A Straight Road with 99 Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen

A Straight Road with 99 Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611720112
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Gregory Shepherd: Gregory Shepherd has studied Zen Buddhism since the early 1970s. He practiced with Yamada Koun Roshi at San Un Zendo in Kamakura and also with Robert Aitken Roshi in Honolulu, where he was groomed to be Aitken's first successor. Shepherd later received a fellowship from Japanese Ministry of Education to research contemporary Japanese music. He is currently Associate Professor of music at Kauai Community College.

Ruben L.F. Habito (born c. 1947) was born in the Philippines and is a former Jesuit priest turned master practicing in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage of Zen. In his early youth he was sent to Japan on missionary work where he began Zen practice under Yamada Koun-roshi. In 1988, Ruben received Dharma transmission from Yamada Koun. Ruben left the Jesuit order in 1989, and in 1991 founded the lay organization Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, Texas. He has taught at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University since 1989 where he continues to be a faculty member

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A Straight Road with 99 Curves


By Gregory Shepherd

Stone Bridge Press

Copyright © 2013 Gregory Shepherd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61172-011-2


Life is a challenge. Meet it.

—Mother Teresa


It took me a while to find it again after so many years, especially since there were no street signs, and my sense of direction had never been any good. That very morning I had had a dream of trying to drive my car up a steep hill with the gearshift stuck in reverse, not a good omen for the day ahead. Now I felt as though I had been walking around in circles for over an hour.

Finally, I came upon a narrow lane that looked vaguely familiar. I entered it and stopped in front of a two-story building half hidden by a cinderblock wall. This was it, I was sure of it. For the fourth or fifth time that morning I riffled through my old, expired passport from years before until I reached the photo inside, a nervous habit I had developed in the days leading up to this short trip to Japan. My signature was scrawled across the bottom of the photo, but the glowering and intense face that stared back at me from across the years seemed almost like a previous incarnation. A faded red stamp on one of the inner pages, once the color of the rising sun, now the color of rust, read "Port of Entry: Haneda Airport, August 16, 1972." How could it possibly be that long ago, I wondered. But there was no denying the fact that over three decades had passed since I first stood, as I did now, in front of this small temple where my life had changed, for better and worse, in so many ways. And it was over eighteen years, a generation by some definitions, since I had taken my last bittersweet steps away from it.

A tall wooden gate partially obscured the temple, a building of traditional Japanese design that a time-worn sign in Japanese indicated as "San Un Zendo." San=three, un=cloud, zendo=Zen-practice center. I was standing in front of the "Three Cloud Zen Center," one of several zendo that had been my spiritual home during the years of my youth. The gate was unlocked, and I could have easily walked in but didn't. Instead, I peered through the lattice-work at a familiar sight. There above the doorway to the zendo, on the other side of the gate, I could see a large, black-framed calligraphy of the Chinese character [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] kan, ink-brushed with a flowing hand. The character kan translates as "barrier." I remembered it well. It had been written by "The Master," the lay abbot of the zendo with whom I had studied koans, those bafflingly paradoxical Zen statements and stories, on and off for over twelve years, and about whom I still thought on an almost daily basis. With a face as impassive and imposing as an Easter Island moai when he was serious, The Master was reputed to be spiritually enlightened on an epic scale, a supernova of spectacular magnitude in the Zen firmament, and he had always scared the daylights out of me just by the solidity of his presence and seeming ability to see into my head, heart, and soul. I had left his Three Cloud Zen Center under something of a cloud of my own all those years ago, and we never spoke again. Now he was dead.

As had happened so often during the years since I left, I again felt a deep sense of regret that I had not lived up to his expectations of me, expectations that I too would one day become a Zen master, one of his successors in a line that reached all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha. I was flattered at the time, but thought myself far too young and wholly unworthy. Now I was middle-aged and feeling it, the horsepower of youth fading fast behind me. I arched my back forward and backward to relieve the pressure on my lumbar discs, and began an inner dialog.

Had I failed him? Had I failed myself? Or was it the other way around? Was it I who had been failed? What could have been done differently by all involved? I wondered all this in a feverishly compulsive way, maintaining the gist of the inquiry but rephrasing the essential question again and again in different forms, as if by doing so I might somehow come to a more satisfying answer, an answer that might even deflect a measure of responsibility for my shortcomings and failures. But there was no deflection to be had.

For what did I now have to show for my life, as intimations of my own mortality were becoming less and less abstract? My mind wandered through the years of my spiritual quest, the only thing that really mattered to me (or at least this had once been the case). What had I done with my life, I wondered, the sweat of August mingling with the anxiety rivulet on my neck and back. I was now nearing the age at which Master Dogen and Master Rinzai, the founders of the Zen schools in which I had studied, had died hundreds of years earlier. They had died full men, consummately attuned to the essence of existence. And what about me? I had never judged myself by what I had accomplished in material terms; but had I at least made some spiritual progress as a result of all the meanderings my life had taken?

I recalled one of the paradoxical koans I had worked on with The Master: "Go straight along a road with ninety-nine curves." It now seemed that my life had been just like that, this way and that way—but always with a mind attuned to "The Way," the Buddhist Eightfold Path. Or had it been? Maybe I had just been a fake, a term I had used so glibly in the past to describe others who failed to measure up to my exacting (and often cynical) standards of honesty. Maybe my life had been just a series of turns with no discernible direction or destination, like getting lost in Kamakura that very day. Maybe, as in my dream, I was trying to drive up a steep hill with the gearshift stuck in reverse.

What had I been looking for all those years, anyway? Peace? Happiness? Or had it just been personal distinction, spirituality as credential, or "spiritual materialism," as another Buddhist teacher had memorably phrased it? The ego as Buddha: contradiction of contradictions.

I had once read the words "To be human is not to know one's self": It is fundamental to the human condition to wander through life without any real mooring of identity, the ego being just a bundle of thoughts and concepts that must be constantly propped up and reestablished from moment to moment, as opposed to being a separate, permanent, inherently existing self. But I knew this declaration to be only partially true. For, yes, the ego is an illusion; but when it drops away for even a moment (the "goal," if any, of Zen practice), then one is able, in the words of another koan, to "see your face before your parents were born." One's Original Self, in other words. During my San Un Zendo years, The Master had said that I had had an insight into this identity beyond ego, in the form of the Buddhist enlightenment experience. But now, standing in front of the kan/barrier of the little temple, I wasn't even sure of that experience anymore. Had he been wrong about me? Was I really enlightened? Had I ever been? Had my enlightenment died? Was it now out of reach or, worse, just an illusion of my youth? This dense tangle of questions spread throughout my psyche like the creepers of ivy twisting around the lattice-work fence of the temple.

I longed to open the gate again and go back into the meditation hall, but I just couldn't bring myself to do so, not yet anyway. For one thing, The Master's wife had to be at least ninety years old now and wouldn't remember me, of this I was certain. For another, I was just too frightened to reopen that part of my life again. It had been too intense, too fraught with the inner turmoil that accompanies deep introspection. Still, part of me desperately wanted to step through that gate again, the part of me that hungered anew for answers to the fundamental spiritual questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? And just by asking these questions again, I found my course set. On the inside cover of my old passport, I carefully copied out the Chinese character kan, a fitting symbol for the barrier of time I was about to cross.


To the heart of youth the world is a highwayside. Passing for ever, he fares ...

Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel

"Who's that guy, Paul?"

"That's Buddha."

"Who's Buddha?"

"He's a happy man. That's why he's laughing."

My first encounter with Buddhism in any form was this moment in the 1950s when my brother and I stood in front of a Chinese restaurant in our hometown of North Arlington, New Jersey, gazing in fascination at a porcelain figure in its window of Hotei, the "Happy Buddha." I looked at Paul after he said this, and his eyes were unblinking in concentration, as if he were trying to memorize the figure's features so that he could draw them later on at home. He was seven and I was five. I was sure he knew everything.

Later on, during our Catholic high school years, Paul began bringing home books on various Eastern philosophies, and I found myself gravitating to the ones on Hinduism and Buddhism, perhaps because they were unfettered by the notions of eternal damnation that were driven home relentlessly at our church and school. Adolescence is universally marked by the search for identity, and my own search was motivated by a seemingly innate desire for transcendence of some sort. In my freshman year of high school I began doing hatha yoga exercises I learned from one of Paul's books, and I read and reread the Bhagavad Gita, from which I learned the rudiments of karma yoga. In this practice, one relinquishes any desire for reward for one's labors, and I found that when I ran on the track team in this frame of mind, the energy that might have been frittered away in the hope of gaining glory (or winning the heart of the forever-out-of-reach Nancy Jones) was channeled instead into the act of running, an act now purified of the fever of achievement. At times, while running without regard for goal or reward, I would momentarily experience a state of being wherein my sense of self became identified with the act of running. "I" was "running." It was a strange, fleeting sensation that I didn't seek to cultivate. It was as though I were disappearing.

Also thanks to Paul's books, I became fascinated with the idea of enlightenment, through which Shakyamuni Buddha and others after him were said to have transcended the realm of dukkha, or the essential unsatisfactoriness of life. Perhaps the closest expression of dukkha in Western philosophy comes from lmmanuel Kant, who wrote, "Give a man everything he desires, and yet at this very moment he will feel that this everything is not everything." The Zen form of Buddhism, unlike other forms that spoke of enlightenment almost as an abstract concept, offered the possibility of realizing one's true nature through the practice of zazen, or Zen-sitting. Part and parcel with that realization, I read further, came liberation from dukkha and true peace of mind. Thus I began to meditate late at night by sitting quietly and trying to center my concentration on my breathing.

To the same degree that I was put off by Catholicism's rigid dogma and truckling to authority, I was attracted to Buddhism's emphasis on self-reliance and finding one's own way to freedom and happiness, even in the midst of samsara, the ever-changing world of illusion. No faith needed, just look and see for yourself. Now that was free will, unlike the Catholic version that was more like something out of a Dirty Harry movie: go ahead and sin to your heart's content—if you're feeling lucky, punk.

The independence of spirit of Buddhism is epitomized in the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Soma Thera's translation of the Kalama Sutta, a scriptural text I read over and over again:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability. When you yourselves know: "These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them.'

I also read that in the Zen form of Buddhism, one eventually comes to throw even Zen away, as it too can be a hindrance to enlightenment. All of this was a far cry from the warning "Outside the [Catholic] church there is no salvation" that we heard over and over again at church and school. I kept a journal in those days and made an entry on the Buddha's Four Noble Truths:

First Noble Truth: Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is capable of satisfying the spirit for long. Do not be attached to what you are experiencing, otherwise you will experience suffering.

Second Noble Truth: Craving sensory stimulation, craving existence, and craving non-existence give rise to the continuity of being, and with it its attendant suffering. Attaining a state of non-craving should be part of your daily effort.

Third Noble Truth: One can end eternal suffering by ending the craving that leads to the continuation of suffering.

Fourth Noble Truth: Ending the craving that leads to the continuation of suffering is brought about through living by the ideals of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Before long, I came across another Buddhist concept, that of "no-self," which caused me no small amount of consternation. Sure, I wanted happiness and peace, but not extinction, and here was the Buddha's message of liberation being linked, it seemed to me at least, to not existing. I was further frightened by this idea as a result of a visit to the dentist in which I was hooked up to a breathing mask that delivered nitrous oxide through my nose as a painkiller. Almost immediately I felt my very existence was about to be extinguished, and that I was disappearing down a vast, airless tunnel. I heard my voice scream, "Take it off!" as if from a million miles away. Afterward, I wondered if the no-self experience of Buddhism also produced this sense of imminent extinction. If so, I would tread carefully along this Noble Eightfold Path I was reading about.

A year later, despite having twice been thrown out of his class for disruptive behavior, I somehow managed to persuade my sophomore-year high school Latin teacher to allow me to give a short presentation on the Eightfold Path in commemoration of Shakyamuni Buddha's birthday. To start things off, I asked everyone in the class to sit with their eyes closed and just observe their thoughts as they arose one after another, much as they might watch the ocean waves rolling onto the beach at Asbury Park. The teacher and most of my classmates were more than a little skeptical at first, but by the end of my presentation everyone joined in on a rousing chorus of "Happy birthday, dear Buddha, happy birthday to you!"—although one of my more irreverent friends changed the ending to "Happy birthday, fuck you!"

Years into my future I would also be saying "fuck you" to the Buddha, but not nearly as light-heartedly.

* * *

A respite from all the relentlessly negative indoctrination of Catholic education came in my junior year high school history class, taught by Brother Blaise (not his real name), who introduced us to Christian mavericks such as Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, mystics who emphasized peace and oneness, with nary a word about guilt and hellfire. Brother Blaise also told us about the connection between the early Christian mystics and ancient Buddhist sages. My ears pricked up. They come together, he said, in the sense of the phrase "the peace that passeth understanding": in both traditions there comes a point where one experiences a deep peace that cannot be explained in logical terms, since the oneness of the experience goes beyond the dualism of logic. Not a lot of this made much sense to me, but I felt that the underlying experience was the important thing. A deep part of me hungered for this "peace that passeth understanding."

One of the only things that ever made me sit up and pay attention at church was during Lent when the priest would read aloud from the Bible about Pontius Pilate asking Christ, "What is truth?" Christ remains silent. None of the priests or nuns or brothers ever attempted to explain what Christ's non-answer meant, which made me even more curious about it. Was his not answering a way of getting back at Pilate for his part in the impending crucifixion? Or was his silence itself his answer to the question "What is truth?"

Silence of the mind—when all thoughts and concepts die down—that was what the Christian mystics seemed to be talking about. Was Christ referring to the same thing with his non-answer? I had always been drawn to these types of mystical considerations, and even occasionally, back when I was an altar boy, had daydreamed about becoming a Trappist monk. As I would light the candles for morning Mass, I sometimes sensed an inkling of soul-peace, the pungent tang of beeswax and sweet incense heightening the mystical dimension, the "state of grace."

Excerpted from A Straight Road with 99 Curves by Gregory Shepherd. Copyright © 2013 Gregory Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Stone Bridge Press.
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Table of Contents

A Straight Road with Ninety Nine Curves: Coming of Age on the Path of Zen"
By Gregory Shepherd
I return to Kamakura, Japan in 2002 for a short visit. I had left Yamada Koun Roshi’s San Un Zendo 18 years earlier after a falling out. Now, all these years later, I stand outside the temple gate, wondering what went wrong and why. I resolve to recall and write down the events of those days in order to try and make sense of them. I remember…
I remember my childhood in New Jersey where I was raised in a strict Catholic environment that I rebelled against. Rebellion becomes a salient part of my character both now and later in my Zen practice. The reader also meets my brother, Paul, a fellow traveler on the path of Zen. Together we begin to read all manner of esoteric literature and begin our fledgling practice.
Paul and I arrive in Hawaii where we promptly become residents of Koko An, the residential center for the Diamond Sangha which had been started by Robert Aitken in 1959. In addition to my zazen practice, I read everything about Zen that I can get my hands on. One of these books, “The Three Pillars of Zen”, has a section devoted to the personal enlightenment accounts of several people, including a man identified simply as “Mr. K.Y.” who has an experience of incredible magnitude.
While at Koko An, I have an experience which I am convinced is a true kensho, or Enlightenment. I will find out for sure soon enough: “Mr. K.Y.” or “The Three Pillars of Zen” is coming to Koko An to lead a weeklong sesshin, or retreat.
The sesshin begins. I go to dokusan, the one-on-one interviews between students and the teacher, and to discover to my great chagrin that Yamada Roshi does not think I’ve had kensho at all. I am crushed, but soon redouble my efforts at Enlightenment.

I spend a training period at Maui Zendo in preparation for another sesshin with Yamada Roshi who will return to Hawaii in several months. At the end of this sesshin, I ask Yamada if I might be able to come to Japan and study with him. He gives his permission.
I arrive in Japan and feel immediately disillusioned at the noise and pollution which stands in stark contrast to my idealized version of a land of refinement and sensitivity with shakuhachi flutes trilling over still waters. I go to a sesshin led by Yamada Roshi. He confirms my kensho experience…but I feel unchanged. Is there something wrong with me? Why haven't the heavens opened up in jubilation?
I begin my actual life in Japan, learning the language and customs, and teaching English to support myself. My disillusionment with the country increases, especially when I am continually gawked at in the streets and called names along the lines of "fucking foreigner".
I get to know Yamada Roshi better. One of most striking things I learn about him is that, despite his cataclysmic enlightenment experience, he has a volcanic temper on occasion. I find this both bewildering and liberating. I have a temper of my own and now don't feel so bad about it. On the other hand, I had thought that enlightenment as deep as his would have elevated him to a higher plane of existence where he remained eternally unperturbed by the trials of life. What's going on here?
I find deep in the mountains an old, abandoned hut near Engaku-ji, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I immediately co-opt it on weekends for mountain zazen. It is peaceful and serene---until a group of schoolchildren stumble upon it and me inside sitting in the lotus position. They are dumbstruck until one of them shouts "Gaijin!" at the top of his voice and they all go running away as if they have had a face-to-face encounter with Godzilla. Later on, Yamada Roshi's wife broaches the topic of my future, implying that I will one day be a "wonderful roshi". This somehow does not jibe with my feelings about myself---especially since I have recently been experiencing bizarre panic attacks. How could I possibly lead others in their spiritual practice if I myself am so imperfect? I fly back to Hawaii, relieved to be out of Japan.
Bob Aitken is now Aitken Roshi, having been "ordained" by Yamada Roshi. He is now a teacher in his own right, and he makes it clear that he wants me to be his successor. I still feel wholly unsuited for any such role, particularly since I am only 23 years old and continuing to have the baffling panic attacks. The cognitive dissonance between being groomed to be a Zen master and having unpredictable panic attacks is too much for me. I resolve to leave Zen life and do what I really want to do: pursue music. Aitken Roshi is crushed. Neither of us is a good communicator, however, and we part ways without discussion. A long estrangement begins.
I major in music at the University of Hawaii and begin a Master's degree in ethnomusicology with a concentration on Japanese music. Despite my earlier disillusionment with the culture, I still feel a strong pull back to the country. I apply for and win a long-term Graduate Fellowship from the Japanese Ministry of Education. I will be studying at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, and I will be living again in Kamakura. I begin attending San Un Zendo again, but my relationship with Yamada Roshi and the senior leaders at the temple deteriorate as I bridle against the authoritarianism implicit in Japanese Zen, something I feel is an unnecessary cultural accretion rather than anything intrinsically arising out of Buddhism. After my fellowship ends, I return to Hawaii without attempting a rapprochement with Yamada Roshi.
Back in Hawaii, I am unable to find employment in academia. I begin working as a lowly busboy at a TGI Friday's. I feel that I have wasted my life because of Zen. I had given up a full scholarship to an Ivy League university, traipsed to Hawaii and Japan to study Zen---and all I had to show for it was dead-end jobs. I sink to a very low point.
A year or so later I am offered a teaching position at Kauai Community College. My economic salvation has come. But I am still deeply unsettled by the essential dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) of life. A series of events leads me back to zazen.
Eventually, I return to the Diamond Sangha, but there is still a great deal of tension between me and Aitken Roshi over my leaving the sangha years earlier. However, he is now retired, and his successor, Michael Kieran, is someone I have known for years. We re-establish an easy rapport and I resume my koan study. In time, I have several Zen experiences that clarify my existential doubts. For the first time in my life, I feel whole.
I return to Kamakura to revisit San Un Zendo. Closure at last.

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