The path to Cold Mountain is laughable.
A path, but no sign of cart or horse …
And now I’ve lost the shortcut home.
Body asking shadow,
How do you keep up?
—Cold Mountain Poems
A friend of mine was an English teacher in Sri Lanka for a while, running an elementary school class sponsored by the British Consulate. The class stayed together for about three years, and through their long familiarity developed a classroom culture of play, of silliness. The students would get up on their desks and dance, and sometimes he would come in to find the furniture completely shuffled around. When the class finally split up, the kids gave him a card: “To the silliest teacher in the world, from the silliest class in the world.”
He recalls, “It really made me free. I could be just who I was and they could be just who they were. We could not do life wrong.” Such a simple but profound realization is still fresh for him decades afterward, the result of play.
These last weeks, we have been visiting with Pang family koans in the PZI Open Temple. This ninth-century family of four was a pretty playful Chan-Zen tribe. One day while crossing a bridge, Layman Pang fell down along with all the baskets he had been carrying. His daughter Lingzhao immediately fell down next to him, saying, “I’m helping.” “Luckily, no one was looking,” said Pang.
In sesshin, I must confess that I found the most playful leadership role to be Head of Practice. Sitting for long, quiet hours in the zendo with everyone, the HOP may occasionally make comments called “encouraging words” that are intended to help people move across the frontier from stillness to activity. Pretty quickly I found that shouting words like, “Hang in there!” or “Life and death are a serious matter!” were not all that fun.
Instead, I began to say whatever came to mind, like, “If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the baby seals!” Or at noon, with everyone in the zendo quietly waiting for the lunchtime gong to sound, I crawled across the floor, exiting the zendo barking like a dog. One time in the deeply quiet zendo I shouted, “Marsupial!” The zendo became even more quiet and then erupted in outrageous laughter. I went to my room and laughed and cried for several hours. The world was at play; not one thing was out of place.