I was raised to be a good girl. Embedded in this phrase was the admonition to never talk back to my elders, and I did OK until I was six years old. Then one summer Sunday, itching to go out to play, I asked to be excused from the formal dinner, and my father’s response was that I needed to stay at the table until he and my mother had finished their cigarettes. So I fixed him with a look of disgust and said, “Well, then, can I have a cigarette?”
Things went downhill from there. By the time I was ten I had been labeled a troublemaker for my overactive mouth. This isn’t to say that things were all that troubling. My talking back to authority was so admired by the other kids at Loreto Convent School in Normanhurst, Australia, that they elected me school captain—a first, and probably a last, for an American kid. At university in the U.S., my parents looked away while I traded school terms for participation in protests against various forms of injustice. When my father finally sat me down to try to talk some sense into me, he ended up agreeing with me—and turning against the war in Vietnam. This was a huge shift for a man who was, at the time, a leader in the international business community.
Then I hit a wall. In the Zen Buddhist Seminary we were expected not only to follow every detailed instruction of our teacher perfectly, but to rush to do whatever it was. We literally ran to the meditation hall for the 5 a.m. practice every morning and scrubbed bathrooms on our hands and knees with small rags as many as three times a day. We also memorized whole sutras. Simply reading them wasn’t enough.
About halfway through the training I started to rebel against all this instant obedience. It felt like such a big part of Zen that I decided to leave. Then I heard the story of the Seven Sisters and the Charnel Ground. In this ninth-century Chinese story, the sisters decide that instead of visiting a park on a lovely spring morning, they would head for the charnel ground, the place where bodies are left to rot. When they get there, Indra, King of the Gods, sees them and, impressed by their choice of venue, asks if he can give them anything. Yet the sisters are not impressed by the King of the Gods. One of them replies, “Well, you could give us a tree without roots, maybe? Some land without light or shade could be nice. Or maybe a mountain valley where a shout doesn’t echo.”
Indra admits he can’t give them those things.
Of course you can’t!” the sister says—her way of saying, “We’ve got this, thanks.” Because what she asked for is things that we can only experience ourselves in moments where “now” has taken over so completely that labels have flown away, taking concepts with them, leaving behind a simple, complete “isness.” In “isness” there aren’t roots or shade or echoes.
My point? The sister talked back to a god. Fearlessly.
So I stayed in the seminary, where I not only rediscovered my mouthiness, I learned that an integral part of the training was to use it. Twenty-five years later I’ve come to believe that this is the real legacy of Zen in the 21st century: not its structured path to awakeness—though there’s that. The legacy of Zen will be its capacity to nurture in each of us a great fearlessness. As our hearts open, so does our sensitivity to the suffering around us—until suddenly one day we may find ourselves standing in front of tanks with a simple sign that says, “Please. Just stop.” Or maybe we’ll start visiting the charnel ground of today’s society, the prisons: first, to witness their cruelties, and then to do what we can to help them downsize to fewer, smaller institutions of healing and safety. We’ll realize that every child is our child and that the whole earth is our backyard. So we’ll guerilla-garden, give up plastics, clean riverbeds, and plant vegetables to share. We’ll find a way to give books to the homeless kids in the shelters, along with shoes that fit. And when the situation calls for it, we’ll fearlessly yell at gods.
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Geri Larkin is spending the summer perfecting the fine art of painting temple walls.