Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My dad, Zen master? Zen brevity.

I’ve been re-examining the relationship I had with my dad, and it was good. This re-examination happened in part because I’ve recently read a book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. The main character in the book is instructed by an unlikely Zen Master: a service station attendant.

In many ways I have been schooled by my dad. The recollections I’ve been sharing are obviously fictionalized, but there is a germ of truth in each. These are kernels of memories of my dad that I hold dear. I’m just having some fun with those memories. Like this one…

My father took up Zen camping later in life when he retired, but when I was growing up, we didn’t do much camping: just once. Our family met up with my dad’s brother and his family at King’s Canyon National Park for a week in the summer of 1964. I was 11.

While breakfast was being cooked, I walked with my dad to a faucet to “wash up” before breakfast. Zen Masters are often men of few words. They sometimes speak in koans, which are brief stories meant to be paths of enlightenment. Dad was, on occasion, a master of brevity.

He went first in the “washing up” ritual. I turned on the faucet, he bent over, filled his hands, and threw the water in his face. His eyes opened wide, and he uttered his koan: “Brisk!”

I had never heard the word. I didn’t know what it meant. But I could tell he wanted me to learn, even if his lesson contained but one word.

I filled my hands with water; it was ice cold. I threw it in my face, and I discovered what brisk was. I was awakened!

I turned and started back to the camp. I felt wide-eyed and fully alert.

“Are you going to turn off the faucet, Stu?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, get to it. I’ll meet you back at the tent-site.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Water is precious, and so is camping with your dad. You learn the darnedest things. I did.


  1. "Awakened? Yes.
    Enlightened? ...well, son, we're still working on that."

  2. That was a great trip; a sort of tour de force of the family together. You remember that grandpa and grandma were there too?
    In the summer of '64, I was still 12. It was actually just a few months before we moved to northern California. I forgot that those two events happened so close together.

  3. @Chase: I avoided the word Enlightened. Even awakened was a bit of a stretch... but I do remember the event... 50 some years later.

    @Dennis: I remeber hardly anything from this trip. "Brisk" was one. The other was seeing a waterfall so beautiful, I thought it was fake. I really did. I can still picture it. We hiked to it. (I don't remember the grandparents, or much else.

    @CIS: Thanks.

  4. You are quite the story weaver Stu..........I so wish that I had stories of my father that I remembered. I only remember a couple and only in breif glimpses. He too was my hero. Always will be :)
    Have a beautiful day.
    (School has to be out soon and I'm really gonna dog you then for Friday Shoot-Outs. Get ready, lol).

    Steady On
    Reggie Girl

  5. Reggie Girl: Thanks. My stories move faster in writing than they do in person sometimes. One of the downsides of choosing your words carefully, is that it takes some time to choose them. ;-)

    Knowing that not all kids have these kinds of memories, is one of the reasons I've moved into teaching. I'm making some sweet memories with my students. Someone, probably a teacher, once said, "All children are my children." Just like you are a mother to many, a sister to many, and a friend to many.

    You're gonna dog me? How appropriate! I expect to be hounded by you, the dog-lover!