Love Makes the World Go Round–or–Seven Days in March

Chan HallThe third week in March I participated in a 7-day silent Koan Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in upstate Pine Bush, New York. Seven days spent focusing on a short exchange between a head monk and a zen master written maybe a thousand years ago. 7 days of silence. No “hellos,” “howahyas,” no “pass the salts,” “‘scuse mes” or any other words. Really! Aside from chanting and my part in three 20 minute interviews with John and Simon, our leaders, I said nothing. (Those of you who know me may smile here.) Plenty of time to ponder.

Koans are short renderings of exchanges between zen personalities or reports of their doings. They’re constructed so as to both provoke and defeat thought, ultimately turning investigators away from their habitual thought processes (read: ruts) and thus opening to fresh ways of seeing. ( Imagine a blocked railroad train jumping off its track and dancing in field.)

The retreat’s first full day was devoted to arriving, to transitioning from our daily routines to the peace and simplicity of just being there: a day of simple meditation on the breath and adjustment to the fully choreographed 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. schedule.

On the second day we were directed to pick the koan or huatou (basically the punch line of a koan, used commonly by Ch’an (the Chinese parent of Zen) with which to work for the remainder of the retreat.

“Pick the one you feel has some connection to you,” was the only guidance here. Eagerly I read through the dozen or so choices. Several times I read through them, but found myself drawn to none. No problem though. Remembering the old Zen saying, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!,” I confidently picked none. See, I’m at my best when I’m not in my own way. I’ve noticed this more and more at work. My most successful interventions with clients–particularly in emotionally charged situations–come when I don’t know what to say, but just allow the words (or silences) to appear. So, knowing (believing?) that the appropriate choice would bubble up on its own without my intellect and emotions interfering, I opted to go with whatever I heard my voice say. It said, “I pick this one:”

Head monk asked the master, “How is it that pure, original nature immediately gives rise to mountains, rivers, and the great earth?” The master replied in a loud voice, “How is it that pure, original nature immediately gives rise to mountains, rivers and the great earth?” The head monk suddenly understood.

My brain, of course, immediately demanded, “So whydya pick this one?” I immediately responded, “Its repetition makes it easier for you, my concussion-damaged brain, to memorize.” Of course that wasn’t it.

Next came periods of sitting, walking, working and eating meditations on the koan. Brainwork–developing chains of logic, piles of clues, heartfelt examinations of whatever emotions came along–told me I was onto something. O, what a brain! Soo smart! But first there two minor matters that had to be brought into compliance with it’s emerging theory.

The master spoke loudly, but with what inflection? Did he simply mirror back the head monk’s intonation only louder to call greater attention to it? Was he cynical? Were his words simply loud words, nothing but the disconnected flatness of one’s words into a telephone repeated by the voice of an automated respondent: “Click one if you said one…seventyfive…west7-ty…six…streeeet…?” Was his volume angry? Was it lyrical? Curious? Did that matter?

Whatever the voice, what was the intention? Not the meaning, though. There’s never meaning in these things. Meaning in Zenland is no more than an overlay, an addition, an arbitrary and gratuitous mind product. It’s not part of reality. I explored all these possibilities if only casually. Something had begun to call me and I was not about to be distracted from it.

As for the question being asked and repeated, not for a minute did I take the business of the pure, original nature’s activity as having to do with the heart of things. I, in my ungrounded wisdom, knew it wasn’t about that. In perhaps my third interview, when I was asked, “How is it that pure, original nature immediately gives rise to mountains, rivers and the great earth,” I replied without thought, “It has no choice. That’s what it does for a living.” I believe that answer was greeted with a smile. But, as I do, I get ahead of myself.

My first response to the koan was that, indeed, the head monk did suddenly understand. Yes, I knew that koans sometimes lie, but still, it did say so. More than that, I wanted him to succeed if only as an encouragement for my success. See, at this point, despite all the teaching, I really wanted to solve this koan, to get it right, to be the Zen Star of the Retreat. In fact, some part of my brain was already rehearsing a fittingly modest silent acceptance response to the unspoken accolades of my teachers and fellow meditators.

Here’s where the brain was going: my logic, arising from my work as a therapist, rested in the belief that clients held their own answers (so why not the head monk?) and that by mirroring, by repeating what they’d say, we cool and spiritual therapists simply direct them lovingly and respectfully back to their own insights. Clearly the master, no matter what his intonation, was doing what I’d do. Thus I could identify with him as well as with the head monk. Hell, this was truly all about me and I had this thing coming and going and my life approach was being validated in the process and who could possibly doubt my stardom?

At my first interview with John Crook, the retreat’s prime leader, I told him what I’ve told you. We talked warmly, almost conversationally about my findings. I felt soo good! He concluded that I’d made a “good start”. I left the interview swimming in “GOOD” and ignoring “start.”

More sitting, walking, eating, sleeping, chanting and working. I maintained the men’s bathroom (cleaning floors, urinals, toilet bowls and sinks, stocking toilet paper hand towels, soap and hand lotion) and water station (stocking teas–no sugar please, napkins and cups) in the meditation hall. Then, 2 days later, an interview with Simon Child, the second leader: Simon took photos during retreats. Last year he actually came upon a bear and snapped it a few times. His easy-going presentation complemented John’s scholarly precision. Both have marvelously developed senses of humor. I looked forward to sharing my conclusions with Simon. Conclusions, I say, because 2 days of subsequent meditation on the koan hadn’t moved me an inch from my findings as reported to John. In fact, I was so sure of my self that I often returned to counting breaths during zazen (sitting meditation) rather than work at all on the koan. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

And so it was with great pride (humbly rendered) that I voiced my flawless findings to Simon. Simon at first looked at me quietly. Then, and I’ll never know how he did this, his face morphed from that of a delightful family physician completely into that of a fierce, bushy eyebrowed scowling zen master monster. “By selecting your approach,” he said in a voice so powerful it needn’t be loud, “you’ve bypassed all the other possibilities.”

Damn! Damn damn damn!!!

I was instantly devastated. The brain’s confidence and pride (“ego” seems to fit here nicely) suddenly lay shattered on the interview room floor. I’d been good-cop/bad-copped! I’d been stripped of my strengths. I was…I was……back on my mat, kneeling toward the great wooden Buddha, feeling weak and empty and, yes, stupid. But again something was happening. I’d latched onto an understanding of the koan based on a very personal, ego-based logic, and however arbitrary it might be, to me it was compelling…compelling. Suddenly this was no longer about right or wrong or stardom or defeat. Again something was happening! Feelings fell away as I realized this had become about…commitment! In my life I’d made and would undoubtedly continue to make commitments here and there based on things deeper than intelligence, things deeper than feelings.

Now love came into the picture. This time, for the first time, I knew what that meant: love that is beyond the popular emotion and in my understanding ultimately motivates pure, original nature–the one that immediately gives rise to mountains, rivers, the great earth and (o my God!) me!

I’d left the head monk and the master half way around the world in another millennium and made the koan mine, made it an endlessly wide road of undetermined length and no particular direction. The koan had become my life koan.

And I knew that, should I bring this to him, John would smile and tell me that my good start was continuing. Simon, on the other hand, just might show me a photo of a bear.


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Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 1:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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