This is about Zen and me (or should I say, not-me?). If you don't mind reading some rambling personal reflections, then welcome to my world. Kick off your shoes and take a seat.
I began formal Zen training during a time when I was abjectly miserable. Most of the Zennies I've met over the years have said the same thing. I've also met a few people whose life stories suggest they were always happy and well adjusted and got into Zen because it looked interesting. I have a hard time relating to that, but I guess it's possible.
Some time into my second or third sesshin I began to see myself and my brother and sister Zen students as turtles. People come into practice encased in shells made of their own life-story narratives. This turtle was abused, that turtle is broken hearted, the one in the corner has unauthorized sexual preferences. Every turtle has his or her own story, and the stories grow rigid and shut the turtle inside.
The day I stuck my head out of my shell and realized nearly everyone else at sesshin was encased in his or her own shells was a turning point for me. Today the shell is not entirely gone, but it's lighter and thinner. Along the way chunks of it fell off whenever I forgot it was there.
The great thing about abject misery is that it inspired me to continue to struggle with zazen, even though I hated zazen for a long time. My home practice was erratic, and sesshins were an ordeal. Yet I kept slogging on. I felt like Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman," who wouldn't quit the nasty officer's training program because "I got nowhere else to go."
Over the years my zazen practice has gone through these four stages:
- Something amazing will happen any minute.
- Enlightenment has to be inside me somewhere. I just have to work harder to find it.
- Next time I come to sesshin, I'm hiding a stash of Hostess Twinkies in my car.
I'm not leaving item 4 blank to make some enigmatic Zen statement. I just don't know what to say. I have no idea where my practice is now. Of course, I never did know, but after 20 years I'm finally OK with that.
Ignoring Master Seng-ts'an
Koan study amounts to getting your nose rubbed in shunyata. Shunyata seems a little more elusive in Soto Zen, from what I've seen so far. However, Rinzai students sometimes go through a phase of imagining themselves to be the Leatherneck Marines of mysticism. It's obnoxious. You don't see that as much in Soto Zen.
I sat through my first few dharma talks anxiously waiting for the old guy in the robe to finish so I could move my legs. And, anyway, he wasn't making sense. Sometimes I wished he would take his three pounds of flax and shove it.
Once I heard a talk by a senior student, and to my surprise I understood what she was saying. I looked her up later and told her I had enjoyed her talk. "I understood you!" I said.
She laughed. "That's because I'm not very good!" she said.
The odd thing about all those incomprehensible Zen teacher talks is that occasionally, out of nowhere, I'll hear words from a talk I sat through years ago and understand them. Maybe the old guy in the robe isn't as good as he used to be.
Not the Wind, Not the Flag
At one sesshin, a fellow was assigned a seat right in the line of sight between my zabuton and the altar. And at the very beginning of sesshin I noticed he was wearing a pair of sweat pants a size too small. I noticed this because every time we did full bows he was a tad, um, exposed.
We're not supposed to be looking at other students during full bows, or any other time, but when someone's fanny is waving around right in front of you it's hard to not notice.
So I sat through a few zazen periods arguing with myself about what to do. Should I break silence and ask him to please put on sweat pants in a larger size? What if he didn't have a larger size with him? I didn't want him to sit through a whole week of sesshin feeling self-conscious about his pants. Nobody else had the same view I did, so it really was just my problem and no one else's.
So I didn't say anything. If I kept my glasses off his posterior was out of focus, anyway. We both survived.
The punch line is that the theme of the sesshin was "The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment."
Zen rituals felt good to me right from the beginning. I understand some people don't like rituals, but I thoroughly enjoy rituals, and not just because I can move my legs. I sit in chairs now, anyway, so legs are no longer an issue.
But the very first time I did the three full bows, my bones spoke to me. You're home now, they said.