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.

4 comments:

Ben said...

I don't know!
A work of a lifetime.
Stuart I really love to read about people's lives and experiences. You write things that I can relate to or have been through as well. Looking forward to your next installment as well as to our conversations in the other group. I was going to reply earlier but couldn't think of anything to write.
Oh yes, what kind of music do you listen to? To me music (some, not all) is like koan. I'm always looking for the heart of things.
Keep up the good work--roll on!

Stuart said...

Many thanks for reading and conversing, Ben!

Ben said...
Oh yes, what kind of music do you listen to?

I'm stuck in the 70s. I graduated from high school in 77, so that was my prime music-listening time. Over the years, I've gone to concerts of the Dead, Allman Bros, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, etc, that era. And the Beatles are still great.

I've had in my time a special fondness for Steely Dan. In the song "Kid Charlamagne," there's the line, "Careful what you carry." When I heard that, it was the whole history of Buddhist teaching rolled up into four words.

SeekHer said...

Stuart, I'm reading your experiences at the Zen retreat willy nilly, but then, what is linear sequence anyway but a construct of the mind? Zen has always seemed remote to me; difficult to access; I'm beginning to see that is the point. When you've posted the 'Be Here Now' perspective in response to some of my posts at "Rituals", I couldn't understand where you were coming from nearly as well as I do reading you experiences here (and apologies for the way I've (mis)labeled your insightful comments; which says more about my ignorance of Zen than your description of it.) Thank you for dropping by "Rituals" so faithfully. I plan to be a more constant reader here.

PS graduated in '77 as well. Have you heard "The Dub Side of the Moon" -- a meter-by-meter faithful reconstruction of Dark Side of the Moon by a collection of reggae artists? "It'll blow your mind, man!"

SeekHer

Stuart said...

Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting, SeekHer! Our paths may have differed... but I sure do enjoy some of your writing over at Rituals. "... the rasalila was one big dry hump." Priceless.

All these Zen-style teachings may seem remote at first, but really they're just clever ways of pointing to your just-now experience. Yeah, sometimes the style is like a riddle or a puzzle; I find that elegant and amusing.

(It's like Krishna having blue skin, because he's like the ocean, which appears blue when viewed from a distance. But when you walk right up to the ocean and hold some of it right in your hands, it turns out that it's not blue at all, but perfectly clear.)

I'm not familiar with "The Dub Side of the Moon." I have, however, listened to the original "Dark Side" album while watching "The Wizard of Oz" without sound. You know about that, right? The Oz visuals and the Dark Side music fit together just perfectly. I was stoned at the time of course, but still, I'm just sayin'.

The "Dark Side of Oz" is a wonderful special practice, a demonstration of how thinking can create patterns and meaning out of thin air.