When sitting zazen, even someone with many years of experience may have the beginner’s problem: the tendency to fall asleep. In a group, each person sits as if alone, facing the wall, while the master silently walks around the center of the room. The experienced practitioner knows how she may find relief: holding her hands together respectfully, she bows towards the wall to signal her needs. If the master is walking closely by, her request is answered. The master carries a strong slender stick. The sitter is struck, first on one side of the shoulder, then on the other. These are particular locations on the body known to enervate and energize. She wakes up.
My sister shared this with me a few weeks ago, and, because she’s my sister and because I’m perpetually grabbing at whatever’s closest to try to sort out what it is I need, my immediate response was: that’s what I want! Like everyone I know, I’m tired of my own thoughts. “I need to ask to be struck!” I told her. Or started to. I suddenly couldn’t say it out loud, because if I did, it might happen. Be careful what you ask for, the voice in my head reminded me. Better the devil you know. Be careful. I couldn’t ask. I could safely marvel at the idea, but I couldn’t ask.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of this when Mary Wynns and I drove down to eastern North Carolina for her cousin’s funeral last weekend. Her cousin had been living with cancer, in various stages of remission, since she was fifteen; she died at forty-eight, in the arms of her parents. The family gathered: aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, the knee-high cast of children of the next generation. Her parents were pale with grief. We gathered first at the church, for a brief reception followed by a formal Rite II funeral service. We exited to the soaring hymn of resurrection, Jesus Christ is Risen Today, before somberly piling into cars, turning on headlights, and following the casket the seven miles to the cemetery. Cars pulled over, parking on the soft sandy shoulders of the blacktop as we passed.
The pine hills that carried us through the northeastern part of the state were devastated a few years back when hurricanes Dennis and Fran tore through, leaving a wake of uprooted trees and dismantled rivers. The cemetery is on a bluff overlooking the Quankey creek. The creek had risen forty feet in the storms, cutting away a large chunk of the graveyard. The church shored up the remainder with rock, but of the forest that had long sheltered the bluff from the north winds, there now was nothing but a great ravine, at the base of which we could see glimpses of water. From the distant hills beyond, the wind carried pieces of marching bands and faint applause from the small town’s Christmas parade. We shivered by the casket, surrounded by tombstones bearing the family’s name. Many of those in attendance had been named for those buried beneath us, offering a sense of continuity that resonated in a way that feels archaic to current generations. Feet clad in Sunday shoes froze against the cold ground, goose-pimpled in the breeze. We stood, surrounded by aged oaks, oaks sprung from acorns when those beneath our feet were children.
The priest read from the prayer book, the formal words appropriate to the ceremony. We shuffled closer, needing to hear her words. “The Lord bless her and keep her,” she recited. “The Lord make his face to shine upon her and be gracious unto her. The Lord lift up his countenance upon her. And give her peace.” The ancient words soothed us as no other offering could have, brought us together in expectation. Amen, we said together. She turned then, and a young boy moved apart from his mother, the sister of the deceased. He pulled out a small brass trumpet, and began to blow.
At first, we thought he was warming up. The notes came slowly, uncertainly, beginning on one pitch and awkwardly moving towards another. One at a time they came, less a smooth stream than a whitewater torrent, each note a rock lifting the tune into air before gravity brought it down again. Bleaah bleaah bleaaaaah. The living were summoned, together with the dead. Bleaah bleaah bleaaaah. We concentrated, as if through our shared attention we could support each note, sustain it to its full potential. Blea blea blea. Blea blea blea. And suddenly, one by one or perhaps all together, we recognized the tune he’d been playing all along. Old MacDonald had a farm. E-I-E-I-O.
Waking up, my sister reminds me, isn’t about suffering. First, the uncertainty of knowing exactly when the master is close by, knowing that you may fall asleep again and again before being noticed; and then, too, the complete unpredictability of the blow. The blow that strikes exactly at the spot that awakens doesn’t leave a bruise. It’s not an ordinary spot.
It’s also something that must happen again and again, and not only for beginners. No one outgrows, or outlearns, the tendency to fall asleep. But neither will we be struck, unless we ask. Epiphany, from the Greek, epiphaneia, means, literally, “manifestation, striking appearance”. I’m no theologian, and know nothing of zazen except what my sister describes, but for me, the trumpet call of Old MacDonald will sound for me throughout this Epiphany season, as a reminder that I don’t have to be perfect; that I can ask for help; and that help will come when I don’t expect it, and sometimes from the most unlikely of sources.