One Continuous Mistake

Alan Sturrock, Wilmington

The room was fraught with anticipation.  It was also packed, so much so, that ushers at the Center were bringing in folding chairs for the attendees. People of all ages–young and old–were wrapped in their own silent meditation. Like group zazen…or something approximating it.

Occasionally, brief conversations were whispered, but soon died out quickly as people’s eyes re-focused on the entrance door. The Zen Master was always late. Then again, he was always early, depending on who was keeping time [or which time was being kept]. At one end of the room, there was a slightly raised dais with a small carpet–all the world like an Aladdin castoff. On the right-hand side there was an ornately carved table, on which was perched a pitcher of water and a glass. In front of the pitcher was a freshly cut orange.

There had been no publicity to speak of. No columns in the local newspaper, no radio spots, no public service announcements. All those in attendance were there by word of mouth [whose mouth, no one was quite certain].

The entrance door opened followed by a palpable hush from the audience. It was only an usher. Several minutes later, a nursing mother entered, carrying a satiated child. And, several minutes after that an unknown person looked around, and asked, tentatively: ‘Is this overeaters’ anonymous?’
No one spoke, but the astonished looks on audience members told him everything he needed to know and he vanished.

Time passed.  Or what passed for time, passed.

Soon people began to leave. Singletons at first, then penny numbers, then clumps. As one clump was heading for the exit a scruffy, white-haired man shuffled into the room carrying a broom and a dustpan. He threaded his way, politely, through the ‘leavers’, and started to sweep around the base of the dais. Carefully and methodically, like he was raking an imaginary sandpit.

Upon completion, he ascended the dais, poured a glass of water from the pitcher, reached for a slice of orange and started eating. Then he sat down and looked out at the audience. By this time, there were only a handfuls of hopefuls left in the room. The peace and quiet, [’empty and marvelous’] was interrupted by a voice from the back, directing a question towards the elderly man seated on the dais.

‘Are you the Zen Master?’

There was a pause, a meditative wait time.  The old man inhaled a chuckle, and then responded: ‘Depends on who’s asking? I have been called that…on occasion. Only on occasion, though…’

There was a fresh buzz of interest in the room.  Another audience member asked, pointedly: ‘So… what is the meaning of our lives?’
‘Meaning?’ the old man repeated, tossing the orange peel behind him. ‘Only you…each one of you… can answer that question. As for myself, I would say that my life has been one…continuous…mistake…’