A Zen Buddhist monk in my tradition gets exactly one week off a year. This time is specifically designated for a “family visit.” I always take my week at Thanksgiving, and every year I prove right that old Zen adage: Think you’re getting closer to enlightenment? Try spending a week with your parents.
This year I flew in on a Friday, going straight from balmy Southern California weather to a heart-stopping Midwest ice storm. My father picked me up at the airport. I saw him first, standing beside the bank of arrival monitors, looking distinguished but weathered in the same clothes he’d worn last year: a flannel button-down from Mills Fleet Farm (Dad’s the kind of guy who buys his boxer shorts, power tools, and pretzels all at the same store) and washed-out jeans, in the collapsed seat of which I could see the deflated future of my own behind.
“Mr. Magoo!” he cried. I received this moniker as an infant. Something about the size and shape of my head.
Pops is pushing seventy. His eyes are magnified by ever-thickening lenses, and his upper body is a pale reflection of his bodybuilding years, but he’s still six foot and solid, with the laconic, winning presence of a small-business owner who’s punched adversity in the gut a few times and never cheated on his wife or his taxes. We hugged, and I smelled the rifle-barrel business all over him: metallic, rusty, and wet. Instantly I was transported back to my scrawny, scowling youth. The combination of my father’s machine-shop musk and coffee breath retarded any and all spiritual progress I had made over the past year, and I was, like the hero of some Hollywood time-traveling comedy, fourteen years old again.
We went home. I hugged Mom, but my eyes were on the fridge, a frost-fogged treasure chest of sweet, rich, fatty foods, the kind I never get at the monastery. Within minutes these treats had found their way into my gut in alarming quantities. Pleasantly nauseated, I collapsed on the leather La-Z-Boy in front of a flat-screen TV the width of an RV windshield. Naturally it was tuned to Fox News. My parents are the Fox News constituency. They voted for George W. Bush in 2000, had four years to think about it, and then voted for him again. Guns hang on every wall in their home: ancient guns, modern guns, guns for dropping a rhinoceros or a fleeing Navajo woman at a hundred yards. I longed to pull one down and silence forever this TV, which was as loud as a helipad, its sound waves rippling my cheeks.
My father entered the room and hovered over me, a silent reminder that I was sitting in his chair. I moved to the couch. Dad navigated the channels from Fox News to a dramatic medical reenactment of a seventeen-inch tapeworm making its exit from a woman’s tastefully blurred behind, and I wondered why in the hell I had come home.
Years ago my father was roughing out a rifle stock on a table saw when he buzzed off the top half of his right index finger. (Yes, his trigger finger.) In its place now is a curiously malformed combination of flesh and scar tissue that bears a striking resemblance to a typically less visible part of the male anatomy. “My pecker,” he calls it, waving the stubby appendage up and down in a suggestive manner.
The smartest anti-intellectual I know, my father has many favorite sayings. We call them “Dad-isms.” One is “We Germans think with our hands.” If Germans think with their hands, I ask my father, what does his phallus-like finger imply about his thought process? We laugh about this.
I once tried to tell him about takuhatsu — monastic begging rounds. Once a week a monk from the monastery drives down to the produce market in Los Angeles and partakes in a Buddhist mendicancy ritual with a husky-voiced Italian vendor from Brooklyn, who then loads our pickup with produce. My father could not hide his horror.
“Phew,” he said, studying me to see if I was for real. “I can’t imagine anything worse than having to beg for my food.” He gave it some thought. “Maybe having to beg for a place to crap, but that’s about it.”
Dad does not like to rely on others. He’s proficient in plumbing, electricity, machining, carpentry, tile work, flint-knapping arrowheads, and just about anything else that requires intelligent hands. Not only would this ultraindividualist, self-made man never beg for lunch, but he keeps a large food stash in his concrete-walled bomb shelter in case he needs to survive in a postapocalyptic Wisconsin.
“Begging is a lesson in humility, Dad,” I tried to explain.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll bet it is.”
More than God, America, or the Green Bay Packers, my father loves guns. He is known in his trade as the “Gun Guru.” “I like to make things go bang,” he says, but it’s more than that. The firearm is a key metaphysical prop in his eminently conservative belief system. To him a life worth defending, perhaps even shooting someone dead for, is a life that means something, that is singular, precious, and real. But for the practicing Buddhist a life finds true meaning only in union with others. My 104-year-old Japanese Zen master explains it thus, in broken English: “Being Buddhist monk means you look at others, you see yourself.” Hard to see yourself when you’re looking at others through the cross hairs, in my opinion.
My dad has argued before a special subcommittee of the U.S. Congress that firearms are necessary to protect one’s family. Yet, in my experience, it’s often each other that family members need protection from. Whenever I come home, politics and religion are the arenas in which my father and I slug out all of our unresolved father-son issues, most of which can be traced back to a few key episodes when my old man blew his fuse and displayed the violence I’ve come to see, fairly or not, as inherent in his gun-loving mind-set.
I have five distinct memories of receiving severe physical punishment from my father. The last time was when I was twelve and I flung my younger sister Helen into a snowbank. I was practiced in the art of inflicting just enough punishment on my siblings to fly under my parents’ radar, but not this time. I was busy jamming sidewalk slush into her nostrils, ears, and eye sockets when I felt myself lifted off the ground as if by magic, and I was suddenly on my back, gagging on fistfuls of snow myself. It was my father, teaching me a lesson, asking, “How do you like it?”
We were on the sledding hill in front of our old farmhouse, which topped a butte overlooking white-blanketed cornfields and snow-wigged treetops. This was our final showdown — the last time I was going to let him touch me. A congenital wimp, I wasn’t really capable of fighting back. It was more an explosion of maniacal energy, screaming, spitting, and flailing, like a kitten when you step on its tail. But I got my point across. He rolled off me, his own temper cooled, as though I’d sucked the hot anger right out of him. I sprang to my feet and shot off into the wind-bitten woods, losing myself in its spiny thickets.
In many ways I am still stumbling through the moonlit thickets of our relationship today: feeling furious with my father, loving him, resembling him, and being as baffled by him as he is by me. I thought I had found my own path and left him far behind, but with each family visit I come boomeranging back, determined to resolve the unresolved issues he has passed along to me from his own glacial relationship with his “hard-assed old man.”
Not that I’m holding a grudge or anything.
On Thanksgiving, six days after my arrival home, relations were still cordial between the Gun Guru and Mr. Magoo — no meltdowns over the Second Amendment or “flaky” Eastern religions. Around mealtime several hefty SUVs pulled into the driveway, and eleven nieces and nephews flooded my childhood home. My father tossed off a vintage Dad-ism — “There’s more kids around here than people!” — and all twenty-three members of our family sat down at a pair of dinner tables to increase our collective body weight by a hundred pounds or more.
My mother, a pint-size but commanding matriarch with olive skin and silver-tinseled ebony hair, said grace with tears in her deep Hungarian eyes. What could possibly go wrong tonight? her expression said.
Then I brought out the sake — Japanese rice wine, the alcoholic drink of choice for naughty Zen monks when they jump the monastery wall. This seemingly innocuous gesture was actually a ploy in my ongoing mission to expose my parents to new things and so juxtapose my world-traveler sophistication with their hunkered-at-home philistinism. Warm wine? I imagined my father saying. What in tarnation? Then he would take a sip and marvel: Wine the temperature of soup! Who’da thunk?
Made from rice, no less, Mama would cry, snapping her suspenders.
Holiday dinners in my family don’t involve inebriation. We’re too busy carefully loving each other Wisconsin-style, with lots of head nods and “you betchas,” and consuming as much sugar and fat as possible. (Everyone is always either eating, exercising, or talking about one or the other in our house.) And so I, the Buddhist monk, introduced a new tradition this year: drinking!
Ever allergic to direct conflict, like most Midwesterners, my dad communicates criticism with snippy, offhand comments that slowly leak into your bloodstream like a time-release poison. At lunch he’d dropped one that still had me enraged: “Boy, free groceries and a free roof over your head. Sounds to me like you’re on Zen welfare!” At dinner I guzzled my unappreciated sake, allowing my voice to rise in volume. In-laws carefully looked away. My favorite little kewpie-doll niece, sensing a priceless opportunity to trick an adult into making an ass of himself, suggested I dust off the old “flatulent tarantula” routine from my long-retired stand-up-comedy act, and I did, spraying imaginary web and flatulence — and spilling my drink — all over Dad’s prized pool table.
“Sake,” my Zen master once noted: “Sometimes medicine. Sometimes poison.”
My father swung his granddaughter Ella into his lap. Ella is one of those unbearably cute toddlers who are not happy giving their love to one adult unless they’re noticeably denying it to another. My father pointed to me. “See that? That’s your uncle Jack. He’s a monk. Know what he does all day?”
“What he does?” Ella asked, looking down her little button nose at me.
“He stares at his navel!”
They laughed and pointed at me.
I sobered up instantly. Rage will do that to you. Whether he’d meant to or not, my dad had finally tipped his hand. How many times had I calmly and patiently — and perhaps condescendingly — explained to him the intense challenges and rewards of my life on the misty mountaintop? Many were the verbal portraits I’d painted of the American Zen monastic experience, Rockwellian in detail with surreal, Daliesque flourishes. I’d wanted him to understand in his gut what it means to watch yourself grow old in robes. He had nodded and smiled, but he had not understood.
Anger filled me like molten lead: So he thinks I’m just some saffron-swathed cipher, as sexless as a Ken doll, grinning his life away on a zafu cushion at a year-round, Japanese-themed summer camp. (It didn’t help that the monastery is a former Boy Scout retreat.) As the Gun Guru roared and tickled Ella with that ghastly penile finger, I saw with besotted clarity that he’d knocked something loose in me those times he’d hit me, and Mom hadn’t loved it all back together again like she was supposed to, and so the pain and brokenness inside me had grown to mythic proportions until I could fix it only by dedicating my life to religion. Now he refused even to respect the lifestyle that he’d driven me to with all those blows to my backside — and once to the side of my face.
None of my five brothers and sisters had ever caught it from him the way I had. Why? Because I reminded him of himself. “Here’s the last thing you want to hear, but it’s true: You and I are a lot alike!” he used to proclaim. And so he’d tried to beat out of me all the parts of himself that he despised: the weakness, the confusion, the fear. But he’d only driven them in deeper. And now, after seven years of intense Zen practice, that boyhood self was surfacing, black souled and mutilated from decades of subconscious lockdown.
I knew then, with the absolute certainty of the truly drunk, that I would never become my own man until I stood up to my father and defended the nobility of bald, berobed Buddhists everywhere, preferably with four-letter words. I stumbled to my feet. Then I had to sit down again. I got back up, determined to make a statement this time, but I was facing the wrong way.
Miraculously, before I could do permanent damage to my liver or familial relations, I was struck by a migraine so crippling I worried I was having a brain hemorrhage. I belched my good nights and pointed myself upstairs.
As I tried to decide which of the two blurry staircases was real, Dad’s voice boomed behind me: “There he goes. He’s off like last week’s underwear.”
A night’s sleep healed no wounds. I woke up feeling foul and ready to spill blood.
My parents were already eating lunch. “Good morning, sunshine,” my dad called out from behind his copy of Shotgun News.
I fell to the table and gripped my veiny skull, inside of which a small elf with a big drumstick was beating out a very fast rhythm. I wanted to go back to bed, but then I remembered that I was flying out that afternoon. Time to strap on the plastic smile and make nice. I wasn’t going to see my parents again for a whole year.
Mom closed her newspaper with a groan and said two words that flew at me like a pair of killer bees coming in ass-first: “Climate change.”
This is how it works during family visits. Everyone can fake it for a while, but eventually your true self wrangles to the fore, and what you’re really thinking comes out. You just can’t hide around your loved ones. That’s what makes them so impossible to get along with.
My parents suspect that global warming exists solely within the fervid imaginations of liberals (unlike such proven realities as guardian angels and Noah’s ark). So it didn’t surprise her at all that environmental scientists in England had just been caught manipulating data on global warming. [Later investigations found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct. — Ed.]
“They’re calling it ‘ClimateGate’ on Fox,” she told me, and she launched into an impersonation of Al Gore, painting him as a bloated cyborg who waxed robotically about environmental doomsday. “Welcome to the Al-pocalypse!” she said, doing her best stiff-armed Gorebot.
This was more than I could bear. Snarky political satire was the forte of my people — the creative liberal vanguard — not string-cheese-eating Wisconsin housewives!
“Damn liberals,” my dad added, never looking up from his reading. “Useless as tits on a nun.”
You have only three hours before you’re on a 747 flying back to your true family, I told myself, with their beautiful black robes and glistening bald heads. Don’t do it.
But I did.
“So,” I began, grinding my teeth, “you don’t honestly think global warming is a hoax, do you?”
It got ugly quick.
When arguing with my parents, what I lack in facts I make up for with opinions delivered at increasing volume. Like a boxer getting the shit kicked out of him, I lumbered around the rhetorical ring with my mother, that nimble welterweight, taking bigger, sloppier, dizzier swings while she landed blow after stinging blow. For every “fact” I produced about melting ice caps and homeless polar bears (things I know nothing about), she asked for references, opening her laptop and patiently waiting to Google them. She did this jovially, without a trace of attitude and with the frightening certainty of a woman fortified by a year of daily lectures at Glenn Beck’s blackboard.
My father put his magazine down and folded his hands over it, but he did not participate. And so my mother became the target of all my pent-up rage at him. But wasn’t she my adversary in her own right? After all, what kind of matriarch stands around and watches her husband beat her son? Pickled overnight in sake, my thought processes were cloudy and sour. I concluded that, because she had long ago subjugated her mothering nature to my father’s will, she was now projecting this onto the environment with her belief that Mother Nature was subservient to — and protected by — God the Father. Sure, carbon-dioxide emissions were a problem, she said, but not a lethal one. Nature would always bounce back because “God made it that way.”
A deep discontent with monotheism had been brewing in me since my college days, when I’d hated authority of any kind. God was the Great Idea that had failed Western civilization, just as my parents had failed me. And for the same reasons! The angry God in the sky was the classic template for the abusive parent. It was all coming together with brutal clarity. Just as my father, through his violence, had sent me on a quest to understand why we suffer, so, too, Westerners were being driven to Eastern forms of spiritual expression by an intolerable deity whose all-too-human shortcomings — anger, jealousy, spite — were matched only by the implausibility of his existence. How closely my personal problems mirrored our culture’s deepest spiritual malaise! (As it is writ in the Gospel of Dad: “Just ’cause your own ass aches doesn’t mean the whole world’s got hemorrhoids!”) This was shaping up to be one of those monumentally bad mornings, when the ground under a relationship finally shifts, opens along a fault line, and swallows everything on the surface.
“Let me get this right,” I began. “You think the earth has some kind of eternally regenerative essence? That it’ll just magically go on forever?”
“As long as we need it to, yes,” my mother replied. She was in her kitchen, pretending to be busy elbow-greasing away invisible counter stains.
“And you think that you are going to go on forever?”
“I believe in an eternal soul, yes.”
“Because you believe in God, the super-duper being in the sky?”
“If I didn’t, life would be unbearable.”
A trapdoor opened within me, and the last of my patience disappeared through it: “I’ve got news for you. For the most part, life is unbearable! It’s called the ‘First Noble Truth’ in Buddhism: ‘Life is suffering.’ And your religion only takes a hard world and makes it worse!”
For decades my parents’ kitchen table has hosted a Virgin Mary plant holder in which we kids used to hide the numerous vitamins our mother gave us. As I spoke, I gestured wildly and upended the botanical Virgin and her trailing vines, which I could hardly be bothered to then right.
“This illusion of a supreme being,” I continued, “which leads to your illusion of an eternal human soul, which leads to your illusion of an indestructible planet, is destroying this very vulnerable planet and pretty much everything decent on it!”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“That’s exactly the problem. You don’t see how things are connected.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, wiping soil from my place mat.
“Well, let me spell it out for you, then,” I cried. “If we’re all dependent on a miracle from God to save us and this planet, then we’re conveniently excused from being responsible for each other, and life becomes every man for himself! Frankly, to me, that’s the very definition of hell on earth.”
Here I turned my puny wrath on my father, who was studying his scuffed work boots, unable to meet my bloodshot gaze: “You people believe that this earth was just given to you by God, and that it’s yours to do whatever you want with. It’s like you’re on welfare, and God is the nanny state, and you just take and take and take!”
It was an inspired bit of cruelty, and I took what I can only describe as sexual pleasure in saying it. I closed my eyes and waited for my dear mother’s tears. I’d exploded dynamite at the very foundation of her religion, but it had to be done.
She sighed deeply and said with a shrug, “Yeah, that is basically what I believe. God as a Divine Parent, watching over us, taking care of us and this planet.”
Was there no stopping this woman?
I then delivered an anti-Catholic diatribe about delusion and projection and witch hunts and book burnings and gays and women’s rights and abortion and pedophile priests. It was as though I’d stuck my finger down my throat, and up came every complaint I’d ever had against the religious tradition in which they’d raised me.
“Take a good look at the world around you,” I concluded. “Religious wars are going to destroy this planet. They are going to destroy this planet.”
My father looked up, and our eyes skidded into each other. Then he spoke: “Yes, they are — starting with our family.”
My ears rang. I couldn’t pull air into my lungs fast enough. My throat was pinprick thick, like those of the hungry ghosts of Buddhist lore. I was asphyxiating myself with rage.
Finally my mind caught up with my mouth — always an awkward moment for those of us with tempers. My apoplexy ceased. My fury lost its redness. And, for the first time that trip, I really took them in: Dad’s once-chiseled face, collapsing with age. Mom’s hair, pinned up in a bun, one step closer to hoary and desolate white. How old they’d become. How many more visits would I even be blessed with? How many more chances to make things right?
In an attempt to prove their religion violent and insane, I’d manifested those same qualities myself. Here I was, the Zen zealot, screaming at my parents to think of the planet as their close relation while shattering the precious harmony of our own family in the process. All the fight went out of me. I slid into my seat at the table. Snow was falling outside, light flakes that filled the air.
These were not the same people who had raised me. Those people existed only in my head, caged and rotting behind my tight, unhappy grin for decades while my actual parents got older, gentler, wiser; while their bodies fell apart and their souls grew deep. I felt the grace of my mother’s God just then, a surge of the sacred that bore a distinctly Christian imprint. Forgive them, some part of me cried.
But it ain’t easy, replied another. Why had my father never apologized for beating me? A fair question. And here was another: Why hadn’t I apologized to my five siblings for all the noogies, nipple twists, and occasional drubbings with a pair of foam-padded nunchucks that I’d subjected them to? The sins for which you cannot forgive yourself are the sins for which you will never be able to apologize. Such is the Catch-22 of extreme guilt: I can’t come to terms with the violence I’ve committed until I can admit that I did it, but I can’t admit that I did it until I can come to terms with the violence I’ve committed.
Suddenly I felt a twinge of kinship with my father. We were both at war with ourselves, not each other.
As I watched the falling snow become one with the snow that had already fallen, I thought of familial love as the planet’s most precious, limited resource, a delicate system of checks and balances, of giving and receiving that must be protected against the toxic human ego the way the oceans and sky must be protected from pollution. I saw how my father’s unhappiness had spilled into me, just as he’d been the vessel for the unhappiness that had spilled from his own “son-of-a-bitch old man,” who had been the vessel for his father’s tears . . . and on and on, all the way back to the first single-celled organism, which split in two, turned around, saw itself in another, and started the first family argument.
I was about to rend the long, clean linen of silence with a heartfelt apology when my father, a master at misreading the moment, said, “Well, we’d better get you to the airport, Magoo.” Then he turned to his wife of forty-five years, raised his finger-phallus, and declared: “We’re off like a turd of hurdles. I mean, a herd of turtles.”
The conversation on the way to the airport was freighted with my desire to take back every single infantile accusation or comment I’d made. I felt a lump in my throat as my best intentions dissolved in wisps of forced small talk.
“They have a Hummer dealership off I-94 now?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s the biggest one in the Midwest.”
Futzing with the air-conditioning vent, I thought, C’mon. I’m more enlightened than this! But of course I’m not. And that’s what my parents are there to remind me of for one week every year.
As I stepped through the airport metal detector, I stole a look back at my father. In a year he would be standing in roughly the same spot to pick me up, wearing the same flannel and denim, and posing the same challenges to my inflated opinion of my spiritual progress. I felt like a frightened twelve-year-old heading off to church camp all over again. I was sick and tired of the home behind me, but also terrified to fly, terrified to land, terrified to invest another year of my life in that wintry, patriarchal monastery, where the principal pleasures were lukewarm showers, the occasional cheese condiment, and masturbation — not necessarily in that order.
Lacking any other option, I tried to do my Zen practice right there while getting X-rayed — to be in my body, to inhabit the actual real-time situation instead of my head full of ideas. But it was no use. The week had been too rough. My heart was a raw wound.
Then it occurred to me: maybe I was in the actual real-time situation after all, and pain was just a part of it. I was in the moment, and the moment sucked. Just because you hurt doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It may simply mean that you’re alive. I’d been numb to my parents for decades, denying my rage and resentment. Now I was finally feeling something. I was feeling like shit, actually. But it was a start.
I gathered my shoes and wallet on the other side of the metal detector and took a last glance at my father, who was still there, still waving. That mangled finger had always been a symbol of his shortcomings and deformities to me, but now I saw it was also a testament to all that he’d sacrificed for our family. He’d lost that trigger finger building the business that had fed and clothed me. I imagined he was not only waving me goodbye but waving me forward with that symbol of his own woundedness.