McKenzie's Place

McKenzie’s Place

This story also appears in our Philosophy Section, under the heading “Waking Up.”

This time, Morrison got better than he bargained for.

In a society without classes, Henry or "Hank" was royalty of the first order. At one time or another, his face sprayed across the cover of every major news weekly. His name crystallized the American ideal of "Success." Big Business first crowned Hank Morrison as their "wunderkind" when he emerged as the fulcrum in history's five largest corporate takeovers. He excelled at finding asset laden, debt ridden takeover targets, then turning those acquisitions into hard cash.

Though famous as a raider, his biggest coup came long after he abandoned the buyout scene, and inherited control of Corridor Airlines from his late father. Corridor started long before as a commuter airline, serving the business needs of the northeast corridor. Initially, for Morrison, it was little more than a diversion. By the third annual report, the "hobby" had grown into a major force in an otherwise tightly competitive market. Average flight occupancies of 91% made the publicly held corporation one very cash rich prospect for takeover.

That realization soon came to Morrison's former cronies, now representing the interests of United World, the nation's largest passenger carrier. United, a cash poor monolith, reckoned it could take over the smaller airline, absorb its flight schedules, and siphon off its cash to upgrade United's mother fleet into the next decade. Not to mention the generous bonuses and lucrative stock options for those who pulled it off.

Morrison called it the "Philadelphia Shuffle." The folks at United World thought he was bluffing. Before the machinations became public, United had already scheduled a press conference to announce their "friendly" acquisition of Corridor Airlines. Phase two, already scheduled to follow, meant replacing Hank Morrison as Chairman of the Board and CEO. After a consolidation board meeting, United would announce its blueprint for integrating both airlines.

The meeting never came. Morrison's "Philadelphia Shuffle" meant that cash rich Corridor, through a nefarious stream of stock acquisitions, had already garnered controlling interest in the unsuspecting United, and was now in the driver's seat. Morrison summarily dismissed his former compatriots, he could not forgive treachery, especially from old friends. To further prick their wounds, Morrison refused to authorize any compensation for their efforts, arguing they failed to produce the Corridor acquisition, per their original terms with United.

As his hobby, Morrison used Corridor as a vehicle to escape the rat race. Now, he felt trapped. Running what had become the world's largest airline stirred a need to escape unlike any he had known before.

The opportunity arose on his 40th birthday. Characteristically, he rented a seven story brothel in Bangkok, and flew friends in from all corners of the globe to celebrate for seven days. The ultimate blowout! Even his efforts to escape bore the "stamp" of campish extravagance that now associated with his name.

Fortunately, this would be his final escape!  There would be no need for others in the future.

While the party lulled, he happened upon a Thai taxi driver, recently returned from a sojourn in a highland monastery. The driver jokingly noticed how he looked much younger than Hank, even though he was, in fact, twenty years older. He spoke true, and Morrison nodded his head in acceptance.  He knew the toll on himself. He accepted accelerated aging as a professional malady. But the driver's words cut close and reminded him how he had aged a decade since taking on a little known commuter airline as a "hobby."

Hank thought he’d have some fun with the fellow, "So Khrap[Thai Language for "Sir."], how do I undo it all?"

The driver responded it would not be easy, he could see Morrison was a hunter, always on the prowl, sometimes even when there was no prey.

Morrison held silent, surprised at such words from a taxi driver.

"When the hunter is about, nothing is at ease, especially the hunter, whose whole being is focused on the prey. With no prey, the focus is like a burning glass, turned back upon itself."

The driver speculated Morrison needed to "remove himself" from the detrimental influences of his daily life.

"If you want, I can take you to the country. With some luck, you can visit the temple, until you are restored."

Though he hesitated, and struggled with the proposal, Hank really had no alternative. Returning to his quarters in Bangkok, he quietly made the arrangements, in the end, hiring the driver to act as his chauffeur and guide. After making the necessary calls, they headed north. First, they crossed the rice plains of the lower delta. Fish were purchased from the local peasants. Then, they sidetracked among the ancient ruins of Ayutiah, where Morrison paid a herder $2.00 for the privilege of photographing some water buffalo. Further north, they explored the monkey village. Here Buddhist monks perpetuated the practice of nurturing the animals from which the village took its name.

They overnighted in Udorn, then traveled still further north, eating a late breakfast at the bazaar in Nong Kai. Across the Mekong stood the Laotian capitol of Vientiane, which the driver explained, was little more than an outpost for brigands.

The cab then took a westerly course along a primitive jungle road, until the road ended at the base of an immense wall, imprinted with swirling lines. Morrison walked behind the driver, following him around the wall. Passing from the brush, the driver fell to his knees in prayer. Morrison surveyed the scene, and found that he was standing before an immense statue of the Buddha, reclining like a huge fallen tree on the jungle floor. Far to the left, he saw its head propped comfortably on folded hands. The cab sat parked by the Buddha's feet, far to the right. It was the soles of the feet which had been the immense wall.

The driver proved to be a good ally. Though Morrison couldn't understand a word that anyone said, those in attendance were obviously comfortable with his presence, judging by their pleasant expressions, and the fact all were focused on his every need. Morrison thought perhaps the driver had volunteered promises of largesse to follow.

Had Morrison understood their language, he would have known their smiles had much to do with how unsafe it was for a perfumed foreigner, wearing a silk suit, to be standing at the door of a temple, with nothing but a frail wall separating him from the sex-starved novices inside.

Realistically, his money meant nothing to them. It could buy nothing here. They fed him and washed him, and then, put him up for the night, as they would have done for any human being. These were the people of the northern highlands, and the compassion of Buddha was strong in them.

Morrison found the place to his liking, and had already decided this would be the perfect escape. At his insistence, the driver attempted to make arrangements with one of the saffron-robed monk elders. The elder politely refused, and, had Morrison understood, he would have reacted strongly to the monk's explanation that the temple would be desecrated by turning it into a playground for the rich.

The following day, they were about to leave, when a figure emerged from the distant horizon. As the man animal drew nearer, Morrison recognized the shape of what he took to be a fellow American, sporting the ragged remains of U.S. combat fatigues. The figure slid into clearer focus, a man carrying a 5-gallon water container.

"Thank you God! A fellow American!," Morrison exclaimed.

Mirroring surprise, the figure gawked back, "Thank you Buddha! A fellow American!"

He walked directly up to Morrison, extended his hand and introduced, "Hi! I'm Mason, Mason McKenzie."

"Hank Morrison," shaking hands, "What the hell are you doing here, spying or something?"

Laughing, McKenzie said, "You know friend, that's a question that never gets answered around here, even when it gets answered. No, nothing like that. I had nothing better to do after the war, liked it here, liked the people and the language, so I thought I'd hang around."

"But how do you get by?" queried Morrison.

"Actually, the natives have been very generous," responded McKenzie, not explaining further.

Already thinking ahead, Morrison asked, "Well look, how would you like to make an extra $1000?"

"Who would I have to kill?"

"Nothing of the sort," said Morrison as he counted off ten $100 bills in front of McKenzie. "Just get me into the temple for two weeks."

"Are you on the run or something?" asked McKenzie.

"No, I just need to escape for awhile. You might say I'm coming up for some air."

"Oh, I see," replied McKenzie, "You're here as a student of religion, wanting to research Buddhism," winking an eye with a half smile toward Morrison.

To which Morrison, beaming that he had once again found the right person at just the right time, replied, "Yeah! Whatever it takes," then handed the money over.

McKenzie turned to the cab driver, and gave him the full $1000. "This is to reward you for your kindness to the foreigner. It would be appropriate that you return in two weeks' time to take him back to his revelry in Bangkok."

Facing back to Morrison, McKenzie said, "It's all arranged."

Morrison eventually learned that Mason McKenzie was an abbot at the temple, and stood in charge while the head abbot was on pilgrimage. McKenzie spoke the local tongue, and, for the time being, ran the show.

Morrison felt he had been "conned" out of $1000.00.

Once in the sleeping area, Morrison managed to cool down, "What's the program going to be? Calisthenics at sunrise? Newspapers at eight? Breakfast served till ten?"

McKenzie interrupted, "Up at 4:30 am, do your chores, visit the village with your begging bowl, return to the compound for meditation, eat your daily meal before noon, then report to me at 1:00 pm for further assignment."

McKenzie left.

The jungle's cool evening breath licked the monastery grounds, nearly intoxicating Morrison with the verdant sweetness of life that lingered only as a distant memory.

The next morning, he was awakened by two helpful monks, who escorted him to a local pond. Here, the three cleansed themselves, and readied for the day's activities. By 5:30 am, they stood robed and in line, when, to some silent signal, they moved forward in single file. Wherever Morrison looked, people waited with their morning food offerings. There was no want of generosity here. Within an hour, they returned to the temple grounds, where each retreated to his own area for morning study. To some, this meant meditation. To others, studying the scriptures. Morrison saw McKenzie walking toward a small group in the distance, doing ritualistic dance like movements, using swords. Tired, Morrison decided to lay down, and soon found himself half asleep, half awake, studying a Gecko glued to the ceiling above him.

Suddenly, the figure of a young monk appeared to his right side.

The monk pantomimed an eating motion. Morrison understood. To his surprise, his watch showed 11:30 am.

Morrison emptied his bowl, knowing the charity of few cultures would have filled the bowl so well.

At 1:00 o'clock, he followed an elderly nun to a large, open air pavilion with a floor of polished teak. Mason McKenzie sat on a mat, centered at the far end, carefully positioned between the two rows of roof supporting columns. The smell of incense wafted in the air, and Morrison saw a wisp of smoke rising from an urn to McKenzie's right.

Somewhat uncomfortable with the surroundings, he gingerly closed the gap to McKenzie, noting, once again, the fatigues.

"Shall we call the $1000 you gave away, my tuition, paid in full?"

"The money was your payment to the driver, for protection provided, and service faithfully rendered, and don't forget his promise to return for you."

Morrison replied, "Don't you think $1000 is a bit exorbitant? Why up here, it's six month's wages!"

"I figured to include the tip," replied McKenzie, a slight grin tracing across his lips.

Compelled to speak last, Morrison responded, "That's fine, so long as you remember that from here on out, there will be a more direct relationship between what I pay and what I receive."

Changing the topic, McKenzie noted "Your tuition here, is what you do for yourself. The food is provided by the locals, you will have your chores, and you will have your lessons. Your free time, is yours to do with as you wish. You might enjoy exploring the surrounding woods, but be on guard for snakes, tigers, mercenaries, drug runners, and bandits." McKenzie winked.

"Lessons? And what might my lessons be?"

Laughing, McKenzie responded, "Well, you’re in a temple, don't you think we should try something mystical and esoteric?"

"Such as?"

"Ever read Bali?" queried McKenzie.


"Enjoy chanting?"

"Never tried it, though I do practice TM."

McKenzie frowned.

"Well, maybe you like riddles," said McKenzie, "I mean, all thinking men like riddles."

Morrison's face lit up. "I don't know about riddles, but I love to solve problems. In fact, while I'm here, I can help you folks upgrade your sanitation, lay in a couple more foundations, and roads, I can do..."

McKenzie interrupted. "You will tell me the sound of one hand clapping!"

"What!" retorted Morrison.

"Not this minute," said McKenzie, "You'll have this afternoon to contemplate, but tomorrow at 1:00 pm, we'll meet again to review your answer."

As Morrison took a breath to make what he felt to be a valid protest, McKenzie lifted and rang a small brass hand bell, signaling a young monk to enter. "You must go now. It is Mai's time."

Henry left the covered pavilion, and found a path leading into the jungle. As was his habit, he walked to ease his anger. In his world, people didn't talk to him like that, or treat him so lightly. People respected who he was, or so he thought.

Had there been a way, he would have left the temple now. He had already concluded that nothing constructive could come of this venture.

After walking a bit, he found the jungle broke through to a marshy clearing. In the distance, several men waded in a monsoon fed lake, clapping the surface with their hands. To their front, others, positioned a net to trap any fish escaping the disturbance. Fishing in this manner intrigued Henry, and he decided to watch. As he often said to admiring audiences, the successful entrepreneur starts with insatiable curiosity.

He sat on the bank, close by to the fishermen. After a bit, they curled the net and dragged it to the shore, where Henry discovered they had netted several sizable carp.

One of the peasants, an older man, turned toward Henry, lifting one of the fish with both of his hands. Henry, well defended, thought "Can't I go anywhere without people trying to sell me things I don't need?"

Wearing a big grin, the man walked to Henry's front, and pushed the fish up to his face. Had Henry so desired, he could have counted the rows of scales, up and down, front to back.

Trying to communicate, Henry crossed his hands and waved the peasant off, saying things like "no money", "not hungry", "please, I'm just taking a rest...I'm hiking."

As Henry's hands reached out in gesture, the peasant laid the fish into his palms. Henry instantly felt the life force of the animal, as he stopped mid sentence, and looked eye level at the creature he was holding. Thoughts that couldn't possibly exist in a supermarket fomented in his head. A period of silence passed, and Henry reached out, returning the fish to the peasant with a "No, thank you!"

Washing his hands in the water, Henry elected to return to the temple and work on the riddle. Like the carp he had just seen, he resigned himself that for the moment his own destiny was out of his hands.

The following day, at 1:00 pm, he sat before McKenzie.

McKenzie raised his eyes from the work at hand, smiled, and asked "Tell me what you have learned about the sound of one hand clapping."

Morrison replied, "The question has no answer, one hand cannot clap."

McKenzie, still smiling, said, "The question has an answer. You must find it. Think on it and return at 2:00 pm."

Like any good entrepreneur, Morrison had to consider the possibilities. Possibly, the riddle did have an answer. Hedging his bets, Morrison also allowed for the possibility that McKenzie didn't truly know the answer to the question. Perhaps, he was nothing more than a burnt out soldier of fortune roosting in this godforsaken forgotten corner of the world, where he occupied a position of minor importance, beyond anything available to him elsewhere.

At 2:00 o'clock, Morrison returned to announce, "I've struggled with this intensely for over an hour, and can think of nothing that could be an answer to your riddle. I need some help. Some guidance."

Morrison, the quintessential negotiator, figured the more he could get McKenzie to say, the more he would know about whether an answer existed in fact.

McKenzie's brow folded into a look of astonishment. "Repeat what you just said!"

"I said that I could think of nothing that might be an answer to your riddle."

"I'm floored. I've never had anyone make such progress in a mere hour's time." McKenzie summoned several robed monks into the pavilion and, in their Thai-Lao tongue, translated the answer he had gotten from Morrison. They all nodded in admiring approval, one even flashing "thumbs up" to Morrison.

Facing Morrison, McKenzie said, "Of course, now I must test your answer. Go ahead and explain it to me."

Morrison stood silently, still replaying what he had just witnessed.

McKenzie, tsk tsk'ing and waving his finger to and fro in front of Morrison said sternly, "An answer without content is not an answer. Come try again at 3:00 pm."

At 3:00 pm, Morrison returned, angry to the point of belligerence. "You could be providing me some guidance. Instead, you give nothing."

The astonished look returned to McKenzie's face for an instant, and then there was silence. "We gave you many clues at 2:00, but other clues are everywhere. Look for them, find the answer."

Morrison returned at 4:00, at 5:00, and again at 6:00. No words were exchanged with McKenzie.

He was starting to dislike McKenzie!

He felt that somehow, McKenzie had gained the edge on him, through some downright slick maneuvering. Even if Morrison wanted to leave, he couldn't. He was stuck in the middle of nowhere, without transportation, and without the ability to communicate. His only tie to civilization would not return for one week and six days.

The following day, and the day after, Morrison became silent. He talked to no one, not even McKenzie. By the end of day three, McKenzie declared Morrison's self imposed "speech fast" would complement his search for the sound of one hand clapping. McKenzie had thought about recommending a speech fast anyway, but held off, convinced his recommendation would have been summarily rejected. Again, McKenzie praised Morrison's instincts.

"But tell me, why did you decide to enter the fast."

Morrison chose not to respond. He focused on his anger, and the fact three days had passed, and somewhere inside lay the sound of one hand clapping. He listened intently, but heard nothing.

On the fourth day, at 1:00 pm, as Morrison entered the pavilion, McKenzie announced, "Let's go for a walk!"

The high ground of the temple stood 1000 feet over the valley, and at its topmost, a small enclosure housed a golden Buddha. The Buddha sat in lotus. Surrounding the Buddha were thousands of bronze bells, which chimed with the slightest breeze. Though Morrison had only seen glimpses of the structure during his walks, the sound of the bells was omni present.

"Your negative thoughts concern me. They impede your efforts to solve the riddle."

Morrison quick-glanced toward McKenzie, and fixed a stare.

McKenzie, averting the gaze, replied, "Your stare means nothing here. I will not let you control me."

"Those are fine words from someone keeping me here virtually as a prisoner," fumed Morrison. His outburst was so contrary to the normal ambiance, the creatures of the surrounding jungle stopped, and listened for more to follow. Even the bells stood silent as the seconds passed, waiting for McKenzie's response.

"On the issue of why you are here, my memory is certain. You came into our midst one day and asked permission to stay. As I recall, you wished to escape. Now you wish to escape again, only you wish to escape back to that which you only just escaped from. I don't know that I understand it. I suspect that your feeling like a prisoner somehow relates to your search for the sound of one hand clapping."

He continued, "So there is no misunderstanding, you must know that you are not prisoner here, just as you are not prisoner in your body, in this world, or in this life. You are free to make your choices. Lest you be unclear as to what they are, I will outline them for you. If you stay, your taxi-driver friend will return on the fourteenth day, to pick you up. If you remain in the temple, you must pay by following the program. For the time being, that means your schedule, and the riddle. That's our contract. I think you can understand that. There are other activities at the temple, but they would be meaningless to you, and of no service to your benefit."

McKenzie continued, "Your other choice is to leave the temple. Then, you would be on your own. You can choose to find your own way back to Bangkok, or to wait till your driver returns. If you choose to stay, you follow the program. If you choose to leave, you make out on your own. You can not choose to stay here, and not follow the program."

"You see! I am a prisoner," cried Morrison. You know damned well I'd be lost if I stepped out the front gate."

"I don't believe that," said McKenzie. "You can do anything."

McKenzie, of course, knew nothing about the "Philadelphia Shuffle," or United World, or the seven story brothel in Bangkok. Well, maybe perhaps the brothel. News of such remarkable indulgences traveled even to the provinces. His statement that Morrison could do anything was an actualization of his own basic belief that man controlled the material world, and not vice verse. He genuinely felt Morrison had the wherewithal to solve the riddle instantly, or to walk out the gate and survive. What puzzled McKenzie was that Morrison resisted both.

"Remember, you chose to be here. You chose to ask the driver; you chose to enter the temple compound; you chose to ask the elder; and you chose to ask me. You know as well as I that if I had said no to your offer of $1000, you would have doubled it to get me to do exactly what I did, and what I would have done for free. If what I speak is false, say so now, and choose to leave. If I am right, you can still choose to leave, or you can choose to stay. But why, when the facts are still clear in our minds, do you choose to re-write history? Why do you choose not to hear the sound of the one hand clapping?"

They neared the shrine of the golden Buddha, and the sound of bells seemed everywhere. Morrison walked straight into the pavilion, where he was instantly lost in sound. It was everywhere. It vibrated in his ears, on his skin, even under his feet.

His sense of vision returned just long enough for him to see McKenzie headed down the trail. McKenzie turned, and waved, as though to say "see you later."

Morrison remained. He could not tell if his eyes were doing anything. There was only the sound. He would step slowly to the right, then to the left. Like being in water for the first time. He looked around to make sure no one else was there, or looking at him. Then he began to move, at first awkwardly, improvising whatever came to mind, trying to blend with what he heard. At times, he stood on one leg, mimicking the crane, and then, at other times he fish-swam around the sound-filled chamber. With closed eyes, he circled about aimlessly, even lifting his arms at times as though flying. Time stopped. When finally he opened his eyes, he stood before the sitting Buddha, whose bulbous white eyes stared down its golden nose through black pupils, directly at Morrison. The show was for him. The bells rang, the floor vibrated, and the Buddha stared cross-eyed. No one was doing anything, but it was all for him. It was a wonderful show. No one was doing anything, but it was all for him, he replayed the phrase over and over, until later in the evening, he stumbled down the hill, returning to the compound laughing in the darkness.

On day six, at the third session, Morrison entered the pavilion with a deep grin painted across his face, announcing, "I've got it!"

McKenzie, jokingly responded, "Then you'd better not come too close."

Morrison said, "Watch!"...and he began to swing his hand wildly through the air, sometimes scribing circles, sometimes figure eights. Can you hear it Mason?"

"I wish I had a camera," McKenzie replied, "There are a lot of your former associates who would pay to see this. Take a second and explain to me what you are doing."

"This is the sound of one hand clapping," he said. "Obviously, it can't be clapping against another hand. If it's to generate sound, it must be clapping against something, therefore, it's clapping against the molecules of air. Can't you hear it?"

"Yes!" replied McKenzie, "That is a reasonable answer, albeit incomplete. Now, quickly, take out the reason, what does that leave you with?"

Morrison stopped, McKenzie glared at him, "Quick! You almost have it!... Say it!... Now!"

Morrison was empty, but he could not act.

McKenzie's next words cut sharply through the empty silence. "Enough for today. Return tomorrow."

Morrison was stuck. He was no closer to the answer, but now his mind filled with images. No one was making it happen, but it was all for him. He had chosen it all.

That night, he didn't sleep. He couldn't. He wondered why the golden Buddha sat with crossed eyes. Why did a 15th century artist see Buddha as having crossed eyes?

Next morning, he walked with eyes crossed, as he made the morning rounds for food. It reminded him of being on the "speech fast," but he could not see a clear connection. He was certain that within there was one hand clapping, and there was a sound, but how was it possible to get to where the sound was? Without...without what?

It was now day nine. On this occasion, Morrison found McKenzie in the courtyard. He followed McKenzie out to the athletic yard, where advanced students practiced what McKenzie called the "animal movements." It was a way of moving, a way of centering, a way of self defense.

"Maybe the problem is that you're too cavalier in your approach," said McKenzie.

Suddenly, McKenzie turned toward Morrison and announced, "While you slept, the elders and I met, and we decided that if you fail to solve the riddle, you will be put to death at noon on the fourteenth day."

Silence followed. Morrison studied the warrior monks as thoughts flashed about how he had stumbled onto some hidden cult, and now the cat was finally coming out of the bag.

Checking himself, he turned toward McKenzie and asked, "Is that the truth?"

McKenzie laughed, "No! We don't do that! But, the example speaks for itself. How different would your search for the answer be if you knew you had only five days of life remaining? Or, if I told you that in 60 seconds you would be dead unless you produced the sound of one hand clapping?"

McKenzie's voice trailed off into the distance. Morrison followed McKenzie's words, but for now, the words drifted meaningless onto a sea of sound.

Later that day, he came to McKenzie, "I think I'm onto something."

McKenzie glanced, inquisitively.

Morrison reached forward with his right hand, and sharply slapped McKenzie's left cheek.

There was quiet, expectation swelled within Morrison.

"You should never touch another person, unless you first get that person's consent," McKenzie, looking sternly, continued, "Some within the temple would have considered that a green light for martial arts practice."

Addressing the issue at hand, McKenzie added that, "Your answer went beyond reason, and was a manifestation of pure logic. I asked you for the sound of one hand clapping."

Morrison interrupted, "That's exactly what I gave you. What you heard when my hand struck was the sound of one hand clapping."

McKenzie finished his thought, "...and what you gave me was the sound of one hand clapping against the side of McKenzie's head. Of course, through careful application of logic, one might argue that what you gave me is the answer. But I am not interested in conclusions of logic, or the arguments supporting them. Your task is to give me the actual sound of one hand clapping. Take the side of McKenzie's head out of it." Stop thinking about it, and do it, time is short."

"You don't like me, do you?" queried Morrison.

McKenzie rolled his eyes skyward, thinking to himself that logic and reason were like trapped rats. As you move closer to remove them from your home, or from the home of a friend, they're capable of emitting terrifying screams, and, when most tightly cornered, they attack to the front. This man, whom Buddha had entrusted to his care for but a fragment of time, had progressed to the point that logic and reason had now targeted McKenzie for a last ditch frontal assault.

He would have to be very clever!

Morrison went on, "And so, people like me are busting our asses turning sow's ears into purses, finding jobs for hundreds of thousands of people, while dropouts and malcontents like you, who couldn't make it in the real world, set yourselves up like little Bodhisattvas, riding herd on a bunch of superstitious peasants who don't know any better..."

McKenzie's right hand moved slowly out from the center of his body, his palm facing outward, signaling firmly for Morrison to stop talking.

"Leave!" McKenzie ordered.

First, a period of silence, then Morrison continued, "Not in your goddamned life! I've paid my dues, and I've earned my say, even if it means I have to walk out the front door to wander barefoot through the jungle for the next couple of days."

McKenzie, taking charge, interrupted, "Sow's ears to purses. What the hell does that mean?"

"It means that my purpose for being on this planet is to take whatever I find, no matter how worthless, and to make it better."

"And who is to judge that a sow's ear, once it has become a purse, is better?"

"The person who needs the purse does!"

"And what the hell does the sow think about it? What would you say if I told you that last month, I had a pig in front of me, trying to convince me that he was making the world a better place by converting worthless Morrison ears into purses? If it weren't for my convincing him otherwise, today you'd be sitting here with gaping holes in the sides of your head, trying to read my lips!"

Both men stopped for an instant, to consider the image that McKenzie had set forth, then broke into a joint fit of laughter. McKenzie started puppeting his lips as though he were talking, indeed, a gifted mime, which only brought tears to the unhearing Morrison's eyes. As his fit of laughter climaxed, his anger was gone.

McKenzie continued, "The point, my friend, is that it is one thing for the pig to find some Morrison ears lying useless on the sidewalk, which he takes home and refines to purses. It is quite another thing when Mr. Pig breaks into our pavilion from out of the jungle, with an axe destined for the side of your head. The people who buy purses know only that somebody gets the materials somehow. But, the "Morrison" soon learns he can no longer walk the jungle paths, for between the greedy pigs, and their cronies, there is no peace. Just fear! Make a note of that comment, because the path to peace is the sound of one hand clapping. Of course, whatever it is that drives Mr. Pig doesn't stop there. To make his activity acceptable to the purse buyers, and to the occasional protestors, he'll lobby that, at considerable additional expense to himself, he has decided to incorporate anesthesiology into the ear removal process so that the "Morrison" suffers less when its ears are being severed. Thinking as a business person, it would only be a matter of time before Mr. Pig discovers when Morrison ears run low, he can substitute McKenzie ears, taxi driver ears, or even peasant ears, and no one will ever know the difference.

"Imagine a redwood tree at the turn of the century, imperial in its age and its majesty, cut down, and made into figurines and furniture, with the remnants turned into scrap wood. To the entrepreneur, the finished items, figurines and furniture are truly beautiful and unique in their own right, and by his labor the craftsperson has ‘enhanced’ the ‘value’ of the tree. Perhaps he even advanced the human experience by adding to the cumulative total of art in existence. The craftsperson's skills will be commensurately rewarded. Now, think what remains of the redwood. The scraps, the chips and the splinters. Because they had no "use" they were simply disposed of, perhaps even put to the fire. Ask yourself! Do any of the end products stand up to the redwood in its original state?

"Reason is to truth, as the carved figurines and scrap are to the original redwood. The person who knows truth, knows the redwood, and his first question must be, 'What is best for the tree?' The voice of reason will ask 'What is best for me, and then the person who will buy the figurines?' If Mr. Pig had asked me whether I wanted a purse made from Morrison ears, I would have answered that I want Morrison and his ears as one. I want the sound of one hand clapping. The sound of one hand is the sound of truth, not the sound of reason."

Morrison had no response. He tried to recapture everything McKenzie had said, and feared he had already lost bits and pieces. He stood motionless while McKenzie bowed and left the pavilion.

Morrison would have much to contemplate that evening.

By the following day's session, Morrison believed the riddle had a specific answer. He felt it inside himself, and he felt it outside himself, but he could not find the words to express it, or the images to define it.

During the days following, McKenzie had commented more than once about how Morrison looked like a constipated child and, while saying it, McKenzie's face would grow into the most grotesque distortions, manifesting maximum, but unproductive intestinal effort.

On day thirteen, the lesson commenced promptly at 1:00 pm with McKenzie's announcement that, "During the war, I was once captured..."

Without words, Morrison signaled his intense interest. McKenzie had hooked him. The story followed.

"It was during the Tet offensive. Our outlying position was overrun. We had taken heavy casualties, when a grenade exploded close by. The shock, or maybe the fear, caused me to lose consciousness. When I awoke, I was on my feet, hands tied behind my back, following a procession of North Vietnamese regulars. How does one explain it except to describe it the way it was? I was happy that the regulars had captured me, because I had seen what undisciplined guerrillas could do to their prisoners.

"They took me to a jungle compound, where my cell was a wooden box. It measured 2 feet wide, by 2.5 feet high, and 3 feet deep. It had no lock on the outside. The front panel slid down from above into pre cut grooves. There was no light, and no holes for air. A #10 coffee can served as my bathroom.

"The first several hours were an eternity. Though I never saw any of them, I heard other prisoners screaming, and banging against the walls of their boxes. Some even broke down into infantile howling. What was most curious, is that only one person did this in English. Me!

“Thinking of it now, I can visualize some deity watching from far above, listening to the comi-tragic opera being transmitted in Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Chinese, and English from the planet below. Many dreadful tune.

"Though it cut off everything my human nature needed to exist, it wasn't long before I adapted to the box. Some people didn't. Whenever the panel opened on an adjoining box, I would listen carefully for sounds of life nearby. Once, when I heard the sound of a lifeless body being pulled from its container, I found myself unable to breathe. It would no longer come naturally. From that point, I had to "will" myself to take each breath...always, mind over matter.

"In time, I assessed the situation, using reason, and my capacity to think. I found myself learning how to be comfortable in the box. After a week, I no longer even questioned whether I could survive. Rather, I was concerned about the number of cheeseburgers and milkshakes I would order when I finally returned stateside.

"Then, I lost track of time. I simply didn't care about it anymore. Once, one of the guards let me out to stand in the moonlight (they would never allow me to view the camp in daylight). He laughed at my taking cupped hands and carefully sweeping out the interior of my ‘home,’ before I back-entered into it. As the front panel slid closed, my hand felt a soft leathery globe on the floor of the box. Though I couldn't see it, I recognized it immediately as an orange. It was a precious gift, for an orange was a priceless commodity to all sides in this war.

"I spent another eternity, carefully savoring every fiber of the precious fruit. Though I hadn't seen the sun since the day of my capture, I could feel its chemistry within me as the life giving serum hit on switches throughout my body.

"To my dismay, weeks turned to months. The camp took its cumulative toll. I found I was becoming weak. My anticipated release was now a distant, unfulfilled hope, locked in the past. At some point I recognized my death was near. My only choices were to escape, or to perish. I could no longer choose to wait, and expect to survive.

"One day, I was awakened by the sound of a body being dragged from its box nearby to the right. When the time came for evening stretch, my guard ‘friend’ nodded toward the body, and shook his head. I looked at his face. In it, I saw brothers gone, sisters prostituted, and children maimed. The war had become old for him. In the distance, I saw two silhouettes, dragging other bodies toward an open pit. The powdered lime in the pit gleamed white, like snow, in the moonlight. How ironic, for me the pit was simply another box, just bigger.

"When I re-entered my box, I saw that for once, the front panel was not closed shut. Checking my perception, I ran my fingers beneath it. It was true! Had I a mind to, I could lift it!

"I kept pressure against the panel, cautious not to let it drop completely shut. I listened everywhere. When your life depends on it, you can hear everything. Several hours passed, and I knew from the sounds that only two guards were patrolling the compound. There were no lights. To have lights in that situation would have been sure suicide for my captors, given the nightly flyovers by B-52's. I lifted the panel slowly, and peered out from my cavern. The sky sparkled with stars, and the moon beamed in its first quarter. I thought, 'Be patient, Mason, don't rush this' I lay prone, carefully letting my senses adjust to the surroundings. Astonished, I saw there were no fences, and no perimeter concertina wire. The only prison was our boxes, isolation, and the authority of the armed guards. I moved out without breathing, to a point behind my box, where I had a straight path to the jungle. Though I expected trip wires, land mines, or secondary guards along the perimeter, there were none. My escape was clean, until a sudden terrifying thought came over me. What would happen to my ‘friend’ if they discovered my empty box in the morning! I was seized with an urge to return to the box. Not to become a prisoner again, but rather to solve the riddle of how to protect my protector. I sat quietly along the perimeter, trying to see a solution, when suddenly, it occurred to me, no one keeps tally of the dead. Once gone, out of the game!

"The body from the adjoining cell lay uncovered atop the lime pit. With reckless abandon, I walked upright into the camp. I can remember even now, thinking that so long as I felt I was invisible to the two guards, they would not notice me. but if I allowed my concentration to lapse for even an instant, they would discover me, and I would be next in the pit.

"I succeeded! I was truly invisible. After dusting off any residue of lime, I placed the body into my box. The ruse was complete. The second time I left the camp, I walked upright, the way a free man should. Would the ruse work? I only wish I could have seen my friend's face the following day. Would he know of my concern for his safety? Would he understand what I had risked to protect him?

"Then again, did I understand what he had risked to protect me? In any event, I never saw him again!

"Well, I didn't know it immediately, but the experience tilted my values onto a new axis. Eventually, I returned to my unit, and eventually, I got home. But, what was once North for me, had become South, and West, East. Afterwards, no matter where I went, or what I did, I still felt like I was in the box. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I felt like I was back in the camp. Rather, I was forever in a box, as though, no matter what I did, it would end with me in the fetal position and the door sliding shut. Later, I went to school, became a "professional" and, you might be surprised to hear this, was quite successful, at least as measured by the number of "purses" I was able to produce.

"Still, my thoughts always returned to that eternity, which was the first several hours that I spent in the box, when suddenly, like a rocket blasting off from somewhere behind my naval, spiraling up my spine, there was a clear and true voice which screamed that, ‘Human beings are not meant for this!’ It was a voice I had never heard before. After all, I was too busy with schedules, with counts, with the next things I had to do to get promoted, with making sure that my paycheck got directly deposited to my bank, or with the number of hamburgers I would eat when I finally got home. Long after that, the voice remained, and became stronger. "Human beings are not made for this, why have you made this your choice?’ Whether I was staying up all night cramming for an exam, synthesizing a new marketing strategy, or lying in the sack with a beautiful woman, the question was always there. Everything I was doing was alien to the voice within, which unremittingly reminded that human beings were not meant to be doing what I was doing, then queried why I had chosen to do it."

"Then why did you?" asked Morrison.

"The point is, I hadn't chosen anything. I was conditioned ‘not to choose.’ I was trained to think so that I wasn't really thinking, to strive for goals that really weren't goals; like a tree growing upside down. Up until my day of awareness, I was so busy plowing over my goals that even while I thought I was gaining control of my destiny, I was losing it completely. I had damned myself. I had been everywhere, but was nowhere. I was a success, but was empty. I was a scholar, but could only think within the box that others, no different than myself, but at another level, had erected for me."

"And, did they know that they had done this to you?"

"Of course not! Like me, they had no awareness. They didn't have the capacity to choose to do anything to me. Their goals were plowed over too! Their being was reduced to maintaining the status quo, keeping me controlled in a box. The more they could see I was properly confined, the less they could see of their own identical predicament."

Morrison playfully wondered whether McKenzie was in fact, describing some variation of the "Philadelphia Shuffle." Who was the perpetrator? Who was the victim?

"So what does it all mean?" asked Morrison.

"It means," said McKenzie, "that we have fallen from grace, that we are exiled from the Garden of Eden, that we no longer remember who we are, or where we came from, or the power that we have over our own existence. We stand satisfied with a universe of boxes, within boxes, our measure of success is merely how able we are to step from one box, into the next one up. And so long as we don't step out, the system remains intact!"

"But you said you had your day of awareness...?" asked Morrison.

"Yes, that's true..." said McKenzie, "The day came when the voice no longer questioned."

"What happened?"

"The sound of one hand clapping! For me, it was the beginning of truth. From that day, I was free to choose. Whatever confronted me, I immediately recognized what was true, and what was not. I could choose either, but the consequences of my choice would belong only to me. That's why you came here. That's why you found me. That's why you stayed. You know now that there is an answer, but you have to get it out. If you don't, you may as well be dead. You may as well be in the pit reserved for the prison compound corpses. This is not a threat, but your survival, or should I say, the survival of what is essentially you, depends on your finding that answer tomorrow. If you don't do it tomorrow, you may never have another chance!"

Morrison had much to contemplate. Instinctively, he glanced at his watch, only to remember that he had stopped wearing it more than a week ago.

"Time's not the same out here, is it?", asked McKenzie, smiling lightly at Morrison.

In response, Morrison lightly shook his head side to side, answering, "No, when I don't think of it, it's not important at all."

McKenzie reached across the space separating them and put his right hand onto Morrison's left shoulder, "Your instincts are good, when you don't think about them. Don't worry so much about the sound of one hand clapping. It's merely the cherry on top of the sundae. With or without it, the sundae is just as delightful."

McKenzie stood, bowed to Morrison, then left the pavilion.

Suddenly tired, Morrison lowered his body to the teak floor, and closed his eyes. He wondered, "Why could the sound of one hand clapping be a matter of life and death one moment, and then the cherry on top of the sundae the next? It just didn't make sense. It couldn't make sense. If it couldn't make sense, why did he waste his time thinking about it? Still, something was happening. It was as though his body, and his senses, perhaps even his 'instincts' as McKenzie had suggested, were close to understanding a basic reality that was beyond the capacity of his reason. He could argue why the sound of one hand clapping would be a matter of life and death, and he could probably just as convincingly argue why it might be considered the cherry on top of the sundae, but if he argued both points simultaneously, he came across as a fool. In the realm of reason, the perceptions were forever to be apart."

Morrison folded his hands in the prayer position, then laid them beneath his right ear, as a pillow.

Outside, the late afternoon rain made its regular monsoonal round. The tapping of the droplets on the tin roof served as a carrier for the "Sa-Ta-Na-Ma" chanting of monks passing outside. Whatever Morrison had been thinking was gone.

The image of the cross-eyed Buddha bubbled slowly forth into his consciousness, the absurdity of its image evoking a broad grin across Morrison's face. He thought, "If I were a cross-eyed Buddha, how would I react to a smiling Morrison statue sitting on top of the hill?"

A comet of insight arched across Morrison's consciousness. It came not as a thought, but as a light, a flashing strobe. "My God, why do I see them as different? Is it possible that the cross-eyed Buddha and the smiling Morrison are one and the same?"

The rain had stopped. Moist jungle aroma poured into the pavilion from all directions. It had become dark. Morrison knew that he had to see the statue one more time before he left. Traversing the hill in the dark might be a bit risky, but this was no time for wanton caution.

It was darker than he thought it would be, the rain clouds and the jungle canopy combined to absorb all light. Fighting his reservations, Morrison glanced upward, where he knew the trail to be, but which, for the moment, was draped in black velvet darkness.

Taking a few tentative steps forward, Morrison veered from the trail, dropping suddenly downward, rolling across the monastery's crop of lemon grass. Though he was stunned, the pleasant lemon odor revived him. When he found his way back to the trail, he threw off his wet and muddied shirt. Facing uphill to the shrine, or downhill to the temple grounds, he saw only the velvet black of night. He felt a breeze from above.

McKenzie had said Buddha taught the world was a place of suffering. The monks learned even though the suffering was real, it was part of who they were, and why they were here. And each of them held the power to stop it all, because in the end, the suffering was their individual load.

Continuing uphill, Morrison struggled with the question of whether his own life could be described as one of suffering.

"Hardly, when compared to that of a leper..."

And no sooner had Morrison thought the thought, then from the same well sprang the question "And if the world measured success by one's leprosy, what would the successful leper think of the plight of the suffering Morrison."

The question slammed into Morrison with such force that his body lifted completely from the ground. He felt himself descending, not so much falling, but floating, like a leaf spinning downward from an autumn branch.

And as the leaf touched the ground, Morrison returned to his reality, which was that of a 200 pound, 40 year old man, falling face first onto the sloping jungle floor.

Morrison's face left its mark on the soft undergrowth. Lying prone, he delicately lifted to his hands and knees, cursing his inattention to the hazards of the darkened trail. He was wet and soiled, and his head was ringed with pain from the crack it sustained. Morrison tried to lift to his feet, but couldn't. It was as though a great weight sat on his shoulders, freezing his body, leaving only his thoughts free to move.

He could scarcely breathe, as he rose to hands and knees, a cauldron of thoughts bubbled over with images of what his life had come to represent. Kneeling motionless, he stood as judge, jury, victim, and oppressor. He had become slave to the cycle of life and death. He struggled further with the pain as he slowly rose to his feet, stepping forward, foot by foot, knowing that he would rest at the top.

Would that he could drop this unnatural load, and be forever unburdened.

Taking a few more steps, he fell once again to his knees. A break in the clouds was visible in the tropical canopy, and, in the starlight, he saw the silhouette of the shrine a short distance away. But, to his immediate front, what seemed like a vine growing upward from the jungle floor, swayed ever so slightly.

A voice inside whispered, "Cobra!"

Had he come this far to turn back!

"No," he would continue, "Cobra be damned!"

And as he stepped forward, what was cobra, was gone, as was his burden.

Turning to look back, he saw that he had passed beyond the darkness.

A cool breeze ran its fingers like a comb along the hilltop, and the sound of bells signaled Morrison's destination.

He entered the shrine and immediately fixed his gaze onto the crossed eyes of the golden statue. Even in the subtle starlight, the statue had a light of its own.

No longer tired, Morrison regretted he would be leaving the next day. He was tied forever to the role his life had become. McKenzie had said, "It is your Karma. But remember, when you are ignorant, a mountain is a mountain. When you are aware, a mountain is something other than a mountain. But, when you are enlightened, the mountain can be a mountain once again."

To which Morrison had replied, "Then why bother with all this? What purpose does it serve?"

McKenzie responded that, "The purpose is merely to still the water. Only then is the ship free to leave port."

A veil of silence passed over the pavilion. All became still.

Morrison sat before the Buddha, eyes drooping from tiredness, cross-eye to cross-eye. In the trance like state preceding sleep, he finally sensed the secret of the statue.

On the other end of time, a native craftsman had dedicated a lifetime perfecting the technology which produced a perfect statue of bronze, albeit with crossed-eyes. He meant to share a vision with his counterpart on the other end of time's tunnel. The craftsman was Morrison from before. He was the craftsman today. The passage of time was merely a wave traversing a sea which remained essentially unchanged.

There was nothing left to consider, only to experience.

The warm sun of dawn wakened Morrison with a casual caress. McKenzie was sitting nearby, waiting patiently in lotus. Seeing that Morrison had awakened, he asked, "Shall we finish what we started?"

Morrison's eyes rose slowly upward as he moved into his own version of lotus across from McKenzie. The cross-eyed Buddha stared down at both, a slight smile passing across its face. McKenzie stared at Morrison, knowing that only reason kept their true natures apart.

Morrison was empty of distraction.

McKenzie looked across, "Then tell me Morrison. What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Morrison's eyes held McKenzie's stare. From somewhere in the universe, a small thread looped around the wrist of Morrison's right hand. As Morrison held stare with McKenzie, an unseen hand pulled that cord, and lifted Morrison's right arm up and forward, his five fingers pointing straight at McKenzie. McKenzie, knowing the experience, recognized the response. Morrison was dumbfounded.

"And what is the sound of one hand clapping when you are sitting on a stool atop of Everest?"

And again, Morrison's right hand extended up and outward, only this time with a bit more impetus in its thrust toward McKenzie.

"And what is the sound of one hand clapping before you were born?"

This time, Morrison vigorously thrust his hand out with a scream of affirmation.

In concert, the wind blew its own chorus energizing the bells of the shrine.

"And what is the sound of one hand clapping when you are dead?"

Morrison again thrust his hand out to McKenzie.

"How is that?"

Again, Morrison thrust his hand out, exclaiming, "That is how!"

McKenzie, stared through Morrison's eyes, deep into his soul, "But you are dead!"

"No! Not dead. Not alive, but not dead."

Next, only the bells spoke, as the cross-eyed Buddha affirmed.

McKenzie, looking across at Morrison, finally spoke, "I will miss you Mr. Morrison."

Morrison could only nod.

"The monks left you a bottle of rice wine as a present. They said it was to convey their enjoyment in watching your struggle these past two weeks. Of course, that's their way of keeping you in a box of sorts. Few of them have come to the level of awareness that you've attained today. In any event, your driver has already arrived. It is time to gather your possessions and return to your world."

Morrison looked across at McKenzie, took a deep breath, tried to speak, but couldn't. A tear rolled diagonally across his right cheek. "I did not know that leaving would be so hard."

"Yes. But you will go anyway. The world awaits you. I will meet you at the cab."

There, Morrison was greeted warmly by the driver.

"Sir, I am proud of you. I heard that you did quite well."

McKenzie, dressed in his usual fatigues, again carrying the 5 gallon water bucket, emerged from the woods, as though the vegetation had parted to project the image of a man walking forward. As he drew near, the driver carefully loaded Morrison's possessions into the trunk.

Extending his right hand, McKenzie said, "You almost forgot your watch."

Morrison reached out for the watch, and, as he fitted it on his wrist, noticed the hands had been removed.

Morrison glanced up at McKenzie, whose knowing countenance smiled back. "Sometimes, as is your habit, you will think to look at your watch to see what time it is, and, as you see the watch, you will think of me, and your brief sojourn here."

"And what will you be saying to me when I think of you?" asked Morrison.

I will be saying, "Henry, what time is it really?"

Morrison smiled, as he got into the cab.

He had wanted to reach out the window to shake McKenzie's hand farewell, only he discovered that McKenzie had turned to head back into the jungle. His stare followed the teacher's path for the next several steps, until what was once McKenzie, had returned to being a cluster of vines and branches.

In like fashion, Morrison returned to his world, and just as readily, melted into the jungle of concrete and steel. From that day, he knew a mountain when he saw one.

He wore the watch always.

The old Morrison would have considered the thousand dollars well invested.

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