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In spring there are hundreds of flowers,
In autumn the moon;
In summer breezes,
and in winter snow.
If your mind is not clouded with things
You are happy any time.
The Gateless Gate
Racing is what I did for a living. I raced to get to the swimming pool. I raced in the water. I raced to get my homework finished. I raced against my classmates for the best grade. When I sat down to rest, my thoughts raced. I watched fast paced movies, gorging on violence, sex, bodies crashing into each other, and the noise of gunfire. None of this was real, but it was a reflection of the reality of some parts of our world, certainly parts of my own mind, and so it felt real, and I felt connected to others through that “tele – vision.” Yet like Prince Siddhartha prior to seeing the four sights (a sick man, a senile man, a corpse and a sage), I knew there was something missing.
I had little tolerance for boredom. Being constantly on the go, my life became uni-directional. Stopping meant sleep. Slowing down or contemplation was not in my repertoire of experience. In my later teens and into college experimenting with alcohol, marijuana, LSD, and psilocybin, I see now, was the result of not being satisfied with life, and not really having a moral compass with which to direct my, at the time, uni-directional energy.
Comparing myself to others is what gave me meaning. Was I faster or slower than the next person? If slower, I needed to work harder. If faster, I could take pride in my superiority. Was I smarter or dumber than the other person? I found myself through the comparisons juxtaposed in my mind, a shadow of the real me. I didn’t know that there was another measuring stick by which to gauge my life; Buddha’s measuring stick that went beyond comparisons.
Meanwhile, it felt like my heart was bleeding, a wound that I would not recognize until the Dharma gripped me by the shoulders. I was rushed into a one-story red brick building adjacent and connected to the chapel. The sign on the heavy white door read, “Silence, Zen Meditation in Progress.” I slowly creaked the door open and poked my head inside. They hadn’t started yet. I was relieved to be the first one to arrive. (There’s superior mind). The ceiling was 20 feet high with portraits of Mr. Rooke and his wife, after whom the chapel was named. On the far end of the room sat a large black piano.
Space was largely what made up the room. Dai-En Roshi was setting out meditation cushions in the center.
Silence was palpable. The large stained-glass windows did not open. No sound of outside could be heard. The air conditioning unit occasionally breathed in and out as it turned on and off.
What was I running from? What was I racing to? Could I not have slowed down and enjoyed my pace sooner? Why did I need someone to tell me these things? Couldn’t I do this myself without instruction? These questions crept into my mind as we sat without movement, mouths closed, just sitting.
“You can enjoy your sitting, you can enjoy your breathing, you can enjoy your life. There are no exceptions for any of the ‘D’ words: death, disease, disaster, deluge.” These words of my teacher dissolved the anxiety I had been experiencing in that moment. Practice doesn’t need to be hard. We don’t need to work hard to overcome suffering. With a change of perception, we truly can enjoy this moment and appreciate our lives no matter what. We only need to give ourselves permission to do so. Or sometimes we need to hear someone else give us the permission. To hear my teacher say these words, itself, was the permission I needed to relax and be happy with myself and my life. The question remains though, how can I remember to enjoy practice?
Dai-En Roshi had been practicing with Japanese Zen masters for 15 years, during her 23-year residency in Japan. As a lay person she was taught to maintain a half lotus (a cross-legged posture where one foot is lifted onto the opposite thigh) position while doing zazen. This could be an excruciating posture for anyone if they are not flexible in their hips. In the Temple where Dai-En Roshi trained, it was expected that both knees would touch the ground while sitting half lotus, however, she was not able to do this at first. One knee remained off the ground. After several months of sitting in this way her hips finally relaxed enough that both knees touched.
In my own experience with full lotus posture, it demands constant attention. The hips and knees dictate whether one can continue in the posture or not. It’s not necessarily comfortable or blissful, at least at first. But there is a lesson here. The process of developing one’s posture speaks to the importance of remaining with one’s internal experience even though it might be challenging, uncomfortable, or a source of suffering. The body will adjust. Dai-En Roshi said to me at one point in my training:
“The only reason I continued to practice was because the pain in my heart was greater than the pain in my knees. If the ratio had been the other way, I don’t know if I would have continued.”
Meditation brings us face-to-face with our suffering. “Life itself is suffering” is the first Noble truth which the Buddha proclaimed. Though they are not all the same, training in a Zen Temple can be very challenging between figuring out diet, experiencing lack of sleep, and spending hours sitting still in meditation as well as doing physical labor. Yet, it is still a reflection of the wider society in which a temple is embedded. Suffering exists in a Buddhist temple. It also exists outside of the Buddhist temple. Temples are not a place to escape from suffering. Pain doesn’t magically disappear when we come to a temple. Temples are places to take refuge in the three treasures – Buddha (a person of wisdom), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (or community). The study of Dharma facilitates a shift from the first Noble Truth of suffering, to the third and fourth Noble truths – that there is a way out of suffering and there is a specific path to follow that leads out of suffering.
After completing her training in Japan, Dai-En Roshi went to study with the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, for three months. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Master, had experienced much suffering during both the French and later American occupation of Vietnam. He came to the United States during the late 1960’s to speak to churches about the atrocities he was witnessing, and to call for an end to the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr., thanks to his meeting with Thich Nhat Hanh during his visit to the United States, was able to see the connection between the Civil Right’s Movement and to the protests against the War. Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in1969. As a result of his activities in the States, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled by the Vietnamese government. He eventually relocated to France where he and many Vietnamese refugees as well as people from around the world created Plum Village, an internationally known retreat center where the teachings of the Buddha are taught and practiced.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist practice is, in some ways, similar to Zen in Japan, and in other ways quite different. Because Vietnam is a hot country, the rhythms of the practice are much slower than in Japan. Emphasis is placed on slowing down and relaxing in whatever activity is being done. There is an emphasis on “mindfulness,” and practicing in such a way that one remains rooted in mindfulness. These teachings are also found in Japanese Zen, but because the cultures are not the same, the practice is manifested differently.
In sitting meditation Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized enjoying the practice of sitting down, of breathing, and, therefore, enjoying life. These instructions coming from someone who had suffered much hardship, carry a tremendous weight. Thich Nhat Hanh was living proof that the Buddha’s teaching of transforming suffering into joy is something anyone could do if they worked at it. He encouraged smiling as a practice and suggests doing this in seated meditation. He calls it, “the yoga of the mouth.”
I had the opportunity to train with Thich Nhat Hanh during an annual three-week retreat offered at Plum Village in the summer of 2006. The title of the retreat was “The Breath of the Buddha,” and it focused on the Sutra on Mindful Breathing, one of the earlier Buddhist teachings. Almost 900 people from around the world attended, and I had the opportunity to live with his monks. Like my teacher, I wanted to learn how to integrate his style of practice with the Japanese form of Zen I had been studying.
During one of his lectures he talked about smiling, the importance of practicing in a way that brings joy to oneself and others, and about the wisdom of the body. Even if happiness is not present within us, he said, practice smiling. We may not feel like smiling, but if we practice the “yoga of the mouth,” then feelings of joy will come. He encouraged us to allow our body to take the lead.
He reminded us of the mind-body split in western culture and how we value mind over body. There is a prevalent and mostly unconscious belief that the mind is superior to the body. This belief has roots in the famous saying of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” In contrast to Buddhist teachings, Descartes saw the mind as superior to and separate from the body. The logical conclusion of this train of thought is that the mind, not the body, is responsible for the happiness of the mind. From this perspective, to put a smile on one’s face would be disingenuous.
But in Buddhist teachings, mind and body are not two separate things. Mind, in fact, is located in every cell of the body, not just the head. Our mind is also in our feet! Body is the temple through which our Buddha Wisdom reveals itself. Mind and body are not just equal but are inseparable.
If I truly love myself, then I must love and hold in high esteem this body, and respect that the body is not inferior to the mind. They inter-are. I can allow my body to take the lead by putting a gentle smile on my face, the smile of a Buddha. This smile of mine can be contagious. When I see the smile of another person, I smile quite naturally without any effort. If the other person cannot smile, then I can smile for them, be happy for them, and pray that there is some ease to the pain they are experiencing.
The highlight of the “Breath of the Buddha” retreat, for me, was a very intimate breakfast one morning with Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the visiting monks that I had been residing with, an American who had been practicing in the Korean Zen tradition for many years, wanted to have a personal meeting with Thich Nhat Hanh so that he could offer his respects. He asked me to join him, and I was over-joyed at the suggestion. The Korean-trained monk asked one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s attendants if the two of us could meet him. Of the 900 people there, I knew only his closest disciples would have such a privilege. To my great delight we were invited for an intimate breakfast with Thich Nhat Hanh and a couple of other monks and nuns in a small private room away from the hustle and bustle of the 900 other retreatants.
This was an unforgettable moment. I was not two feet away from a venerable monk whom I had been revering for years. I felt as though my feet were not touching the ground. I had been reading his books, listening to his talks on CDs, and attended his retreats, but never had I been this close to him, and never had he looked me directly in the eyes nor smiled at me. I could hardly contain myself. He said a few things to us in a very relaxed way, encouraged us to put the teachings of the Buddha into practice, and expressed his delight in meeting monks from another tradition. What a gift this was to me.
“A teacher,” Dai-En Roshi said to me, “is someone who is happy.” This means that they’ve done the work to transform their suffering… not that they don’t have suffering. Can I practice in such a way that transforms suffering to joy in myself and others? This is my sincerest wish.