self-portrait in a spoon Dec 1, 2011
I don't know why I walked into the zendo on that particular night, out of all the other nights I had walked by its huge wooden doors, solid and impenetrable as Tibetan mountains. I didn't even know if they allowed visitors to enter that rectilinear space (formed of wood, paper, and silence) on such a fleeting whim. And I know now that normally they would have asked me to leave. But as I came in off the street, a small elderly woman sat before an incense table next to the doors, striking a match. She looked up in my face. "You are seeking," she said. I must have looked confused. "I can show you what you are looking for, but you may not be ready." She brought a spoon up out of a drawer in the table and held it still for me to examine. "Tell me what you see." It was polished and shiny and more ornate than what one would expect to find in such a plainly furnished place. "It's a spoon," I said. She put the spoon back in the drawer and told me to come back next month. I removed my hat, too late, and awkwardly went back out onto the well-lit street. I didn't know it at the time, but this was a very long conversation by her standards.
two weeks later
I was walking through the park, having finally managed to forget about my experience in the zendo. Pausing on my favorite bridge, I saw my shadow on the pond below, and I saw the image of the trees across the pond, reflected upside down. I had a vision of the old woman holding the spoon, and I smiled. Perhaps it was not about the spoon at all. I continued walking, slower now, taking the riverside path. Everyone knows how soothing the sounds of water are, so deep is it stamped in our blood. The river obscures the sense of reflection, I thought, but it presents a more realistic model, I realized much later. I hear there is a mountain in Japan which people climb. At the top is a pile of rocks and a mirror, propped up at a 45 degree angle. It is a pilgrimage spot. The mirror on the mountain. I considered how to phrase my thoughts when I returned to the old woman.
"I see my reflection." I saw myself reflected upside down in the concave shine of the spoon. There was an encouraging brightness in her eyes, but she put it back in the drawer.
one week later
I had caught part of The Matrix on TV the night before, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it earlier. My only problem would be the delivery. I am terrible at holding back laughter, let alone a smile. Surely she didn't watch TV, I thought as I pushed the great door open. I found her out back, in the small rock garden with a rectangular view of the sky, the sound of heating units whirring on the roofs above. I closed the sliding double-glazed glass door and sat next to her. I didn't even wait for her to produce The Object. "There is no spoon," I joked, but she tapped my forehead with the spoon, which must have been concealed in her sleeve. I sat there for a while, listening to the sounds of the city bouncing in from above, sounding far away and unreal compared to the rain-like cascade of my feet pushing little piles of rocks around in the garden. How did she know I would be coming today? Or did she carry that spoon with her, always ready for me? Or was this SOP for wayward city-dwellers who happened to wander into her silent, strict domain? The old woman's face was inscrutable. After a while she stood, walked to the door and returned with a wooden rake. She handed it to me and said, "Erase yourself," gesturing at my foot-rock/snow-angels. I tried, but I couldn't get my rocks into quite so even heights or perfect curves as the other parts of the garden. I left the rake leaning by the door.
two weeks later
The old woman put a stick into the coals beneath the kettle. I sat nearby in the meditation hall, breathing. I find it hard to express what I had learned from her in so short a time. There is nothing anywhere but ourselves. When you stub your toe on something left in your way by someone else, do you feel first the anger, or the pain? Anything you find in any situation is a mirror of yourself. I spoke without thinking, "I am the spoon." For the first time in the zendo, I heard the clinking of hot tea being stirred.