Okay so the Buddha, the Pope and a Rabbi walk into a bar…

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: November 20, 2011

This morning it was my turn to “lead” the discussion at the UU Buddhist Meditation group (four or five guys that meet weekly, gab, and sit). I spent some time over the last week trying to figure out what I was going to talk about, wrote down a bunch of notes regarding the nature of impermanence etc and finally opted for a version of a joke about the Pope debating a Rabbi. More fun than a discussion of the First Noble Truth and much more in keeping with my attitude towards Buddhism i.e. lets not get too serious and forget that we’re supposed to be working towards being happy.

I’m happy to say I didn’t have to read it but told the story without consulting my notes although it wasn’t exactly word for word. I did, however, add some dramatic flair and the discussion afterwards was no less interesting than any other time.

The Gentle Art of Zen Mondo

The Joshu region of Japan is known for the dry winds that bluster down from the mountains and for the konnyaku plants that grow in the fields. The plants’ potato-like tubers are sliced and dried, then boiled and shaped into deliciously chewy patties, which are also called, simply, konnyaku.

In southern Joshu, on the outskirts of the town of Annaka, there lived a konnyaku maker named Roku. Born and raised in Edo, he might have spent his whole life there, but a tendency to drink heavily, gamble unluckily, and frequent houses of ill repute made that untenable. Having exhausted a lifetime’s worth of credit in just 20-some years, he left the big city behind, worked hard to learn his present trade, and was eventually able to set up his own shop. He had a certain charisma and soon came to be seen as the unofficial head of his neighborhood. Occasionally, young men who had been living too fast in Edo would show up on Roku’s doorstep and he never failed to help them.

Hachigoro showed up in somewhat worse shape than most. Not only had he parted with his last yen, but due to a bout of venereal disease, he had lost all of the hair on his head as well. Roku, though, saw this loss as a possible advantage and said, “I think I may have a job tailor-made for you.”

The nearby temple had been without a resident monk, without a bikkhu, that is, for some time. Gonsuke, the temple boy kept the place tidy, but he was too young to take over as head bikkhu. Hachigoro didn’t know a sutra from a koan, but he was old enough. “And besides,” added Roku, “you’ve got the look. Your head is pre-shaved! Come on, you can wing the rest.”

Thus Hachigoro was appointed head bikkhu. The original plan was to have Gonsuke give him a crash course in the basics of Buddhist ritual and, in fact, they did manage to pull off a funeral together. However, they also spent quite a bit of time over dice, with Hachigoro teaching Gonsuke the basics of gambling ritual. As a result, novice Head bikkhu Hachigoro was grossly unprepared when, one bright morning, a traveling bikkhu appeared at the gate and issued a mondo dialogue challenge.

Gonsuke met this real, bona fide bikkhu out at the gate and returned to the temple pale and short of breath. “Now we’re in trouble,” he told Hachigoro. “You can’t turn him away. In Zen Buddhism, and this is a Zen temple, you know, if a bikkhu is challenged to a mondo dialogue, he must accept. And if defeated, he must hand his temple over to the challenger.” Hachigoro rubbed his bald head and whined, “You mean he’s trying to drive me out of my own temple? That’s not fair. I don’t do mondo!”

The two decided to do the only sensible thing. Hachigoro hid in the closet and Gonsuke told the traveling bikkhu that his master was out of town. The bikkhu replied that he would return tomorrow, and the next day if necessary. In fact, he would come every day for the next year.

When the coast was clear, Hachigoro emerged from the closet, sneezed, and declared that they had better take the statue of Buddha and the other paraphernalia, skip town, and sell everything to an antique dealer. He and Gonsuke were busy packing when Roku came by to see how ritual practice was going. “Zen dialogue?!” he guffawed, “What are you worried about? That mondo mumbo jumbo, how hard can it be?”

“Harder than konnyaku, I’m afraid,” sighed Gonsuke.

“No sweat. I bet the guy’s bluffing. I’ll tell you what: tomorrow I’ll dress up as head bikkhu and we’ll see if he’s for real.”

The statue of Buddha was returned to its pedestal. Next morning when the traveling bikkhu arrived as promised, Roku was waiting for him in the main hall, seated in full regalia with his head freshly shaved.

After a deep bow, the challenger posed his first question: “When wind blows through a pine tree, a unique sound is made. Respectfully I ask, is it the voice of the wind, or the voice of the pine?”

Roku hadn’t a clue, so he said nothing and simply glared. At first, the traveling bikkhu was puzzled, but then it dawned on him that this was surely the advanced, deeply esoteric “silent mondo” technique. He nodded, closed his eyes for a moment, then glaring back, he placed both hands in front of his chest and made a circle with his thumbs and forefingers.

Roku shook his head and held up both arms in a big circle. Next the traveling bikkhu thrust out both hands with his 10 fingers spread. Roku responded by thrusting out his right hand only, fingers spread. The challenger bowed in acceptance, and held out his right hand with just three fingers raised. Roku threw his head back and, with his right hand, pointed to his right eye. With that, the challenger sighed, stood up, and walked out.

Gonsuke had been watching the entire mondo from a crack between the sliding doors. Still, he didn’t know what to make of the exchange, so he ran after the departing bikkhu and asked how it had gone.

“Well, I made a circle in front of my chest, asking your master, of course, about the state of the human soul. He responded with a large circle, meaning “as spacious as the spheres.” Then I inquired about the Ten Directions of the world. He indicated that the Five Great Laws would preserve them. When I asked about the Three Great Teachings, he pointed out that they are always here right before our eyes. That’s when I realized he was far too enlightened an opponent for me. I’ll return years from now, once I’ve attained a deeper understanding.”

Gonsuke was truly impressed. Who would have imagined that Roku, the konnyaku maker, was a Zen expert!?

But back inside the temple, he found Roku fuming: “That bastard must have passed by my shop and seen me working or something. He starts his mondo thing, but then stops, gives me a good looking over and a knowing little nod. I could tell he recognized me, dammit, because he made the shape of a konnyaku with his fingers. He was saying, ‘Your konnyaku’s about this small,’ so I made a jumbo konnyaku with both arms to show him how wrong he was. Then he asks, ‘How much for 10?’ So I show him, you know, 5 yen. Now get this! That bikkhu asked for a stinking discount — ‘Give ’em to me for 3 yen.’ Well, that’s when I told him to stick it in his eye!”

 

 

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