IT’S MORE OF AN ART, OLD BOY A Meditation on Deshan, Bowls in Hand

A Meditation on Deshan, Bowls in Hand

1 June 2014

A Sermon by

James Ishmael Ford

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


One day Abbot Deshan walked into the meditation hall, his meal bowls in hand. The cook, seeing him, asks, “Teacher, what are you doing? It is nowhere near meal time.” Without a word, Deshan turned around and returned to his room.

Excerpt from “Deshan, Bowls in Hand,” Case 13 of the Gateless Gate Anthology

It was a couple of years ago. The bus arrived and I climbed aboard. It was a bit crowded. As I dropped my coins into the waiting receptacle and turned to find a seat, I noticed a young woman sitting right at the front. She wore her hair short, had a small golden nose ring, and was in a tank top revealing an interesting assortment of tattoos. Our eyes met and she smiled. Her eyes were a deep sea green. And I felt that old and familiar frisson of a moment, briefest moment, of course, of erotic possibility. Then she stood up and said, “Please, sir, take this seat.”

For the last several years I’ve been steadily passing through those age markers for getting discounts. Last July when I turned sixty-five, I had crossed the last of them and was awarded a Medicare card as my official membership in the old person’s club. Apparently that young woman could read Medicare in my eyes, or, perhaps it was in the wrinkles around them.

For those of us not yet chronologically enriched, I am also somewhat chagrined to have to report that aging does not, in fact, make one less silly or self-involved. Well, at least, not automatically. The old German breadboard hanging on my mother-in-law’s kitchen wall that proclaims, “too soon old, too late smart,” at least the second part, is, in general, a rather optimistic assertion.

Still, despite myself, and every effort to thwart the progress of wisdom, tiny bits of insight have creeped into my heart. And today, in the first flush of having announced my retirement from parish ministry at the end of our next year together, I thought I’d inflict some of what I have come to see as what’s what, what I believe to be the wisdom of my old age, or, if I’m lucky the first part of my old age, on you all.

This meditation on wisdom, how it is won, and what it looks like is inspired by a cartoon I saw on Facebook recently. It’s part of a series called “Existential Comics.” In this one, a group of male philosophers are in a bar. One of them admires a young woman, and a conversation among the men entails as he shares his doubts and they, each as best they can, encourage him.

Unfortunately for the continuance of the species, the group consists of logical positivists who seem to have trouble getting into gear. And, the young man can’t seem to get up the courage to go over to her. Enter William James, who I think isn’t completely treated fairly by the writer of the cartoon, but he at least tells the young man to go on up and talk to the young woman, if what he suggests to say isn’t consistent with what I understand to be James’ ethical standards.

Finally, driven by the fact she has stood up and is about to leave, the young philosopher goes over and using the most rational arguments he can muster, declares, “Hi.. um… My education is very expensive. Would you like to, uh, have a beverage with me?” At that moment her date shows up, the existentialist Albert Camus, wearing a black leather jacket and with a cigarette dangling from his lip. As they walk out the door to his waiting motorcycle Camus’ parting line to the young philosopher is, “It’s more of an art than a science, old boy.”

It’s more of an art than a science.

As a youth I adored Camus. And in that period in my life between what I’d have to call a more a literary romance with Vedanta, what I guess might be called a philosophical or “high Hinduism,” and finding that combination of Zen Buddhism and liberal religion as the secret sauce of my life, Camus’ existentialism was for an important moment my way of seeing the world.

Most of all I was very much taken with his sense of the absurd, observing various dualisms like joy and sadness, and what he saw as the paradox of loving life and knowing it has no meaning. In retrospect as a kid who was what today might be called spiritual without being religious, I was wrestling with finding my own meaning in life. I was very much taken with how Camus managed to confront the complexities and seeming meaninglessness of it all, the ultimate absurdity of life without lapsing into nihilism, which somehow my body just rejected.

But, actually, as much as I admire existentialism, or certain versions of it, (Sartre, I admit always left me cold), I have come to reject it as not actually going far enough in its relentless examination of the constructs of our human ways of seeing things. What I noticed was that meaning and meaninglessness are just two more paired constructs. When, as Camus and most existentialists asserted a fundamental meaninglessness, an absurd world, they, we are just, as best I see it, indulging one more human conceit. Only humans have meaninglessness.

I can’t say how important this discovery was to me. It implied there might be something beyond the world created by words. But. But how to escape the web of words that at the same time creates us as human? It was a real question, how can we see beyond meaning and meaninglessness, even if I was able to intuit there might be such a thing. It’s fair to ask if it is even possible to separate ourselves from our ideas of what is.

It was this sense that meaning and meaninglessness were ideas, and that there might be something else, another place to stand that led me into the depths of Zen Buddhism. And, throwing myself into the disciplines of Zen, I did find something. Which leads me to offer for your consideration the first part of a much longer anecdote collected in the twelfth century anthology of Chinese Zen spirituality, the Gateless Gate. This book is one of the most important documents in my life.

In it we get a simple story. “One day Abbot Deshan walked into the meditation hall, his meal bowls in hand. The cook, seeing him, asks, ‘Teacher, what are you doing? It’s nowhere near meal time.’ Deshan turned around and returned to his room.”

Pretty much all of us have been in this boat. We show up before we’re supposed to. Or, we show up late. The variations are infinite. It happens, in ancient China, it happens here, today. And. At that moment a world of possibilities opens, or rather worlds of possibilities open. A moment presents. We are given many doors that we may walk through. The question is which door will we walk through? Most commonly we have some kind of emotional reaction. We blame ourselves or we blame someone else. I’m so stupid. Who set my alarm clock wrong? Embarrassed. Angry. There are many doors.

But, we can go somewhere else, to a door we don’t usually open, but can. This little anecdote is one of Zen’s great koan. A koan, as most of us here have heard is like a legal document, a presentation of facts. It is an alternative door that we might walk through. A koan is an invitation into the fundamental places of our human experience, like that place I’d longed to find beyond meaning and meaninglessness.

As an aside, what I especially love is how the koan system is not delivered to us by a prophet, bringing us a gift from the gods. Rather the koan system is something invented by early medieval Zen masters patterned on a Taoist drinking game. You just know anything based in a drinking game repurposed as a spiritual practice has to be something good. And that’s what I’ve found.

According to the modern commentator, the great Rinzai master Zenkei Shibyama, this particular case as we call individual koan belongs to the nanto subset. Nanto translates roughly, as “you’ve got to kidding!” These are thought to be the thorniest, the most difficult to penetrate of them all. Now, in part this comes from what follows old Deshan’s encounter with his cook, which we won’t go into here. But, also, very much, all the difficulty, all the possibility of human life is contained in that moment where Deshan walks into the hall with his dinner bowl, is asked why he’s there out of time, turns and goes to his room.

Here is our invitation to step away from the traps of our words, from the illusions of our desires, to leap beyond meaning and meaninglessness, and instead walk into something new and worthy. Now Deshan, the old abbot, was about eighty when this anecdote takes place. He has seen it all. He had been one of those fierce masters, who started out as a scholar and then turned to the practice of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention with a ferocity that is hard to describe in a way that fully conveys his commitment to the ways of attending. Now in his old age we see how it distills.

In fact it reveals the secret ingredient of my secret sauce. You certainly don’t have to be a Zen person to get it. We are talking the great human conundrum of meaning and meaninglessness and there is in fact a human way to deal with it, available in all religions or without any. As Mary Oliver, Unitarian Universalist fellow traveler, and perennial favorite of UU ministers seeking an apt text, once again sings to us. The secret ingredient of the secret sauce for humans living into our possibility is simple: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention, how to stroll through the fields,/which is what I have been doing all day.”

Pay attention.

I don’t know why this works, what is the mechanism of our brain that allows us to watch ourselves. But it is so magical that we have sung stories about it, and woven tales to explain it throughout all of human history. I suspect somehow in the mesh of neural activity our self-awareness simply emerges. This emergent self-aware mind has a quasi-independence, witnessed practically by both psychosomatic illness and the placebo effect. Although I’m past confident if one kills the body, that mind goes away, like the light in an electric bulb disappears when the bulb burns out.

The problem for us as human beings happens, in my experience, by my observation, when we make this self-awareness so special that it isn’t really part of us in our fleshy existence. The worst of it has us decide, “I am not my body.” Like the philosopher in the bar, there’s some serious overthinking going on. And, a missing of something that’s vastly more important than a date. We need to not slip away into the vagaries of our human longing, and keep our focus on the matter at hand.

Which brings us back to that tool derived from an old Taoist drinking game. Let’s not make it special. Let’s make this ability to see, to be “present to” ordinary. Ordinary is the other big part of the secret sauce.

Let’s watch as an old man, and it should be an old person. Man or woman, that doesn’t matter, but old, does. Old as in tired. Old as in seen it all. Old as in doesn’t need to prove anything. But, there’s one more thing. We also need a dash of foolish. Sort of like an old man climbing on a bus and thinking an attractive young woman looks at him and sees something other than an old man who might need her seat. Not too much of this, but a little. Otherwise we’re just bumps on a log. There is life in this. There is joy. And sorrow. Most of all, there is possibility.

As our cartoon Camus told us, really, it’s not science. It’s art. Or, it’s like mixing a lovely drink.

All so ordinary. Mix that aged heart with that dash of bitters, that dash of foolishness, and the drinking game is ready.

Bring it all, our aged hearts and our dash of hope into the moment.

And pay attention.


Meaning and meaninglessness, all the philosophies of the world fall into the background.

The stars and planets all fall into place.

Joy and sorrow are revealed.

And you know what to do.

You’re told it isn’t time to eat. Turn and go to your room.

You’re offered the seat on the bus. Take it.

Like a box with its lid.

The wisdom of an aged heart.


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