A treasury official retired and came home to Sichuan where he sought out Wuzu to learn about Zen. Wuzu asked, “When you were young, did you read a poem that went something like:

“She calls to her maid, ‘Little Jade!’

not because she wants something,

but just so her lover will hear her voice.”

The official said, “Yes, I did read it.”

Wuzu said, “That is very near to Zen.”

~ Entangling Vines, Case 98, PZI Miscellaneous Koans

In Zen, when we find semblance in things, it is usually in unexpected places. The discovery, of course, arises from the fact that there is semblance in all places and all things; it is just that we are not always open to that fact. Several weeks ago, I took up the book Entangling Vines, a collection of several hundred koans, and came across the Little Jade story, which makes up part of a longer narrative, in the notes. I have known the koan for decades, but this time, on reading it, I immediately felt an intense sense of joy and, well, a flush of passion: the lady of the house was deeply yearning for her lover, but was not able to address him directly. She keeps calling to him, and calling to him. It is a beautiful story of love and longing.

Fast forward a week, or so, and I am doing my daily workout on an old elliptical trainer while watching the movie The English Patient (1996), for the fourth time. Gorgeously set in Italy and Egypt before and during WW II, it is a story of spies, deserts, maps, and love. About a third of the way through the movie, a scene called “An Unexpected Visitor” opens with a pan of the handsome Count Almásy (Ralf Fiennes) sleeping fully clothed in his arabesque room in the early morning light of Cairo; the Islamic Call to Prayer drones in the background. A woman in a white crepe dress steps into the doorway: it is the beautiful Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who for a few weeks has been trying to get close to Almásy, with no luck. Almásy walks over to her, and she slaps him hard in the face. He goes down on his knees, and grasps her hips, burying his face in her lap, as she continues to pummel him and then suddenly, gently stroke his hair. Naturally, he then rips her bodice, which he later repairs with needle and thread while taking a bath with her. When I saw that scene ~ unexpected appearance, hard slap to the face, a begging gesture, and then more ~ my first thought was, “That is very near to Zen.”

You might find that a strange thought ~ a Hollywood movie showing semblance to Zen. But it is more like this: In the world of human emotion and passion, the body and the heart speak to a place the head cannot know. Zen is about appreciating the longing and the love of life, this very life. It is, indeed, the mistress calling: “Little Jade! Little Jade!” Sometimes she calls in Chengdu, sometimes in Cairo, and at other times, in your town. Not because you want something, but only so your lover can hear your voice.