Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Deh Chun was a Chinese Zen master who retired to rural Tennessee in 1965 from New York City. He undoubtedly was the first Chinese person than many of the local residents had ever seen. His plan was to occupy his remaining days in a two-room house by meditating, painting Chinese landscapes, and growing vegetables. However, the ad in Farm Journal from which he learned of the land had neglected to mention its proximity to the University of the South, in Sewanee; and that, therefore, any living exemplar of the Tao should be prepared to entertain a steady stream of idle visitors seeking wisdom, most belonging to the subspecies homo fatuoso fatuoso—the college student. That is how I met him. But others had met him first.

1. Karmic Apple

It seems that there was an itinerant guru named Adano Ley, who was somehow affiliated with the Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, who toured the South in an aqua-and-magenta jumpsuit. Several of the young crowd who used to try to get wisdom from Deh Chun were interested in this guru. What’s more, it seems that they thought it would be really cool to take Deh Chun along to a special initiatory evening with Adano Ley, so they all piled into Chip Burson’s Willys bread truck and trundled down the mountain to Manchester—wives, girlfriends, and Deh Chun in tow.

At some point in the evening, according to Chip and Gene Ham, apples and aluminum foil were passed out.  Each person in attendance wrapped an apple in the foil, and Adano Ley conducted a guided meditation, the purpose of which as I understand it was to direct the bad karma of each person into his or her apple.  The apple was to be placed on a shelf for a week or so, and only then examined.  A really rotten apple would mean a lot of bad karma, or an effective meditation, or something like that.  (I don’t think there were many Catholics present, so these people probably wouldn’t be taken in by bleeding statues of saints on holy days, or any of that nonsense.)

The climb back up the mountain found everyone in inspired silence, awful reverence, and was a continuation of the impressive experience of earlier that evening.  That is, until a rude noise from the back of the Willys bread truck broke the silence—a loud “CRUNCH!” Gene looked at Deh Chun, who was grinning like an idiot, having just taken a bite out of his apple.  He folded the tinfoil, not being one to waste anything, into his sleeve and continued eating. Gene took the foil off of his apple and started eating, too.

2. Firewood

I sometimes try to imagine the inner conflict that Deh Chun’s neighbors must have felt, wanting to regard themselves as good Christian folk and at the same time suffering the inevitable fear and suspicion of having a heathen Chinese move into the neighborhood. There were anomalies beyond all possible enumeration, but if I offered as exemplary the fact that he was alone in not having a mean-looking dog chained to his front porch, it would give some flavor of the neighborhood. He was as strange as a stranger could get.

The students who visited him provided a kind of buffer with the community of Monteagle because, in those days anyway, Sewanee was a men’s college catering largely to Southern Gentlemen whose social standing and familiarity with the local ways commanded respect. As they saw these young men come and go, the neighbors warmed up to Deh Chun. I believe that they also admired what they thought was his stubborn independence, his self-reliance, and his patience with long, hard tasks.

When one of the neighbors told him that he ought to cut down the dead oak in front of his house, unless he wanted it indoors with him, he nodded and thanked the neighbor. He then promptly went to the same thrift store where he bought his clothes and purchased a hatchet—a hand-axe—for a few pennies. Then he set about cutting down this tree of enormous girth—five men linking arms couldn’t reach around it.

Each morning when his wind-up alarm clock sounded, he’d pull the chain that turned on a single 60-watt bulb, sit upright, pull one foot onto the opposite thigh, and meditate. I recall seeing a bodhisattva figure somewhere in his house, complete with swastikas whirling about the breasts, but I don’t think he had an altar. I believe that years of lighting incense in the temple, and of catering to members who made offerings so that their business would prosper, enabled him to reduce his practice to the essentials—meditation, followed by tea and breakfast, followed by a morning of hacking away at the enormous tree with a hatchet. He’d break for lunch, and spend the afternoon on errands, gardening, or painting. It didn’t take very long for Deh Chun’s tree-cutting activities to arouse the curiosity both of his neighbors and of the students who visited. Soon offers came from far and wide to help with the removal of the tree. Neighbors arrived with chainsaws, freshly sharpened and primed with gasoline, but Deh Chun always just shook his head and said, “No, no. I have to do it this way.” They chuckled at this peculiar old fellow who insisted on making things difficult for himself. But they developed a grudging respect for him and for his persistence, his solid regularity. He became part of the neighborhood, quite literally, and if he missed a morning of hacking at the tree because of an appointment elsewhere, he was missed.

Deh Chun had weeks to plan where the tree would fall. Gene Ham arrived late one morning just as Deh Chun was getting ready to make the last few cuts. He watched the little old man swing the tiny axe against the mighty tree, and it began to fall. Slowly at first, then with increasing speed and sound, it cracked and groaned and fell to the ground, bouncing several times and shaking every house on Spring Street.

“So, Deh Chun, what are you going to do with your mornings now?” Gene asked.

“Make firewood.”

And so he did. In a few months, he had the whole tree neatly cut and stacked behind his little house. Some of the more regular pieces, attacked with a saw rather than an axe, made their way inside his house, and were fashioned into articles that by virtue of their function were something approaching furniture.

During this time, one of the students must have made it known that Deh Chun was a Buddhist priest. I’m not sure whether the fact of his ordination really meant anything to his neighbors, or whether it was because he was a neat, quiet neighbor, or whether they deeply respected his determination with an axe—but from that moment on, he was “Reverend Deh Chun.”

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