Sunday, April 22, 2012

my zen experience

I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist in the German tradition, which meant stiff prohibitions against alcohol, coffee, premarital sex, meat and several other things.  My parents were rather relaxed when it came to religion and allowed me to leave the church in my early teens.  I experimented with several Christianities for some years as well as agnosticism and atheism, and came to Buddhism after reading Hesse’s novel Siddhartha during my second college go-round and eventually on Zen.

Zen practice fit with my lifestyle at that time, which was geared toward a massive de-emphasis on material goods.  My divorce, though amicable, had helped me recognize that my life was not what I wanted it to be.  I lived for a year after that in a tiny room in a boarding house where I had a large bed, a desk, a cabinet, a stereo and a bookshelf and not much room to move around.  If I had guests we needed to sit on the bed since it took up nearly the entire room.  Everything else was in storage at my parents’, and when I moved into an apartment on the other end of town, it quickly filled up with the things I retained from my marriage, including a lot of bad feelings.  So in the middle of the night about a month after moving, having watched the film The Razor’s Edge and being especially touched by the scene in which the protagonist stays warm by burning the pages he’s read from the one book he has, I spent several hours literally piling clothes, books, furniture, utensils and various other things into the center of the living room and called in my friends to pick through it and take what they wanted. 

After that I set about studying in earnest.  I lived in a small college town at the base of the Shawangunk Mountains which are part of the Catskills and there was no little choice of Zen classes to join.  I chose one that met at Unison Center which was a 30-minute walk west of town.  I did a great deal of reading and spent a lot of time in practice.  After I bought a car I drove northwest to Woodstock to study under John Daido Loori at Zen Mountain Monastery which I managed to attend for free for a while having done carpentry work under a friend’s brother who was doing renovations there.  Eventually I moved to Woodstock for several years and continued my studies there. 

Before that happened I spent three months in sesshin at Dhammapada in Montreal on Daido Loori’s suggestion during which I did a lot of practical study.  I didn’t advance very far in my practice; the monastery was strict Rinzai school where we sat seiza style and I discovered I really wasn’t very good at sitting or contemplation.  I looked forward to my time in the kitchen and the garden each day and that was what got me through each sitting.  I was one of those people from the joke who say to themselves, “Hey, I’ve become one with nothing. Aw, nuts.”  At one point near the end of my stay I approached the abbot in dokusan saying, “I’ve become enlightened,” to which he answered, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  I can’t say I got very far, certainly not in my practice.  But I did learn to master my anger which was a powerful step forward. 

After I returned from sesshin I did a lot more reading and studying but almost no practice.  It was almost as if I thought of myself as having used up the practice I needed during sesshin and didn’t have to put in the painful and (in my view) futile sitting.  I remember sitting once a day on my return—often at night before bed or early in the morning after waking—then once a week, then once a month, and finally not sitting at all.  Meanwhile, my reading emphasized the ethics of Tao over the practices of sitting; I decided to drop Buddhist studies, as I saw the end result of it as retiring to a monastery, in favor of Taoism. 

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