In the circles where he’s known, it is said that Soen Roshi never smiles, yet, however far-seeing and important those circles, I know it isn’t so. Once, during Rohatsu,* I went to dokusan (private interview) with Soen. I was in a volcanic mood, aimlessly enraged. I did not do the bows required by the situation. I did not say my name or practice. I just shut the door behind me, turned around, and sat on the floor in front of him — him so small and looking.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning,” he said, “how are you?”
“Shitty,” I said.
“Every day is a good day,” he quoted a scripture that was the last damned thing in the world I needed to hear. Scripture! Bullshit!
“Every day is a good day and some days are shitty days!” I shot back at him.
And it was then that he smiled . . . or rather, radiated. He was delighted. Grinning like a bandit, warm as toast. The bastard! He looked as if he were working hard to suppress a full-throated laugh.
“Exactly! Exactly!” he chortled. “Every day is a good day, some days are shitty days, AND every day is a good day!”
He had me! The sonofabitch had me! Had me cold. In a split second my anger was turned around and the two of us sat there laughing like fools, enjoying my/our idiocy immensely. We laughed and laughed, then chatted about this and that as casually as friends in a coffee shop.
Good time, good day. The recollection is warm, but really it is far too little as a staff. Leave recollection to the necromancers. What of the bright light — every day is a good day?
There are times when the abyss seems to yawn and yearn, to be still and close, waiting on me, patient as a fallen leaf. Perhaps today is the day I will trip and fall, endlessly fall, forever fall, screaming my way into nowhere. Or yet again let loose the beast I’ve not seen fit to love, but caged instead and damned to eternal pacing, back and forth, back and forth. At times I fear that beast (why else the caging?) as I fear the depth . . . the missed step, the uncontrolled plunge, the lock left loose and useless. In my fear, I know that were he loose, he would eat me to my liver, suck pulpy, juiceful marrow for dessert. Mine.
There are days like that and moments also. Hold tight though the palms bleed. Hold tight to formula and writ though the cry for peace be piteous. Hold tight — for God’s sake, hold tight. So speaks my fear on some days — my fear, imaginative as always.
But there are also days and moments not like that at all — times when the ground is level and wide. Fall? Fall where? To fall here is like falling in Nebraska, only less. In Nebraska, I might fall my height’s worth. But here there is no place of safety, none of danger, and no one around to take the plunge. The wind ripples through the corn . . . that is all and it is fine.
Or yet, again, there lies a beast, curled up content before the fire, a cozy beast sated and at ease, a beast full of capacity, fully mine, thoroughly me. Still, I would not like to lie, and so if you say, “The beast is you,” I will reply “Don’t be silly.” Every day is a good day. There are facts and fancies. Most prefer fancies. On a good day, I enjoy facts.
Some days are shitty days. Some days are good days. AND every day is a good day. What then is the key, the effort and attitude that will offer a blood-deep conviction, a marrow-informing understanding: every day is a good day? Praise cannot reach, blame cannot encompass, love will not still, hate not diminish, intellect not fence, emotion not outlast it . . . every day is a good day. How? How to penetrate?
“Surrender” is a gentler word than “death” and yet a willingness to die is really necessary. Die the death of the one protected from the beast. Die the death of the one who fears the plunge. “Die on your cushion,” Soen used to exhort. A frightening prospect in a world full of fancies unplumbed, unexamined. Surrender and look and the one who feared the criticism, the one who longed to be right, the one who clung to life so fiercely that he managed only death . . . this one is no longer boss. Up is merely up; down is down; and the lovers entwine from time unremembered. All around is empty and clear yet neither empty nor clear. A time for laughter . . . the boss is home . . . nothing is missing.
A time to relax. See what’s going on; enter where necessary only; enjoy yourself. Go east or west, north or south. There is no impediment any more than there is direction or need for direction. The direction is left to fools, the escape to those who wish to be caged, and the dancing is everywhere. Moment after moment, every day is a good day. Moment after moment, every day is a shitty day. And, moment after moment, every day is a good day.
*Rohatsu: The eight-day period preceding the date on which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment; a home of intensive retreat (sesshin) for Zen Buddhists.