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body. week 6.

date. 2024

location: tamil nadu

Image by César Couto

March 9 - Varanasi

 

I’ve never quite gotten over the illness that struck me like a runaway train way back in October. 5 months ago. My body still struggles. And my mind along with it.

 

The constant fatigue that has me in bed by 8pm. The need for 10 full hours of nightly rest. The sore muscles, sort throat, and sore attitude. My hair has started falling out, my face is perpetually ruddy, and my skin tinged a feverish pink.

 

But today, March 9, I’ve launched a counter-attack. It’s not particularly well-strategized. But it’s what I’ve got.

 

It all began with a text from Shlomo a few days back:

“What are your feelings about supplements? I’ve been doing some research and I’d be curious to see if you are open to it.”

 

“I’m not opposed.” I replied. “I doubt it would be harmful.”

 

“Cool cool I’d try some:

Coenzyme Q - to help with energy 

Omega 3 fish oil - cardiovascular health

Magnesium - Helps with regulation

Zinc - hormonal regulation

A multivitamin (especially vitamin B) - helps with energy”

 

And so, a few days and an Amazon order later, I’m the proud owner of 60 days worth of supplements.

 

At the same time, today was the first time I’ve stepped foot in the gym since before my illness.

 

What follows is something of a health journal - or accounting - of how these supplements (along with the gym) will affect me over the coming weeks and months.

 

To be honest, I ordered the suggested supplements without researching them at all. But a quick Google search gives me all I need.

 

Coenzyme Q:

Coenzyme Q10 is a vitamin-like substance found throughout the body, but especially in the heart, liver, kidney, and pancreas. It is eaten in small amounts in meats and seafood.

 

Coenzyme Q10 is most commonly used for conditions that affect the heart such as heart failure and fluid build up in the body (congestive heart failure or CHF), chest pain (angina), and high blood pressure. It is also used for preventing migraine headache, Parkinson disease, and many other conditions. It helps provide energy to cells. Coenzyme Q10 also seems to have antioxidant activity.

 

Fish Oil:
Fish oil is a dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids. Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids for many functions, from muscle activity to cell growth. Fish oil contains two omega-3s called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

 

Multiple studies report modest reductions in blood pressure in people who take fish oil supplements. There's strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can significantly reduce blood triglyceride levels. There also appears to be a slight improvement in high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good") cholesterol, although an increase in levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol also was observed.

 

Studies suggest fish oil supplements might help reduce pain, improve morning stiffness and relieve joint tenderness in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

 

Magnesium:

Magnesium is required for the proper growth and maintenance of bones. Magnesium is also required for the proper function of nerves, muscles, and many other parts of the body. In the stomach, magnesium helps neutralize stomach acid and moves stools through the intestine.

 

Zinc:

Zinc is an essential trace element commonly found in red meat, poultry, and fish. It is necessary in small amounts for human health, growth, and sense of taste.

 

Zinc is found throughout the body. The body doesn't store excess zinc, so it must be obtained from the diet. It's needed for immune function, wound healing, blood clotting, thyroid function, and much more. It also plays a key role in maintaining vision and might have effects against viruses.

 

————

 

In terms of tracking, I’ve found something online called the PHQ-15 (Patient Health Questionnaire). Apparently, “The PHQ-15 asks about 15 somatic symptoms that account for more than 90% of physical complaints reported in outpatient settings. Each symptom is scored from 0 (not bothered at all) to 2 (bothered a lot).”

 

1 - Stomach pain

2 - Back pain

3 - Pain in your arms, legs, or joints

4 - Menstrual cramps

5 - Headaches

6 - Chest pain

7 - Dizziness

8 - Fainting spells

9 - Racing heart

10 - Shortness of breath

11 - Pain or problems during sex

12 - Constipation, loose bowels, or diarrhea

13 - Nausea, gas, or indigestion

14 - Tired or low energy

15 - Trouble sleeping

 

I’ll skip #4 (because I’m not a girl) and #11 (because I’m not having sex). Which leaves me with 13 symptoms to track.

 

 

March 10

 

Right on cue, I spent all last night throwing up. I think it’s something I ate, but in Varanasi one can never be sure.

 

I had been feeling hopeful yesterday - something I barely noticed until all hope and all desire for hope was cruelly flushed down the toilet. Again and again.

 

I’d promised myself that if I get sick again, I’d leave this country. And so it’s come to that. I spent all night in a feverish daze, plotting my escape.

 

Stomach pain - 2

Pain in arms, legs, joints - 1

Headache - 2

Dizziness - 1 

Racing heart - 1

Diarrea - 2

Nausea - 2

Tired - 2

Trouble sleeping - 2

 

Total: 15

 

 

March 13

 

Headache - 1

Nausea - 1

Tired - 1

Sleep - 1

 

Total: 4

 

 

March 16

 

Dizziness - 1

Pooping - 1

Nausea - 1

Tired - 1

Sleep - 1

 

Total: 5

 

 

March 21 - en route to Chennai

 

O Siva

O Destroyer

Yet again

You have destroyed me.

 

I arrived at your temple

Erect

And return bowed over.

 

My body

Once strong

Now glows red

Cremating in your crackling pyre.

 

O Banaras

O Ma Ganga

I offered you my self

And

You have destroyed me.

 

 

Stomach pain - 1

Dizziness - 1

Nausea - 1

Tired - 2

Sleep - 1

 

Total: 7

 

 

O Mahadeva

You suffocate me

Your love tears me to shreds.

 

I mistook your silence for calmness

I did not expect a whirlwind

Of

 

O you ask too much of me

You take all I can give

You leave me with nothing

Nothing at all

to hold

 

I lay in bed

Sleep overtakes me

But my dreams are disturbed

By your terrible presence.

 

I sleep

But know no rest.

 

I wait

But do not prepare.

 

My thoughts wander mercilessly

You’ve stolen my every refuge

My eyes stand empty

Just as you’ve left them.

 

So am I meant to finally worship you?

Am I meant to bend the knee?

To surrender?

To despair?

 

Fine.

It’s done.

You’ve left me no choice.

 

What’s the use in resisting 

The inevitable.

 

Keep what you’ve taken.

Or better yet, destroy it.

But destroy this pain, too.

And destroy yourself

While you’re at it.

 

O Siva

I came to offer you my joy

And you’ve left me in tears.

I came to you on my own accord;

I was not dragged into your miserable abyss

Kicking and screaming.

 

I’ve plenty of opportunities to escape,

You’ve made quite sure of that,

Leaving the gate wide open,

Even as the guard dozes off.

 

I guess I thought you’d make an exception

I guess I truly was clueless

I guess I still am.

 

 

March 24 - Chennai

 

I’m on a short business trip to Chennai + a 5 day meditation retreat in Kodaikanal. I didn’t bring my vitamins, but I have been working out in the hotel gym.

 

Stomach - 1

Arms, legs, joints - 1

Headaches - 1

Dizzy - 1

Nausea - 1

Pooping - 1

Tired - 1

Sleep - 1

 

Total: 8

 

 

Oh Siva 

You’ve taken my strength

But left my pride

You burned my flesh

But left my mind.

 

Take it all, Siva.

Take it all.

Remove from me

My burden.

 

I’ve surrendered the blood red petals

So why leave me with grey thorns?

What use does a bee have for a sting

When there is no honey in sight?

 

My soul is restless 

Without a heart

 

Burn, Siva, burn

As I know you must

But burn it all

Burn it all.

 

 

March 24 - Bodhi Zendo

 

Bodhi Zendo is not easy to reach.

 

To get here, I took a 30 minute flight from Chennai to Madurai, a small city tucked between the Palani mountains and the South Indian sea. From there, we drove for about an hour until we reached a town called Batlagundu.

 

On the way, we passed through dozens of villages and farms, their crops stained emerald green and the soil oozing that deep copper red that keeps me coming back to southern India.

 

The air is calm here. A million miles away from It All. The farmers work slowly, and diligently. The children skip cheerfully along the titanium grey road, stepping into the many stalls that line its edge.

 

Passing through the villages, a sentinel of temples, mosques, and churches great us. (Strangely enough, no synagogues.)

 

The occasional blare of a truck horn or desi jingle are the only signs that Kodaikanal is not a forgotten backwater, but a popular destination that draws hikers, monks, and weekenders from across the country.

 

Our car soon exits onto a narrow mountain road, snaking its way up into the hills. Quite rapidly, and thankfully (it was 110 Fahrenheit in Madurai), the temperature dropped precipitously down into the 90s, before settling gently in the upper 80s.

 

After about an hour of twists and turns, we reached a village called Perumalmalai, perched on the edge of a proud mountain ledge standing guard over a sea of hills and lush farmland. There couldn’t have been more than a few hundred homes and shops.

 

Just as I thought we’d arrived, my driver turns sharply off of the already questionable road onto an even steeper gravel path not much wider than our slim taxi. We bump and crawl our way further up for another twenty minutes before finally arriving at the handsome iron gates that proudly announce:

 

Bodhi Zen.

 

I get out, grab my bags, and pay the driver who promptly disappears in a cloud of dust.

 

I’ve arrived.

 

 

Bodhi Zendo is comprised of a small collection of humble white and lime green buildings.

 

The main ashram is shaped like a hollow square, with a large courtyard in the center. The courtyard is home to a handsome tree, casting its protective shadow over the nearby koi pond, walking paths, and hundreds of plants and flowers that crowd the space. It is both carefully manicured and playfully free. A few guests sit out on the grass or lean up against a stone, talking quietly or sipping tea.

 

Around the garden is a stone path that run the perimeter, acting almost like a border between the green garden and the carefully swept open-air hallways that compose the inner section of the ashram proper. The door to each guest room opens onto the inside of the building, either directly to the garden, or a second story balcony that overlooks it.

 

The main ashram is comprised of perhaps 25 single person guest rooms, a spacious kendo (meditation hall), a kitchen and dining room, a well-stocked library, and a meeting room for private conversations with the zen master (dokusan).

 

Behind the building is another, larger zen garden, and a couple dozen small farm patches where they gow everything from cabbage to bananas. A number of stone benches and humble gazebos are scattered about, with views over the deep valley.

 

All in all, Bodhi Zendo offers a tranquil, comfortable, and beautiful environment.

 

The guests make up a diverse group, although they do seem to skew toward the older European demographic. A handful of people in their 30s and a few locals round out the group.

 

 

A Short Guide to Zen Vocabulary

 

Zazen: meditation. This is practiced in the zendo (meditation hall). Each person sits on a large square cushioned mat, with another smaller round cushion to sit on. In zen, meditation is scarcely directed; we take turns between focusing on the breath and pure open awareness. Each meditation lasts about 25 minutes, with two meditations grouped together with a 5 minute break in between. Eyes are generally left open, gazing softly down at the floor in front of your mat.

 

Kinhin: walking meditation. Short 5 or 10 minute kinhin sessions break up the longer zazen sittings.

 

Dokusan: Twice per day, the master receives people for a private audience, generally to discuss their practice. This is optional.

 

Zendo: meditation hall. A large square hall. The floor is polished wood; the walls are bare white. Large windows at the front look out across the valley and hills. Mats and cushions line the walls. We sit facing each other, with our backs facing the wall.

 

Kyosaku: A wooden stick. Participants can optionally choose to be hit with it on their shoulders. It’s meant to spur your meditation. Yes, it hurts. Yes, I like it.

 

Teisho: A lecture delivered by the master.

 

Samu: Each day, after breakfast, each person is given a chore to perform to take care of the ashram. My samu is sweeping the hallways.

 

The daily schedule runs something like this:

 

AM

5:30 - Morning call

6 - 7 - Zazen with Dokusan

8 - Samu

9:30 - Tea

10:30 - Zazen with Kinhin

11:30 - Teisho

 

PM

12:30 - Lunch

3 - Zazen with Kyosaku

4 - Tea

6 - Zazen with Dokusan

7 - Supper

8 - 8:45 - Zazen

 

 

I arrived around 4pm the day before the sesshin (a 5 day silent retreat) would begin. I was given a very brief introduction to the center and to zen meditation more broadly, leaving me only marginally less confused and overwhelmed.

 

I resolved to watch carefully and learn by example.

 

At 6, I joined my first zazen.

 

After dinner and an additional zazen it was already time for bed.

 

I’d decided not to use my phone at Bodhi Zendo, even before the official start of the sesshin, but I couldn’t resist.

 

I felt very alone, and slept poorly.

 

 

Since leaving the orthodox jewish community, I’ve tended to keep some distance from organized religious or spiritual communities. Whatever religiosity or spirituality I have cultivated, I have done in private.

 

So sitting for meditation in a zendo with thirty other devotees has been something novel for me. To sit together with strangers, quietly, for hours at a time, and just be together; that was something beautiful.

 

I spoke with a few of the other guests (while we still could), and tried to gear myself up for the sesshin without gearing myself up for the sesshin.

 

 

March 26

 

Genro, a Zen master of the Soto school, wrote:

Friends of my childhood

Are all well known now.

They discuss philosophy;

They write essays and criticisms.

I am getting old;

I am good for nothing.

This evening the rain was my only companion.

I burn incense and lay myself in its fragrance;

I hear the wind passing the bamboo screen at my window.

 

 

It started off well enough. I was having a lovely old time. Sitting in meditation, listening to Roshi’s teisho, and depeening my concentration.

 

What follows is something that I absolutely loathe writing about, but here we go…

 

After the three o’clock zazen, my first with kyosaku, I took my tea up to the roof to watch the sunlight begin to fade.

 

I sat on the floor, my back against the sun-warmed wall.

 

I was alone.

 

A firm breeze rustled the trees.

 

I gazed out across the surrounding hills.

 

I watched the trees swaying in the wind, dancing against the pure blue sky.

 

And suddenly the trees were swirling, whirling like a Van Gogh painting.

 

Suddenly they were waving at me. Asking me to join them?

 

At first, it was pleasant. I allowed it to continue for a minute, until all the trees, even those just beside me, had joined in the music.

 

And then I couldn’t escape. There was no where to go.

 

They were me, and I was them.

 

I stood up. Began to walk. Trying to distance myself from them (from myself?).

 

The ashram halls blazed brightly inside me.

 

The masala tea still on my tongue.

 

The gentle people who passed by me in silence.

 

I felt extremely incredibly dangerously vulnerable.

 

And scared.

 

I took slow steps in the zen garden, suddenly painfully aware why it had been planted.

 

I ran my fingertips over the rough tree bark.

 

I sat on a stone bench. And cried.

 

I brought to mind my loved ones — or did they bring themselves to me?

 

Their love overwhelmed me, but still they could not protect me. Protect me from myself.

 

So I turned inward, fervently, humbly beseeching that I protect myself.

 

But deep down I knew I was not up to the task. I knew that ultimately I am too weak for this life.

 

I had no where else to turn, so I turned to god.

 

I turned to faith.

 

And to the world.

 

I held onto a tree in the garden — I held on for dear life. Allowing it to hold me back. To support me.

 

I was still afraid to let go into the … , but unable to return back to where I came from.

 

I wished it was time for samu; I’d give anything to just focus on sweeping the floors, making them clean for those around me. Let me help others, since I am incapable of helping myself.

 

It’s only the first day, and already I’m giving up. I briefly considered turning on my phone to escape from the terror of my own existence.

 

I go back to my room — thank god I have a room! — shut and bolt the door — I’m safe! — wrap my self in a blanket and sink to the floor.

 

This was not supposed to happen. Why is this happening? Why do I feel so vulnerable? Why am I so afraid? This was not what I signed up for.

 

I laid like that for perhaps 20 or 30 minutes.

 

Slowly, I began to feel a bit better and made my way out to the wicker chair just outside my door. I’m still wrapped in the blanket, but the presence of the man at the end of the hall — also sitting and watching the garden — gives me comfort.

 

I wasn’t expecting to lose my mind, yet now that I have, I can confidently say that if there’s ever a good place to lose it, it’s at a zen monastery.

 

The natural serenity. The simplicity. Most importantly, the safety.

 

I had promised myself on my very first day at Bodhi Zendo that under no circumstances would I attend dokusan. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I wanted to so badly. I would not be that over-eager American kid who rushes into the zen maser’s room, as if visiting a tourist attraction, or worse, thinking I had some understanding of what’s actually going on. Please, I really don’t want to be that guy.

 

Well… that didn’t last long.

 

Given my breakdown, and with the next dokusan rapidly approaching, I decide to take the leap. I mean, how often is there a zen master on hand to guide me through a psychedelic meltdown?

 

So, as the sun sank beneath the hills and the stars had only just begun to twinkle, I found myself sitting quietly outside Roshi’s door.

 

The bell rings. Someone steps out, we bow to each other, and I step inside.

 

The master sits behind a parted curtain. I bow once more to him and step inside. He’s seated on the ground — supported by a low meditation stool — and before him lies a meditation cushion. He motions to me to sit down. I sit.

 

I briefly related to him my story.

 

My eyes dart around the room. I’m afraid to look into his eyes. Afraid or ashamed?

 

I lose my words. They stumble over each other.

 

I ask for his advice.

 

 

March 27

 

Every day comes

Every day goes

Always on time.

 

The samu I’ve been given is to sweep the halls and staircases of the main ashram.

 

As you may suppose, the purpose of samu is not for the monastery to take advantage of free labor (except that maybe that is exactly what it’s about).

 

It seems, after 3 or 4 days now, that it is rather an opportunity for the practitioners to:

 

  • Intuitively focus / direct our bodies and minds

  • Express our gratitude for each other, for our environment, and for our ashram. During an otherwise silent week, samu is the only time I have to express myself. I tenderly sweep the threshold outside my maser’s room.

  • Cleaning has a logical beginning and end. I can no more go on cleaning after I’ve swept away all the dirt than to shut a door which is already closed. Even though I may wish to continue cleaning, to continue experiencing the tenderness it invites, once I’ve swept away the last bits of dirt, there is nothing more to be done. I must now put away my broom. My job is done and it is time to move on.

  • With each passing day, I realise more and more that the dirt does not need to be cleaned. The more I realise this, the more I look forward to sweeping.

  • Samu serves as a bridge between zazen and ordinary life. Sitting as just sitting. Working as just working. Being as just being.

 

While sitting for zazen today I suddenly realized that all I was doing was sitting there.

 

I noticed that I don’t need to do anything more than that.

I didn’t need to do anything at all.

In fact, there wasn’t anything more that I could do.

And so, I just sat there. And experienced everything that sitting there entailed.

I grew very excited. I wanted to rush to tell Roshi during dokusan. “I got it! I’m not doing anything. We’re not doing anything! There’s nothing to do!”

And then I realized what I’d been doing.

And it all slipped away.

And there I was again. Meditating.

Basui Tokusho, Rinzai Zen Master, circa 1327:

In zazen neither despise nor cherish the thoughts that arise; only search your own mind, the very source of these thoughts. You must understand that anything appearing in your consciousness or seen by your eyes is an illusion, of no enduring reality. You should neither fear not be fascinated by such phenomenon.

While engaged in zazen, however, keep none of this counsel in mind. You must only become the question, “What is it that hears?” The Bodhisattva Kannan attained enlightenment by perceiving the sounds of the world around him.

An ancient Zen master said: “You should not cling to the idea that you are Pure-essence. Your body can’t hear or understand this teaching. The empty space can’t understand this teaching. Then what is it that hears and understands?”

Meditate fully and directly on these words. Take hold of this koan as if wielding a sword. Cut down whatever appears in the mind. When the thoughts of mundane matters arise, cut them off. When notions of Buddhism arise, likewise lop them off. In short, destroy all ideas, whether of enlightenment, of Buddha, or of demons, and all day long pursue the question “What is it that hears this teaching?

When you have eradicated every conception until only emptiness remains, and then cut through even the emptiness, your mind will burst open and that which hears will manifest itself.

Put aside your rational intellect, give up all techniques, abandon the desire for self-realization, and renounce every motivation. Your mind will come to a standstill, and you won’t know what to do.

No longer possessing the desire to attain enlightenment or to use your powers of reason, you will feel like a tree or a stone.

A Zen master once said: “There is nothing in particular to realize. Only get rid of the idea of a Buddha.”

Once you have read this letter burn it. Don’t reread it but only search deeply for the one hearing. My words will seem like so much nonsense when you experience enlightenment yourself.

 

March 28

Give each day its own chance.

Two days ago was marked by shattering turmoil, tearful zazens, and comforting dokusan.

Yesterday: an ordinary and dreary day. Headaches and boredom. Windy and overcast.

Today dawns bright and sunny. A spring in my step. All is clear all is fine all is smiles. Blue skies above, blue skies below.

Give each day a chance.

“In spite of the vigorous use of the kyosaku, the scrambling to dokusan, and the lively exchanges which often occur in dokusan itself, the real drama of a sesshin lies in the hours of zazen: in the solitary search into the vast world of one’s own mind, in the lonely trek through winding canyons of shame and fear, across deserts of weariness and doubt, around volcanoes of pride, and though jungles of confusion.”

-- The 3 Pillars of Zen

 

Before Morning Zazen

S—, thank you so much for being my friend. And making it seem all the while that you aren’t doing anything at all. As if you selfless self-giving is as natural as the rising sun. Without you, I am lost.

 

After Morning Zazen

But

I cannot lose you

I have created you

To take care of me

You are me

As I am you

Remove everything from ‘this’

And ‘this’ still remains

You are an embodiment

Of my faith

 

Roshi, you too

I have created

To take care of me

I’ve created Bodhi Zendo

To take care of me

My stoic father

Tireless mother

My teachers

My body and my mind

I’ve created all of the world’s saints

And all the world’s philosophers and artists

For no other purpose but to take care of me

I’ve created Buddha

I’ve created Jesus and Moses too

I am Buddha. I am Christ. I am Moses.

Every atom and every thought

These too exist to nourish me

Life and death

Joy and suffering

Exist to express and manifest

My own boundless love

I’ve created them

Because I am Love

Even love, I am not

Love, too, I have fashioned.

What I am 

Cannot be thought nor spoken

Only pointed to

By this marvelous body

I am that I am 

Nothing can harm me

For that, too, am I.

I have always been and always will be at home.

My own true home.

I shared these thoughts with Roshi during dokusan. I shyly glanced into his eyes when I said that I’ve created him, waiting for a reaction. As usual there was none. He listened calmly throughout my nervous rambling speech and responded:

Your self comes to know its self.

I told him that even I (especially I?) don’t believe my own words. They are not a matter of belief or disbelief. They just are.

He seemed to approve. But he also seemed unimpressed.

Or am I projecting my own feelings onto him?

In any case, I have nothing to worry about. Roshi-I speaks to Daniel-I, as two waves lap against one boundless sea.

I then asked him for a koan. And instructions on how to work on it.

He said: What was your original face before your parents were born?

He told me to first understand the question, then to meditate on it for just a few minutes at the start of zazen. Then let it go, and meditate as usual. If an answer appears, I should bring it to him.

 

--

 

Imagine going into an acid trip without knowing you’re going into an acid trip.

And even if you did know, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to prepare for it.

But suddenly you find yourself in the trip, and all along the way you find that everything you’d need has already been carefully prepared for you with immense care and attention.

This is Bodhi Zendo.

This is my life itself.

 

--

 

Yesterday, I’d waited all day for two days ago to return.

Of course it never did. Only yesterday arrived.

And yesterday led to today.

And today leads to tomorrow.

 

A circle: going to meet itself.

 

March 29

As instructed, I paced around on the roof for ten minutes or so, gently turning the question – what was my original face before my parents were born? – around in my head. My first reaction, when Roshi presented it, was to immediately respond with “Love” or “Emptiness”.

But I knew better than to blurt that out. If it was that simple, surely Roshi wouldn’t have given the koan to me in the first place.

Then, during our next zazen, I brought the koan to mind, let it run through my mind, let it sit in the spotlight of my awareness, and then after a minute, let it go.

(Incidentally, I like this idea of letting go of challenges, trusting the answer to arrive on its own.)

And sure enough, barely 5 minutes later (or so it seemed), I heard the sounds of…

And I know.

My original face before my parents were born is:

The sound of…

In that moment, the sound of … was all that I was. And even if it had happened hundreds of years ago, (and maybe it did), that is still what I would have been.

I nearly burst out laughing.

Or maybe I did.

Wait until Roshi hears this one!

He’ll either think I’m a genius or that I’m insane.

(As it turns out, and as I’m coming to expect, he seems neither particularly impressed nor disappointed.)

 

 

The rest of the day passed pleasantly enough.

As has become my habit, I took my afternoon tea out on the roof, looking out over my tree friends swaying in the wind. They don’t scare me anymore. And they don’t acknowledge me anymore either.

Have they moved on?

 

The Ultimate Truth of Zen

A monk asked Hsuan-sha, “When the old masters preached Dharma wordlessly with a gavel or mosquito brush, were they expressing the ultimate truth of Zen?” Hsuan-sha answered, “No.” “Then,” continued the monk, “what were they showing?” Hsuan-sha raised his mosquito brush.

 

 

Lining up outside of and then stepping into Roshi’s room for dokusan is still a somewhat out-of-body experience. I sit cross-legged on the mat before him, I look into his face, his eyes, and I feel like I’m dreaming. It doesn’t help that Zen assures me that a dream is exactly what this is. Oh well.

I tell him that I have the answer to his koan.

I ask him to please not laugh.

He nods. But does not smile. Refusing, I imagine, to break the ice.

I deliver my answer.

My original face before my parents were born is the sound of …

A pause.

He closes his eyes, deep in thought.

“Holy shit,” I think. “He doesn’t think I’m crazy.”

“Present it,” Roshi finally says.

I start at him, confused. 

I look around and spot his bell. I glance at him, hesitate, and then quickly crawl across the mat, grab his stick and hit the bell.

He pauses.

I freeze.

Shit.

“No. Present the sound of … Be playful.”

I make some incredibly humiliating sounds with my mouth. I feel so stupid.

“Good. He smiles. Finally.

And then mimics my sounds.

Oh lord. Just bury me here.

“Yes. This is your original face. Good.”

We then proceed to discuss the implications of that. What does it mean about my original face? What does it mean about me?

Just before signalling for me to leave, he looks deeply into my eyes and says,

“Your body is born, grows old, and dies. But your awareness of the body never changes. What you are never changes. You are boundless openness. Boundless openness.”

I murmur thank you and stumble out into the evening air.

Once outside, I lean against a pillar, take a few moments to gather myself, and then join the others for dinner.

 

Gratitude

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude

Tears stream down my cheeks

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, gratitude

 

--

 

Now, on the 4th full day of sesshin, a sort of hypnosis has set it. I walk, but in a cloud. I eat, but at a distance. No, distance is not the right word, for everything is very near.

I don’t know whether to attribute this mental state to a relative absence of thought or simply mental exhaustion. Or perhaps a residual meditativeness that follows me from zazen to zazen. Or, very probably, something else entirely.

In any case, during the final hour of meditation, after dinner, this ‘hypnosis’ rises to a crescendo. I walk, but it is not I. I sit, but who is sitting?

I am dazed. I can’t even meditate. I just sit there, right in the thick of it. By the time the bell chimes, I find that I am no longer sitting cross-legged but am hugging my knees to my chest, my face buried against them. The chanting of  the sutras flow from my throat. Their rhythmic sound granting me minor relief from my state of clouded suspension. The gongs and drums filter through a mind that swirls like a tornado, or a whirlpool, sucking down into oblivion. The Monitor shouts,

 

“Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Awake!
Do not squander your life!

Awake!” 

I stumble back to my room and collapse, fully clothed, into bed.

I lay, unmoving, unseeing, in a trance. A deep drunken stupor.

After an eternity, sleep arrives to rescue me.

 

March 30

I had been all set to report on a very ordinary final day of sesshin.

During the afternoon zazen, I caught myself composing these very lines.

Perhaps I’d write: “Appropriately, after a week of twists and turns, my first sesshin places me right back where I began.”

Or maybe: “Day 5: Nothing to report.”

Or why not: “Ultimately, it seems, Zen points to the very humdrum nature of life’s deepest truths.”

Mentally, I was packing my bags and halfway to the airport. I arrived, I sat, and soon I will leave.

And then, as if on cue, the evening zazen began.

It was one of my last meditations and I had very nearly given up trying to focus.

And then it happened.

As I rose for kinhin, the world and my thoughts and my sensations spread themselves out before me. Each thing in its place, each thing shining brightly.

I smiled broadly, fighting the urge to laugh. A great joy filled me. From where or for what reason, I don’t know.

I kept my gaze lowered as we paced across the moonlit terrace, trying my best to mask my giggles.

But a great light illuminated the world.

This here and that there. Now this and then that. Everything changing completely, while everything remained exactly the same.

Even now, writing these lines, I feel as though I’m plagiarising some cringy pseudo-mystical New Age babbling that I’ve picked up from the Spirituality shelf of a used bookstore.

But I have no other words.

 

But when kinhin came to an end, and we once again took our seats, it was not long before my broad smile was unceremoniously replaced with something else.

“Tzvi”

My brother who died when I was 7.

“Tzvi”

My grin melts from my face.

“Tzvi”

All light sucked from the room, replaced by a throbbing void, no, by sadness, or shame? No, deep sadness.

My immediate instinct was to let go of this “Tzvi” and return to my playful garden of sun-filled smiles.

But no, Tzvi came for a reason. Let’s not be a rude host. Come, welcome our guest.

The sadness deepened and darkened, filling every corner of the room. Every room in every home.

But wait. This sadness doesn’t belong to me. Whose could it be? If not mine, then who?

 

A pause.

Then,

It’s Imma’s sadness. It’s Imma’s sadness that I’m feeling, that lives within me.

But why do I carry Imma’s sadness?

Another pause.

And then,

“I need to make Imma happy. Imma is sad. How can I make her happy? I want Imma to be happy.”

Oh shit.

Tears stream down my face.

I’m fucked.

Here, at last, is my trauma. My wound that I’ve carried with me all these years, since I was a little boy.

“How can I make Imma happy? I want Imma to be happy.”

I need to see a therapist ASAP.

But wait, haven’t I learned anything at all from this sesshin? The answer is within me. It’s not for a therapist to tell me. They can only guide me right back, back to where I already am.

So I sit with the pain. I let it grow and further deepen. Look inside the pain. What is it telling me?

Then,

“What Imma lost can never be replaced.”

What Imma lost can never be replaced.

And that’s okay.

That’s okay.

What Imma lost can never be replaced and that’s okay.

 

Relief surges through me. Acceptance.

Loss is made final. Irretrievable. And finally felt and accepted.

 

A wave of gratitude. And a quiet, impossibly quiet return to the breath.

 

March 31

After dawn zazen, the sesshin draws to a close.

There is no grand finale. No elaborate ceremony.

A toll of the bell, a final prayer, and Roshi nonchalantly announces the end of sesshin.

We’re free to talk.

We slowly mingle. Nervously crossing the silent space that separated us this past week.

We’ve sat quietly together for dozens of hours. We’ve eaten and performed samu side-by-side for nearly a week. We know each other. And yet not a word had been exchanged. Until now.

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