Working on Godby Winifred Gallagher
Why do I exist? Is this all there is? What is my true nature? What is most important in life? How should I live? These are humanity's oldest spiritual questions. At the year 2000, however, many who ask them are profoundly estranged from religion. To some, religion is belief in the unbelievableincom-patible with intelligence and learning. To others, it's just… See more details below
Why do I exist? Is this all there is? What is my true nature? What is most important in life? How should I live? These are humanity's oldest spiritual questions. At the year 2000, however, many who ask them are profoundly estranged from religion. To some, religion is belief in the unbelievableincom-patible with intelligence and learning. To others, it's just another bureaucratic institutionlegalistic, hypo-critical, untrustworthy. Still others have been alienated by their birth traditions, while an increasing number lack any such grounding. What unites this diverse group of skeptical, ambivalent "neoagnostics" is a sense of something deep and vital that eludes the reach of their intellect and education and an inchoate desire for meaning.
A half-century of the great secular experiment of Einstein, Marx, and Freud has proved that if religionthe record of our struggle to understand existence and behave accordinglyhas grave flaws, so do the materialistic "faiths" that were intended to replace it. After looking for answers in some obvious places, from relationships and accomplishment to art and science, Winifred Gallagher realized that she had not seriously considered religion since childhood's version of Chris-tianity collided with a college education. Asking the question "What if religion could be about something else?" she decided to explore her own heritage, as well as Buddhism, Judaism, and the New Age. She discovered a vast, quiet, "millennial" spiritual revolution that is transforming religion into a process of moving towardand struggling withthe sacred. Transcending denom-inationalboundaries, this new sensibility embraces modern realities from physics to psychiatry, addresses existential questions, values personal experience over institutional authority, draws insights from multiple traditions, welcomes women as clergy and teachers, and expands morality beyond the personal to the systemic, from economics to ecology.
A reporter of behavioral science, Winifred Gallagher began her investigation of postmodern religion with research and interviews, but watched it also become a very personal story of epektasisstraining toward mystery. Journalism and journey unfold over time spent in a Zen monastery and a cloistered convent, small-group discussions and healing rituals, a Conservative synagogue that shares a Christian church, and the birthplace of the New Age. Written with humor, empathy, and a rigorous curiosity, Working on God breaks new ground in depicting the broad-based spiritual move-ment that is transforming culture as well as religion.
The New York Times Book Review
"An intimate and revealing pilgrimage into America's restless soul. The result is an honest and sometimes poignant appraisal of a religious revolution afoot in this country.An outstanding piece of writing that shows the strength and beauty of America's beating religious heart."The Boston Globe
"Working on God is one of the greatest spiritual works of this decade, as delightful as it is wise."Anne Lamott
- Random House Publishing Group
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JUST DO IT
At four-fifteen on a cold, starry morning in California wine country, I slip out of my sleeping bag and into leggings, two layers of fleece, and sandals. Forgoing toothbrush for flashlight, I head up one of the steep, dew-soaked wooded paths that lead to the heart of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Once an old redwood barn, the warm, oil-lamplit zendo has the soothing feel and smell of a sauna. A bell rings, and some thirty black-robed people, ranging in age from nineteen to the mid-seventies, commence the rapid execution of 108 full prostrations to Buddha. This is a workout, and by the halfway point, a few simply bow. Outside, the wind howls. At a neighboring farm, fighting cocks crow.
When the grueling ceremony is completed, we file out in barefoot, silent pairs for a short break before getting down to the morning's real business: zazen, or seated meditation, and related rituals that will last until eight-thirty. Down in the farmhouse that's the social center for this community, or sangha, I clutch a mug of herbal tea and consider my mute companions' sleepy faces. The thick gray dawn presses against the windows. As my quadriceps turn to wood and my stomach rumbles futilely, I recall the reservations politely voiced by Jakusho Kwong-roshi, the abbot, about a raw beginner's joining them for three days of a rigorous silent Zen retreat called sesshin, meaning "to touch the mind."
In the fading starlight, a great gong sounds. We troop back to the zendo for two forty-minute rounds of zazen, the practice that's at the heart of this form of Buddhism. When I arrived yesterday, I had a brief tutorial with Kwong-roshi, one of America's handful of Zen masters, whose special authority has been transmitted from teacher to teacher through centuries. With his Chinese features, shaved head, robes, and aura of calm cheer, he could be a Hollywood lama. First he showed me how to sit cross-legged toward the edge of the hard round black cushion, resting my folded knees on a thick cotton underpad. After trying several postures, he decided that the Burma pose, which resembles yoga's half-lotus, suited me best. The thumbs of my nested hands pointed upward too much, he noted, which conveyed tension; I quickly corrected at least the digital component of the problem. Next, Kwong-roshi took a yardstick and measured the right place--about twenty-four inches from the floor--for my half-lidded gaze to fall when meditating. "We don't close our eyes" he said. "That may create other problems." Although this posture was comfortable enough, I knew that it wouldn't remain so.
Next, Kwong-roshi demonstrated the long, slow Zen breathing, which gives more energy to the exhale, "like you do when having a baby or using the rest room." He explained that a fetus breathes only once or twice a minute, and a Zen adept a mere five times or even fewer; with the slower, emptier unborn mind that results, conditioning drops away, "and we are able to see our basic goodness." One night, he said, he was driving with his four sons, now grown, when they came upon a terrible automobile accident. He rushed from his car, only to find one man already dead and another gravely injured, "lying in a pool of blood, staring up. I could hear his breathing, and it was unshu--Zen breathing. The man said to me, `The stars are so bright tonight.' His eyes, too, were brilliant. Then an ambulance came and took him away."
My body taken care of, Kwong-roshi turned to my mind. I must simply concentrate on counting my breaths, he said, going back to "one" each time I'm distracted. "We usually let our thoughts just go," he said, "and our breath follows them, all over the place. Here, we make our thoughts follow the sound of our breath, so they naturally slow down and drop away. Breath sweeps mind." Before dismissing me, Kwong-roshi said that after doing Zen practice for a while, "you begin to live differently." Comparing sesshin to an express train, he advised, "Just get on and go." I nodded but didn't really understand either of these two comments as well as I would even a day later.
Now, finding my assigned place in the zendo, I perch carefully atop my cushion for forty minutes of zazen. Trying to remember all the roshi's instructions, I inhale and, especially, exhale--the optimum starting point for all activities. The redwood building, too, seems to breathe, creaking and groaning in response to the wind. After rushing around on planes and California's freeways for the past few days, I am relieved at first just to be still in the soft dawn darkness. Sitting tall, I earnestly try to do nothing.
A gong rings, and we rise stiffly for ten minutes of kinhin, or silent walking meditation. As if choreographing Waiting for Godot, we baby-step in single file around the zendo, going no place slowly. Gradually, the circulation returns to my right leg. Outside, songbirds announce daylight.
The gong sounds again, summoning us back to our cushions for the next round of zazen. All novelty evaporates, exposing deep holes in my concentration. As a writer, I'm accustomed to recording what's going on, even if it's only in my own head. Giving up thoughts, which are not only my business but my pleasure and existential defense, seems not only hard, but wrong. Some of this difficulty is cultural. The style of meditation I'm familiar with, as a Westerner, involves thinking about something, whether a bit of Scripture or world peace. Could this Asian thinking about nothing but counting my breaths be "better" than focusing on some worthy concept or image? Kwong-roshi said that his own master had taught that before one uses a calculator, one must clear it. Although empty mind eludes me, just gunning for it slows down and reduces the number of my thoughts.
Suddenly, the electrical outlet slightly to the left of my official gazing locus starts to get on my nerves. What is the point of sitting here in this uncomfortable position at a hellish hour of the morning, staring at a wall plug? I devise a koan, or Zen paradox: Why does Zen seem so smart and simple when you read about it and so dumb and hard when you do it? When the bell rings for morning "work practice," the prospect of chores seems Dionysian.
Time flies until ten-thirty, and the particularly grueling triple zazen. With kinhin, chanting, and a ritual meal, we'll be in this room, mostly locked into one position, for nearly four hours. I feel twinges of panic as I lower myself gingerly onto the now dreaded pillow. Familiar with this reaction from starting a long run, I give myself the same moronic, effective pep talk: If they can do it, I can do it. Because counting breaths doesn't feel right to me, I decide to repeat silently a simple phrase instead: "Here. Now." This is probably cheating, I think, despite trying not to.
By the light of the enigmatic, sound-of-one-hand-clapping Zen literature, I'm not sure that what I sense during zazen is "right." I can best describe it as an experiential version of a perception that helped to create modern painting. The elements of life's background--from breathing to consciousness, the sound of the wind to the zendo's barny redwood smell--come to the surface, revealing themselves to be as vital as the more "important" things that usually occupy the foreground, and our attention. There's an awareness of natura naturans--nature naturing. Then, too, I can't help but notice that my thoughts and sensations come and go, but something else doesn't. Although my zazen state has no religious content in the usual sense, I'm reminded of theologian Paul Tillich's definition of God as the "ground of being."
During the afternoon work period, I invoke journalistic license to break the sesshin silence and talk with Helen, an energetic seventy-three-year-old. The retired director of a school for disturbed and disabled children, she does volunteer work with "people who need ... things," she says. "When I die, I want to be like an old slipper." Living spaces here are shared, but her years and notorious snoring have entitled Helen to an old trailer in the parking lot. In this cozy home, I ask her why she practices Zen.
After some thought, Helen says, "I do it because I like it. I don't like to shop or go on cruises. My husband talked me into going on one of those, once. Zen is what I enjoy." She has studied here for ten years, "which is nothing in Zen, but an eternity for an American," she says. "Everything we do seems to last about ten years!" She esteems Kwong-roshi because she's "wary of charismatic teachers who push big causes and Asian teachers who don't understand Americans. Roshi's personal, one-man-in-the universe-right-now-here approach has a lot to offer Western Buddhism. In dokusan [a formal, private student-teacher interview], I don't go to him for answers, but I leave beaming with a sense of peace and comfort."
Although she was long a church member, Helen prefers Buddhism's worldview, which she first encountered as a child in Japan, where her family lived for a time. In the Judeo-Christian West, she says, "there's a hierarchy of God, then man, then nature. In Asia, there's not. We don't like to acknowledge what being a human is--just part of nature, an animal. We could all be killers in an instant!" She laughs merrily. "Every time you take a step, you kill." Within Buddhism, Helen prefers the Soto Zen tradition to the Rinzai school, which puts more stress on intellectual practices such as koans. "Here, it's what you do, not what you think, that counts," she says. "Marin County Buddhism is too intellectual for me! Here, people aren't always quoting at you. They're busy working and doing."
Asked what Zen practice has done for her, Helen stops to think again. "Rounded my rough edges," she says finally. "Sanded me. I'm not quite as righteous or irritable. I see now that harmony doesn't have to depend on two people thinking alike. With my husband, for example. After I had been practicing for a while, I said to myself, Helen, he's not perfect, but neither are you. We get along better now. I live now in more harmony with ... whatever." She pauses again, then says, "Zen changes your view of the world from inside. First it turns it on its head, so that you think you're going insane." I laugh in a way I wouldn't have yesterday. "Then," says Helen, "it's just different. You realize that all you can concentrate on is what's in front of you, by being alert every second. There's still fire and flood, but all's right with the world anyway, and you're at peace."
On the second day of sesshin, no rays of light or seraphic voices have poured from my brown plastic wall outlet. Zazen remains extremely difficult. Aching legs and backs have driven a few people from the floor to chairs set against the wall. For me, the toughest part remains emptying my mind. The shifting light outside subtly alters the zendo's atmosphere, just as thoughts and sensations alter my head's. Like the shadows, my internal states--boredom, contentment, frustration--come and go, while I just sit there, trying to pay them no mind. After the second sitting of the midday marathon, it's hard to believe there's a third. Wake up! scream the fighting cocks. Distinctions blur between them and me, there and here, consciousness and reality. Wake up! Wake up! (Later, Kwong-roshi says that the name Buddha derives from buddh, which means "awakened.")
A few months before sesshin, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Picasso portraiture exhibition. Shrine-like, the small, final room held a triptych of three very late self-portraits. One painting, done about a year before the artist died at the age of ninety-two, portrayed that confrontation with mortality that not even the most protean creator is spared. A modern version of an ascetic saint contemplating a skull, it showed the artist with brain raddled and nerves exposed, tongue protruding and sparse hair standing on end. The features of the fragmented face are wildly sprung, as if from the coils of an old mattress. The right eye is upended, flat, as sightless as a dead fish's. Within this desolation, the only vital sign is the left eye: alert, unaccountably blue, and earnestly focused upward. The question is unavoidable: At what? One of art's greatest thieves, perhaps Picasso had appropriated a motif from religious carvings, Asian and Celtic alike, in which contemplation is signified by a face that has one eye open and one closed. A neuroscientist who studies consciousness once told me that our ideal state is this "quiet alertness," which is the goal of a lot of drug use, prescription and otherwise. Amidst his own disintegration, the blue eye in Picasso's death's head remains quietly alert.
The Zen art of paying attention is epitomized by oryoki ("just enough"), a special dining ritual from which the famous tea ceremony derives. During sesshin, meals are eaten ceremonially in the zendo after the final round of zazen, in silence and seated for meditation. Beside each person's cushion is a pretty nest of three bowls and wooden spoon and chopsticks, wrapped up in pale linen. Three times a day, we untie this bundle and sequentially arrange the cloths and implements just so. Heralded by dramatic drumming, designated servers bring food in large pots from the kitchen, bow before each person, ladle, bow again, and move on until everyone has been helped. Then, as one body, one mind, we tuck into the mysterious but very good vegetarian fare, a kind of spiritual comfort food. Sadly, custom calls for it to be eaten at a furious pace. Then, like members of some strange clean-plate club, we discreetly scrape our bowls and lick our utensils, rinse them with tea, drink our "dishwater," wipe our bowls dry, and tie up the whole business for the next meal. As I soon learn, the second one stops focusing, a bowl gets put in the wrong place, a chopstick falls with a clatter, a cloth is folded in half instead of thirds.
One night, just as I congratulate myself on finally getting the hang of this alien business, I pour tea all over my place mat. A server silently hands me a napkin that's folded into her belt for just such emergencies. As a server myself one morning, I forget to help the person sitting behind the big gong, until the emphatically rolling eyes of several otherwise immobile Buddhas signal my mistake as surely as fire alarms. I find oryoki maddening, but it poses a question: How much of my life do I waste on thinking of one thing while doing another, badly?
As my hours in the zendo accumulate, too much pointless thinking and feeling begin to seem like the cranial equivalent of overeating. During breaks, I sit on the stoop of the rustic wooden hut that I share with a mysterious silent, black-robed roommate (she turns out to be a very nice lawyer, soon to be married). I mostly just watch the California spring unfold: Red spiderweb / Moss-covered dime / Pale quarter-moon / Outside my door.
Sesshin simplifies my definition of religious experience to "the heightening of reality." (Kwong-roshi would say "the revealing of reality" instead.) The volume of what is is suddenly amplified, so that the usual faint tinkling becomes a symphony. Literature is full of illustrations of this intensification, from Huck's fusion with the Mississippi he drifts on to haughty Prince Andrei's deathbed realization that in the end, he is "a particle of love." Like Huck, Americans are inclined to have religious experiences in nature. In "Of Being," the poet Denise Levertov wrote:
I know this happiness
the looming presences--
great suffering, great fear--
into peripheral vision:
but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:
this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:
this need to dance,
this need to kneel:
My sense of the numinous is generally keenest upstate, in the fields and forest that surround my old schoolhouse. In winter, there's no plumbing and only a stove for warmth, but I'm willing to chop wood and carry water for a few days of crackling silence. One freezing morning, crouched in a snowbank by the creek brushing my teeth, I understood why monastic life has traditionally been rural and short on comforts. In a warm bathroom I would have missed this sere elegance of black crows and fir trees piled white. After a winter of such ablutions, what would spring mean?
One day last summer I was walking down a dirt road when suddenly, in an overgrown meadow, a bear rose up on its hind legs. So unexpected was this sight a mere two and a half hours from Times Square that at first I saw only a huge dog, standing with its front paws on a hidden rock. But the creature was as erect as a man, and as tall, too. The bear saw or perhaps smelled me, dropped to all fours, and disappeared into the tall grass, away from my neighbor's beehives and toward the forest. For years I've read about bears, but seeing one a few hundred yards from my house was something else again. Jolted out of automatic pilot, my perception sharpened and focused on the unexpected truth. There are real bears in the woods! Things aren't necessarily what they seem. There's more to reality than meets the eye. A so-called transformative experience, this ursine epiphany not only filled me with a need to dance, to kneel, but changed my perception of the world and my place in it.
Once in a while, too, it seems that something else is suddenly present. My five senses can't discern it, yet it seems quite different from a thought or other product of my brain. It calls for awe. I think, What great holiness! I think, too, that I'm getting only a fraction, a glimpse, a flicker, of this thing, because, as if it were electricity, I couldn't withstand more. Then, as mysteriously as it came, it goes.
Because of my science background, I'm intrigued by fleshy components of religious experience. While researching a story about the neurophysiology of orgasm, I learned that because it's a reflex, the nerve impulses that generate orgasm don't reach the cognitive areas of the brain; thus, the event can be neither exactly remembered nor simply produced by will. This universal yet evanescent, novel, giftlike quality is also characteristic of profound spiritual experiences. Perhaps they, too, are rooted in the instinctual, emotional midbrain--which in turn may help explain why intellectuals are so often uneasy about spiritual matters.
For most people, an experience of heightened reality is exceptional. For some of the great souls of Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity, it's just the way it is. A research psychiatrist once told me that a baby wouldn't notice the effects of LSD, called "God in a pill" for its reliability in producing short-lived mystical states; the drug blocks a particular serotonin receptor, which seems to inhibit the adult's habitual perceptual filters, which an infant has yet to acquire. Perhaps what's true of a baby is true of a saint.
At sesshin, I inquire about kensho, or "see nature," which is Zen's term for the sudden, transformative perception of reality, including one's true essence. My questions elicit primness: "We all have special experiences, but we don't talk much about them. We don't focus on them, but on authentic practice." Talk is sparing in zendos but often cheap in other sanctuaries. Many people who go to a church or temple seeking kensho get moralizing sermons instead. The fresh, deep consciousness they desire, which is true religious experience, may not even be mentioned, creating the impression that it's either a chimera or too "holy" to speak of or be enjoyed by the likes of them.
Known as a poet-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), the father of American spirituality, began his career as an ordained minister. While pastor of a Boston church, he had doubts about the nature of the sacraments, resigned his position, and took off for Europe, where he visited Wordsworth and Coleridge. After returning home, he developed his transcendental philosophy, which posits the divine as humanity's guiding principle and thus complements American ethics of idealism, egalitarianism, and common sense. "I like the silent church before the service begins," he wrote, "better than any preaching." Many of his fellow citizens have given Zen a warm reception in the thirty or so years since it arrived from Asia largely because this silent, individualistic religion is felt rather than believed. Indeed, there's some argument about whether Buddhism and Zen are, in the usual sense, religions at all. Buddha himself was an atheist. Some prefer to describe the tradition he left behind as nontheistic, implicitly leaving room for something else. Most certainly, however, Zen is less a set of beliefs than a practice for the here and now.
Like all great geniuses of religion, Buddha was a master psychologist who focused on the human thirst for meaning and on relief from life's inevitable pain. After intense analysis of society and self, he concluded that all our misery results from the illusion of a separate "me" and the failure to apprehend reality's transitory nature. According to his "four noble truths," life is full of suffering, most of which can be traced to desire, which in turn can be overcome, yielding peace. To pursue these truths, one must walk the "eightfold path," living with right views, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. Anticipating cognitive and behavioral therapy by some twenty-five hundred years, Buddha observed, "All we are is the result of what we have thought" and "all things can be mastered with mindfulness." His own grueling spiritual struggle had proved to him that enlightenment cannot be produced by intellect alone, but through something close to what we call a "gut feeling" that must be rooted in experience. To achieve this state, Buddha advocated the direct physical and mental practice of meditation that became Zen's core.
Many Americans think of Zen when they hear "Buddhism," but in fact Zen is an offshoot of the larger Buddhist tradition that began in India in the sixth century B.C.E. Zen's roots also extend to Japan and China, where the third-century sage Lao-tse taught simplicity, nonattachment, and attunement with the tao, or spontaneous, creative power of the universe--concepts that complemented Buddha's "way." Advocating a caveat emptor approach to religion, Buddha urged interested parties not to buy on faith, but to road-test the merit of his teachings themselves: "Come and see." Zen regards even its own sacred literature as illusory, compared to direct experience. When I asked Kwong-roshi how he described his religion to the uninitiated, he said, "I don't usually talk about Zen unless someone asks me a question. Then I may say something. Sometimes you don't speak about religion, but the other person gets a sense of who you are. That's a Buddhist attitude--thinking in terms of what someone else can experience with you."
Despite its Asian trappings, in important respects Zen is as American as apple pie. Like the nation's secular religion of sports, it teaches that peak performance looks simple but requires, as Buddha said, pushing forward like an "ox that marches through the deep mire." If I had to describe zazen in one word, it would be "exercise." On my hard cushion, I appreciate for the first time a systematic how-to approach to spiritual development that one does. Rather than ignoring the body or regarding it as a source of trouble, as in many forms of Western spirituality, Zen uses it. Like sports, this religion has clear rules, coaches, and equipment--a whole technology that helps people to become "addicted" to the activity and benefit from its unexpected side effects. Like working out, this spiritual practice unites body and mind, brings order to life, whispers that this too shall pass, and makes one feel good when it's over.
Zen suits America in other ways, too. It shares her anarchic, playful sensibility, articulated by artists from Walt Whitman to Kurt Vonnegut: "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different." Like Jeffersonian democracy, it values independence and interdependence. Like Emersonian spirituality, it sees "big mind" embodied in each person, and life's beauty and joy contained in everyday moments.
As the millennium approaches, the experiential, individualistic thread remarked so long ago by Emerson runs brightly through America's religious fabric. Among nations, only India is demonstrably more spiritual. Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God. (In what might be a head count of neoagnostics, sociologist Wade Clark Roof estimates that upwards of a third of baby boomers "affirm in one way or another a divine power or presence, even if they admit to uncertainty in their belief," and even though they also entertain "individualistic meaning systems," and remain "highly secularized in their conceptions of the forces governing life.") Forty percent of Americans attend services weekly--an astounding rate when contrasted with the United Kingdom's 2 percent, say, or Italy's 5 percent. Interestingly, 90 percent of Americans engage in private religious experience. Of the 70 percent who pray daily, almost half feel that in some way or other God has spoken to them personally. Most Americans also believe in miracles, including more than 70 percent of those who have postgraduate degrees. This do-it- yourself, "privatized" faith is rooted not only in Emerson's "God within" and John Muir's idea of nature as cathedral but also in the political principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Even traditional believers are apt to feel that individuals should decide for themselves what to think, and that being a good Christian, say, or a good Jew doesn't depend on institutional standards, such as attending services.
Of all forms of religious experience, Americans have traditionally been strong on the "community spirit" that's so often missing from postmodern life. On Sonoma Mountain, it's based not on superficial social similarities or weekly attendance at brief services but on the sharing of "big mind" and long-term practice. One of the paradoxes of sesshin is that silence creates solidarity, even intimacy. Soon, imposing chitchat on others seems almost violent. In the quiet atmosphere, too, one appreciates the few things that do get said. Washing dishes one morning, I'm annoyed by one of my workmates, who rubs at invisible spots on pots I've already cleaned and generally acts the fussbudget. Then I notice the funereal calla lilies framed by the kitchen window, which, because I've been reading the Gospels, make me think of Easter and resurrection. A little chatting is a perk of kitchen duty, so I free-associate aloud, mentioning a thought-provoking biblical detail: Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus joined the mourners and wept for his dear friend. Towel suspended, my fellow dishwasher nods happily and says, yes, yes, that is interesting. Standing stiffly over a steaming sink on a chilly morning after three hours of meditation, two unwashed, uncombed, barefooted people with not terribly compatible temperaments nonetheless beam at each other in peculiar understanding. Accustomed to "knowing" what someone else is like, or is thinking or feeling, I'm taken aback on the following morning by a brief exchange with a stern-looking, black-robed senior monk. Sure that he considers me a bumbling dilettante, I'm mortified to be caught before zazen, furtively trying to limber up with a runner's stretch against the zendo's outer wall. "It's not moving," he whispers. Much silent Zen hilarity!
On the final night during zazen, I'm summoned for dokusan with Kwong-roshi. On the first night, I had walked into the small chamber beside the zendo, plopped down, and said hi. Now, tutored in the protocol, I enter, walk to the left, bow to the shrine, bow to Kwong-roshi, do a full prostration, make another bow, and then sit as if for meditation. On the wall is a picture of his own teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, the late author of the splendid Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, now in its twelfth printing. A Japanese roshi, he came to America on a visit in 1958 and stayed to found the first Zen training monastery in the West. Even in a photograph, Suzuki-roshi exerts magnetism. Earlier, during a talk to the community, Kwong-roshi recalled that before his teacher died of cancer, their customary calligraphy sessions had become an ordeal for Suzuki-roshi, who was "so sick the brush fell from his hand. But we kept making the character for `same.' He would point to it and tell me, `We are the same.' I didn't grasp the meaning then, but as the years go by, I'm beginning to discover that it's true. Finally, because he was so frail, I stopped showing up for calligraphy. But that was a mistake. The Zen way is to keep going."
A minute of dokusan makes plain that the medium is the message, and Kwong-roshi is it. The feeling that there's nothing that I couldn't say to him (a sense I'll repeatedly have in the presence of the spiritually advanced) paradoxically makes the discussion of earth-shattering issues unnecessary. On another, surely lower, level, however, I'm a reporter, and I want to get to the bottom of this Zen business. I ask our species' most practical spiritual question: What happens when we die? Wonderfully, Kwong-roshi says, "That's being taken care of." Zen adepts don't fear death, he adds, because they've "practiced for it. Sitting kills the self. You see what that's like, so you're not afraid of it." When I say that I've noticed that the zendo isn't an environment for egomaniacs, he smiles.
The historian Arnold Toynbee predicted that one of the great developments of the twentieth century would be the coming of Buddhism to the West. Kwong-roshi agrees: "The transmission of mindfulness--not just the thinking mind, but the unconditioned one that you might call God and we call big mind or Buddha nature--is a whole new concept here." Rather than seeing mindfulness as a kind of talent, like artistic flair or musicality, he believes that everyone willing to make the requisite effort can attain it. "You wash your face every day, and then it gets dirty again," he says. "The conditioned mind keeps getting tainted, and you have to wash it--that's all. Meditation and physical practice just restore mindfulness." Buddhists don't believe in a god outside themselves--"you and I are Buddha," Kwong-roshi says. Yet he "doesn't have a problem" with theistic religions or their practitioners who increasingly borrow from Zen, "as long as we know we're talking about something that goes back beyond Jesus, Buddha, God--they're all just names."
Before taking leave of Kwong-roshi (I had been correctly instructed that I'd "just know when it's time"), I tell him about my mantra. Somewhat to my surprise, he says it's okay to use words rather than counting breaths, because "it's important that the practice works for you." I shouldn't get discouraged about empty mind: "Just release your thoughts by not entertaining them, and shift your attention to your breath or mantra." Reminding me that in two days it will be Buddha's birthday, "which means it's your birthday, too," he sends me off to sleep.
Late on the next afternoon after the final zazen, we form a farewell circle and offer comments on sesshin. The seemingly severe spiritual warriors smile and laugh; some cry. Kwong-roshi tells us, "Now you know what is available in yourself." Someone offers me the Zen compliment: "I admire your practice." I know that this means, "Even though clueless, you showed up for all the sittings and sat till the bell rang." But I'm pleased anyway.
After the electric atmosphere of sesshin, normal life is bittersweet. On Saturday night, like circus clowns, five retreatants jam into a compact car and head to Sonoma for dinner. The opportunity to bathe hasn't presented itself in three days, but courtesy of oryoki, my jeans are pleasantly loose and my good Italian jacket, pulled from a duffel bag, once again covers a multitude of sins. We eat fine food with forks, drink a lot of local chardonnay, and, unhindered by social posturing, talk about real things. We laugh a great deal, and at one point, the waitress gently chides us, in Californese, "for having such a good time."
On Sunday morning, just before the big celebration for Buddha to which the public is invited, I take a walk in the mountain meadows. My brain is like a room that's just been cleared out, scrubbed, and left with its windows open. Not much is there, but the space is clean, cool, and sunlit. All the things that worried me when I arrived--a sick parent, deadlines, a gripe with a friend--could worry me still. I'm just less inclined to engage with them. When the bustling for the celebration begins in earnest, I take a quick peek at the birthday boy's gorgeously beflowered shrine, and slip away. As I leave, Helen smiles and says, "Have a good ... whatever!"
Meet the Author
Winifred Gallagher's previous books are Just the Way You Are: How Heredity and Experience Create the Individual, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and The Power of Place: How Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions. She has written for many magazines, from The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone. She lives in Manhattan and Long Eddy, New York.
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