It was the summer of last year and I was half way through the second day of my first proper Zen sesshin. I was waiting in line to see Shinzan privately for an interview which would test my understanding, and I can’t overstate how highly I was valuing this. We weren’t going to have many chances to see him and I knew what was on offer with Zen and had been wearing my zeal like a badge of pride. He was going to know how serious I was, like full-on ninja serious, I was going to make sure, and then he would be all “Ahhh, you are true warrior!” and impart the Secrets Of The Universe to me.
I walked in, barely sat down, and he dismissed me from the room.
I’d actually met Shinzan before about a year prior. He came down to London and I followed him back to where he was staying. I garbled a question to him about Zen and then proceeded to completely miss his detailed response because I was too busy scrutinizing him for greatness. (I later reflected this isn’t a kind thing to do when meeting a person.) He didn’t seem particularly great. He didn’t even look particularly happy. He seemed like a perfectly ordinary elderly Japanese gentleman who was perturbed that some punk kid like myself was bugging him.
Writing this now, even though I want to say that he is actually perfectly ordinary, because that would be such a Zen thing to say, he completely isn’t.
I mean, sure, he’s a human being, and all human beings are unique and such, and he expresses moods like you and I do instead of floating along in some beatific haze all the time, but there’s something else that is scarcely identifiable but utterly palpable which I’m going to try and articulate.
Firstly it started to become clear that there was simply no neuroses about his humanness. He could be whatever. Angry, sad, whatever. Then I started to notice how every time he was one of these things, it was so complete, so fully committed to, that it seemed to leave no taste upon the world, it just burnt out utterly as it was happening. Actually his whole being is like this, down to the smallest gesture. The effect is one that brings your anxieties to the surface only to have them blown away as utterly non applicable. He is, literally, a “force of nature”, and kind of amusing when he’s comforting and sympathetic to your problems in his words because every cell of his body sends the message that there are no such things as problems.
In Zen, they sometimes talk about “joriki”, which is a kind of concentrated inner power that develops from persistent zazen. Anyone can experience this within days, but I’ve never seen it to the degree of Shinzan. He is 80 but has the vigour, the life energy, of an infant. Not wild, like an infant, but completely grounded. He can be very still and frequently is, but there is no doubt of the potential force within him, just as you’d think of a tiger sat watching you. It comes across as a blazing presence which doesn’t seem to get depleted no matter how he behaves.
Comparing him to an animal seems about right: intuitive, aligned, natural, and somehow impossible to get a hold on. Maybe it’s those same qualities that are so attractive to be around; they stir a primal calling in us to be the same, to be liberated. Actually just comparing him to nature seems better. It’s honestly like on the one hand, he is an elderly Japanese gentleman, and on the other, he is an embodiment of something everybody knows well but didn’t know was allowed to exist as a human being.
His dismissal of me from his room was the most compassionate thing he could have done. When I returned to my seat and sat down, all that headstrong energy had nowhere to go and fizzled out. Everything fell into a kind of openness, an innocence, and I’m pretty sure I shed a few tears of gratitude.