Sunday, November 11, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 9: Why?

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 writing about the 7-day retreat in 1988 that inspired my decision to practice Zen. For the first part of the week, I'd painfully struggled with the big question, "What am I?" Then during one sitting session, it had all dissolved into emptiness, punctuated by insubstantial thinking that came and went without hindrance. It felt amazing, as I described in the previous two entries.

Now it was the next day, and time again for my formal interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). I had no plan to discuss my meditation experience with him. It's not like I understood what had happened anyway. It's not like I had anything coherent to say about it. Even without words, though, maybe ZMSS' lifetime of intense practices would give him some special insight, allowing him to see that my mind was different. Or maybe my shit-eating grin at that point was so obvious that any idiot would notice.

ZMSS' manner was more stern and intense than in the previous days. For his first question, he demanded, "Why do you eat every day?" I mimed putting food into my mouth, like a hungry person. That said it all, didn't it? Each moment comes and goes naturally. When it's meal time, you eat. What more could there possibly be to life?

"No good!" shouted ZMSS. "That's like a dog. A dog just eats when he's hungry. A human being's job is different from a dog's job. Why do you eat every day? Why do you live in this world?"

I don't remember exactly how ZMSS explained it at that time, but here's the gist as I understood it. Our thinking is like scribbles on a blackboard. Sometimes, maybe with lots of effort, we erase all the scribbles and have a completely clean blackboard. That may bring a wonderful feeling of freedom.

But you don't leave a blackboard empty. What are you going to write on it? It's like a calculator after you hit the clear button and return to zero. One more step is necessary for the blackboard or calculator to function correctly. In ZMSS' teaching, it's loud and clear what he tells us to write on that blackboard: Help all beings.

The Buddhist direction of "Save all beings from suffering" has at least one great virtue. If you accept that as your goal, you don't have to worry about ever reaching it and having to find a new one. Beyond that, this teaching turned around my view of what practice was about. I'd always looked at meditation and such as a means to getting some special experience, or insight, something like that. ZMSS seemed more concerned about intention. Why practice, why eat, why live? For what? For who? Whatever you got, good or bad, if it was for me, it'd bring suffering. If it was for all beings, then no problem.

The final day of the retreat arrived, and I returned to ZMSS's room for the last private interview. His first question to me: "Today is the last day of retreat. What have you attained?"

That week had been far and away the most astounding experience of my life. But I was clueless as to anything I could say about it. Keeping silent wouldn't do either. If you ask a rock a question, it can be silent, but a human being ought to have something more than that.

Maybe I should show the mirror-like clarity of my mind by reflecting that moment? "The wall is white," I said. ZMSS shook his head, rejecting the answer.

Uhhh... maybe he was looking for that compassion thing he'd talked about? "How can I help you?" I offered. ZMSS swept that answer aside also. Jeez, not even that?

Typically, Zen teachers won't give away answers, waiting instead for the student to find it himself. But ZMSS came to Berkeley only once a year, and maybe he thought I needed to understand something before that. After I repeatedly failed to give a satisfactory answer, he eventually relented: "Now you ask me."

"OK," I said. "Today is the last day of retreat. Zen Master, what have YOU attained?"

He gave me a one-sentence answer that made my jaw drop with its elegance. A response that met the question, and did so without even a speck of I or no-I, attainment or no-attainment. A response that clearly demonstrated not making anything.

The retreat ended, and I returned to ordinary, everyday life. I'll write one final blog in this series, an epilogue to talk about how that's been going.


Carol L. Skolnick said...

Not being very Zen myself, I really want to know what Soen-sa Nim said! :) said...

Me too! Are you gonna share what Soen-sa Nim said? To end the suffering of my I want to know mind?