Aw, Koan wit yez!


Let me make this a bit scholarly by quoting someone who actually knows what he’s talking about before devolving into my homey self-example.  The writer here is Koun Yamada.  He is writing in the Author’s Preface to the First Edition of the Gateless Gate: the classic book of Zen Koans.  The man says:

The entrance into Zen [right away an interruption from me: Forget about the first four words.  This is no more or less than getting to know yourself, a point I’ll undoubtedly make more times than necessary] is the grasping of one’s essential nature.  It is absolutely impossible, however, to come to a clear understanding of our essential nature by any intellectual or philosophical method.  It is accomplished only by the experience of self-realization through zazen.  [Another interruption from me: Zazen is sitting meditation, and I don’t buy it as the only way to knowing who or what you really are, but it comes with the quotation.  Let the man continue:]  And the koans [Me again:  Koans are short–often very short–stories designed to confound our usual processes of understanding] used in Zen can be seen through only when looked at from the essential point of view.  Therefore to the person whose enlightened eye has not been opened, Zen koans seem impractical, illogical, and against common sense.  Once this eye  has opened, however, all koans express natural matters and relate the most obvious of realities.

OK, so koans are apparently absurd little stories which, when we try to figure them out, exhaust our practical, logical, commonsensical faculties, thus bringing into play our impractical, illogical and–here  I’m being cute, but maybe not–nonsensical connections with life.  Most remarkably we never solve them so much as transmute them into openings for entering into that deeper understanding of ourselves and all of reality.  You might call them an entrance into (OMYGOD!) Zen!

Let the scene shift…IMG_1181

The last week in May was spent at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York.  The event was a seven day Koan Retreat, the third I’ve attended along with five Western Zen Retreats of five days each and one other done mostly in Chinese with English translations.   DDRC has become an grounding place and a launching pad for me.  Without any formal acknowledgment or contract, the retreat leaders, John Crook and Simon Child,  dharma heirs of  The Venerable Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009), have become my teachers.  Without conspiring they regularly double-team me, good-cop/bad-cop me into new levels of growth.  What’s particularly remarkable is that there is never forewarning of who will be which cop!

This retreat like the others was a great success: learning to deal better with both physical and spiritual pain, opening more to reality and being a bit less vulnerable to the persuasions of ego.  The method was koan based, using these ancient conundrums as a portal to self understanding beyond cognition, to lead us into worlds of sensation and perception without the brain’s compulsion to organize and interpret and value-judge.

After a day to settle in and leave the rest of the world behind we were given a handout with 7 full koans and perhaps 7 hua-tous, the punchlines to other koans.  Our task was to select the one we’d prefer to work on for the remaining days.  The belief: we are drawn to our choice by the karma we bring to it.   A social worker might substitute the word “unconscious” for karma, but this particular social worker no longer sees a difference between the two.

I chose  “How can you step off the top of a 100 foot pole?”  I chose it for several reasons:

1. I knew this hua-tou and so thought I had a leg up on it.
2. It was short and thus suited my limited ability to memorize.
3. I could sing it to the tune of “Saturday night is the loneliest night of the week.”  (Try it!)
4. Something told me it was the one to go with.
A note here: this seven day silent retreat was one of continual meditation,  the meditation taking several forms.  Each day’s schedule was the same, beginning with exercise done meditatively.  Eating was done as a meditation on eating.  Twice each day we engaged in a work meditation.
My work meditation task was to sweep the 35′ x 70′ meditation hall twice a day, a job that had me walking continually on bare feet continually in pain–another opportunity to truly practice.

The retreat actually went as the one a year ago had also gone.  The day of settling in.  Then one day of befuddlement followed by a day of thinking I had the thing licked.  An interview with our teacher and this year’s bad-cop, John Crook, who allowed me to rage successful for a few minutes then, by posing a simple follow-up question to my self-satisfied ravings, propelled me into “Great Doubt.”  Great Doubt is another traditional Zen concept.  It describes a period of utter agony which I expressed as thoughts of Why am I here?  Who am I fooling?  What’s the point of all this self-torture anyway?   Notice that here the focus has shifted from the literal content of the koan to it’s impact on all of my life certainties.  The portal was open.  Did I dare walk through it?

My immediate and thoroughly logical conclusion: go back to the dorm; pack; hitch hike back to town; catch the train back to NYC!


One view from the center of the circle of Great Doubt

But something else said stay.  A few hours later, during a period of solitary walk-in-the-woods meditation I found myself in an unknown part of the retreat grounds in a light rain, not so much distracting myself from the interior gloom by focusing on the exterior beauty but simply melting into it.  That’s when it hit, my revelation of the moment, one which would carry me through the ups and downs of the week’s remaining rollercoaster ride and (hooray) life since then:

I am a happy man who occasionally has unhappy moments.

I know, there are a whole bunch of you out there who already knew that.

Published in: on June 13, 2009 at 10:55 am  Comments (10)  

This is a Hard One…


At this moment this has nothing to do with Christmas, Channukah, Kwaanza or any other holiday.  It has to do with a painful event followed by another painful event which continues to cause pain.  It’s not at all appropriate to the season, and, given the usually light or musing nature of this blog, not even appropriate to what I’ve been writing.  Let me stop explaining and just start writing.

*     *     *

Back on the 31st of October I began a period of intensified Zen meditation, study and practice lasting through the 6th of December.  During that period I participated in a group study of the writings of a  8th century Chinese Zen master, Ma-tsu (which I didn’t understand) and understanding of the Ten Essential Precepts (which I didn’t do well with either), extended my daily meditation period from 35 to 40 minutes (which did nothing to increase the depth of my meditation),  focused on maintaining two of those Ten Essential Precepts (#7: not elevating oneself or blaming others–to own one’s limitations, and #9, not being angry–to see things as they are and not as they should be (which may prove to be the saving grace in all this.) On December 6th this formal period, called Ango, ended with a meditation beginning at 8 in the morning and lasting until after 9 in the evening.

It was during this extended meditation  period that the first painful event occurred.  It happened at about 3:30 in the afternoon.  I was sitting in meditation when suddenly, with nothing I can recall to provoke  it,   my mind and body were taken over by feelings I’d never before experienced.  Intense helplessness, pain, isolation, terror, bewilderment, betrayal, despondency–I was experiencing feelings often described to me over the last 15 years by clients I’ve treated for addictions: the feelings that accompany being sexually abused as children by a trusted family member.  For all the years my clients did their best to describe their feelings, this was the first time their reports had moved from my cautious and distancing brain right into the center of my living.  I was sweating.  My belly was flipping.  Tears tried to come out, but I was too terrified to let that happen.  It was as if all that I had held certain and dear in life was simply no more.  I felt utterly alone and defenseless in this universe.  Utterly at the mercy of any and all evil.  Without losing consciousness everything went black.

Blessedly, when the gong sounded ending the meditation period I was scheduled to meet with one our teachers, our senseis, to discuss my progress and receive counseling.  I all but ran to the daisan area, the private space where we were to meet, my muscles tight to aching and my nausea just under control.  I rushed the polite introductories and spilled out as best I could the feelings which still ran through me.  I knew that compassion, one of Buddhism’s fundamentals was involved, but that empathy, a similar but much more visceral response, was overwhelming all else. Sensei would bring me back to balance.

Sensei looked at me calmly, and said that his job was to help me with Dharma, the Buddhist term which can mean either reality or the Buddha’s teachings, which are also reality.  When I continued my blurting, he noted that he had many more students to see and could not spend a lot of time with me.  When I continued–undoubtedly repeating what I’d already said, he asked me if I wanted to study koans, Japanese/zen mind-releasing puzzles, in January.  I responded that I was too tied up in this moment to think a month ahead.

At this point there was a pause, then I heard Sensei say, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”

What???  I was certainly jolted out of my terror and nausea.  What the fuck did that mean?  Who was self-hating?  I’d very carefully explained that I was feeling feelings my clients had described, that I’d never been molested nor had I molested anyone, that my life, ups, downs and the rest, had left me feeling blessed.  I had no idea of what he meant by his sentence.  I knew that Zen could be cryptic, but this was beyond my ability to understand, beyond my ability to even see the suggestion of a path to explore.  Still I was too upset to even ask what was meant, too chaotic to do anything but fall back on my habitual insecurities and assume that sooner or later I’d understand what my teacher was telling me.  Not all that deep down I felt that somehow it was being implied that I was an abuser.

Bowing meekly I left the room and returned to my mat.  For the next 5 hours I was useless. There was no meditation.  Motionless and silent, the agony of my clients had been joined by my own.  I, too, felt abandoned.

That was on Saturday.  Sunday, Monday and Tuesday I remained preoccupied, embedded in turmoil.  Tuesday night I returned to the zendo for regularly scheduled meditation.  Before even taking off my jacket I signed up for daisan with Sensei.  I had to know what had been meant by, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”  Walking to the interview area I alternated between rehearsing my words and urging myself not to turn and run.  Arriving in the daisan space, my voice at the edge of tears, I explained how I did not understand his comment, that I remained upset and without direction, that I had to know the meaning of his comment.

He replied directly and without hesitation, “I never said such a thing,” and asked for the context of this alleged remark.  I repeated all that I described above to you, all of which he acknowledged, all but the devastating sentence, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”  Again I flashed back to the stories from my clients.  Now, however, I wasn’t just hearing them.  I had become one of them.  Like them my perception, my reality was being denied.  The one whom I saw as my help, my rescuer, was denying what I knew to be true.

“You must understand,” Sensei continued, his voice firm and words precise.  “You must understand: I have no memory of ever having said those words.”  I looked into my lap, my shoulders dropping, my belly heaving, eyes wet.  A second, a minute, an eternity passed, then I heard a weak, infantile version of my own voice:  “I understand that you have no memory of ever having said those words.”  I rose and returned to the meditation room.

*     *     *

Zen and Ma-tsu talk of an all-containing universe, a universe so grand that it knows no contradictions because it holds all.  Truth and not-truth, full and not-full, raped and not raped.  Leaving my meeting with Sensei I focused on the universe holding memory-of-this and n0-memory of-this.  My truth and Sensei’s truth.  A universe big enough for both.

Intellectually I see no problem in this–now.  Sensei remembers one thing.  I remember another.  Reporting on our memories, we are both accurate.  Be clear, other than what we remember there is no trace of what transpired in that daisan on December 6, 2008 at around 3:45 in the afternoon.  The events of that moment are no longer part of here and now reality.  They are only of the past.

Reality, that which exists right now, is another story.  Right now Sensei may well believe that my memory is broken and, indeed, it has its problems.  I believe that  Sensei’s memory–if only in this instance–is simply not as good as my own.  I’d like to leave all this in the past, but there is the matter of pain, pain which is now and is real.

That pain which I  feel now is not that of my clients.  Nor is it that of not being comforted in those moments coming off the meditation mat. It is not even the pain in the accusation I inferred from the words, “Where there is self-hatred there can be no progress.”   No, it comes from my inability to leave the past behind, and as such it becomes my teacher, pointing up unmistakably my now-and-then tendency to become stuck in products of my mind.

Here I become grateful.

The work with my clients is to help them dislodge from the suffering brought on by clinging to the horrors and beliefs arising from their pasts.  Having it thus handed to me that such is not the clean and easy task I’ve always envisioned bolsters my compassion and my patience.  It makes me better at what I do.


Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Comments (13)  

If Bees Make Honey In the Lion’s Head, What Do Wasps Do?

Friday night.  16 retreatants and two trainees kneeling on meditation mats, comprising three sides of a square in the center of Chan Meditation Hall, Dharma Drum Retreat Center, Pine Bush, New York, autumn.  At the 4th side a just larger than life statue of the Buddha and, in front of it, Simon, our teacher.  He asks,

“Why are you here?  What are your expectations?”

Everyone, it seems, expects the others–or at least an other–to answer first.  This is my 4th Western Zen Retreat.  I’ve been through this before…know what to expect.  At  home on my desk in a rubberbanded collection of randomness, there is a note from a previous such retreat,

“A chaotic retreat–emotional roller coaster, feet, legs, upper arm, toes, squeaky sides.”

The longer I wait for an other to answer, the later I’ll get to bed.  So the first voice is mine:

“I’m here because these things have become part of my life.  I  have no expectations.”

Yeah.  Right.

*   *   *   *   *

Saturday morning.  Everything usual.  Up at 5 am.  Out of the dorm and on the 5 minute walk to Chan Hall for exercises by 5:10.  Meditation begun at 5:30.  Morning ritual…more meditation…first private interview with Simon, a trainee sitting in.  The purpose of the interview is  for me to receive a huatou, a question, not necessarily answerable, to be used as an exit from my logical thinking and an entry way into whatever is beyond it.  Pleasantries…a pause…the pause continues, then without warning or permission a voice comes from my mouth, a voice that surely is my own, but one not connected to my thoughts or even my mind–a voice coming from somewhere deeper, much deeper:

“There’s something going on.  I don’t know…People I love, care about, they tell me I’m being hostile, nasty to them.  My words, my presentation…they’re really hurt…I’m really hurting them.  I’m not like that.  That’s not me.  I don’t know…

Simon just looks at me.  He’s really good at that.

“I’ve been meditating for 7 years now and I can’t hold focus for more than 4 seconds at a time and I’ve had this pain in my foot since the end of winter, beginning of last spring…neuroma…shots didn’t work.  Neither does this dumb-ass overpriced over-the-counter insole that doesn’t even fit in my shoes when my foot’s in there…Probably need surgery.  I love walking.  I live in a city made for it, and I can’t do it without real pain.  Now my Achilles tendon is messed up and my hip on the other side and sometimes my back because of the way I walk to try to minimize the damned pain.  And other stuff: shoulder and my forearm and my memory–ever since the crash and the concussion a year ago May and nothing’s coming back and when my parents were my age they’d both been dead for 6 years each…”

O my God!

Simon is still silent.

“O…my…God, it’s death, isn’t it?  I’m afraid of dying (or at least the pain of it) and I haven’t even been able to tell myself.  I’m scared shitless and my fucking fear is covered over by anger.  My fucking anger at mortality is coming out as anger toward others…o my God…”

Simon speaks. My huatou:, What is impermanence?  For an undetermined length of time I am to use the tools of silent meditation and monolog presentation when paired with other retreatants to pursue this wherever it might lead.  I fold my hands in prayer-like gassho and bow.  Simon and the trainee respond similarly, and I leave the interview room.

By noon my depression, my sadness is so intense that I seriously consider skipping lunch, going straight to the dorm to pack, hitch hike to the closest railroad station and return to the city.  Yes, I remembered previous retreats.  Yes, I remembered thinking on the way up that there’d be periods of misery like this.  But this was like nothing I’d anticipated.  This was hell! I followed the group into the dining hall, went through the motions of the before-meal prayer, ate, rinsed my plate and bowl and went into the kitchen.

My work meditation assignment was to wash the pots, pans, serving plates and whatever else might find its way to the three sinks after each meal.  Here I was, obsessed with, grappling with an aching body and a mind full of death, and I had to wash the pots.  Here, too, was that something larger and mightier and  vastly truer than my ego-dominated mind.  This manifested at first from my sense of community.  I couldn’t very well skip town leaving sinks full of lunch pots for another.

(Sigh) So I started washing.  At home, at Still Mind Zendo, each Saturday morning meditation concludes with a period of samu, work meditation.  The focus is on the work and only the work, making it a transition from the formality of zazen, sitting meditation to the world at large.  Here to…here too.  As the warm, soapy water embraced my hands, all my attention went to the task.  No awareness of the neuroma, the arthritis, the pulled muscle.  No awareness of missing my mother and father, of the fear of pain and death.  Nothing but the awareness of cleaning pots.

With the work of the moment completed, I went out onto the porch to put on my shoes.  Shoes on retreat, you see, are just a means of transportation like cars and bicycles in other places.  They are used to get from one location to another and are not worn inside.  The air was crisp, cool, midday sunny and upstate crystal clear.  As I wriggled into my boots and back into my sadness, I became aware of the temporary magic or miracle or just Zen-stuff back at the sink.  I remembered that wonderful half hour without suffering.  Then I looked up!

The tree

directly in front of me

looking just like this

was this!             

…and it was surrounded by full, glorious autumn!  And, yes, I was aware of what I had been so overwhelmed by and it was now, again, no more than a set of thoughts and feelings, no more than neurons bouncing around in my brain.  There are innumerable koans, brief stories of Zen monks and masters in which the monk, in the midst some perfectly mundane activity, suddenly realizes enlightenment.  Now I’m not claiming that for myself.  No, I simply rediscovered that there’s nothing like focusing on the real world to get me out of the constructions in my head.  I’ve known this for quite a while now.  I even teach it to my clients, men and women in recovery from suffering, delusion and drugs, directing them to “Get out of your minds and into the world!”

This is simply being mindful.  And, of course, many teachers have pointed out that being simply mindful is not at all difficult.  Remembering to be mindful, however, is another story.

*   *   *   *   *

At the next interview Simon brought me to the next step.  My second huatou, “What is an other?”, was designed to examine my relationship to others–particularly, perhaps, those I’ve hurt with my anger.  And then a third interview, this one completing the circle, the one in which I was again asked, “Why am I here?”

My response, of course, I am here to learn–again–that reality is just fine with me!

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (1)  
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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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Empty Hallways

If you want to get Buddhist about it, nothing has a beginning, but this story does. It begins at 5:25 a.m. on last September 10th, and that’s the problem. You see, all this takes place at a five day Western Zen Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. My job as a retreatant (along with cleaning the meditation hall men’s bathroom and maintaining the water station) was to wake up each morning at 4:55 a.m. so as to wake the other men living in the men’s dormitory at 5 a.m. so that we could all show up for morning exercises which began at 5:20 a.m.O.K., so this story begins at 5:25 when a monk/retreatant stands in the dorm hallway and claps his hands loudly and repeatedly until he is satisfied that no sleeper–including me– remains among us. Simply put, I’d screwed up. Either I’d mis-set the alarm clock or was relying on a defective alarm clock (later extensive investigation an testing revealed that it had worked both before and after this incident, although it–or I–would fail again two days later.)

Immediately my brain was beset by The Voices: “Fuck up! Idiot! You did it, didn’t ya? All the guys are late and you did it. Chan tradition, Zen tradition, thousands of years of people showing up when they’re supposed to and now you’ve blown it. Look at you, nobody that you are, lying there in your sweaty sleeping bag having destroyed the entire legacy of Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhidharma, the Sixth Patriarch, Venerable Master Sheng Yen, Pima Chodron and your favorite poet, whose name I’ll not allow you to remember, you miserable portion of turkey ballast. You and your pitiful $7 alarmclock. Pack that clock, boy. Pack it and slink your slimy ass out of here before all those who truly love the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, pull out their vegetable cleavers and turn you into celery pate.”And this was just the beginning, the warm-up. The voices were just finding stride, and I, lost in guilt, remorse and masochism, could do no more than whimper “yeah” and “How could I…?” and “What’s wrong with me?” and “I really did it this time” and, of course, “Shit.”

This duet, the anger of The Voices and the simpering self-denigration of my responses, continued for hours. Through morning meditation, through the opening ceremony, through walk back to the dining room, breakfast, my walk back to the meditation hall to clean the bathroom and check the water station and then through the walk back to the dorm for rest period, ringing my little bell along the way to alert others to the end of morning work period. My rest, of course, was no rest at all. With not only The Voices to keep me anxious but also my fear that I’d fail to alert my fellow retreatants to the end of rest period, I non-rested bolt upright in a plastic chair in the silence of my room of shame. No peace. No hiding place.

My morning, this as it was, continued as just that. Although I got everyone alerted to the end of rest and the beginning of the morning dharma talk, I remained trapped inside my head. Of course I heard nothing, the instructor’s normal speaking voice being no match for the yelling of The Voices. Next came the first communications exercise of the day. Each of us had been assigned a question by one of the instructors, the kind of question, like “Who am I?” or “What is life?” that can lead to a universe of self-discovery. We would pair off, and each would speak in answer to his/her question for five minutes. The listener could do no more than listen. No feedback of any kind: words, facial expressions, body language all prohibited. Then roles would be reversed, then again and again and again and again. Each would speak three times. Each would listen three times.

My partner, Elizabeth, and I were midway through the second go round when she was called out by an instructor for daisan, a private instruction. I was left with The Voices, so the self-castigation continued. With no distractions and no shelter, the attack escalated well beyond merciless. By the time she returned The Voices had gone all out and were finally exhausted. I was an empty emotional corpse. Now here’s where all this finally gets interesting. As she approached me, I noticed new activity within my body. My posture straightened. My back and calves stopped aching. My head straightened. Internally I felt the self-pitying fog lift from my brain. Energy returned. Clarity appeared. All evidence and residue of the morning’s misery was utterly gone, replaced by a great positive influx of the most joyful and dynamic energy. But from where?Partner Elizabeth’s interview had been wonderful. She had reached a successful understanding of her question and had been given another. She felt overwhelmingly positive, and I was the one being overwhelmed. Her energy was simply flowing into the vacuum left by my tormentor’s success and evacuation. For that wonderful moment my emptiness became the receptacle for her delight.

Was this the emptiness Buddhism speaks of? Had I spent a moment in being truly free of my self? I mean, it really was great. Kind of like being not a perpetrator or a victim. Just being an observer. Yeah…just an observer…nice.

But surely there must be a more pleasant way to attain this. Five hours of self-flagellation can’t be the only way in. Then I remembered…meditation.

O, yeah.

Published in: on September 24, 2007 at 10:03 am  Comments (3)  
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Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond…

Just about twenty-four hours ago, maybe it was forty-eight, I wrote an entry for this space using a method I learned from Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing down the bones. Simply, one begins by placing the pen or pencil in the upper left hand corner of a blank page and writes and writes and does nothing but write. No reading what has been written. No correcting spelling or grammatical or punctuation or any other possible errors. No crossing out. Just keep writing until the pre-determined time period has ended or the hand hurts too much or you run out of paper or ink. Being bored or running out of things to write are not legitimate reasons to quit. Rather they become topics of the writing. Something like…

…and so in conclusion let me just restate that never before in the history of human kind have such wonderous thoughts beens s et to paper. (Damnit, what do I write about now? I can’t believe that there’s nothing left to say. Not hing coming to mind at all. There’s bot to be something to write about. I promised myself I’d keep this up for at least 20 minutes and I[‘ve got at least 3 or 4 to go…

Anyhow I had written about working with koans at a seven day Ch’an retreat at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center about 6 weeks ago, about how I’d struggled to the end of my logical abilities to make sense of this Zen puzzle and still came to no answer. Then, as it is supposed to happen if one is sufficiently open, the investigation jumped outside the realm of the logical. One afternoon, standing along side a creek rushing with snow melt, all sorts of ego and emotion made their unbidden appearances, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by feelings of nausea and loneliness–the likes of which I’d not felt since my first marriage ended in 1974. Only this time it was quite clear that these feelings were not being thrust upon me. I was creating them myself–or better–the ego was doing it.

At this point the writing exercise began to imitate the koan work. I’d reached the end of the koan stuff (I’d thought) but was commited to writing more. Without planning I found myself describing the interior I encounter whenever, on my bike, I approach the top of East Clinton Avenue. East Clinton is a mammoth stepped hill which descends the New Jersey Palisades a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge. I can easily reach 45 mph on this descent. As I near the top, the initial “o boy!” thoughts are chased out of my skull by the “what-if” messages of Logic:What if somebody backs out of a driveway?Or crosses an intersection?Or there are pebbles on the road?

Or oil slick?

Or some oncoming fool decides on an unsignaled left turn right in front of your zippy ass?

Images of Goldberg as roadkill, of ambulances, of weeping family members as far away as Taiwan compete for space in my cinema brain.

Here the brain shuts down and the emotions kick in: anticipation, a kind of wordless concern, anxiety, fear. As I begin the drop feelings progress into outright fear, omygod fear, mind-changing fear, resignation-fear and then…a white-noise of no feelings as it becomes evident that feelings are as irrelevant as logic. With feelings gone comes pure response to the ride, comes “WHEEEE!!! Not out of control. Not in control. Control is simply no longer a factor.

Now the connector between the koan work and the hill are most neatly stated in another koan:

The priest Shih-shuang said, “How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole?”

How, when you’ve reached the limit of your secure, verifiable, testable and provable logical process, to you take that additional step into the insecure, unverifiable…ultimate spiritual realm? Birds have to be nudged out of the nest. My long-time-not-seen friend, The Mole, insisted that the only thing to get him to leave the security of his parents’ apartment was them closing the place down and moving out of state. For many of us it is that “leap of faith, the belief, not that all will work out as we might wish it to, but that this is what is called for at this moment. Beyond that, whatever happens we will be able to handle it.

When an addict decides to go sober this selfsame leap of faith is involved. So too, I think, for the immigrant who moves to a new land without the promise of anything. Each may create his own suffering of fears and hopes (two sides of the same egoistic coin) or, by simply doing what must be done, avoid the suffering, stay better focused on the reality and thereby increase chances of success.

At any rate, 24 or 48 hours or so ago when I was at about this point in the exercise, just after I’d launched into a bit about how, when we take these leaps, we leave behind who we were and become whoever comes next, I hit the “save and continue editing” button and the entire essay disappeared. Disappeared. Vanished from my hand. Gone. Poof! The life-follows-art conspiracy strikes again.

Another koan:

It is said that throughout his career as a rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln always had the same axe. During that time he went through 3 handles and 2 heads.

Published in: on April 16, 2007 at 9:03 am  Comments (1)  
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