"What you are looking for is already in you…You already are everything you are seeking."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
"The real meditation practice is how we live our lives from moment to moment."
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn
Almost twenty years ago, I sat on the front porch of a rustic A-frame perched on a ridge overlooking the campus of Zen Mountain Monastery. It was nearing midnight. Inside, my housemates, also in Zen Training at ZMM, were asleep.
We''d all been up in time to walk down to the first meditation at 4:30 am that morning.
Then, after a long full day, I'd walked up the ridge in the dark, alone. As if a high pressure deadline day of producing a set of CD's during "work practice" wasn't enough, I had been assigned the service position of Evening Jikido. I was in charge of ringing, banging, and clacking a collection of wooden blocks, bells, drums, and gongs to announce the evening service, time the meditation periods, lead the walking meditation, and close the service. Then, as others headed back to their quarters, I had to straighten up the coffee service counter, clean out the coffeemakers, and set them up for morning coffee. It was well after the obligatory "lights out" at 9:30 pm by the time I climbed back up the ridge. Exhausted, I crawled into bed as soon as I arrived.
I couldn't sleep.
After about an hour, I slowly and silently made my way outside into the crisp, clear, mountain air. There I Just Sat Still, breathing, and gazing into the deep blue-black infinity of a star-filled Catskill Mountain sky.
At that point, I knew ZMM wasn't working for me.
Moving Right Along
Over the course of the past six months, it had become increasingly clear that the rigid, hard-driving, and unabashedly authoritarian nature of the Roshi's Eight Gates of Zen Residential Training didn't ring true to me. For sure, I was grateful to have experienced some openings at ZMM and made some new friends. Yet, to be honest, the community culture at Zen Mountain Monastery wasn't all that different than the outside world. It seemed like the same old story. Business as usual in a capitalist society.
At Zen Mountain Monastery there was a "big boss. " He ruled the roost and ran the show. His word was the law. He, his protege, and a few senior monk/supervisors told us what to do, when and how to do it. Being a spiritual training program, they told us what to believe in, to boot. (I was incredulous when one of the senior monks --who has since become a "transmitted" teacher -- snarled at me that Thich Nhat Hanh wasn't teaching Real Zen! WTF?)
The senior monk/supervisors, and the worker-bees put in long, often quite strenuous, days on a strictly timed schedule keeping the retreat center and grounds, publications operation, and the mail-order businesses going -- as well as attending the mandatory daily meditation periods and zen services.
It was stressful.
As well as our "work practice" assignments, we each were required to rotate through ritual service positions which could require intricate and demanding physical moves performed in public. Supervisors and meditation hall monitors barked out orders and corrections, even during silent meditation practice. We were "on," with very little down time between required activities, through days that began at 4:30 am and ended with lights out 9:30 pm.
It was exhausting.
Meanwhile, the Roshi, had his own space and seemed to come and go as he pleased. He rarely was around at early morning meditations, communal mealtimes, or evening services. He showed up in the Zendo to give talks on Sunday, to meet privately with students in Dokusan a few times a week, to preside over special ceremonies, and to hold court during the monthly sesshin. Of course, as the Top Dog, he also met with his managers and the board when he thought it was necessary. There was no doubt that this guy was in charge. At one point during my residency, he unilaterally changed the entire organizational structure to conform more closely to what he had just come to believe was the structure of Dogen's medieval monastic community.
The rest of the time (if he wasn't traveling to teach/recruit elsewhere, including New Zealand,) he appeared to hang out doing what he wanted to do in his modest, but spacious, home. It's large yard fronted on the Esopus, a beautiful mountain river. As well being the Roshi, he was a pioneer digital photographer. (The first iteration of ZMM was the Zen Arts Center that he founded on that site.)
The couple of times I was sent down to do his yard work as "work practice," I saw that he had two state of the art Mac computers running . As I picked up winter downfall and raked leaves, he spent hours and hours at the computer screens doing what he was doing. He had articles, books, and interviews in publication. His art was on the newly emerging world wide web.
Right across the road, the rest of us were living communally in cramped quarters, spending hours in the zendo each day, and working away under the close, and sometimes verbally abusive supervision of the senior monk/department managers. I was on a scholarship, but -- believe it or not -- folks were paying for the privilege of being in residence.
Looking back, I guess this was not a big surprise.
We live in a capitalist society that prides itself as "democratic," yet operates in hierarchical, authoritarian patterns. There are inequalities of power and privilege in all areas of life. Our families, schools, churches, and workplaces are all set up that way. But, unlike the usual workplace, where folks had the opportunity to bitch about things when the boss wasn't around, those types of conversations didn't take place at the lunch table. (Such behavior violated a number of the traditional Bodhisattva Training Precepts). We also, couldn't look forward to punching out and going home -- although we did have a couple of days off schedule each week.
When I entered residency, I knew that this would be the deal. I'd been involved in the community for over a year. I already had spent a month in residence during the Fall Ango training period before entering residency in the Spring. Yet, at the point that I entered -- at age 59 -- I thought that I might be able to suck it up and ride it through for a year's commitment.
I was wrong.
Toward the One
I had come of age in the late 60's and early 70's.* Like many others, I was part of the widespread counter-cultural ferment of that era. By the time I had graduated from college with the infamous Class of 1969, I had experienced altered states of consciousness (with the various medicines available). I soon began an exploration of meditation and Eastern mysticism.
I had a peak experience in 1972 that affirmed to me the existence of the One Love that is the ground of our being. It was experienced with an outpouring of tears of joy and wonder at the Perfect Beauty embedded in the fabric of existence. It only lasted for about twenty minutes or so. I wasn't on drugs at the time. I was actually sitting at my desk writing up a lesson plan for the High School Civics class I was to teach the next day.
It blew my mind. It was beyond belief.
By then, being the geek I am, I had poured through volumes of literature on the nature of mind and mysticism, including the scriptures of the world's religions and numerous commentaries . It had become clear to me that there was spiritual dimension of being that had been experienced by seers, sages, saints, avatars throughout the ages. Intellectually, I had accepted that there was a direct experience of Divine Oneness at the heart of reality. Now, I felt it in my bones.
I now knew, in my heart of hearts, that we are not only all in this together -- we are all this, together!
Unfortunately, even a trip to the Mountaintop wasn't enough to heal the deep wounds of a traumatic childhood. Radicalized, I wasn't able to accept the American Dream as the path to happiness. My marriage collapsed. Addicted to romantic love, there were more marriages and more kids. I still experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. I suffered a number of serious "career" burnouts and returned to low status jobs as a matter of principle.
Yet through it all, I still continued to return to mediation. I studied and practiced with a number of teachers, mostly in the Buddhist tradition. I read extensively, corresponded and compared notes with kindred spirits.
So, when I was finally in a position to retire and become independently poor, I had followed the longstanding, and fundamentally disempowering convention that it was necessary for an "authority" to validate my own experience of the Sacred for it to be real. I thought I still might be missing something essential.
I wasn't. And, as best I can tell, neither are you!
I wasn't. And, as best I can tell, neither are you!