Zen & the Arts - Field Notes


For some fellows dancing can feel like it carries significant risks. While their body is saying “yes, yes,” a story may haunt them about dancing badly, about the lack of grace in their movements. For these fellows, the specter of the Misstep appears on the dance floor. Magu Roshi, a Zen master from back in the day, was such a fellow. Here’s his story:

Magu Shakes His Staff (Case Sixteen, Book of Serenity)
Magu, ringed staff in hand, went to Zhangjing; he circled the meditation seat three times, shook his staff once, and stood there at attention.
Zhangjing said, “Right, right.”
Magu also went to Nanquan, circled the meditation seat three times, shook his staff, and stood at attention.
Nanquan said, “Wrong, wrong.”
Magu said, “Zhangjing said ‘right’ – why do you say ‘wrong’?”
Nanquan said, “Zhangjing is right – it is you who are wrong. This is something that can be blown by the power of the wind – it inevitably disintegrates.”

The Misstep is a most subtle step, as it’s on the inside, not the outside. Once while dancing with my partner (who was also my partner off the dance floor), she gave me a look of such hopeless pity I can still call up the resulting freezer burn.

There’s a small gap in that logic, however; it’s the gap between whatever her look happened to mean to her, and my self-determined climb into the freezer chest. Because there’s no denying that it was me who opened the lid, rearranged the frozen vegetables to make space, and stretched out in my cold white coffin. Such a Misstep captures the body not from the feet up, but from the head down in some devious neuronal dance leading to no dance at all.

Perhaps my confusion, like Magu’s, stems from not picking up on my dance partner’s moves. This can arise when our dance with someone becomes a dance for someone—taking the stage, not taking part. Perhaps Nanquan’s “Wrong, wrong” isn’t a verdict at all but a fiery tango move, inviting Magu to dance with, not at, his partner. He’s reaching across the universe, feeling for Magu, and nothing’s wrong till Magu sends himself to hell with his “Why do you say wrong?” Nanquan shares a new step—no thing survives the power of the wind…dance with me now!—circling the woeful Magu, frozen in his tracks.

I’m not sure that one can learn perfect dancing, especially if the Misstep is one’s natural style. I’m skeptical of diagrammatic approaches, like those roll-out mats with stenciled dance steps: place left foot here like this, then right foot over here…. It feels more like the music itself is all that may rescue one in those moments when it feels like the freezer chest is about to roll into the room.

But the freezer is an empty demon. Even a little face-to-face with my true dance partner pulls the plug, lifts the lid, and the ice begins melting. Then the dance floor opens and the dance, too, in steps and missteps so intimate, so beautifully shared, you’d think they were choreographed. Relieved of my need to take the lead, to keep the beat, I can feel more how it’s keeping me. Even just walking around the joint, there’s a warm shimmy at my center.

Field Notes

– From Jørgen Leth, “The Perfect Human” (1967)

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