In September 2003, I went to stay for a year in Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California. I was a bright green young Zennie, who had never held a service position or worked with his hands, so I was given simple tasks at the beginning. I spent most of my days outside clearing brush and slash, and "leveling the road" with a rake. During services, I bonked the fish.
The road to ZMC is dirt, winding around a slope and prone to washouts. On my first full day at the monastery, I got on a tractor with the work leader, Shinko, who drove me down to a knobby stretch, handed me an aluminum rake, and said, "make this a little more level." Shinko drove off to level another stretch with a more appropriate tool: the tractor.
I, a young software engineer, who had never completed a day of manual labor in my life, contemplated the road, my hand, the rake, and the year ahead. I was at a loss. In what way could these things be combined productively? "Level the road"? I pushed some rocks around with the rake. In a desperate burst, I tore at a hump in the road, breaking off a clod here and there. I stopped to see if I'd gotten blisters. It started to rain heavily.
Once both I and the road were too wet to continue with our exercises, I found a manzanita bush to squat under, and I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. How could I survive a year of this? I was a wimp, and lazy, and a failure at Zen. Real monks level the road with their fingernails, probably, but I had gotten nowhere. I was about to commit seppuku by throwing myself on my rake when I heard the tractor coming back up the road. Shinko yelled, "The road looks much better! Let's go inside."
For my service position I played the the makugyo, the aforementioned wooden fish. Bonking the makugyo seems hard to screw up: The Ino leads the chant, and the makugyo-bonker bonks in time, watching the Ino for tempo cues. Our Ino, Kampo, bounced on his heels as he chanted, so sometimes I watched his lips, sometimes his heels. But I could never quite get it right—over the long minutes of bonking, I seemed to hypnotize myself into a reverie and slow down. I'd tense my shoulders and try to bonk faster, but I felt stuck in molasses, as in a dream. Kampo would bounce more emphatically on his heels and make a lifting gesture with his left hand—I can see him now through the haze of remembered makugyo-trauma.
After service Kampo couldn't wait to correct me. He would pull me out of the meditation hall at the first opportunity to berate me in a whisper. Why couldn't I follow his lead? Was I asleep at the makugyo, or what?
Looking back, I see there was a mousetrap at the door of the zendo, and Kampo and I had stepped on it. We were trying to do the service perfectly, and our agreed-upon strategy for accomplishing this was to be as neurotic as possible. But the trap can be escaped, and eventually I did. And I believe I'd have lost an essential aspect of Zen training if I'd had weeks of rehearsals before the performance. Now I wish I'd screwed up worse—lost control of the mallet and given myself a bloody nose, some really disastrous makugyo-bonking accident—because screwing up a service and living to tell about it is a profound teaching. The service doesn't matter! (The service matters.)