Friday, February 11, 2011

Power Outage In A Rest Stop Bathroom

Luckily, there was a rest-stop on the Maryland-Virginia border. There was no way I was making it all the way to D.C. without stopping to relieve my bladder. No way. I fumbled to hit the turning signal as I got off on the exit ramp. It was a grey day, so it was worth travelling today. The smell of fast food and gasoline hit me as I crossed the crowded parking lot.
Inside, warm, stuffy air hit my face as I entered through the doors that had sticky handles. I passed a Hispanic family, then an African American family; such a diverse rest-stop being that the nation’s capital was less 20 miles away.
There was a line for the bathroom. Of course there was, and I became impatient as I was delayed longer than I anticipated. I pulled my cell-phone out to pass the time. No service. Curious as to why such a crowded area would lack 4G, I looked around as if the answer was in the air. The man in front of me had peculiar clothes. Wrapped in black and white robes, I couldn’t help but think that using a urinal would prove to be difficult.
The line moved forward. However, the man in front of me didn’t shuffle a few steps further. Attempting to hold back my impatience, I casually tapped the man’s shoulder. His neck straightened out, and I happened to realize I interrupted some sort of meditation as I obtusely pointed out that the line moved a couple of inches. I blushed as embarrassment rushed over me. I apologized, “Sorry, I just have to go real bad.” I felt childish saying this, but no shame. The man’s face quickly brightened as he realized I was embarrassed.
“It’s no problem,” said the man who must’ve been no older than twenty-five. “I’ve been waiting for about five minutes already.” The light-hearted feeling I had just gained from his kind facial expression quickly left.
“Five whole minutes?” I whined.
 “Apparently there is some sort of electrical problem at this rest-stop. They’ve rigged a makeshift toilet while the plumbing is out.” He grinned. Possibly at the absurdity of the situation, but I couldn’t tell as I was growing more impatient by the second. “Just let go,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I replied, not sure what he was referring to.
“Just let go.” He added a wink to his referral. Huh. I looked at my cell-phone to check the time, realizing I wouldn’t get home in time to catch The Office reruns that TBS has every Tuesday. “The receptions bad because of the power outage,” he informed me. “Do you have somewhere important to be?” he inquired. I sheepishly admitted no, understanding that TV wouldn’t have any significance to this holy man. Curious, I had to ask what he was wearing. I had nothing else to do as the line slowly shuffled forward.  “I’m a roshi.”
“A what?”
“A roshi. I’m a Zen Buddhist master, sort of like a priest, if you will.”
“Oh, so like some yin-yang sort of deal, right?” I said, thinking I’d impress him with lack of ignorance for other cultures.
“No not quite the same thing,” he smiled. Again, I felt childish but without shame. The man, clearly younger than me, had this strong affect and I couldn’t understand why. His eyes looked welcoming as I turned over in mind whether or not to dive into a religious conversation here in the bathroom line. I noticed I had let go of my impatience as the line shuffled forward. We were almost by the tiled entrance of the bathroom.
“Okay, well, how would you summarize your faith? In one sentence or less. Because Christians can say, like, that Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead. What’s your religion got like that?”
“Equanimity,” he simply replied. I recognized a Latin word within that definition.
Fishing back into my high school Latin knowledge, now gone, I spat out, “Equal-hearted-ness?”
“Almost. It’s literally ‘equal-mind-ness. Close, though,” he reassured me as he smiled again.
“Ah, well what does that mean?”
“To put it simply, it implies an “equalness” towards every day events; letting go of needless attachment.” I was somewhat baffled by this definition. Hmm. Just then, a worker of sorts walked out of the bathroom.
“Excuse me gentlemen. If I could have your attention please: this restroom is closed for the day. I’m sorry for making you wait for nothing. As you have probably found out, there is an electrical power outage, and it is difficult to pinpoint the exact spot that will fix this problem. Again, I am sorry.” A large, collective groan emerged from the line of unrelieved men. My companion just nodded and shot me a grin. The line was led by the worker to the backside of the facilities. Outside, there were plenty of trees and the plumber, or maybe he was an electrician, pointed the crowd that way. Slightly disgruntled, but aware of this new idea of “equanimity,” I strolled alongside this roshi to the trees. The crowd of men dispersed, some headed for the trees, but the majority continued to shake their heads in disbelief of such an inconvenience.
I heard chuckling up ahead. Perturbed by the laughter, I thought, what could be so funny right now? I looked at my line-partner and his smile reappeared. I was flat out confused. We reached the source of the laughter by the trees. My roshi friend went towards the figure that had laughed. Tapping on his shoulder, my friend embraced the older man as he turned around. Still needing to relieve myself, and very confused at what was going on, I approached the two men.
“Kind sir-“ the roshi began. I cut him off, “Sam. Sam Rogers.”
“Sam Rogers,” he started, “this is Chun Tzu Lee.” I awkwardly shook hands with the gentleman, noticing that his back was slightly bent, maybe as to bow.
“Funny how we have to come out here to relieve ourselves,” Mr. Lee said with a hint of sarcasm. “I can’t believe they’re forcing an old man to the wilderness when all he wanted was to use a bathroom!” I couldn’t see how he thought himself to be old. His skin retained a noticeably model-esque tan that made him appear as if had justreturned from the beach. There wasn’t an age mark to be found on his face.
As we made our way back from the trees, the two men stopped at an old Nissan Altima. The roshi, whose name I still did not know, opened the driver side’s door and pulled out a satchel. “Come join us for lunch,” he invited. Hesitant, I thought of home and my TV show. But I soon realized how bizarre this rest stop had been: wait in line for one toilet, meet a Zen Buddhist, go to the bathroom outside, and meet a friend of the Buddhist. Wishing to learn something about either of them, I agreed to some lunch.
Inside, it was emptier than it was ten minutes ago. The power outage left the food court helpless and the bathrooms empty. Luckily there were some burgers and fries to be found at McDonald’s. I offered to pay. The roshi’s friend didn’t hesitate to let me do so while the Buddhist himself had to be coaxed. We sat down at a window seat. The roshi pulled out a few pieces of literature from his satchel. I asked the older man if he was a Zen Buddhist too.
Lao Tzu
“No,” he replied. “I am a chun tzu.” I chewed mindfully on my burger.
“Oh,” I said shortly. The roshi smiled at him, and then at me.  “And how does that differ from a roshi?” I inquired. Everyone sipped from their soda straws simultaneously. With the older man in no rush to explain, the roshi began to talk.
“Well, first of all, as I told you, I am a Zen Buddhist. Chun Tzu Lee is a chun tzu. A gentleman of sorts. He’s Confucian.” Confused again, I was puzzled by the fact Buddhism and Confucianism were two separate religions. I had always believed them to be fairly similar. Well actually, I just knew they were Asian religions, and that was it.
“Would you explain your religion to me a little bit more?”
“Certainly. Zen Buddhism differs from a Tibetan Buddhism. We focus on meditation. It’s a method of emptying in order to refine our attention. We believe that ‘the mind has other ways of working than its normal, rational way, Zen is convinced.’” (Smith, 89.)
“So this meditation doesn’t come so easily does it?” I pondered aloud.
“I wouldn’t say so,” said Mr. Lee with a soft laugh.
“Well, there’s a type of meditation called zazen. This literally is a seated type of meditation. Monks will ‘sit for hours on end in the lotus posture they inherited from India.’ They hope to ‘awaken the Buddha-mind that will reshape their daily lives.’” (Smith, 88.)
“Well, do Zen Buddhist’s use any holy texts?”
“Mmm, not always. We like to focus on sanzen, or a type of consultation with our masters to discuss meditation. In these meetings, we discuss koans, or problems. They’re kind of like word problems…For example, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” I couldn’t think of anything. Wasn’t that a Simpson’s episode? Hm. He wouldn’t find that amusing. Um…
Without cutting my train of thought, he said, “Don’t worry. Monks repeatedly visit twice a day with their masters to figure out their koans. They make an initial breakthrough called satori. It can take several years for them to figure it out.”
 I slurped the remnants of my soda through the bendy straw. I couldn’t help but feel extremely overwhelmed with the knowledge that was placed before me. I offered to get Mr. Lee and the roshi more soda. And as I returned to the table, I realized that a quick conversation had taken place.
“Mr. Rogers,” the chen tzu started, “Roshi Thomason wishes for me to tell you a little bit about my religion.”
That was the roshi’s name! “Oh please do!” I said as I sat back down.
“Well as you may or may not know, Confucius lived in the sixth century B.C. ‘Agonizing over the inhumanity of his day [that is, during the Chou Dynasty], Confucius looked in an altogether different direction for a cure. He became obsessed with tradition and its power to civilize.’ (Smith, 107.) And as you can imagine, a system of ethics were established to create peace and stability.” The chen tzu sipped some more of his soda, “While I could go into specifics, the ethics are founded on four main ideals. So remember both the four Zen Buddhist points that Roshi Thomason told you as well as mine,” he said with a smile.
“The second idea is chen tzu, like roshi, it is an esteemed title given to superiors. A chen tzu is a gentleman of sorts. He is to be treated with respect. You have instinctively done this for me, and I am pleased to tell you that you’d make a good Confucius practitioner because you respect your elders.” I blushed a little to the comment.
“That is part of the third concept, propriety, which encompasses filial piety. There isn’t much to say here other than that you embody this well. The fourth idea is called te. It’s the power of moral example. (Clark, Class Notes.)You also displayed this well with a firm handshake. It also looks like a ruler who rules by example, not by law.”
“Huh, so there are four concepts in Confucianism too?”
“Mhm. Oh, wait, excuse me! There are five!”
“Oh? And what is the fifth ideal?” I was ready to get going now.
  “You’ll have to get in touch with us for that! We’ll just have to leave you with a cliffhanger. Give us your email, I have a class to teach tomorrow and have to be settled in tonight,” said the chen tzu.
“Likewise I also have to be back and my zendo, my church, for tomorrow!” said the roshi. Our conversation was abruptly cut short. I wasn’t disappointed, though. And somehow I knew I would keep in touch with them, and still possibly learn a thing or two from these two men.
On the car ride home, I couldn’t help but ponder over what I had just encountered. And pulling into my driveway, I pressed my garage door button. It was late now, and I was in a crummy mood from coming home so late. When the door didn’t open, a feeling of impatience rushed over me. But rather than giving into the emotion, I thought equanimity.  

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