I gave this talk on Saturday, August 6, 2022, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.
This is the final verse of the Five Ranks, Dongshan’s great poem about the spiritual journey:
Who would presume to join their voice with someone
who has surpassed “there is” and “there is not”?
Everyone longs to leave the mundane stream, yet finally
you return to sit in the charcoal heap.
My thoughts drifted to The Wizard of Oz earlier this week, shortly after meditating. I’d just returned from sesshin, during which our talks and discussions took up the topic of spiritual authority, in multiple senses. One sense was about wise and unwise ways to think about and exercise spiritual authority for anyone who provides guidance to others in this domain. Another was about realizing that spiritual authority ultimately must be discovered and centered in oneself, which is the objective that guides the guidance of our wise guides along the Way. Beware of any guide whose approach seems entangled with other objectives.
I’m guessing most or all of you have seen The Wizard of Oz, perhaps multiple times. Yes? I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years, both as a kid and with my own kids.
Dorothy is a young woman living in rural Kansas, as you know. Life seems mundane and uneventful to her, until one day everything turns upside down. Her little dog Toto bites a snooty, wealthy lady, who gets a court order to have Toto euthanized. Dorothy and Toto run away from home, but a charlatan fortune teller they encounter persuades Dorothy to return to her heartbroken family. A tornado strikes as Dorothy approaches, she’s knocked unconscious, and she wakes up in a mysterious, enchanted land.
You know the rest of the story. Dorothy is told she must walk a long, winding path to meet with a wizard in a castle who can help her find her way home. Along the way she befriends other seekers who feel lost; feel they’re missing something this wizard can give them.
A wicked witch and her minions try to prevent Dorothy and her friends from reaching the wizard. Dorothy and her quest are forces of goodness that threaten the shadow forces represented by the wicked witch. Dorothy, her friends, and Toto reach the wizard against all odds—and what an impressive, imposing wizard he is! Unfortunately, he will not grant their requests until they bring him the wicked witch’s broom; her staff. It’s an impossible task, yet, again, they achieve the impossible. They’ve now improbably defeated the wicked witch and reached the wizard’s castle twice.
Now will the wizard grant their wishes? No. He huffs and he puffs and is about to give them yet another impossible task when little Toto pulls back a curtain exposing the mighty wizard as an ordinary human being. Dorothy scolds the wizard, putting him in his place so to speak, but it’s clear enough that her boldness and anger at the wizard aren’t yet accompanied by deep insight and a sense that she has found and is securely inhabiting her place.
Anyway, this ordinary human being helps Dorothy’s friends see that what they’ve each been searching for—a heart, a brain, and courage, or a will and spine to keep one upright—are things they’ve had all along. And, Dorothy? The wizard tells Dorothy that he’s also from Kansas, and that he knows how it feels to long for home. He offers to take her and Toto back in a hot air balloon. Toto jumps away from this sack full of hot air as they take off, and Dorothy chases after him, seemingly missing her opportunity to return home. Fortunately, another guide, Glinda the good witch, tells Dorothy what the wizard had told her friends: That she has always had the power to return home. All she must do is affirm that she never really left, and that there is, indeed, no place like home. With three taps of her heels, Dorothy is back in Kansas.
Dongshan’s Five Ranks, the poem from which I read earlier, and the Oxherding Series, the story told in the pictures hanging in our zendo, are Zen versions of The Wizard of Oz. They are stories about our longing and searching for what seems missing; for the home from which we believe we have gone missing. We’re living an ordinary life, but something begins to feel amiss. We set off on a journey; step onto a path. Along the way, strange things happen and we overcome challenges—maybe even pass through some koans.
Eventually, if all goes well, we return home—but now we and home are refigured. It’s at once the same home and not the same home. Much like Dorothy is received upon her return, people might chuckle at us in a patronizing way if we try to talk about our journey and what we’ve experienced and come to realize. But we truly have been on a journey, and we really do see things differently now. We return to sit in the charcoal heap, but the ashes, and the three pounds of flax, and the cypress tree in the courtyard pulse with and give life in a way we missed before.
So where’s the wizard in the Five Ranks and the Ox Herding series? Conspicuously absent! I think that’s both strange (in the sense of oddly funny) and appropriate. These metaphors for the spiritual journey were produced in communities led by Zen teachers. Dongshan himself was a teacher. For millennia, people like you and me have been going to see Zen teachers, much as Dorothy and her friends went to see the Wizard of Oz. In the end, Oz tells them he has nothing to offer them. He affirms they lack nothing, as any truly wise, caring, and skillful guide to a seeker should do. In the end—from the beginning, really—there’s no wizard and no magic. Or, to say the same thing differently, you are the wizard and it’s all magic, even the charcoal.
It’s tempting to think of the Wizard of Oz as a big fraud. He’s portrayed as hiding behind an impressive, imposing façade, projecting an air of magic, wisdom, and authority, setting up challenges for Dorothy and her friends to overcome. Or so it seems. Might they have rendered him larger than life? Any good wizard should be trying just to meet others earnestly, offering them what the wizard senses they really need at each encounter, doing a wizard’s best to honor them wherever they are at, while not investing personally in their projections. In the case of the great Wizard of Oz, maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe some elements of this particular wizard’s personhood were still too willing and eager to indulge seekers’ projections. That’s a danger; we know this happens.
I met my most helpful guides—in Zen and in life generally—at times when I was feeling particularly lost. (I’ve had some very flawed guides, too.) Each of the best guides had a knack for meeting me earnestly where I was at, making skillful use of the resources they had at their disposal, whether teaching staffs and koans or on-the-job training, while sidestepping my projections. There really is something to discover in Zen—we call that something nothing, in all its manifestations—and my best Zen teachers were laser focused on using all the resources at their disposal to help me realize it for myself.
By the way, my favorite character in the Wizard of Oz is little Toto. Toto is the only character who never changes, outwardly or inwardly. Tenacious little Toto nips at the bitter, pretentious, old critic character—our inner critic, really—the wealthy woman who shows up as the wicked witch in the land of Oz. He exposes the wizard as an ordinary human. He jumps away from the wizard’s bag full of hot air, putting Dorothy in the predicament in which she discovers her own power. Toto’s significance in the story is easy to miss. Toto is Dorothy’s own still, small voice, and that mute voice is Dorothy’s truest guide. Toto never leaves home, because home is everywhere.