Friday, September 28, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 4: Finger in Socket.

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.

In the previous chapter, our hero found himself in a moving vehicle with famed Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (whom I'll abbreviate as ZMSS, and was commonly addressed during his life as "Dae Soen Sa Nim"). ZMSS taught in a tradition that uses difficult, piercing questions, and I'd reluctantly been drawn into a dialog with him that went like this:

ZMSS: How long have you been doing Yoga?

Me: I've been meditating for about 7 years.

ZMSS: After doing Yoga for so long, have you gotten anything?

Me: Yeah, sure.

ZMSS: What have you gotten?

Me: My mind used to give me lots of problems, but as I meditate more, it gives me fewer problems.

ZMSS: If mind is such a problem, why do you make "mind"?

Me: Thinking just appears on its own.

ZMSS: Thinking is no problem; it's like clouds passing through the sky. But if you attach to thinking, you make a mind, and that's a big problem. So when you're doing something, just do it! Don't make "mind." That's true Yoga. OK?

What was that about? "Just do it"? This guy was supposed to be some extraordinary Master. How could he get away with a teaching that said so damn little?

My apartment in Berkeley was coincidentally just a few blocks away from one of the handful of Zen Centers that ZMSS had established around the world. I visited a few times to hear talks by other teachers that ZMSS had authorized, and to read from a couple of his books.

The teaching was always so simple, it was practically invisible. Human beings enter the ocean of suffering when we make something, i.e., when we attach to I/my/me-thinking like "I like/dislike something," "I want to get something," etc. But our original, before-thinking mind always shines purely, like empty space, or a clear mirror. Red appears, and this mirror-mind only reflects red. White appears, only white.

Simplicity shouldn't have bothered me. By my latter days in India, I'd already been pondering how sometimes my spiritual efforts seemed like building a house, by acquiring and stacking together special experiences and understandings. I'd decided that I really needed to do the opposite, to metaphorically tear down that building by throwing away whatever ideas I found myself clinging to.

But still... I guess I'd been holding out hope that as I kept returning to witness-consciousness, it'd eventually lead me to some lasting, substantial attainment. Famous teachers I'd read, like Ramana Maharishi, had spoken about a permanent attainment, enlightenment or self-realization or some such. I think Ramana had said it was like our self-effort was necessary to keep us bobbing on the surface of the ocean, not drowning in the world. All we could or should do is to patiently continue our efforts till God would swoop down and take us the rest of the way. Did I really need to give up all hope of this "enlightenment," and be left with nothing but "just do it"?

Sometime around then I got introduced to a guy who hung out in People's Park selling LSD. I'd had one acid trip in college, but years later, when I described it to an old hippie, she told me, "If your ego didn't completely disappear, you need a bigger dose." True enough.

When I was around 7 years old, a light bulb burned out in our house, and my parents removed it, but didn't have a replacement. For many days I walked past that empty socket, till I finally flicked the switch on and stuck my finger in. It was an awful, frightening, painful few seconds till I managed to pull my finger back out (hence my continued survival). Thing is, in those days leading up to my shocking experience, I may have pondered about when and how I'd stick my finger in that socket, but I never seriously considered not doing it at all. That's my particular mind, or karma; it's just inconceivable to let an opportunity like that pass by.

I took 3 hits of the acid. During the first hour or so, there were some frightening moments, as I/my/me disappeared 90% or 99% and I desperately worried about losing the rest. But then it indeed disappeared completely, and remained that way for hours. The world was revealed as harmless, dream-like mind-stuff. The distinction between "I" and "this" was revealed as far less obvious than previously thought.

At the end of the trip, the world re-solidified, and I/my/me popped back up from somewhere or other. Those few hours in the perfect dream-world were intriguing; maybe LSD could serve as crowbar in my mental deconstruction project. I think I tripped about every other weekend for the first few months, then continued irregularly, several times each year during 1985-87.

Near the end of this period, I took a serious dose, and a couple of hours later found myself seeing the universe and my place in it from a strikingly wide and clear perspective. I saw all those efforts I'd made for years to detach from my wants and opinions, and how that had removed some suffering. Then I saw that it was the nature of the universe that desires arise endlessly. The best I could ever hope for was a temporary break in the suffering, till new desires and delusions appeared and continued the cycle. It was like mowing a lawn in which the grass never stopped growing. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, and finding that as soon as you finish one end, the other end needs painting again.

I was never going to escape suffering. My whole life direction was like running on a treadmill. I was like a hamster on one of those hamster-wheel thingies. It wasn't just tragic, it was meta-tragic. I mean, Hamlet is a tragedy, but it's OK, because at least people can watch the play and get touched by existential insight. In my tragedy, the tragedy of all beings, the tragedy of struggling to find a lasting refuge from suffering and never ever reaching it, there wasn't even any audience to appreciate the epic story. OK, maybe the occasional acid-head could watch it for a few minutes, but that didn't count for much.

As I languished in this hell, trapped in this box of hopeless existence, I heard a voice whispering. I'd rarely gotten auditory hallucinations, and I'd never put much stock in disembodied voices. But this was a desperate time, and I was ready to listen to anything. I concentrated on the voice, which was repeating the same phrase over and over, gradually getting louder. I recognized it as ZMSS's voice, saying with a light and amused attitude, "Don't make anything."

Suddenly it was clear: the horrific universe I was perceiving, the "me" trapped in it, all of it, was made by thinking. Just one moment of not thinking, and that whole world of infinite suffering never existed. Dang, that was something. That simple little teaching phrase had saved me from a hell that had no possible escape.

Every year, right after New Years, ZMSS would come to that Zen Center near me and lead a week-long retreat. I had good reasons to avoid it. The intensity of Zen practice, the sheer number of hours of sitting meditation, was greater than anything I'd contemplated previously. All my years in ashrams, meditating at most a few hours in a day, couldn't prepare me for it.

The Zen forms (sitting posture, chanting style, rules, etc) would be new and different. I'd gotten comfortable with the Yoga style, but this new style would be difficult, even physically painful. At Yoga, I had some expertise, I'd been an old-timer at the ashram. At a Zen retreat, I'd be starting over as a rank beginner. I could recite philosophies from Yoga scriptures decently well, but if I went to the Zen Master again, there'd be those horribly uncomfortable questions, and I had absolutely no bloody clue how to respond or what it was all about.

But there was a major curiosity factor. And I couldn't deny that the teaching had proven its usefulness. Lots of teachings will work in most ordinary situations, but "don't make anything" had helped me even in the midst of the weirdest and worst of extreme bad trips. Crap. As with the light socket, I'd have to go to that retreat. It was January 1988.

Next time, I'll blog about this first retreat, which included difficult and amazing experiences during sitting practice, and formal teaching interviews with ZMSS that hit my mind strongly.

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