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Courage is not something that comes to any of us readily. Two ingredients at minimum are needed for the manifestation of this mental state. The first is deprivation of some sort. We need to feel the absence of something that is familiar, that we love, or that we take for granted, whether that absence is external or internal. We might lose our house or our job, or perhaps a family member to illness. Or the experience may be internal. All of a sudden we find ourselves unable to sleep at night, anxious, constantly worried, unusually angry, or unable to get up in the morning.
The second ingredient is the desire to want to return to the previous state, before the loss. There is something inside of us that does not tolerate change very well. We feel the universe’s hand pinching our whole being as if to say, “you can’t stay here!” But some part of us rebels. In this rebellion, courage is born. This courage enables us to grow and change. If I had not had these two ingredients I would never have had the courage to deepen my connection to my teacher at the age of 21. Here is one story of how that deepening took place.
One day after practicing zazen with Dai-En Roshi at Rooke Chapel I asked if I could visit her temple in Pennsdale. I had heard her talk about the temple, Mount Equity Zendo, before, and though I had been meditating with her for over a year at that point, I had never seen it. Something inside me wanted to leave the safety of the college campus. I don’t know what that something was, or where it would lead me, but I knew I had to do it.
I felt somewhat intimidated at the prospects of being with Dai-En Roshi on her own turf. At the same time, I would be graduating in just a month, and this place I’d been calling home for the past four years was dissolving. She gave me travel directions over the phone and we set a date and time. The drive was only 30 minutes from Lewisburg, but it seemed like an eternity. It was daunting for me to visit someone of such spiritual clarity and presence, and to leave the comforts of the University grounds. It was unnerving to drive so close to the mountains on the way to Pennsdale where Mount Equity Zendo sat. I felt small in front of the rolling rocky hills as I drove past them. I thought, too, that even though I am almost a foot taller than Dai-En Roshi, she somehow towered over me.
I got off at the exit I was looking for and went in the opposite direction that I had been instructed. GPS had not yet been invented. I ended up at a shopping mall not too far away from the exit, but obviously in the wrong place. I planned to meet Dai-En Roshi for zazen and breakfast at 6:30am and knew I was going to be ten minutes late. This was a problem because she was very strict about students who came late to zazen at Rooke Chapel. Without hesitation or apology she would turn those away that came in a couple minutes after the start. It was her way of teaching that this practice required some measure of self-discipline, and if a student could not show up on time then they were not ready to practice.
I turned the car around, realizing I was going in the wrong direction, and retraced my steps finally finding the right road. I spotted a large three-story stone building ahead, but because there was no sign that it was a Zen temple, only a sign that read “Mt. Equity Apartments”, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. I parked in the driveway that was in front of and parallel to the length of the building. There were other cars there.
I turned off the engine and waited. I was late. There were three doors to this massive stone building and I had no idea which one was hers. She was supposed to come out and greet me, but the likelihood of that happening now was ridiculous. Should I knock on one of the doors? What if I was wrong? It was too early to wake people up. I waited hoping she would see me.
Then I saw a very tall African-American man with big bushy hair step out of one of the doors. His gait was bouncy and somewhat erratic. I wondered if he lived in one of the apartments or if he had been sitting with Dai-En Roshi. He got in his car and left. No sign of her. I waited a few more minutes. No one was coming outside. I turned the key in my ignition and proceeded to leave, somewhat disappointed and feeling that I let her down.
When I returned home I phoned her immediately. This was pre-cell phone days. She asked what had happened, as she had been expecting me to be there this morning. I told her my mistake in getting on the wrong road and apologized. I asked if I could come again the next morning and that I would be sure to be on time.
The next morning I was so nervous that I arrived 30 minutes early. Dai-En Roshi greeted me and said, “You came early”, as if to suggest that it’s not good to come too early either. Again I felt I had let her down, but proceeded to follow her into one of the apartments. I placed my shoes outside the door and entered the zendo, a room carpeted with a beige rug on top of which were a few round black cushions just along the far wall. The room was relatively small, only 15 by 20 feet in dimension but bright even without lights due to the white walls and light pouring in through the three windows. There was an altar along the opposite wall with two figures of the Buddha. One was carved delicately out of beige wood. A bald-headed monk was seated on top of a lion. There was no clear delineation between the man and the lion, as the man and the lion were carved out of the same block, though you could tell that they were distinct from one another. I thought that it looked awesome to see a person sitting peacefully in meditation on top of a lion. I could not wait to sit on my “lion’s throne” just like that statue.
I was invited to take a seat. Other than Dai-En Roshi, I was the only person present. Again I had the feeling of intimidation sensing that she was watching my every move, and it felt as though she was aware of each breath I took. Under such circumstances it was difficult to relax. I simply watched my nervousness without judging it as “good or bad,” and without thinking about how I felt, simply being aware of what was going on inside and around me without judgment. After all, I was here to learn something, not to have my own comforts met. Little did it occur to me to think that Dai-En Roshi may be just as uncomfortable with my presence.
The sitting ended 30 minutes later after the sound of a small bell. I recognized the sound as a little different from the bell Dai-En Roshi used at Rooke Chapel. This bell was a little deeper and the sound resonated for a longer time. We got up from our seats bowing in both directions. She approached the altar and I followed her up, hesitantly. What was happening inside of me? I felt nervous. Getting closer to the altar instinctively felt like I was approaching a booby trap. Is my footing sure? My eyes were wide open and I proceeded with caution. Was a snake going to jump out of the altar or out of one of the Buddhas’ heads and bite me? I was brought up seeing Catholic images associated with altars, and this was my first time ever seeing a Buddha statue that was not on a piece of paper. I did not feel safe.
Dai-En Roshi proceeded to explain to me the statues, their meanings, and how they functioned, mentioning the offering of tea on special occasions. Learning this, my anxiety level lowered somewhat. These statues had a history. They came from somewhere, a place I knew little about, and my lack of knowledge made them not just foreign but powerful. Moreover, weren’t the people and the places that produced such images worthy of my respect? The lack of intimacy I felt was palpable, but I persisted for some reason to remain in their presence.
I was struggling with the fact that altars in my mind always had crosses on them, not Buddhas. When I approached altars in church, it was a sacred event, and it was almost always to receive the Eucharist from a priest, and to say a prayer to Jesus. Would God punish me for getting this close to a Buddha statue and a Buddhist priest? When I look back on this event today, it’s a totally ridiculous question to me now, but at that moment my fears were real and stemmed from teachings about not worshiping idols.
At the altar, glancing somewhat nervously at the wooden Buddha image, I asked Dai-En Roshi, “Is there anything equivalent to the Eucharist in Zen practice?” I didn’t know what brought me to ask that question, but her response blew away my anxiety. I could not foresee being transported back home – not my physical home, but my spiritual home. Nor did I expect to see that home as if I was entering it for the very first time. Dai-En Roshi answered, “In Zen, every breath we take is the Eucharist.”