The farther I roam from home, the more I realize the disservice I do from this distance, from this page, with these clumsy, wooden words.
The other day I heard from someone I met at a retreat nearly 20 years ago. She asked me if I was the one with the story about the flute. I was astonished that after all this time she’d found me. I heard an echo that’s been running through my mind lately, the echo of a flute.
The dharma is never what we think it is. Nothing is what we think it is. Nothing has the meaning that we manufacture.
It was only my second retreat when I begged a ride up into the San Jacinto Mountains to sit 10 days with Maezumi Roshi. I admit I was beginning to feel rather privileged, the way newcomers can feel favored just because strangers are nice. When I got my daily work assignment, I knew what it meant.
My job was to dust the altar in the teacher’s room.
The teacher’s altar. You know what that means.
Other people were cleaning latrines and clearing brush.
And so I reported daily to the big altar in his small quarters. He was never there. I took great care with the strange and wondrous objects, the flowers and offerings arrayed on the polished platform. A statue of something-or-other; a figurine of who-knows-what; incense; a candle; a funny-looking stick; a whatchamacallit; a thingamajig. I’d never seen an altar up close. I didn’t know what anything was called or what it was supposed to do. I picked each item up and held my breath as I dusted beneath it, praying that I’d remember where to set it down again: a high and holy rite.
One day Maezumi came in while I was there. He smiled and said something to me. What he said was:
Hand me the flute.
The flute? Everything looked foreign to me, but nothing looked like a flute.
I handed him the stick. He laughed.
No, the flute!
I handed him the thingamajig.
The flute! The flute!
Suddenly I knew that I didn’t know what anything meant. You know what that means.
He came closer and stood over me, pointing directly to the meaning I had misunderstood. I looked down the bow of his finger and saw:
A plum. I handed it to him and he took a bite.
What’s the matter, he laughed. Don’t you speak Engrish?
That day I learned the difference between a flute and a fruit. It’s something you can only taste for yourself, in person. After you taste it you can tell a story about it. A story that has meaning, even if it’s only to you.
On this, the eighteenth anniversary of the day I met Maezumi Roshi and started to see, to hear, to taste, and to live.