Ta-hui in the suburbs by Kirk Fisher


When the emperor exiled Ta-hui, the Assembly Chief told the monks, weeping in their quarters, "The calamities and stresses of human life are something that cannot be arbitrarily avoided." He urged the monks to follow Ta-hui into exile, and continue their practice with him, "whatever it took." Many of the monks died, following Ta-hui into a plague-ridden land.

As far as I can see though, Ta-hui himself never went into exile, even during twenty years of forced relocation. His robes and honours taken from him, he continued his practice and his engaged life. Removed from his temple, he wrote a collection of cases and commentaries, and taught far-flung students through letters. Cut adrift in a strange land he tried to ease the plight of the suffering and diseased around him. Eventually the emperor pardoned him because of his good works, and he returned. His life, it seems to me, was not confined to the honours of a renowned abbot, or his temple at Mt Ching.

I'm hardly in a plague-ridden land, although Australia's majority did descend from a colony of outcasts and criminals. I haven't been exiled for anything more noble than the practicality involved in finishing my wife's nursing degree. Even so, in my reasonable circumstances, I struggle to follow Ta-hui's example of on-going practice in the midst of disruption. I come back to a stubborn desire to hold onto something I think is mine - my friends, work, money, or lifestyle.

Last year my wife and I, and our one-year-old daughter, Abigail, moved back to Melbourne, Australia, my wife's home. We certainly didn't think of this as an exile. My wife's degree programme included paid part-time work in the hospital, and we thought I'd pick up a job, too. We planned to find a new life for ourselves, and we figured we'd live briefly with my wife's family until we settled into our own place. My wife and I have lived for months with nothing more than a backpack and a handful of cash, so squatting wasn't a new situation to us. Besides, Melbourne is a wonderful city, and my in-laws welcomed us with sensitivity and generosity beyond compare.

My career as a teacher was important to me, back in San Francisco, but I felt excited to be in a place where I might try to teach in a different way. I thought I might begin a school here. I've taught, helped begin and administrate a small, progressive school in the States, and I wanted to continue from what I had learned there.

We looked forward to a certain mode of living, too. In San Francisco my wife and I both felt surrounded by warm and interesting friends. We had bookstores, friendly neighbours, and an organic food shop around the corner. I had calls from other jazz musicians to play gigs, and I could call others to play with me. I rarely had the time for music anymore, outside of raising our daughter, teaching school, and Zen practice, but we thought I'd have more time with our move.

We didn't expect to struggle as we have. To my surprise, I couldn't get a job. I had only one school call for an interview after sending out nearly fifty applications for teaching jobs. Employers and agencies told me I'd need to go back and take my teaching classes again in Australia, if I want to work here. We don't have the time or money for both of us to go to school. I have a Master's degree in Education and seven years teaching experience, and the thought of student teaching again made me indignant.

Instead of affording a place of our own, therefore, we continue to live with my in-laws. My wife goes to school and work, and I stay home with Abigail. We are lucky to have my wife's family, who are more than good to us, but I feel uncomfortable now, after months as a guest, eating their food, and putting music on their stereo.

We call a suburb of Melbourne home, now. The roads run like a huge asphalt web wherever there are no houses. The roads clog up with cars at seven in the morning and five at night. I walk nearly every day with my daughter on my back through the roads and along the railroad tracks. We walk for hours at a time looking for abandoned places to get away from the traffic. We found a wonderful creek, and a wood, though since we've moved here both of the fields we found have sprouted lot signs; little blue signs dot the hillsides which read "Lot 41... Lot 42..." Bulldozers tore up one of the fields already, and holes for foundations line the path by the fir trees. The blackberry bushes are gone. We still go to see the horse in the pasture at the end of the other field, even though his time there seems doomed.

My wife and I feel pressed for time to ourselves and with each other. My wife has a busy schedule and misses time as a family. We fight sometimes, lonely and frustrated. Sometimes we want more from each other than a person can give.

Over the course of time it seems clear that we won't be translating our life as it was to Australia. This on-going realization has been painful for us. We feel stuck. In the midst of this pain I've observed how I've dealt with my frustration, loneliness, and anger in bizarre and confused ways. Again and again I've "lost my bundle," as Australians would say. I've cracked under the strain as I pick my way through clambering emotions and reactions.

To start with, I trimmed my hair. My wife dreaded another rejection letter because in the next day or two she knew she'd hear the buzz of the trimmer in the bathroom. My wife pointed this out to me one time, barging in as I stood there, trimmer in hand, by the mirror.

"Stop it. Do you know what you're doing?" she said.

"Hey, what?" I said, "I'm liking my hair short." I looked at my hair. I was down to three millimetres. I was looking bald, hmm. . . Maybe it was getting out of control.

"Every time you get one of these rejection letters or feel bad for yourself," she said, "you take off another layer of hair." Maybe she had a point. It had started out as a crew cut, with my first round of rejection letters, and was now a near-Kojak. One more letter and I'd be down to hair extinction, with a razor. The more crushed and lost I felt, the more I trimmed my hair. Weird.

I've also shown the classic signs of depression, going against behaviours I've sworn off for years. I've stayed up late with a beer and the t.v. flickering on cop shows, particularly ones with American accents. I know I'll be beat in the morning, but this next one could be good. There I am on my in-laws couch with the remote control, looking for the magical show which might come on. Often I was up after midnight. In my experience, that show never came on. My daughter wakes up at six.

I've flexed my willpower, and gone bike-riding for hours, or fasted, or lifted weights. I often obsessively checked my e-mail every hour, sometimes twice an hour, looking for people who know me. I've flooded my friends with letters and complaints. I continue to receive back kind letters, but I hate it when they say "I hope you've found a job by now."

I've gritted my teeth, drank too much black tea, or muttered while re-reading the employment section. I've taken every anti-American comment personally. I answer back to editorials on the radio. I think about moving back to the States.

I've had to realize that my life isn't going to be the same. I've had to realize that if I want to be miserable I'm doing it. Willpower, escapism, or anger won't work. I'll have to do more than manage the day to day anxiety of being poor, with an inactive career, and lonely.

One morning I got up at 3 a.m., restless and feeling desperate. The same questions which churned in my head over these last months came back again. "I need a life," I thought. "I DESERVE a life. Why is this so hard?" I sat Zazen for a while, and began to settle back down.

I began to look at my struggles. I've come back to my Zazen and journal, time and time again, where my abuses and my jittery obsessions play out, and over and over I've sat repeating my lament about the way things have become. I felt embarrassed at myself, at my seeming inability to cope, to act a little more like an enlightened being, comfortable anywhere. Writing in my journal and sitting Zazen I've begun leaving my anxiety and my weird behaviour alone. For a little while during the day, I do not seem to need to try to change my situation, or my behaviour, but to bring it in, somehow.

I've come to think of my behaviour like the movement of an ocean freighter. The captain's in the bridge, running things, but all she or he can see is what's in the "control room," this tiny room at the top of the boat. That's me. If the captain only had to control this little room, she could turn on a dime, or stop and reverse with very little trouble. But to turn such a huge freighter takes miles and miles of open ocean, and a stop requires hours of preparation. I am a large, ocean-going boat. My behaviour has elements I can change, but other elements which seem to go their own way, too.

My daughter plays with the whirlpool which appears over the drain at the end of her bath. She puts her finger in the tiny swirl and temporarily stops it. As soon as she takes her finger away, the swirl, which originates in all the water going around the little spout, reappears immediately. The silvery dancer dances.

Through my frustration and desperation I can try to change what I want, and perhaps I can change some things this way. Right now, though, slowly, my life informs me of my larger body by the directions it takes, despite my ranting and hair-cutting, my walking and abuse. It swirls around beyond my small-centred efforts, and a story, in a larger context emerges.

Now with my notebook in front of me, and the day beginning to turn, I see what goes on between struggles. I write them down: My daughter runs up to jump on me and give me a hug, a bird calls, a copy clerk wishes me luck and tries to give me free copies, my teacher sends me a picture of Manjushri to encourage me, I walk with Abigail along the railroad tracks. A billion things happen which let me know I'm alive, if I'm there to see them. I do have a life.

My mother, a retired Methodist minister, wrote me at the beginning of our time here, sensing my frustration. She wrote:

"I have learned that when I try to be open to what is happening to me I often feel I am more in tune with the possibilities which I was born with and which I should follow. Otherwise, I centre in on one part of a situation, missing the directions that I should take. [At these times] I felt I was going it alone.

"I more often than not was not aware of the nature of the situation until it [was] all over. Then I said, "Surely God is in this place." There is a sense of trust I have that God is with me and it sustains me through some hard times."

Coming back to this quote now, which I kept in my pocket those first few weeks, I see this statement is not a matter of simple, passive trust, but the recognition of a beauty in the midst of suffering, which graces the universe with every passing moment.

Gradually I began walking a life that included more than just my career, my lifestyle, or my willpower to change things. The night air carries the sound of the crickets, I practice Zazen and my daughter pushes her truck. I cook dinner for my wife, or buy her flowers. I write this article, grow my hair, and let my beard start to flow. I get up in the dark, early morning to have some time to myself before the day starts. I've begun digging for a garden, and I practise my trumpet. Abigail and I step on the train and ride into the city, or stay at home and mow the lawn.

"How is it sitting atop a needle?" the koan asks. I get desperate for my old sense of self, and act out of desperation and panic. I also do nothing, sometimes, and leave the difference between my old life and this new one alone. Then I experience moments of simplicity and inherent accomplishment, with Ta-hui at last. I have the opportunity to stay home with my child in a way I'd never have had in my old life. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, really. I'm with my wife and my daughter more, now, the two people I most love and enjoy. But would I ever know this happiness unless I stopped trying to find happiness and started living?



Ta-hui spoke out against the self-interest shown by those in power, and became associated, in the Emperor's mind at least, with one side of a power struggle, the losing side.

Information about Ta-hui from first two paragraphs of Cleary, Thomas Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership (Boston, Shambhala, 1994), pp. 95-96, used as a source and quoted in Foster, Nelson and Shoemaker, Jack, ed. The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader (New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1996), p. 185.

Letter from my mother, Ila Fisher, 7 December, 1997.

©Kirk Fisher 1998

No reproduction without the authors permission please.