By Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda
Suzy Sureck, Chance Operations: Drawing Series 2010
15"x15", ink, dye and mylar on paper.
“Man zero, fish one,” I said jokingly to my cousin, who is a Zen Buddhist priest. When I called, she had said she couldn’t stay on the phone because she was on her way to the hospital to see a Japanese man who had come to Hawai’i for a vacation. He went deep sea fishing, and had a heart attack while fighting a large fish. I assumed he was resting, or in the intensive care unit.
“That’s right,” she sighed. “His family is in a state of shock. They’re just grateful that he died while doing something he enjoyed."
“What?” I said. “You mean it really was man zero, fish one?”
“I’m going to see him in the hospital morgue in a few minutes,” my cousin said. “I’ve got to get my robes and I’ll chant the Heart Sutra.”
The Bodhisattva of Great Compassion when practicing deeply the prajnaparamita…
“OK,” I said. I thought I too should chant the Heart Sutra, to make sure my bases were covered. Here, heart means “heart of wisdom.” For Zen Buddhists, it’s a succinct one-size-fits-all teaching, though hard to accept until you’ve touched a human corpse and know, as one meditation practitioner said of her father at his funeral, “As he is, so shall we be.”
Perceived the emptiness of all five skandhas, and delivered all beings from their suffering…
In other words, human zero. From the ultimate point of view, fish zero also. Everything else, zero as well. Zero is perfect roundness, emptiness, completion, peace without sharp angles. The great Om, the alpha and omega, the cosmic belly button, the Big Mu, and as the kids in Oakland say, the shit. Complete equality, and everything equally precious, from the Dalai Lama to a Spanish speaking hot dog street vendor in San Francisco’s Mission District to the Hubble Telescope to a dog turd on the sidewalk next to a flattened soda can. Ultimate inclusion – the end of all discrimination suits.
Man one, fish zero. It is a winter evening in Ohio and I am seven or so. In these memories, the lights inside are always dim and very yellow, and the darkness presses in from outside, improbably blue as arctic ice. I am sitting in the kitchen of the house trailer, watching my father clean some tiny bluegills he’d caught, ice fishing. It must have been a Saturday evening, therefore, since on Sundays we’d have an early dinner, often Swanson’s frozen chicken potpies, and sit and watch Bonanza on TV. It was the one day of the week that we were allowed to eat dinner in front of the television.
O Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness…
Fishing was important to my father, combining the instinct to hunt one’s own food with meditation and connection to the divine. My brother, who is not Buddhist, when I asked him what form he thought Dad might take next if reincarnation existed said, without hesitation, “A fish.”
This may be true, for all I know. My father might have been reborn hundreds of times since 1996, as a guppy in a kid’s aquarium, a catfish in a fish farm pond, a shark, a trout, or the very large salmon that was served at a dinner party I attended last night, on a mirepoix of vegetables, poached in white wine. “Dad?” I thought, contemplating the food on my plate. There is a Buddhist practice in which we look at all beings as having been our mothers and fathers, our children, friends, and enemies in previous cycles of existence. A friend swears that after her uncle’s death her family acquired a bassett hound that looked remarkably like her long-eared uncle, and she would sometimes come upon her mother and the dog staring soulfully at one another in the kitchen.
“Uncle, is that you?” her mother would say softly.
Emptiness no other than form…
Fishing was important to my father in any season and fishing required bait. I was never any good because I couldn’t bear to shove the barbed hook through the earthworm, its twisting body and many small hearts. Someone else always had to bait the hook for me, and then I’d keep fishing with the same worm until it disintegrated to a shred of flesh, dragged through the water for something to do. The boredom of not catching a fish was counterposed to the excitement and horror of catching one, successfully reeling it in, and seeing the hook embedded in its jaw or, much, much worse, swallowed so that pulling out the hook resulted in dragging its guts out through its mouth, killing it immediately. Otherwise a fish could be unhooked, thrown back, and would swim away without discernible fear or haste.
For winter ice fishing the bait was sleepy inch-long, pale grubs, purchased in round petri-dish-sized white cardboard containers filled with sawdust. Sometimes Dad was inspired to collect galls from oak trees and split them open to find the little worms inside, or to attack rotting downed trees like an old bear looking for plump larvae.
In late spring and summer, after a thunderstorm when the earth was warm as a soaked dish sponge, Dad would take a special metal rod on an extension cord, run it out onto the lawn next to the house trailer and stick the rod, which I remember as looking like a chef’s sharpening wand, into the earth, then plug it into an electrical outlet. By the next morning the area around the rod would be filled with large earthworms, whose quiet and essential activity of munching their way through the wet soil had been interrupted by an unnatural current of low electrical shock. They had swum sightlessly up through the soil, seeking relief, and lay on top of the wet grass in tangled skeins of cold flesh. It was easy to pick them up and toss them into Dad’s bait bucket.
The same is true of feelings, thoughts, impulses and consciousness…
Man one, worm zero. The sum remains the same, I notice. But it must have been a winter night, our lawn long frozen, that I sat in the yellow light of the trailer’s kitchen, looking upward at my father. He’d been ice fishing that day and had caught a mess of tiny bluegills. Normally he would have thrown them all back, but had decided this day to clean and fry them up, each fish’s tablespoonful of flesh winter pure and sweet as the most delicate ocean fish or snow crab claw when painstakingly separated from the needle-fine bones.
I didn’t like cleaning fish, either, and Dad didn’t ask me to scale the bluegills after he’d chopped off their heads and tails with his sharpened buck knife, slit their bellies and gutted them. Their scales were tiny and slimy and required some delicate manipulation of the fish scaler, a gray metal tool that one rubbed against the lay of the scales, scraping them off into glittering piles like sequins fallen from a tap dancer’s outfit.
O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They are not born nor annihilated, they are not tainted nor pure… They do not increase nor decrease….
Wesson oil heats in wavy patterns on the bottom of the cast iron skillet that had come with Dad’s family all the way from Minturn, Colorado to the family farm in Indiana when Dad was one year old. My father dredges the cleaned fish in white flour mixed with Morton’s salt and Durkee’s black pepper from a red and white can. There is an image on the dark blue salt canister of a girl in a yellow frock. With one arm she hoists over her an opened umbrella, white lines representing rain slanting down. In the crook of her other arm she holds a canister of Morton’s salt, angled downward, the salt sprinkling out behind her like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. It’s an illustration of their marketing brag, which was that Morton’s salt would not clump in humid weather, or when it was raining. Their motto was, “When it rains it pours.”
Copyright © Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda 2011
About the author:
Poet, essayist and fiction writer Patricia Mushim Y. Ikeda has studied Zen in North America and Asia as a monastic and layperson. She is a former member of the boards of San Francisco Zen Center and Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and currently teaches classes and retreats at East Bay Meditation Center, Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, Insight Community of Washington D.C. and Flowering Lotus Meditation Center. “Man 0, Fish 1” is a chapter from a collection of autobiographical fiction, Elegy with Blue Shirt, Tie and Gun and Other Stories that she has been working on with fellowship support from the Ragdale Foundation for a writing project designed to bring awareness to a contemporary issue having to do with peace, social justice, or the environment.
About the artist:
Suzy Sureck's sculptural installations, drawings, videos and photographs involve the physical and metaphoric qualities of wind, water, light and shadow, with attention to the environmental. Her works have been exhibited in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Korea, Australia and India. The pieces here are available for purchase and are on exhibit in the Sweetcake Enso installation at the Garrison Institute. For more information about the artist visit her website, here. Of Chance Operations she writes:
I lay the ground of a wet circle, then let the inks go where they may, removing my hand as much as possible for probabilities to occur. Made with water, this barely visible, highly impermanent gesture lies beneath the image.
Within it inks and dyes run, collide, drip, dry, don’t dry, merge, separate. This I see as the texture of our lives in flux within the greater non visible circle of being.
Each image is a surprise to me, and I look forward to seeing what appears on the watermark.