The Glass Koan: A Post-Retreat Story

I had finished my pizza and was doing the dishes. My husband came into the kitchen to refill his wine cup. I looked up and grumbled “You’d think a Zen guy would walk outside and check the temperature before he tells you how hot it is!”
“What?” said David, taking a sip. He was very curious about anything weather-related. And Zen related.
“I was trying to get some gardening done over at the monastery and JianDu Shifu came out and tried to convince me that it was too hot to work. ‘Take a break. Go get some water!’ There was a breeze! And I was working in a shadow!” JianDu and I had seemed to have arrived tentatively on the same page, communication-wise, a rare occurrence. I’d just finished an entire week following the recommendations, rules and instructions of other people, both living and dead:
Abbot: “A sagging back is the sign of lost concentration!” Me: “Okay.”
JianDu Shih: “You’re late! Get in there!” Me: “Okay.”
Master Zhiyi: “To fight wandering thoughts, breathe from the navel!” Me: “Okay.”
David: “Find your physical balance point.” Me: “I thought I had.”
I said to David, “I was just trying to get a bit of work done—something that didn’t involve me sitting on a cushion. And I was tempted to snap back ‘Look, I’ve survived my entire life without heatstroke or–for that matter–freezing to death. I actually also know when to eat and go to the bathroom!’ However, there was no way I was going to argue with a monk. I decided my best course was to consider the suggestion “an order” so if Jian Du popped up later and questioned me–he pops up everywhere, sometimes in two or 3 places at once–I could honestly say that I had ‘taken a break and drank something.’”

It was the evening of April 20th. The latest retreat had just ended. There had been closing ceremonies. We had listened to Abbot JianYing’s “last lecture” and we all paraded into the dining hall for one of Sunnyvale Zen Center’s notorious “tea parties.” This one went about an hour & a half longer than planned and the Abbot was pressed to speak 3 more times…and then various participants got up to speak. And of course absolutely everything in Chinese had to be put into English and everything in English had to be put into Chinese. By the end of the luncheon, I felt like I could sleep for a week straight. I got up, ready to stagger over, collect my robe, and head home. And there was JianDu Shih. “Susan, come here. Let’s talk.” I went with him, embarrassed and looking at the floor. Uh-oh. I knew what this was about right away. Jian Du pulled out my check and my note. “We can’t take this. We can’t cash a blank check.”
“But, but…you can just write in the amount,” I whined, “And then just tell me what you paid for the glass!”
“No. We can’t take this. We can’t cash a blank check! And you don’t have to pay for the glass.” Sorrowfully, I stuffed the check in my handbag. “You’ve misunderstood,” Jian Du said. “My ratings don’t have anything to do with the broken glass. You were only late once.” (Well, yeah, I had put something in my note with the check about the big black mark I felt sure I’d get from that little incident.)
David laughed, interrupting the story. “What! You gave them a blank check!”
“Well, I was trying to pay for the glass and I didn’t know what it cost. I figured one of two things would happen: Either the monks would buy the glass and fill in the amount, or they would return the check.”
“Those monks could have cleaned you out!” David said.
“Oh yeah, right! I suppose they were thinking ‘Wow! Now we can finally buy that building next door!!’ No way! Even if they took everything there was less than $4,000 in there.” We both started to laugh. “I have to admit, though,” I said, “That a thought crossed my mind. You remember when I told you about that Chinese businesswoman handing the Abbot a check for $100,000? I was thinking that a blank check was way more impressive than all that money! But I only thought that…for a second or less!! Anyway,” I added, “I also wrote on the bottom of the note a P.S.: That if there was a security camera running when I was in there, I’d like to see the tape. You know. Just to see how it happened. I was curious!”
Security camera?
“Yeah. There are cameras all over the place in there.”
“In the monastery?” It was probably the level of wine consumption going on, but David burst out laughing again.
“Well, there are books, money, statues, paintings all over the place in there and people are in and out…”
“What!? A bunch of Zen students and monks are gonna rob the place?”
“Like I said: The general public comes in, and lots of volunteers, too.” (Some people! You try to explain!) I frowned, “Is it really that funny? Maybe I should write this story down…”
“This has got to be the funniest story you’ve ever told me,” David said, with tears of laughter. “You should write it–just like you told it to me!” Now I knew it was the wine talking.

Out-of-state participants were in the conference room. The whole monastery was full of people, chatting and gathering stuff to take home. All I wanted to do was to get out of there. When I got home I realized that I had forgotten to collect my robe from the hook in the ladies’ room. Oh swell! Back again. I had changed out of polyester into cotton clothing, I jammed my straw hat on my head, grabbed a Popsicle out of the freezer and got back in my car. By the time I got back to the monastery it was about 3:30 pm and my tiredness was gone. I was ready to pitch in with the landscaping detail and do a bit of gardening before returning home for dinner. I asked around. What? The two landscaping teams were in the library? Some sort of project was going on: big boxes of video tapes from Buddha Gate were being opened, the tapes disassembled, and the parts packed in bags for recycling. So no gardening at all was going to be done? “JianDu said it was too hot to be outside, so he gave us this project,” a woman said cheerfully, as she pulled yards of tape from a cassette labelled with Chinese characters. “He said to have as much fun with it as we could!” I shrugged, “Well, it doesn’t seem all that hot to me. Guess I’m on my own then.”

Oh, wait a minute…! You’re wondering about the reference to “the glass?”

I had told my husband about this incident earlier in the week. My “work-practice” assignment for the retreat was “cleaning glass in public areas” which I understood to mean “fingerprints on glass surfaces with a bottle of Windex and rags.” By the second day, with 3 of us cleaners cruising around, everything was already pretty shiny. I was poking around looking for something with dust on it. The conference room had glass table tops—I could clean those. But fingerprints seemed to be under the glass. With JianDu Shifu’s permission, and the help of another woman, we carefully slid the glass 4 or 5 inches off the table so I could catch some of the prints. Then I had her slide it off the other side so I could clean under the back edge. She went back to what she was doing. I finished the polishing and began to gently push the glass back into position…and it exploded. Well, maybe not, but the sound it made in the conference room was damn loud. And where there had been, a moment before, a perfect, heavy sheet of glass, there was now a mess of marble sized shards all over the table and floor. And I’m thinking “Oh boy. Now I’ve done it. All I wanted was to do this retreat and not cause anyone any trouble, and here I’ve broken this giant thing.” Of course, there was JianDu Shih, and there was the Abbot, come to take a look. “I’m sorry!” I said mournfully, “I didn’t even tap it against anything! I have no idea what happened!” With a hammering heart I thought “What is this, anyhow?! Magic trick glass? The stuff they use to make car windshields out of?” I felt like I had stepped into a booby trap. I felt the blood draining out of my face. Recognizing signs of incipient hysteria, the Abbot hustled me out of the room, and someone else was called in to do the major sweeping job. Obviously someone who could be trusted not to break any more table tops…valuable statues…etc. Making my escape I ran into a friend in the hall and whispered: “You can’t imagine what just happened!” In a few words I explained the situation. “Go take a peek before it’s cleaned up!”
He said “Glass is funny…there’s always a flaw in it somewhere. Move it wrong, and–”
“Ka-blooey?” I asked.
“It could happen.”
It took me a couple of hours to see the humor in the situation. We were now in what is called English Class, that is, the class the Abbot conducted in English, and he was talking about motivation and persistence in practice, using the old-timey story: “It’s like making fire with a drill. You must keep at it until the flame catches! Or when digging, you don’t seem to be making progress, but go down only one foot more and you may find water! Don’t stop short!” I stuck my hand up. Speaking restrictions were lifted during the class and I heard “my cue.”
“I don’t know how many of you know this, but there was a koan here at this very retreat today: Even if there is a big strong looking slab of glass like the Iron Mountain of the Ego, hit the flaw and…”
“Oh, you’re going to bring that up!” the Abbot said, and then began to channel his Inner Engineer. “That glass was the type doesn’t make dangerous splinters. It has a different crystalline structure. You can hit hard on it’s surface, but bend it just right from the side…etc, etc…”
—————————————————
I finished the dishes and we went into the living room to finish our conversation. My husband commented, “The question I have is how did they even get that glass in there without it exploding? It sounds really unstable.”

Yeah,” I said, “My thoughts exactly. How could you even carry a load of it on a truck, over roads? Makes you think.” “Yeah.”
“Let’s hope the installers don’t leave fingerprints under the new sheet.”
—————————————————
After I tracked down someone who actually knew where the gardening tools were it took me four days to finish the perimiter of the monastery to my satisfaction. (Jobs always take longer than you first think.) I still have the blank check, which I will eventually fill in with some amount, I don’t know what. JianDu Shifu and I will return to being on reasonably good speaking terms. I expect new glass will be installed on the conference room table before anyone important visits again. And, as you can see, I did write up the story.

Epilogue: The day after the Retreat (Saturday) someone called me to work. Someone I hadn’t talked with for 10 years in fact said she “really needed me.” There was a note of desperation in her voice. I offered to “look at my schedule” but she wanted me to come that very day. Well, okay. It was a long day and a lot of work. I earned $150 and filled in the blank check with that amount. Frankly, I suspect the Universe wanted it that way.

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