Saturday, October 27, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 7: Like Space.

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 this post, I'm a bit past the half-way point of my first Zen retreat, a week-long sit in 1988. Earlier posts have detailed my initial struggles with formal sitting and self-inquiry, as well as the daily interviews (koan or kong-an practice) with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim.

Four or five days had gone by, filled with endless hours on the cushion, bringing up the great question, looking for the true nature of my self and this moment. Over and over, answers would appear in my mind. Then another thought would appear, recognizing my answer as an idea, as just thinking. The cycle had repeated itself -- I can only estimate -- approximately a billion times. Still at square one. I hadn't advanced a millimeter, hadn't made a dent in "What am I?"

I'd gotten nothing but exhausted on every level. Even the thoughts themselves seemed tired, not passing in a blur, but kind of limping by on crutches. At least that made it easier to see each thought for what it was. Like watching a magic trick in slow motion: after a while, it's no longer amazing, it's just some guy pulling a Nerf ball from his sleeve.

I'd been tangled up in my efforts to crack the great mystery of existence. At this particular point, I started to get a little perspective. I felt like I was watching these physical and mental struggles... as if I were in a movie theater, and thoughts (feelings, perceptions, sensations, everything) were flickering lights on the screen.

This witnessing perspective wasn't so new or unusual. It was just that the first part of the retreat had been so challenging that I'd been enmeshed in my efforts for days, unable to simply observe till now. It was a bit of a relief.

Then, I dunno, something shifted. Hey, it wasn't that I was watching flickering lights on a movie screen. Holy Shit! EVERYTHING was like flickering lights, INCLUDING that thing called "I"! Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ! For so so long, that "I" had seemed so so solid. But it was a thought, appearing and disappearing, just like the rest of them.

Suddenly, all pain and fatigue disappeared. There was no problem; there wasn't even the possibility of problems. There wasn't anything solid to which a problem could adhere. This wasn't fuzzy like drug-induced euphoria. What did ZMSS always say? Don't Know is "clear like space." Of course! What's space like? It's empty; it's like... nothing at all.

The rest of the sitting session passed by seamlessly, with all thoughts, all things, just appearing and disappearing. Except that now and then, a thought would appear that was a bit stickier than the rest, a thought that started to gain weight, and threaten to become substantial. Thoughts like, "Will this last forever? Is this that Spiritual Enlightenment I've heard about?" But each time, within a second or two, it became clear that this too was just insubstantial thinking. Self, no-self, enlightenment, no-enlightenment, temporary, permanent... all just thoughts, coming and going, by natural process.

The sitting session ended, time for an hour-long break before dinner. What to do? I left the house, and walked towards the U.C. Berkeley campus a block away, curious about what the world would be like. It felt as if for my whole life, I'd been walking into a stiff wind, fighting resistance with each step. The wind had been so constant that I didn't even notice it. And now, my body had somehow become porous, transparent, empty or something, so the wind could pass right through it. There was no more resistance, everything was effortless.

The northern border of campus was a busy street without a traffic light. I'd crossed it here hundreds of times. Often it wasn't reasonable to wait till there was no traffic, so I'd make an automatic calculation of how far away the cars were and how fast they were going, and attempt to walk across safely.

Walking across the street was the same this time... except wait, there was something missing. Typically, as I crossed, there'd be a little voice in my head, saying something like, "What if I misjudged? Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'll get run over. Damn, that'd make me feel stupid!" Maybe that voice was what ZMSS had called "checking."

I hadn't noticed my checking so much all those other times. Now, though, its absence was evident. Of course I was trying to avoid getting killed, but there was a limit to what I could know for sure. My job was to do my best to cross correctly, step by step. Beyond that... hell, that was all! I had to laugh.

I hadn't walked 50 feet into the campus when I saw a young woman approaching me. There was something about her body language, or maybe it was the stack of pamphlets she was carrying, that made me suspect she was a Jesus Person. Y'know, one of those folks who stop you on the street and try to get you to accept Christ and save your soul. I'd always been a magnet for them. This should be interesting.

In upcoming entries, I'll tell an amusing story about getting proselytized, and then describe how I finished the final days of retreat, got some key direction from ZMSS, and tried to digest it all. Kindly bear with me; just a couple few more of these blogs and I think I can bring this long and tiresome story to a close.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Zen Master Blog

Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes) is our Abbott and Guiding Teacher at Empty Gate Zen Center. I've just added a link (see the link section on the right of this page) to his new blog on the Zen Center site. There are a couple of entries so far, and last week he told me he intends to start out posting at least once a month, and maybe increase it from there.

ZMBS/Jeff is a teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen, having received transmission (i.e., was acknowledged as a Zen Master) by Zen Master Seung Sahn (aka Dae Soen Sa Nim) in 2001. He carries on the tradion that ZM Seung Sahn brought to the West from Korea, including formal koan ("kong-an") teaching.

He is (1) a transmitted teacher in this lineage stretching back to Buddha, (2) a licensed psychological therapist, and (3) a "former" hippie. He combines these talents into a unique teaching style.

So if you have any questions about Buddha's teaching, go ask a tree, and the tree will give you a wonderful answer. Then, if you don't understand what the tree is telling you, please check out ZMBS' blog at He'll welcome all questions in the blog's comment section.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 6: Smile.

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.

I've been describing my first Zen retreat. The previous blog post was about the the initial efforts of formal sitting and keeping the great question "What is this?" or "What am I?" This post will be about the daily private interviews with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). In the better-known Japanese-style Zen, these sessions are called koan practice. In Korean, the word is kong-an.

I'd read a lot about kong-ans, and had squeezed some info from the more senior students I'd talked to, so I had some idea of what I was supposed to say and do. ZMSS would ask these strange, pointed questions, and it was my challenge to respond from the direct, before-thinking experience of that moment. It was like pushing the Clear button of your mental calculator (ZMSS would say). First you return to zero. Then from there, respond to the just-now situation: 1+1=2.

I had a few things going for me. First, I was outrageously intimidated by ZMSS. The fear and adrenaline made it kind of hard to think anyway, allowing me to automatically answer with whatever popped up. Also, ZMSS' Korean accent and broken grammar forced me to use most of my mental energy to just understand what he said. That helped keep the conversation simple.

Following are some memories that have stuck with me from those early interviews.

After some preliminary explanation, ZMSS went right to the big guns. "What is God?" he asked. I knew that in Zen, this question was the same as asking about Truth, Buddha, Mind, Consciousness, etc. Those are all different words that point to the substance of everything.

I knew I shouldn't wax philosophical about how each and every thing is God. That may be a good idea, but it's just an idea, just thinking. (An ancient Zen master had famously said, "Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing.") I'd been told to respond to kong-ans not with explanations, but out of the truth of that moment. What did I perceive just now? "Your robe is grey," I answered. "Correct," said ZMSS. It was nice to get that little matter, God and Truth and all that, out of the way.

"What is your name?" ZMSS asked. "Stuart," I replied. "No, no, no," he scoffed. "That's just body's name." It was confusing. I'd given a clear, simple answer. His words, though, were a philosophical idea, the type of unnecessary thinking I'd been told to throw away. But what could I say? How could I question his teaching, when he was the Big Zen Master, and I was the new kid?

After some awkward silence, ZMSS explained, "Now you must say, 'You are incorrect, Zen Master.' When I make mistake, you must correct it." Wow. After all the years I'd spent meeting gurus who claimed perfection, here was ZMSS, right from the get-go, saying that I had to watch for his mistakes.

"How old are you?" ZMSS asked. "27," I shot back. "I don't believe you," he challenged. "You are incorrect!" I replied. "Wonderful," he said.

But wait, oops, I was actually 28 years old. I guess my before-thinking mind isn't that great with numbers. But it answered without waffling, so I passed. This must be like my poker game, where a confident bluff is sometimes good enough.

ZMSS put a mug of water between us. "What is this?" he asked. I replied that it was water. "That's just name," ZMSS said. "You're attached to name. What is it?" I had nothing, so ZMSS told me to ask the question back at him. When I did so, he immediately took a drink. I see. To be intimate with all things, just do it, moment to moment.

[As a courtesy to any readers who may someday want to try this practice themselves, I'll relate the rest of these memories without giving any more actual kong-an answers. The answers aren't the important thing anyway; it's all about questioning, about finding and using Don't Know Mind.]

ZMSS handed me a book and pointed to a paragraph for me to read aloud. It was about Buddha's Flower Sermon. All Zennies know this story. Buddha was set to give a discourse, and many hundreds had gathered to hear the Renowned Holy Teacher explain enlightenment 'n' stuff. But when he faced the assembly, Buddha said nothing. He just stood there a few minutes, and then held up a flower.

No one in the vast audience understood. Then a monk named Mahakashyapa looked at that flower and smiled. Buddha saw him smile and said, "I have got the Wondrous Dharma Seal of the Supremely Enlightened Mind, the Gateless Gate to Formless Nirvana. I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa."

All Zen schools and Masters trace their lineage back to that transmission incident. What was it about? What was transmitted? Damned if I knew. It was a puzzle, and I like puzzles. Maybe with intense contemplation and special experiences or something, I'd figure it out some day.

I finished the reading and waited for my question. "Buddha held up flower," said ZMSS. "Mahakashyapa smiled. Why did Mahakashyapa smile?"

Was he kidding? I'd been doing Zen for about 3 days, and he was asking me about the great fundamental secret? I wanted to understand... but my mind went blank. How the hell was I supposed to know?

I tried another poker technique, staring ZMSS right in the eyes, looking for a tell. My read on his expression was that he'd give up absolutely nothing. But he seemed supremely patient, ready to wait forever till I got it myself. And most bizarrely, he looked like he had every expectation that I could answer!

Uncomfortable seconds passed. Then out of nowhere, a response appeared, as if on its own. It wasn't like I knew the right answer. It was like the answer had come from a place before thinking, where there's no right and no wrong. It was only a moment later that I realized that I'd given an answer, and checked ZMSS for his response. "Ah," he said, "now you understand smile."

After days of sitting, I was super-sensitized to what was going on in my mind. It was amazing how the answer had appeared right out of the Don't Know. Maybe this'd inspire me to keep plugging away at "What am I?"

Kong-an answers -- good answer, bad answer, no answer -- don't matter. Even if you answer one, the teacher just throws a new one at you, bringing back Don't Know.

"Somebody comes to Zen Center," said ZMSS, "smoking a cigarette. He walks to Buddha-statue, blows smoke in Buddha's face, drops ashes on Buddha's head. You're there. How do you teach him?"

I tried to stay in the moment. "There's no cigarette-man here," I said. ZMSS immediately mimed a cigarette in his hand and pretended to smoke. "I am cigarette-man!" he declared. "You must teach me! What can you do?"

I was befuddled again. "But... you're not smoking..." I offered with hesitation. "Don't check!" ZMSS shouted back.

This time, no answer appeared. Seeing that I was hopelessly stuck, ZMSS changed his tone. "You must attain True Self," he told me. "What is True Self?" he asked, then he paused.

The pause seemed very long, because something big was going on in my mind. What is True Self? I'd been asking that question constantly for days. In a sense, I'd been asking it my whole life. I could tell that ZMSS had brought up the question rhetorically, that in a few seconds, he'd give me his own answer.

Of course, everything in this tradition had been teaching me that any answer was just an idea, just thinking. Zen-style didn't depend on a secret, special answer from a teacher. Zen meant not depending on anything. But my habit, my reflex of wanting to get something from an authority, was still there.

I saw a big "I want" in my mind, a desire for this Famous Zen Master to just give me The Answer, so I could stick it in my pocket and hold onto it forever. This "I want" was like a fish, ready to swallow whatever juicy worm ZMSS was about to give me. A fish too hungry to notice what hook might be hidden in the worm.

"What is True Self?" ZMSS repeated. Then, slowly and deliberately, he answered, "I... DON'T... KNOW!"

Oh yeah, that. I returned to my cushion in the meditation room, ready to continue sitting with the great question and the big Don't Know. About an hour later, a very interesting thing happened, which I'll blog about next time.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 5: Sitting.

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 last episode, I was beginning my first Zen retreat, a week-long sitting in the Korean tradition. It was led by Zen Master Seung Sahn (I'll abbreviate as ZMSS), commonly addressed as Dae Soen Sa Nim.

There were over 20 of us in a single-family residence, with a connected living room/study area serving as the Dharma room (that's where the formal group practice takes place; "Dharma" means "truth"). The crowded conditions made for a complete lack of privacy, confusion in storing and dealing with my personal stuff, lines to the bathroom, etc. The long hours of a new sitting style, plus the new practice of 108 bows every morning, made my body ache. It was cold, keeping me awake much of the nights I spent in my sleeping bag on the Dharma room floor.

I mention all this because it may be a non-trivial part of the equation: that the first few days had this foundation of physical discomfort, exhaustion, and frustration. But mostly I'm interested in trying to articulate the mental experience.

In my earlier years of meditation, I'd spent plenty time obsessing about proper technique. Should I use a mantra? Which one? Should I control my breath in a particular way? Should I cultivate a feeling or hold some belief? Didn't I have to do these things just right in order to get the enlightenment prize? Different teachers I'd known had touted particular techniques as the surest, best path to the absolute... but they were all different.

ZMSS would talk about techniques -- mantra, breath, etc -- but without the sense that one was better than the other. He did stress, though, that if you considered the question "What am I?", you'd find yourself stuck, with nothing in the mind, just "Don't Know." Whatever technique you like, just do it, but do it with this "Don't-Know Mind."

Keeping a big question appealed to me, because it built on my earlier practice style, not negating it. Famous Indian teachers, such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, had spoken on self-inquiry, looking into the nature of this "I." There's a story in the Zen tradition that particularly struck me as in harmony with this practice:

Huai-jang lived in China centuries ago, on a mountain called Sung Shan. He somehow heard about a Buddhist temple where Hui-neng had a strange new teaching. This was in the early generations of the development of Zen in China; Hui-neng is now known as the sixth patriarch of Zen. Huai-jang was curious enough to make the long trek to the temple.

Eventually he completed the journey and found Hui-neng. The Patriarch asked the newcomer, "Where are you coming from?" Huai-jang replied, "I've traveled here from Sung Shan to receive your teaching." The funny thing about Hui-neng's response is that he didn't actually give a word of teaching, not in the sense that Huai-jang was expecting or looking for. Instead he asked, "What is this thing that has traveled from Sung Shan?"

Huai-jang had no idea what to say. He turned around, went back home, and continued his simple life on the mountain. Whatever he did now, throughout each day, he had that question in his mind, "What is this?" After 8 years, one day, boom, it became clear. He went back to the temple to see Hui-neng again. This time, when the patriarch asked that same question, Huai-jang replied, "To say even one word is to miss the point entirely." Hui-neng accepted his answer, acknowledging his enlightenment.

I took up this story as my guide, intending to compress Huai-jang's 8 years into my week-long retreat. It was just like the self-inquiry that I'd read about and tried in India. Except that the Indian teachers and scriptures tended to speak of this self in such beautiful, poetic terms. Stuff like: "Prajnanam Brahma: Consciousness is infinite, the absolute, the highest Truth." On web sites dedicated to Ramana's teachings, the self we're inquiring into is described with phrases like "ultimate truth" and "complete immersion in God."

Zen style would have none of that. It was always sparse: What am I? Don't know. What will all this effort get me? Don't know. So what should I do next? Just try, try, try.

Everything about it was simple and direct. The chanting had its appeal, but nothing like the lush melodic beauty of Indian chants. The Yoga sitting style had been more relaxed, with eyes closed, allowing a pleasant, dreamy mind-state. Zen posture was tighter, eyes open, just facing what is.

I sat there, keeping "What am I?", and it was interesting for a short time. Then it became more and more obvious that any answer I thought of, no matter how insightful or clever, was by definition thinking. So then what am I before thinking? ZMSS used to say, "Descarte said, 'I think, therefore I am.' But if I'm not thinking ... what?"

On top of all the physical discomfort, I now had the profound frustration of this self-inquiry process. How could I make the slightest head-way, when whatever idea I came up with was immediately useless? But I'd made the decision to stay the week, and wanted above all to not end up with regrets, with "What if I'd just tried a little harder?"

I'd remember repeatedly the advice I'd read in some classic Zen book. It said with this type of practice, you'd sometimes feel like a mosquito trying to bite through a thick steel door. When that happens, just continue the questioning with still greater effort.

Even if you're trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, at least you've got a tool that's of some value. But in this task of inquiring into my true self, it was becoming horribly apparent that the tool I'd always used before -- thinking, understanding -- wasn't just inadequate, it was useless. I looked to my will, the center of my being, all around, trying to find anything at all that I could throw at the question.

Thus passed the first few days of retreat. In the next blog entry, I'll talk about the other aspect of the retreat, the private interviews with ZMSS, in which he introduced me to the formal teaching style of this tradition. Through a combination of that teaching, my exhaustive efforts, and hell, I dunno, something different appeared.