Zen and the Highway


Ikkyū regards young Sōgi’s calligraphy as golden hour yields to white. “Your hand is inelegant, as always. It’s … bold, though.”

Magpies screech disapproval from a nearby pine.

A horn echoes through the courtyard. Sōgi looks in the direction of the disturbance. Ikkyū bows his head and sighs.

“Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Master Ikkyū, but it would perhaps be best were the monastery further from the highway.”

“Yes, Sōgi. That is the consensus opinion.”

“Why did the revered masters choose this spot?”

“Land is expensive in California, Sōgi, and the path to enlightenment doesn’t generate a lot of revenue.”


The interstate occupies the morning around them.

“I barely hear the highway most days, Master.”

“No. The winds blow mostly from the west. When they blow from the east, they carry the noise of the road with them.”

“Is this why the garden is called the Temple of the West Wind?”

“Yes. The west wind brings peace. The east wind recalls the chaos we’ve chosen to leave behind. Now if it would leave us behind…”

“When the wind blows from the north it reminds me of Burger King.”

They listen to the highway.

“I miss Whoppers,” says Sōgi.

“Don’t we all?”

* * *

After vespers Sōgi finds Ikkyū by the pine tree. “Good evening, Sōgi. I’m pondering the discontent of the magpie.”

“I see. Any insights?”

“I believe his head is full of armies.”

“So he’s a Master, then,” mumbles Sōgi.

Ikkyū turns to the acolyte. “Have you come to seek wisdom or dispense it?”

Sōgi sits on a rock. “There is no light without darkness.”


“No good without evil. No order without chaos. No …”

“I know how yin and yang work.”

Sōgi looks up at the tree. “Maybe it’s good the monastery stands close to the highway, and that the wind blows from the east.”

“Why is it good?”

“Inner calm is yin. Worldly turmoil is yang. The silence we pursue can be no greater than the magnitude of the disorder around us.

“Enlightenment depends on the highway, Master Ikkyū.”

“By your reasoning,” says Ikkyū, “the best place to seek quiet is the front row of a Rammstein concert.”

Sōgi rolls his eyes. “No, Master. But Rammstein is perhaps a paving stone on the highway to nonexistence.”

“Maybe,” replies the Master. “But on a still night we can hear nothingness.”

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