Very Near to Zen
Wuzu said, “When you were very young, did you read a story which went something like,
“She calls to her maid,
not because she wants something
but just so her children will hear her voice.”
The official said, “Yes, my father read it to me.”
Wuzu said, “That is very near to Zen.”
~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans; Entangling Vines, Case 98 (amended)
Some years ago, at the end of each evening at sesshin, the timekeeper would strike the large temple bell, beat the wooden-board han and, and the liaison would call out:
I beg to urge you everyone:
life and death is a grave matter;
all things pass quickly away.
Each of you must be completely alert;
never neglectful, never indulgent.
The honorable custom of reciting the above passage, however, has evolved for us in recent years. At the end of the night, teachers and heads-of-practice now offer a few bedtime words of their own, or perhaps a poem.
Before the pandemic, we would come together in a remote location and form a cloister away from our daily lives. With our Covid-era virtual retreats, however, the borders of the cloister have been re-drawn and now wrap around and include our everyday lives. In our screen community, we see cats and couches, pajamas and coffee cups. For some reason, in this past retreat, one landscape feature that caught my eye was the number of children running through the community: toddlers being held, kids getting ready for school, and grandkids peeking into office doors to see what grandma was up to. It was a wonderful reminder of when my own children were small.
So, on the very last night of retreat, to celebrate the nighttime stories I would read my girls two decades ago, I chose as the closing words Margaret Wise Brown’s “Good Night Moon.” For me, it has always been a book that was “very near to Zen”:
In the great green room
there was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of–
The cow jumping over the moon
and there were three little bears, sitting on chairs
and two little kittens and a pair of mittens
and a little toy house and a young mouse
and a comb and a brush and bowl full of mush
and a quiet old lady who was whispering “hush”
goodnight cow jumping over the moon
goodnight light and the red balloon
goodnight bears goodnight chairs
goodnight kittens goodnight mittens
goodnight clocks and goodnight socks
goodnight little house and goodnight mouse
goodnight comb and goodnight brush
goodnight nobody, goodnight mush
and goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”
goodnight stars, goodnight air
goodnight noises everywhere.
Though I loved the book, I knew nothing of its origin story. After sesshin, I opened the latest New Yorker, and was pleasantly surprised to find an article on Brown, celebrating the 75th anniversary of “Goodnight Moon.” A leading example of a new kind of child’s book in the 1940s, called the Here and Now movement, “Good Night Moon” recognized that small children need stories of the familiar before they can grasp ones of fantasy. “It is only the blind eye of the adult that finds the familiar uninteresting,” wrote Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Brown’s mentor. But not all were fans: Anne Carroll Moore, who ran the children’s division at the New York Public Library, banned the book from her influential library system for 25 years because she found it “overly sentimental.” The standoff was called “The Fairy-Tale War.” Sentimental, for me, can be very near to Zen.
Good night Zhao’s dog,
Good night snow in a silver bowl,
Good night distant temple bell,
Good night stone drenched in rain,
Good night stars, good night air,
Good night noises everywhere.