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Beginning Zazen

Zen is meditation, quite literally. The Sanskrit word for meditation, “Dhyana”, became “Chan” in Chinese and then “Zen” in Japanese. Zazen is seated meditation. We begin Zen practice with Zazen.

Zazen did not come easily for me. Or quickly. Despite an immediate, inexplicable attraction, it took 30 years of groping before I was able to actually sit every day.

I had found Zen first as a 16-year-old. I had stumbled on D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism while looking in the local bookstore for something about Haiku which I needed for a creative writing class. That summer, I went off to an American Friends Service Committee work camp program in North Carolina. On a piece of donated land west of Swannanoa Junction, we would build a conference center for the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen. I dug ditches. Others built a shower house. Until the shower house was completed, we bathed under a cold-water spigot. We took turns doing the cooking for the whole group.

Carrying my Suzuki around with me all summer, I was inspired to grow my first beard. I found what I imagined to be a Zen master’s walking stick. I got my friends to shave my head.

For thirty years I bought my annual Zen book, read a little, didn’t understand much, tried meditation for a few days on vacation, then lapsed as soon as I returned to the “real” world.

My breakthrough came when I was introduced to my first teacher, the Sage of the I Ching, the great, ancient Chinese, Taoist divination guide. When I “saw” him first, Dee was throwing three pennies, getting advice from the Sage. She thought I should try it. I would have none of it. This was way too hokey for me, too new age-y, too irrational, too crazy. But after a while, I tried it.

You begin by asking a question, the question you want the Sage to answer. Then you throw three pennies, and the combination of heads and tails determines solid line or broken line. Repeat six times. The result — a hexagram of six lines, broken or unbroken — leads you to a section of the I Ching text and determines which of the text’s sections applies.

Right there in a crazy way, the Sage has answered your question. The more honest the question — “Ask what is most important to you at that moment,” – the clearer the answer. The Sage’s responses were uncanny. Sometimes the answers seemed unrelated to the question. It sounds crazy, but it seemed that the Sage had answered the question which lurked beneath the surface, the question I had been afraid to ask.

Somehow the Sage got me to begin meditation practice. Or was it Dee?

I had a morning routine. Waking early, using a folded blanket for a mat and a bed pillow for a cushion, sitting on the floor, I would write my question in my notebook, then throw the pennies and record the Sage’s answer. Then I would meditate, initially only for a few minutes. And then back to the journal. My entries always began with a critique of that morning’s sitting. And then I would reflect on the Sage’s advice and anything else that had come up on the cushion.

By the time, I was sitting 20-minute periods, I knew I should find a group to sit with. I began looking and much to my surprise, I found a number of Zen groups in the Manhattan phone book. I checked them out; and one, the Soto Zendo, seemed the best fit for me. I felt a good vibe from the people, and they sat on a good night for me — a night when I wasn’t seeing private psychotherapy patients.

There was just one problem.

“Come back,” they said, “when you can sit still for 30 minutes.” That was way beyond me. I was nowhere near 30 minutes.

What to do? On a beautiful summer day, on a long grassy slope overlooking a beach where we stopped for lunch on a road trip to Maine to visit Jim and Linda, I asked the Sage for advice, “What do I have to do so that I can sit for 30 minutes?” and threw the pennies.

“Just stop picking and choosing.” The Sage’s advice was thunderous. I had thought that I was being so conscientious about my sitting practice, trying honestly to evaluate each mornings sitting. That was the “professionalism” that I had been trained in as a social worker and psychotherapist. To honestly scrutinize my practice. That was professional integrity. The Sage was sending me in an utterly different direction, to stop judging myself all time, just to sit. Suddenly my sitting time increased.

But was I ready for the Soho Zendo? I had grown up without any religious training or affiliation. But Zen made entry easy. No creed. Just sit. No creed I had to believe in. No vows required. This was a door I could enter. Just sitting. I sat with the group every Tuesday evening and sat on my home cushion every morning.

Then I met my first teacher in the flesh, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, founder and teacher of the Soho Zendo. Roshi was coming to New York to lead a sesshin, a 7-day meditation retreat. Although new to sitting, I was encouraged by senior members of the Sangha to participate. I was frightened, but I signed up. Would the Roshi immediately spot me be as an impostor? Would I be thrown out? I pictured the gesture — the finger pointing at me and then the thumb, “out,” in silence, my gesture as a summer camp waterfront counselor ejecting campers who were behaving dangerously from the water. But I went. In trepidation.

When I entered the Zendo, Kyudo Roshi was already seated at the head of the room. That was my first real glimpse of inner peace. I had never seen anyone sit so still, and yet completely without tension. He had a stillness beyond not moving, a stillness of peace. I wanted some of that. I created a mantra for myself. “With inner peace, nothing else matters. Without inner peace, nothing else matters.”

Each evening Roshi offered individual interviews. We were a large group, and there was not time for him to see us all each evening. We could see him every other evening, with three individual interviews in a sesshin. I had five sesshins with Roshi over the two plus years I sat at the Soto Zendo. Kyudo Roshi taught me to sit. Posture first and then breathing.

At my first sesshin, terrified that I would not be able to manage the pain in my knees, sitting half-hour periods, 13 periods a day for six straight days, I had an idea. It would be easier on my legs if one period, I put my right foot on my left calf and the next period reversed and put my left food on my right calf.

At my first interview, Roshi told me not to keep changing the way I crossed my legs. “If you do not keep changing your position,” Kyudo said, “Your body will adjust.” How did he possibly notice? With thirty plus retreatants in the room, sitting with our backs to him? We did walking meditation in between the sitting periods. He remembered my position from the period before and noticed the change. I am still stunned.

Over the first year or so, Kyudo taught me posture. He taught me to balance so that my posture was maintained by gravity. No muscles involved. To hold a position with tired muscles was an isometric exercise. “Sit that way and you will be in agony. Relax. Sit straight. Sit balanced.” Only when he was satisfied with my posture did Kyudo teach me to breathe.

Kyudo taught me about sitting with pain. Kyudo had entered his monastery, Ryutakuji, after college. He had been on the college judo team until a kick in the knee shattered his knee cap. When he entered the monastery — on a light meditation day, the monks sat three hours a day, three periods in the morning, three in the evening, and, of course during sesshin, the sitting schedule was heavier — every morning, Kyudo’s first awareness was of pain. Every morning he would greet the pain, out loud, with a smile, “Good morning, Pain.” Every morning. He knew it was good to be alive. “And then,” he said,” one day, after 18 years, no more pain.”

And he taught me that zazen was a practice without end. One day in his Dharma talk, Kyudo Roshi said, “In Japan, the monks just count their breath for the first seven years.” I was jolted. I knew that breath counting was the practice preliminary to “real” Zen study. I had already done a 7-year psychoanalysis. Zen, I thought, was a path to instantaneous awakening. I was thinking more like 7 weeks to enlightenment, maybe 7 months. I didn’t call it a koan, but I sat with that teaching for many years. I wanted what Kyudo had.

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