She led me out of the dining hall, where 70 or so people sat silently cooling down tea and rotating around the fireside. Keeping my eyes lowered in obedience of the week’s regimen, I felt a wave of panic as we moved privately into the common room; then a sense of ease catching the evening sun restful on the couch beside Hunter, a college student slouched in exhaustion from austere six-day sobriety. Demurely my eyes rose to meet Zuisei, a woman of governed aspect and voice, recalling tenderly how one month ago her stern-faced reception left me stammering through the first day of my residency. I wondered if I was about to be reprimanded for something. But when I met her eyes they had a soft smile and with a gentle nod she lifted her arms to embrace me. Losing self-restraint, I let out a thankful sigh and wrapped into her.
This was on Saturday, the final full day of a week-long “sesshin” — an intensive period focused on radical inner-examination through roughly 10 hours of zazen meditation each day, concurrent with a prohibition on speaking, writing, reading, other-watching, and anything that may divert the practitioner from staying-with-oneself. It was the final moments before my bus departure to LaGuardia, having miscalculated my flight time and, much to the disapproval of the teachers, leaving half a day too soon and missing the closing ceremony. As I pulled away from Zuisei, a vague laugh trembled out my mouth and I said the only thing I HAD to say — the only thing I’d been saying to myself all day — “I’m frightened.”
I had lived at Zen Mountain Monastery, in the midst of the Catskill Mountains, for 26 days, watching creeks loosen up their kinks and innocent new birds bump into windows as winter reluctantly gave way to spring. Aside from “Hosan” — the allotted 48 hours of downtime each week — I would have to wake every morning at 4 a.m., slug down a few cups of coffee and be in the “zendo” (meditation hall) by 4:50 for the first two hours of zazen and liturgical chanting. During this period I was often so grouchy and sleep-deprived that I was either stuck in an exasperating cycle of small hypnagogic jerks, or fighting plain unrelenting anger.
After morning service, from 7-8 a.m. we students would meet in the Sangha House for, depending on the day, art or body practice. As a multimedia artist, this naturally was my preferred daily activity. During this hour of expression, we were prompted not to work — or, to simply do without contrivance, intention, or under the forms of any idea. One body practice exercise, for instance, had us start with a clear and spontaneous movement, which we then would attempt to identically repeat for about 10 minutes. Of course, while attempting to repeat, you find that the movement organically changes — your hand swings a different way, your neck adds a bobbing gesture, etc. — and with each change, you observe, include it into the reproduction, and by the end you’re doing something almost completely unlike where you began. We employed this same spirit of abandonment and say-yes-to-flux in the art room, with whimsical deer-tail brushes and wild sumi ink.
As two of the “eight gates of Zen” — a system of cultivating and preserving mindfulness and Buddhist practice throughout all aspects of life — body and art practice train students to trust that true expression of your nature, which can produce nothing but the most beautifully authentic art, is already teeming inside you, rising and falling within each breath, and therefore, there is no need to go searching for it, or in other words to contrive.
Journal entry #1 — Day 3 of 26: “…Today I’ve made progress simply by studying my mind and discovering the outrageous volume of my resistance. I come to discern that breath is the instrument of control for this being, and attending to it intimately disengages this resistance. I imagine each inhale like a translucent hand reaching into my skull, and with the exhale drawing thoughts down into my dark belly where they can’t swell or create shadows, where they’ll just sit there like decomposing food. [….] I do not move or adjust myself. When I itch I don’t scratch, and when I hurt I just receive the hurt. This helps habituate the mind to the impermanence of feeling-states, and disempowers the compulsion to apply action and energy to things that self-expend.”
At precisely 8 a.m., already four hours into the day, everyone reunites in the dining hall for the first of three meals: the Oryoki breakfast. Oryoki, meaning “just the right amount,” involves a choreography of dining-ware placement and cleanup meant to effect deliberate and unwasteful eating. After some preliminary chanting, each person in sync unwraps their set: three stacked wooden bowls, a silver spoon, chopsticks, a small silicone spatula, a napkin laid under the bowls, a napkin to place on your lap, and a dish rag. We continue chanting the numerous names of Buddha and our gratitude for nourishment as large bowls of food in succession are passed down the table. We eat with unwandering eyes and silence to uphold concentration, and though you wish someone would look up and nervously giggle with you after you’ve lapsed mindfulness and spilled all the contents of your bowl unto the floor, it is unlikely to happen. Once everyone has finished, wooden blocks are clapped together to announce clean up, at which point everyone licks the leftover gunk from their spoon and chopsticks, and uses the small spatula to scrape remnants out of each bowl and into their mouth. In this way, you are expected to appreciate and consume every morsel you’ve been offered. After a few more ceremonial touches, you tie it all back up, folding the knotted napkin over in semblance of a lotus petal.
For the better part of every day, residents are more or less plugged back into the ordinary world by engaging in a 9-5 work shift, with the customary and informal (talking permitted) one-hour lunch break at noon. Engagement is the accurate word and key concept in this and all other of the Zen gates, for the purpose here is to train the working self — just like the creative-expressive self and the eating self — to really give your whole being, to immerse your entire life, in the present moment. What phenomenon occurs in the mind when it’s not transporting baggage, cycling through or creating scenes? It’s an easy guess. What occurs is quiet stillness and the facility to work without grudge, hurriedness, indifference, and inattentive “messing up.” To just work, and nothing else.
Rarely are the short-term residents assigned the same job every day; in fact, most days you move through two or three different areas, and these can range from anything between simple housekeeping or cooking to splitting wood and reconstructing cabins to sewing napkins and aprons in the stitchery. As I learned from some perennial, free-to-gripe residents, there is no objective or design in place to emphasize, strengthen, or profit by the skills a student already possesses. Rather, we are encouraged — as in compelled, as in challenged — to step up and actualize our potential in unfamiliar domain, while being ready and willing to catch our balance once the unfamiliar turns familiar and is then pulled out from under. Through this framework, students of the monastery are met yet again with the urgency to harmonize their individual flow with the most basic law of reality: nothing is permanent, everything is in constant fluidity. This, the major premise of Zen Buddhism, is the bridge connecting every order of the day and every swift passing from one moment to the next.
Journal entry #2 — Day 11 of 26: “I spoke with Shoan, a monastic with striking eyes and a knack for highly concentrated listening, at lunch about the reasons I’ve come, my history of trauma and emotional volatility, my crucial search for serenity and bearing. She began visiting the monastery at 22 years old, similarly carrying numberless questions on the meaning of life and metaphysical reality, similarly burdened by restlessness and despair. She came pursuing an understanding that, in the vast time and proliferation of human beings, there must have been someone that came up with an answer, an informed response to suffering. She found this in Buddha. Will I?”
All the month-long residents met with Hojin today in the common room for a brief, but intimate, discussion on the nature of Buddhism and the questions that have arisen through our practice. Gabriela, a young music therapist from Brazil, speculated about the beginnings of Samsara — the cycle of birth and death that continues until one reaches Nirvana, the emancipation from self and suffering — and how it may be related to childhood acquisition of language and semiotics. The idea being that, in the absence of an enforced way of seeing the world (i.e. conceptualization), we return to a pain-free state of nonattachment, an unaffected state of being. This made me realize the irony of our situation: we come here in search of meaning — the meaning of love, for instance, or happiness, or the meaning of a career, or an explanation for all the violence and destruction in the world.
The irony lies here: in the process of zazen we are disburdened of meaning. We are allowed to observe without grasping or translating into message and significance. We lose that notion of vital importance we were continually taught to attach to words, emotions, ideas. We reach pre-childhood; enlightenment, pre-learning.
At the end of the work period, we would gather once again in the dining hall for a quick cup of tea before changing into our robes for evening zazen. The zendo, a humble space with bare white walls and undecorated windows, reminds me of a protestant chapel. On the ceiling a crucifix is supported between simple wood panels, preserving the monastery’s first purpose as a Christian summer camp for underprivileged boys. On the floor, 30 or so zabutons and zafus are neatly smoothed out and relatively lint-less; black and still and soothing. You are taught to bow upon entering the zendo, then twice again when you reach your assigned seating. You are not told why you’re doing this — “why” questions seem to be traditionally frustrated in Buddhist teaching — but asked nevertheless to do it wholeheartedly. And I think that’s ultimately the thrust: you bow as if to say “I am here to exhaustively, fearlessly, vigorously practice; I give myself over to that.”
Each zazen period lasts between 25-35 minutes, though it often feels excruciating longer. During this time, you are instructed not to move or breathe audibly. Many times the pain in my legs, hips, and back — combined with mental disquietude –was so severe I broke into mute tears. This, I was later told, is not uncommon.
The main trail
As an aside, I’d like to say a few things about my experience with zazen, as it constitutes the main trail of this spiritual trek. I was told to think of zazen as similar to pedaling a bicycle up a mountain (in fact, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, describes zazen as “sitting…like a bold mountain”); it’s a task of endurance. Like bicycling, it contains many ups and downs, as you travel through exotic mental landscape on unbalanced surface. Before entering residency, I had not imagined how arduous sitting could be. Yet in just one month, I saw the action in my mind wax and wane, rage and tremble, through three pronounced and intense stages, which I will call 1. asleep cooperation, 2. onslaught, 3. awakened cooperation.
The difference between zazen and “meditation,” as we in the Western world have come to understand it, is that in zazen there is no supposed separation between body and mind. This is to say, the objective of zazen is not to cause anything to occur in the mind — not to simply avail the seated position, using it flexibly and with cleverness, to prepare conducive conditions for mental calm. In zazen, there is no intention and no mind-work (i.e. body scans, point of focus, etc.) The objective of zazen is just zazen, it is the position itself. Sitting, breathing, letting everything in, letting everything out. In sitting, you’re just doing what you’re doing; no trying. When you find the mind has drifted into a memory or a story or a desire, you gently return to the present moment, which is breath. This is all.
The ego, I came to learn, does not like zazen. This makes sense. For one, there is no use for it in zazen; and when it stops being used, subsequently, the ego starts to deteriorate. This is the process Zen practitioners call “dying away.” The ego — the bundle of memories, mannerisms, ideas, beliefs, passions, and talents that we regard as selfhood — exists in the head, not the breath. As Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “there is no connection between I myself yesterday and I myself in this moment.” There is no self, then, as composed by these aggregates. Thus, in the constant calling back to breath, to the now, what is really happening is that the master-slave relationship between ego and mind is constantly interrupted. The ego stops getting what it desires and needs in order to maintain power over stillness and silence. Moreover it’s not protected, as every barrier it builds around itself is eventually exposed and, once seen for what it is — a defense against liberation — starts to crumble. I call my first stage “asleep cooperation,” because I was practicing with enthusiasm and passive curiosity, which in fact are ego-barriers, and without the slightest understanding of purpose.
For me, zazen was less like a bicycle ride and more like an exorcism. By the second week I was experiencing horrifying nightmares, both in bed and during sittings, in which I was being repeatedly, and in different forms, attacked. Demons, witches, and other collective-unconscious archetypes were popping up in an overt effort to sway me back into the grips of my ego. I had one particularly eerie vision during a sitting where I was being gradually approached by a woman. As she neared me, her countenance became older and older. All the while she repeated this command, “You must believe in the wisdom of the shell!” Then she started sprinting towards me, and as she came close her face transformed into an old crone. I jumped awake, causing an evident disturbance in the zendo.
These nightmares produced in me a feeling like none other. I was afraid for my life. That is why I call this stage “onslaught.” The attacks were real, but not physical; it was occurring somewhere within me, and somewhere within me there was mass-scale death. I learned at Zen Mountain Monastery that inner-demons are a reality and not just a figure of speech. When you don’t feed them, they show themselves — like ravenous hyenas. I also learned here that, after a little while, it subsides. This terrifying phase dies and the next begins. Whatever form these phases take depends on the person (though I spoke of my experience with some of the residents, and they confirmed similar sinister encounters!)
In sharing this, my intention is to exemplify the truly awesome, creative, and revelatory force of just sitting. It is also my hope that we, as a culture, and every single perplexed and despairing individual, can see how desperately we need to learn (or re-learn) how to sit with ourselves, to face ourselves, to see the wars ever raging inside us. This is truer today, in the time of boundless distraction, than ever before. How easy it has become, after all, to turn away from the phenomenal and fantastic worlds within us, how easy to flee suffering moment by moment, how easy to withdraw from and abandon the pure self. Diversion in every phone swipe, every television pixel, every aimless road trip, your fears merely stuffed in bags hitched to the trunk.
Journal Entry #3 — Day 17 of 26: “Morning zazen was particularly prolific and visionary today. I’m learning how much creative stimuli enters my mind every second. I see photographs, paintings, drawings, films. Oddly, there is hardly a word that enters my mind — only this ceaseless inflow of imagery. Images I cannot hold, they last a moment and then can never be accessed again. What are these? I wonder. Simply subconscious charges, access to the collective mind, or new ways of asking and answering my own questions in irritational form, challenging me to translate within one quick and restless second? It seems that these contents of my subconscious are running-over, an ejaculation years in the waiting.
“And when I’m in the middle of this immense discharge — in the stillness necessary for the mind to achieve this climax — it’s as if the mind is coursing through the whole body, picking up tensions and information and little truths packed in all the pouches of muscle and bone, and sending it into consciousness. And I can feel the heaviness of space. I feel how it weighs on my skin and when I move my head side to side in slow motion I feel all its density and resistance. It is my first time truly realizing space.”
Pack my trunk
Each time I embark on a new tourism adventure, I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying: “Traveling is a fool’s paradise. […] At home I dream that at Naples…I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends…and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self…that I fled from. […] My giant goes with me wherever I go” (my italics). I’ve asked myself if this is true; if traveling is nothing but an attempt to distract ourselves from our own misery and lack of contentment; if it’s a momentary escape from boredom and existential dread; if, perhaps, there is no such thing as traveling at all, if, in fact, we are always exactly where we are, which is inside our head.
A trip to Zen Mountain Monastery is in every way the antithesis of vacation: nearly each moment of the day is ordered and businesslike; you work, you clean, you follow the rules; luxury and indulgence are totally absent, relaxation is scarce, and there are times when some of your most basic human needs, like interpersonal contact and sufficient amounts of sleep, are all but removed. And yet, in every way it is the absolute vacation, the unending vacation. Because in all the while that it demands you face yourself, you’re learning not just the futility of escape but how to rest within yourself comfortably. And while it demands you wake too early, and work tiredly, and zealously recite chants you do not semantically or ideologically understand, ultimately surrendering your will to the circumstances which — despite your most stubborn efforts — you cannot change, you’re learning the greatest lesson of all, which is to accept what life offers you, whether you enjoy it or not. To accept reality precisely as it is. To lose your resistance; to lose that giant that goes with you wherever you go. This is why I call it the “paradox vacation.”
To be clear: to accept does not mean to be complacent. It does mean to lessen the suffering caused by rejection and the constant struggle against the facts of existence. It is like walking out the door and noticing that it has snowed. You can either curse this unchangeable fact and spend the whole drive to work groaning and stewing, or you can accept it. It also means to loosen our hold on attachments, which according to Buddhism is the greatest threat to tranquility. For this reason, I think of ZMM as a microcosmic training ground where practicing love, compassion, peaceful dwelling, and efficient (i.e. not needless) suffering is promoted, and can be realized. And I call it the unending vacation because, unlike the piña coladas on a Caribbean cruise, or the palaces of India, or day trips through the national parks of Iceland, it doesn’t really provide any sense of momentary comfort, satisfaction, or conclusion. The spiritual journey begins continually anew; it has no conclusion. You learn to practice, and in practicing you learn to discover vacation in every moment, right where you are.
Walls torn down
I simply had no other words than those two, “I’m frightened.” And then, feeling no particular feeling about having said them, I looked evadingly at the books on the shelves and the paintings on the walls behind Zuisei. My heart and sense organs were open, my walls torn down; I was raw. And I was about to re-enter the ordinary world, to put myself in the thick of New York City, cars and shops and streets blaring, the endless tide of anonymous persons surging past me — a disoriented buoy. Then back to Chicago, my hometown, back to my partner and family and the clutter I left behind, knowing too well that now I had a deep obligation to life and to correcting my old errors. No simple task. But mostly, I understood in that moment that I was leaving my “Shangri-La,” the land of authenticity, the community where finally I found a tenacious collective agreement to build and protect harmony, to preserve vulnerability and intimate connection, to strive for non-judgment and compassionate listening, to never be “too busy to be courteous,” as Robert Pirsig wrote. I was leaving a world that made sense; a world undivided and unimpressed with hegemony; a world without cruelty or alienation or petty feuds. A world where shared moments of silence are cherished and not saddled with self-consciousness.
When I looked back at Zuisei she was holding a smile that seemed to comprehend all I was saying without words. It was a smile she wanted me to see. Then, with casual certainty, she shrugged and said “but you’ll carry this with you.” And that was all.
Since returning, I’ve thought of the monastery every day. On Sunday mornings, I wonder if Steven and Nolan are covering “Ghost Riders in the Sky” in the empty hall of the Sangha House. I wonder what poems Rakusan is reciting to young writers. I think of Doug walking to the top of Mt. Tremper alone in the fresh spring air. I think of Anastasia and Josh in the kitchen, showing weekend retreaters where to put the Tupperware and woven wooden bowls. And I think of Shugen Roshi, his wizard-like eyes, and all the dharma talks I cannot attend. It is a kind of homesickness which deepens on days I struggle to find peace and forbearance. And yet I know that my life is irreversibly transformed, that I can’t help but carry it with me in every second, in every interaction. There is something like a chip in my mind: a constant reminder to move with least resistance, to act with least harm. This chip cannot be removed. Zuisei was certain of this; she knew from experience.
I sit on a zafu in my bedroom, folding my legs into burmese, shifting my back and neck up to the ceiling. The whir of my fan reminds me of the loud heating vents in the zendo. I breathe deeply and slowly. Today and every day from now on I practice freedom and “awakened cooperation.” I am running towards myself, and never again away.