Ouga Chaka Zen
One day Gensha said, “In the deep mountains and inaccessible peaks where for one thousand years, for ten thousand years, no man has ever trod, can we find Buddhism there or not?
A few hours north of New York City, tucked away into the valleys and foothills that run along Interstate 87, there’s an echo of an ancient tradition that can be heard coming down from the mountains. It’s said that in a few hundred years, the Catskills will resemble the summits and ranges of 8th-century China, when a Buddhist monastery capped almost every peak, populated by eccentric masters and crazy old hermits. Some of the classic Zen stories to come out of this period relate the varied dynamic between teacher and student.
These tales are called mondoes.
A monk said to Seppo, “The seeing into this nature of a Svravaka is like gazing at the moon at night; a boddhisattvas seeing into his nature is like the sun in daytime. What is seeing your nature like for you?” Seppo smacked him three times.
Unlike the more familiar koans, such as “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” or “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a noise?” mondoes reveal a lighter side to Buddhism, a vibrancy that is in stark contrast to the traditional greys and blacks of monastic life. They’re filled with tales of teachers disparaging students, hermits smacking monks, boys mocking elders, and little old ladies slapping them all, an entire genre of Chinese literature dealing with pratfalls, spittakes, and witty one-liners. They’re nonsensical, individually tailored, and usually end in an insult or blow to the head, or just an obtuse reply. They sound more like the physical comedians of the early 20th-century than the great Zen masters of the T’ang Dynasty.
Seeing a monk, Hofunku struck the outside post of the temple; he then struck the head of the monk, who cried out with pain. Hofunku said, “Why doesn’t the post feel pain?” The monk gave no answer.
Gensha wasn’t talking about the Borscht Belt when he asked, “Can we find Buddhism up in the mountains?” but it seemed like a good place to look for an answer.
The first guy I meet at the Buddhist monastery is a Phil-Donahue lookalike named Smitty. He greets me at the base of the stairs outside the reception office with an extended hand and a talk-show-host enthusiasm. He’s the kind of friendly that puts a displaced New Yorker just minutes off a Greyhound a little on edge.
“Smitty,” he says, “nice to meetcha,” and shakes my hand vigorously. As we walk upstairs, he’s tells me all about the history of the 100-year-old monastery, talking a mile a minute about the Benedictine monks who inhabited the area for over half a century, and how the building we’re in was refitted to suit a Zen community in the 70s. He comes up for air as we enter the dorm-style sleeping quarters. Scanning it quickly, I count four bunks, eight beds total, seven of which are already occupied. I’ve got 10 minutes to unpack and get settled before Friday evening meditation begins.
“Hope you don’t mind the snoring,” Smitty says, thumbing at his unfurled sleeping bag directly below my bed. His shoulders give a resigned ‘oh well’ up and down. I’ll soon learn the value of holding back when it comes to dealing with Smitty’s non-stop chatter. He’s got a self-proclaimed “gift for gab.” That’s what working as a cook in the Navy will do to you. “Hadta keep up the banter in the mess hall, you know,” he’ll tell me, “never a dull moment down there.” Smitty ends all his sentences with a shrug.
I make eye contact with some of the other dormmates, middle-aged and twentysomething guys, all of us typical American Buddhists up in the country for a weekend of contemplative peace and quiet. We swap names with a nod. Then a disembodied head pops up from underneath one of the bunks.
“Hello, I am Jesus,” says the head before it dives back down again. I turn to Smitty, who is leaning against the post at the foot of our bunk.
“He lost his wedding band,” Smitty explains. “Have you told the monk downstairs?” he asks Jesus.
“Huh?” Jesus’s forehead and eyes peek up over the bed frame.
“The monk at the desk, did you let him know?”
Jesus nods, and then he’s gone again beneath another bed.
“Poor kid, he just flew in from Venezuela,” Smitty tells me, “then had a rough drive over the George Washington Bridge, up Route 17. City traffic,” he says derisively. “Now this. He’s been looking for that ring for the last hour.”
Jesus crawls out into the open and stands up. He’s a young guy, short and stocky, with big, sad eyes. He looks around, a little dismayed. “My wife’s gonna kill me,” he says. Smitty looks at me and shrugs. He walks over to Jesus and places a hand on his shoulder. “C’mon. Maybe you left it in the car.” They head off together, with Smitty offering to help tell the monk all about it when they get downstairs.
One day Joshu fell down in the snow and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Joshu picked himself up and ran away.
The majority of the weekend is spent in the meditation hall, a huge space that can accommodate 250 people. It’s all very formal, from the bowing to the chanting to the actual meditation. There are correct postures for sitting on the mats and even a special way to hold the sutra books. A strict vow of silence is observed in the hall. No one is allowed to speak except for the head monk. This comes a little harder for some than others, and for Smitty it’s a constant struggle. He has to be told “Shhh!” several times early on, after which he communicates with a series of shrugs and gesticulations that I’m unable to fathom.
We wake up at 4:30 am to meditate for two hours before morning service. After sitting for a half hour, everyone gets up off their mats to engage in walking meditation. This isn’t a time to stretch or limber up, it’s just a different type of meditation — a slow, deliberate walking in unison that snakes throughout the hall. No matter how incrementally slow the steps, though, it’s a welcome reprieve, especially after sitting upright and still, back stiff, legs twisted into a knot, a little sore, or else a lot numb.
When Smitty stands up, he immediately falls down. As he tumbles, he tackles Mike in an effort to stay standing, and they both hit the floor in front of me with a thud. I should have toppled next, and knocked over Jesus in the process, then Scott and so on and so on, like dominoes falling in a chain reaction; monks and lay people falling bald head over socked foot in a kind of living embodiment of cause-and-effect, Buddhist-style. But when Smitty takes out Mike, I’m sitting on my cushion, still massaging my leg, which has fallen asleep.
I’ve learned my lesson over the years. Whenever I sit for long stretches of time, whether on a cushion or in a cramped seat, one of my legs invariably falls asleep. Stand up too soon, and I have to reach spastically for support or else fall flat on my face. One time, I was hauled up onstage during the audience participation segment of a Shakespearean comedy routine. I had just stepped onto the stage when my leg gave out. That’s when I heard with dread what the nature of my role would be: As Ophelia’s Ego I was supposed to run back and forth repeatedly between two columns as her Id and Superego, played by two other audience members, reenacted her suicide scene from Hamlet.
“My leg’s asleep,” I whispered to the actor who had chosen me, teetering in a kind of half-hearted Karate Kid pose. He smiled reassuringly and announced in a mock-Elizabethan accent, “Ladies and gentlemen…the Ego’s leg has…fallen asleep!!!” The explosion of laughter got the blood flowing, and my leg suddenly came alive. I ran like the wind, as any healthy ego would, and stopped only after Ophelia lay dead in the water.
On the cushion, I’m reliving this incident over in my mind as the circulation returns to my foot. In Buddhism, the ego is referred to as “monkey mind” because of its inability to stay at rest; it hops from one thought to the next like a primate in the treetops, always racing into the future or replaying the past. It is the goal of meditation to quiet this ego, to coax the monkey into falling asleep. Smitty, Mike, and I eventually manage to rise to our feet, tentatively at first, still a little wobbly, and we fall in the behind a grey-robed monk for a round of walking meditation. Wending our way around the hall, we try to quiet our minds, taking it one step at a time.
A monk asked Chokoman, “What is this sword that will cut a single strand of hair?” Chokoman said, “You can’t touch it.” The monk asked, “How about a person who uses it?” “His bones and body are smashed to smithereens,” said Chokoman. “Then,” the monk said, “it’s a jolly good thing we’re not able to touch it!” Chokoman smacked him.
The afternoon is reserved for work practice, the period when each person is assigned a task to be carried out in silence. The idea, we’re told, is that Zen practice isn’t just about meditating or walking slowly; it’s to be experienced in the everyday moment of tasks and chores and errands. It sounds like a fine idea, but when some people are instructed to clean the grout in the bathtubs or move the compost heap up the hill, sitting on the cushion with a leg full of pins and needles doesn’t seem so bad.
I’m given the task of cutting office paper down to size. A young laywoman leads me over to a table where a half dozen reams of 11×17 paper are stacked neatly in two piles. Next to them rests an old, small paper cutter with a thin blade. “Someone donated this paper to the monastery,” she explains, “but we can’t use this size in our office. It all needs to be cut in half.”
I do some quick math: six reams, 500 papers per ream, if I cut 33.3 sheets per minute, I’ll be done just as the hour and a half period comes to an end. But the paper is large and cumbersome, and fitting a small wad of them into the cutter becomes a lesson in patience itself. The papers won’t slide through the fitter, so I take some out. Then I take some more out until I’m able to fit only about 15 pieces in. I need to readjust my calculations.
Then I discover that the old blade is dull, and when I bring the lever down to cut the sheets in two, it gets about halfway through before giving into the bulk of the paper, making a ragged tear off to the side. This happens repeatedly before I realize no amount of force or finesse is going to help. And it occurs I’m ruining their donated paper. I hide the mutilated stack and try it with just five or six pieces. The blade cuts into it neatly, offering up the crisp sound of a freshly sharpened blade at work. That’s more like it, I think, and fall into a groove of swift and effortless slicing.
Standing at the table, alone in the silence, I pull out the paper, stack it flush, align it against the ruler, and bring the blade lever down in a decisive cut.
Pull out. Stack flush. Align right. Slice off.
Marathon runners often describe how songs get stuck in their heads during the long stretches of time their bodies spend rhythmically pounding the asphalt. Apparently, the most frequent song they cite is the Iron Butterfly classic, “Ina Goda Da Vida,” a song so monotonous and plodding that its seemingly neverending drum solos and refrains perfectly match the pitch and posture that long-distance runners fall into. I’m a ream into the job, making some headway, when a melody begins to dance in the margins of my awareness.
And I bring the blade down.
It happens subliminally at first, slowly. Ouga Chaka Ouga Ouga. CHONK. Then faster still, until I realize those words have been lurking around in the back of my head ever since breakfast.
Earlier that morning, I had been assigned to KP after mealtime. I was running dried dishes and utensils from the sink and putting them in their proper places. Except that I didn’t know where anything went. Every time I picked up a new item, I had to ask someone where it belonged. In the kitchen, the concept of silence was thrown out with the dishwater; people were talking and laughing and singing, everyone relaxed and working in a din of motion. Trying to fit in, I would approach a different person with each item in question. When I asked a young monk drying a colander where an oversized spoon should go, he replied in a Keanu Reeves voice, “There is no spoon, dude.” It was a pretty good imitation, and I laughed at the reference to The Matrix, a much-quoted line among Buddhists who hear lessons on emptiness peppered throughout the movie’s hyper-violent story.
A little while later, it was the same monk who started singing it.
Ouga Chaka Ouga Ouga
Ouga Chaka Ouga Ouga
I can’t stop this feeling, deep inside of me,
Girl you just don’t realize, what you do to me,
When you hold me, in your arms so tight,
Give it up girl, everything’s all right
Ah, ah, I’m hooked on a feeling,
I’m high on believing, that you’re in love with me.
He had a great voice, you could tell he loved to sing. His whole face lit up when he hit the high notes, though he probably didn’t get much chance to do it around the monastery. He kept with it and those who knew the words joined in.
Lips as sweet as candy
Their taste stays on my mind,
Girl you keep me thirsty for another cup of wine.
I got it bad for you girl,
But I don’t need a cure,
I’ll just stay addicted, if I can endure.
“Anybody know what that’s from?” he asked when we’d finished.
“Ally McBeal!” Judy squealed.
“Nope. It’s from Reservoir Dogs first. Know who wrote it?”
“Yeah, it was Blue Swede,” another monk said.
“Nope, they sung it, but B.J. Thomas wrote the lyrics.” He paused thoughtfully. “Hmmm, actually he sung a version of it, too, but I like the Blue Swede rendition better, they added those weird ‘ouga chakas.'” The conversation quickly trailed off into a discussion of the films of Quentin Tarantino and I asked somebody where the chafing dishes went.
Back at the cutting table, the Blue Swede/B.J. Thomas tune fills my head with its infectiousness. It goes from a whisper to a full-blown pop concert with back-up singers and everything. I’m keeping the beat, my slicing synchronized perfectly with the song as I cut more and more paper, racing against the clock.
Ouga Chaka Ouga Ouga. CHONK. Ouga Chaka Ouga Ouga. CHONK.
I’ve cut through only half the paper as the work practice period nears its end. Smitty wanders into the office, already talking, joking, making fun of the pile of mangled sheets I tried to hide. He says that when he was in the Navy, paper was a commodity and he’d have to decide whether he was going to write to his wife or wipe his ass with the amount he’d been rationed. His voice is loud and gruff, and I laugh louder than I mean to. Before I know it, the abbot of the monastery, the head honcho around the office, is by my side. He looks directly at me, his eyes like two still pools of water, and says calmly, softly, “We’re supposed to practice this work in silence, to really achieve a deeper understanding of our mind at work.”
I nod OK, a little humbled, a little embarrassed, but what I really want to tell him, “It’s not me, it’s him! It’s his fault! Tell it to Smitty! He’s the one with the gift for gab.” But with a whole chorus of ‘ougas‘ and ‘chakas‘ resounding in my skull, I begin to understand how noise has its origin in the mind and not in the mouth.
Joshu asked an old woman with a basket, “Where are you off to?” “I am going to steal your bamboo shoots,” she replied. Joshu said, “Suppose you run into me afterward, what then?” The old woman slapped his face. Joshu shrugged and walked away.
Gensha asks, Can we find Buddhism up in the mountains? Yes or no? It turns out to be a trick question. Either reply could warrant a smack in the face, or maybe just a slap on the wrist. The mountains are full of mondoes; new ones are being told all the time. Who knows, maybe in a few hundred years, in response to Gensha’s question, they’ll quote from “The Smitty Sutra” or tell the one about “Jesus’s Lost Ring.” By then, they may have forgotten all about one hand clapping and the noise a falling tree makes. That’s how strong the rhythm could be.
Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.