend while on vacation at a sandy beach in Boracay, Philippines. And just that week, I had lost my new marketing consultant job, a risky career move for me that required me to quit a very comfortable foreign-correspondent position in Tokyo with a large international magazine group.

That first day, I took the above koan into dokusan with Yamada Koun, who at the time was on a kind of mission tighten up his students’ koan work. Looking deeply disappointed, he shouted, “That’s terrible!” in response to my response. With that, he sent me back 50 koans in my study, about a year’s work. Now, I feared, I had lost me teacher.

I returned to sit in the zendo, and utterly miserable, and tears started tracking down my cheeks. The tanto (Head of Practice), who was a retired naval admiral but new to the role of HoP, began smacking me with the kyosaku (warning stick), shouting shikari! shikari! (buck up! buck up!) After some hours my shoulders became well-tenderized, and I asked him if he could give me the kyosaku only if I asked, which was the regular procedure. With a harrumph, he left me alone. Now, I knew, I wasn’t even worth beating.

For me, it has been sweet these past couple of weeks to re-visit this koan and story; it brings up tender memories of people, place and time. But I can’t say I have a clear lesson or point to make. This I know: I built my own Heartbreak Hotel, and I lived in it for a while, alone and destitute. And the wine they served there was wonderful.