MONASTIC MISHAP
(A letter)


Dear C -

I have two pleasant recollections of my brief stay at a monastery in upstate New York. Dai Bosatsu Zendo. One is of standing near a lake, arm extended, hand full of birdseed and, after a time, feeling the small pointed feet of the Chickadees as they landed and ate. The second is of the fellow who was caretaker at the place - a young guy who would do chores around the grounds. One evening, I ran into him and we were chatting about this and that and he said, natural as sunrise, "Hey, you want a beer?"

How is one supposed to know something is asinine before s/he trips over his or her own asinine feet? I went to the monastery with what I now think of as the heroin addict's credo: if one's good, two's better. If 20-40 hours a week of zazen was good in New York City, think how much better, how much more emphatic, how much more 'real' the experience would be if the situation were 24/7. I signed up for six months and lasted two and a little. I look back with gratitude to myself for having 'failed' so admirably. It was good for my honest practice, which includes the fact that I am not cut out for monastic life: I am a flat-footed layman, someone who seeks to understand whatever there is to understand within the wild-and-wooly context of a world in which dog-walkers do not use pooper-scoopers.

It is natural that those on a spiritual quest should be smitten with the monastic environment. Monastics have traditionally held the banner. Much of what is written or translated comes out of a monastic world. Since the 'beginner' reads and asks in the course of his or her beginning, monasticism gains a foothold in the mind. I was no different. Huang Po, Hui Hai, Hui Neng, Ta Hui, Rinzai, Dogen - these were the heavy hitters, the people who knew, the ones whose examples shone. Stories about Sally Smith, the homemaker who spilled the grape jelly in the course of making school lunch for her kids were few and far between. Anyway, I was three or four or five years into zazen practice and my head was full of tales and texts that were not my own. I was impatient for a 'breakthrough' - satori, kensho, some big bingo which would transform the me I knew into, what? - some kind of radiant, clear-headed, kindly somebody-or-other.

Together with these tales and dreams was the notion that the there were people called "teachers." The man who ran both the city zendo I attended and the monastery, a Mr. Shimano, was not often around. The piece of advice I recall his giving during my short stay at the monastery was this: "Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut." Pretty good advice for someone like me who loved to talk - especially about all those Zen tales and philosophies stuck in my head. But if the "teacher" wasn't around, how was I supposed to learn, I whined in my head.

Morning and evening the eight or ten of us who were there would do zazen for two or three hours. There would be meals around a low table, with nesting bowls providing containers for whatever was on the menu. Eating oatmeal with chopsticks for the first time is not an experience anyone is likely to forget. Chanting accompanied meals and formal zazen. Then there would be chores - clear brush, sweep rooms, prepare the garden or whatever.

I don't remember hearing anyone laugh. It felt cold, literally and metaphorically. It felt contrived (of course it was, stupid! That's what spiritual life is about: contrivance...but what did I know?) I do not remember liking anyone particularly, though I admired some. I do remember wondering how I was to give up my wicked habit of smoking. And I remember wondering why it was that even when the temperature hovered at or below zero in the zendo, I never shivered during zazen, but when I got up to do kinhin, or walking meditation, I would quiver like a bowlful of Jell-O. And I marveled at the patience of my roommate who tried to teach me Go. I didn't get it, probably because I wasn't very interested. Still he would stop and go back and start over ... again and again.

As I read back over this, I think it is interesting that not once have I mentioned the word "suffering." Pretty artful. Whatever fairy tales and false starts were going on for me at the monastery, the fact was that I was a confused, uncertain, in-pain person ... just like any other serious Zen student. All the mental tales, the philosophical and religious meanderings in my mind, could not alter or solve those confusions and that pain. However artful I became, still the pain outwitted me. It might be camouflaged, but it was not solved. What held out some promise of a 'solution' was zazen, the seated meditation of Zen practice. Whatever other lies I might tell myself, whatever other glories or grizzlies I might imagine, still zazen was no liar. Serious Zen students opt for some discipline - zazen is incomparable -- as a means of clarifying old and painful habits. Of course there are still classroom courses and erudite discussions of Zen Buddhism, but these are just courses and discussions.

This has gone on too long without, I'm afraid, conveying enough. As I look back at my time at the monastery, I can enter a hundred doors in telling the tale. "Karma?" OK. Psychiatric? OK. Sociological? OK. I can say I was totally responsible and I can look at conditions I may think of as responsible. The "deep subtlety" of it all is one of those tunes I can hum. It is in this spirit that I hope no one reading these words will believe them. I can't say why I went to the monastery, but I can say I am grateful for my foolishness. It is a foolishness that adds flavor to my cake and, since I enjoy this cake, it can hardly be called foolishness. But I like chocolate and you may like vanilla. Some of my best friends are (he said with a smile) monkishly inclined.

When the Chickadees sat on my fingers, it was very simple. They were hungry - hungry enough after a bit to trust or risk my hand. I could feel them move, feel them peck. It was a moment that poked through other moments for me. It made me laugh within (to laugh aloud would have scared my teachers off). It was just life. And when the groundskeeper said, "Hey, you want a beer?" well, yes I did ... and all - or nothing at all -- that went with it.

The Zen master Ta Hui wrote this of monks and laymen:

"We leavers of home are on the outside breaking in; gentlemen of affairs are on the inside breaking out. The power of one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of one on the inside breaking out is strong. "Strong" means that what is opposed is heavy, so in overturning it there is power. "Weak" means what is opposed is light, so in overturning it there is little power. Though there is strong and weak in terms of power, what is opposed is the same."

And Dogen commented: "One mistake after another is also true practice."

A lot of words. I hope they say something.




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