Rabbi Zusia tramped through his native Poland — this admittedly is an odd way of introducing a story about Zen — collecting money to ransom Jews unjustly imprisoned, victims of the rampant anti-Semitism then prevailing. At a wayside inn he saw birds in a cage. Zusia, simple soul that he was, promptly freed the birds.
The innkeeper was not amused. Enraged, he thrashed Zusia soundly. Well — so what? Poverty, hunger, illness, persecution — what were they next to the joy of being alive in God’s world? Zusia went serenely on his way.
Later a disciple asked him, “How can one praise God even for our suffering, as our sages command us?”
Zusia laughed. “Suffering?” he said. “What do I know of suffering? When have I ever suffered? When have I ever known anything but joy?”
One of the pleasures of history is imagining impossible meetings that, had they taken place, might have been fruitful. Imagine, then, Zusia, in his wanderings, landing in rural Echigo province, today’s Niigata Prefecture. His poverty, his innocence, his unworldly simplicity would have sufficiently explained his presence. Any local passerby would have guessed immediately: “Ah! You’ve come to see Ryokan-sama!”
Suppose the year to have been 1790. Zusia (1718-1800) would have been 72, Ryokan (1758-1831) 32.
Zusia was a Hasidic Jew, Ryokan a Zen poet-monk. A wider cultural gulf between two individuals would be hard to conceive.
To each, the other would have seemed a visitor from an alternate universe. Would that have bothered them? Not a bit!
“Sit down,” Ryokan would have said, ushering his guest into his “grass hut” and bringing out the sake. “How pleasant — / in my grass hut / stretching out my legs / listening to the sound / of frogs in mountain paddies.”
Zusia would have had a story ready, one he loved to tell. The biblical Book of Genesis has God saying to the patriarch Abraham, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show you.” Zusia’s interpretation: “‘Get thee out of thy country’ means ‘get thee out of the dimness you have inflicted on yourself.’ ‘Get thee out of thy father’s house’ means ‘get thee out of the dimness you have inflicted on yourself.’ ‘Unto the land that I will show you means— ‘”
Ryokan would not need to be told: “Satori!”— Zen’s sudden awakening to the truth beyond reason, beyond language.
Smiling, he would have offered a poem: “Taking my time I go begging for food — how wide, how boundless this Dharma world!” “Drink, drink,” he would have urged his guest. “On three cups / five cups of / this fine sake I’m drunk.”
“What is Zen?” an intrigued Zusia might have inquired. The question has been asked a thousand times and answered a thousand different ways, more often than not in ways that defy reason — for does not Zen set out to defeat the entanglements of rationalism?
Among the classic replies that would have been at Ryokan’s fingertips: “Zen,” “three pounds of flax,” “the silk fan gives a cooling breeze.”
Would Zusia have been nonplussed? To suppose so is not to know Zusia. This was a man, after all, who once, seized with ecstasy, cried out in the dead of night, “Lord of the world, I love you! How am I to express my love — in words? Impossible! What then? Well … I shall whistle.”
Zen is a fusion of Indian Buddhism, Chinese Taoism and Chinese Confucianism. Japanese monks studying in China brought it back to Japan in the 12th century. It is considered less a religion than a “way of liberation.” When, without trying to be funny, you can spontaneously reply “The silk fan gives a cooling breeze” to the question “What is Zen?” — you are liberated indeed.
Hasidism too was a way of liberation. The Jews of 18th-century Eastern Europe desperately needed one. Judaism was then thousands of years old, its rituals sclerotic with age, its adherents beset by persecution. The movement’s founder was a religious genius known as Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-60). He taught his followers to defeat misery with joy.
There were reasons in abundance for misery, and few enough for joy, maybe only one: that men and women, though created from dust, were made in God’s image.
The Baal Shem said — as Ryokan might have, or any Zen man — “He who looks only at himself cannot but sink into despair, yet as soon as he opens his eyes to the creation around him, he will know joy.”
“God’s fool,” Zusia was called by his contemporaries. “Taigu, great fool,” Ryokan called himself.
Coincidence? Unlikely. Wisdom and foolishness are separate only down here in the flatlands. On the peaks, on the heights, they meet. The sage must be a fool to be a sage. The sage who is no fool is no sage either. Zen and Hasidism both teach that.
Lao-Tzu (circa sixth century B.C.) said, “Mine is the mind of a fool, understanding nothing. … Like a new-born baby who is yet unable to smile, I am alone, without a place to go.”
Lao-Tzu is the founder of Taoism, one of the wellsprings of Zen. It was not a wellspring of Hasidism. It almost could have been, though. A near contemporary of Zusia’s, Rabbi Wolfe of Zbarazh in Ukraine (died 1800), said, “May I never use my reason against the truth.”
His, too, was “the mind of a fool.” When thieves broke into his house he called to them, “Whatever I own, I gladly let you have! Do not worry, dear thieves, you will not be violating the law!”
The Baal Shem said our love for our fellow men must be as God’s love — infinite. Ryokan, too, loved infinitely — children most of all, but even insects, even lice. He celebrated them in poetry, invited them into his clothing: “Fleas, lice / any autumn bug that wants to sing — / the breast of my robe / is Musashino moor!”
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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