Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 3: Zen Master.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

My previous blog entry ended with my return, in 1984, to the USA after 5 years in Siddha Yoga ashrams, the last 2+ in India. This blog entry and maybe a couple more will take me through my first Zen retreat in early 1988.

I had gone from my family’s house to college to ashram, and now at 25, I was ready to begin the practice of being an independent adult. My grandmother had died during my ashram years, and I had a few thousand dollars she’d left me. I’d use it to start a new life in California. I’d grown up in the East Coast during the 70s, old enough to understand the hippies and the counter-culture and the Grateful Dead and all, but too young to participate. Like so many people, I felt a pull to California as a place for a fresh beginning.

I connected with a friend I’d met in India, and we hit the road. (Some adventures we had during this period are on my Strange Trips web page.) I ended up first in the Los Angeles area, then in Arcata, and finally in Berkeley (which had seemed alluring ever since my months in the Oakland ashram in ‘79). In various places, I did temp jobs to get by.

I had one year of college and no particular skills. I saw lots of office jobs available, but they required decent typing skills. I got an old typewriter and began to practice by typing out random paragraphs from the newspaper, hour after hour. It seemed impossible. How in the world was I to remember where all the letters were? But incredibly, after a few weeks of this, my fingers began to automatically know what to do. The power of practice never ceases to amaze me.

In my temp typing jobs, I was usually in front of a computer, and there was plenty of time when the workload was slow, so step-by-step I taught myself word processing, then spreadsheet design and programming. I learned how to support myself and take care of my own life, and these life lessons were as rich as those I’d gotten from philosophy and meditation. Learning how to survive and make a living didn’t feel separate or inferior to explicitly spiritual pursuits.

Life has its ups and downs, successes and failures. I had the usual succession of joy and depression and comfort and anxiety. I kept up with my formal and informal meditation practice. I’d practice attention to the moment, repeating a mantra, sitting still, watching my breath, and remembering that it’s all One. Whatever attachments or desires or entanglements appeared in my mind, I had this practice of returning to witness-consciousness, making it all OK. I didn’t know what, if anything, I should do more or different with these practices.

During this time, news filtered through to me about goings-on in the ashram world. Muktananda’s successors, a brother and sister guru team, had broken apart in a bitter sibling rivalry, filled with lies and violence. The sister (Gurumayi Chidvilasananda) sent out mud-slinging letters against her brother rival (Gurudev Nityananda), even going so far as sending goons to physically attack and threaten those who attended his programs.

The SYDA antics sounded so silly, and removed any lingering allegiance I felt to that group. While I’d always enjoy visiting and exploring different groups out of curiosity or entertainment, I saw no need to be part of a group. No guru or group held the magic or secret. I figured all that any teacher or group could do was lead me to the type of meditation practice and understanding I already had.

I was in contact with E, an old friend from my year at Yale. He was the one friend back then who’d joined me in learning to meditate and going to Siddha Yoga ashrams. We’d both been influenced at the time by reading Ram Dass and similar books. Our minds had been opened to wider possibilities by taking LSD, though that was just one low-dosage trip; my more high-powered drug trips would come later.

E had since become a monk in the Korean-style Zen school founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS). He’d written me while I was still in India, and seemed enthusiastic for me to try Zen teaching and practice.

I couldn’t understand why E found Zen worth exploring. I told him that Zen seemed just like Siddha Yoga. The differences were superficial: a different language to chant in, a different posture to sit in, and a different statue on the altar. The actual practice of watching and quieting the mind, of returning to the witness that saw everything as One, was the real point; why care about any particular tradition? E said to me, “It doesn’t matter if you do Yoga meditation or Zen meditation or Christian meditation or any other kind. But it’s very important to look into WHY you meditate.” Hmmmm.

E’s words caught my interest a little, but it was more powerful when I saw him demonstrate them. I went to visit him in L.A. where he was staying at a Zen Center with ZMSS. E would soon go to Korea for an extended time, and I wanted to see him before he left. Coincidentally, Gurumayi was on tour at the L.A. Siddha Yoga ashram at the same time.

The first night I was there, E said to me, “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we get up early tomorrow, do Zen practice first, then go to the program at the Siddha Yoga ashram.” I didn’t see any point to it. All these practices were fundamentally the same, what difference did it make if we went to one or the other or both? But, whatever, I’d go along with him.

At the ashram, as we did the Siddha Yoga chants and practices, including going up to bow to the guru, I kept watching E, waiting for him to say or do something to try to convince me that Zen had something better than Siddha Yoga. But he didn’t show any difference. At the Zen center, he just followed the Zen forms; at the Siddha Yoga ashram, he just did the practices there like everyone else. The way he just did both practices, without offering any opinions about them… it made an impression on me. His attitude of just following each situation was a teaching that couldn’t have been expressed with just words.

Even though I saw all traditions as the same, there was a particular reason that I wanted to avoid Zen. I knew that part of that tradition was being confronted with very difficult questions from the Zen Master. I’m a shy person. I didn’t want to get involved in any fierce debates. I preferred being a still and silent witness.

But there we were later in the day, driving through L.A. on some errand. E was driving, next to him in the front seat was ZMSS, and I was in the back. I really wanted to avoid any sort of interaction with this Zen Master. I figured if I just stayed quiet, he wouldn’t bother me. It wasn’t like I’d ever asked him for teaching, after all.

E was telling ZMSS that the two of us first got interested in meditation back in college when we’d taken LSD. “Yes,” ZMSS offered, “sometimes when a person takes LSD, he sees that everything is changing, changing, changing, and he understands that attachment isn’t so good.”

E continued, “And after LSD, we started doing Yoga-style meditation.” Without looking back at me, ZMSS asked, “So, how long have you been doing Yoga?”

Crap. I didn’t want to get involved with any convoluted Zen dialog. But it was a moving car; I had no escape. “I’ve been meditating for 7 years or so,” I told him.

“After doing Yoga for so long,” he asked, “have you gotten anything?”

It was a big question, and maybe a good cliffhanger. In my next blog, I’ll complete this conversation, and tell how it led to me looking into ZMSS’s teachings, and eventually to an astounding week doing a formal sitting retreat with him.

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