Yun-men said to the assembly of monks, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?”
Meditation, and zen in particular, has occupied more of my time and energy than any other subject. Practically the only books I read are zen books or Buddhist Sutras, (some repeatedly), usually in bed before falling asleep at night.
Despite this seeming obsession with a particular religious sect, I’ve never taken even the most elementary lay precepts or vows, much less ordained as a zen monk or priest (although I have come close a few times).
My preoccupation has always been with what I consider the heart of zen, the vital source around which all of its other manifestations revolve — namely “zazen” or meditation. The robes and rituals, the writings and Koans, the teachers and traditions, all flow from the simple practice of sitting meditation.
When I was a teenager, in the late fifties and early sixties, books on zen started to become available. The first one I read was “Zen and the Art of Archery,” by Eugen Herrigel, a German professor of philosophy who spent six years in Japan as a student of one of Japan’s great Kyudo (archery) masters. Herrigel wrote about how he came to some understanding of zen through the practice of Archery.
At about the same time “The Way of Zen,” by Alan Watts came out, which I enthusiastically devoured. Shortly after reading his book I met Mr Watts himself when he spoke to a small group of us in a classroom at my college. He was still a proper Brit, impeccably dressed and dignified, but already a brilliant lecturer whose nimble intellect could weave subtle concepts in startling ways.
Watt’s popular primer was soon followed by D.T. Suzuki’s more scholarly and authoritative writings, notably “Essays in Zen Buddhism” and “A Manual of Zen Buddhism.” Reading his description of Satori, or zen enlightenment experience, I had a sudden insight myself, which only wet my appetite for more.
D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts introduced Zen to the West and paved the way for the teachers and practice that would arrive not long afterwards from Japan. But, like many early writers, they romanticized zen considerably and it’s that idealized version of zen and zen masters that first captured my imagination. It’s a zen that’s spontaneous and iconoclastic, even irreverent, and radically egalitarian, where everyone is equally possessed of Buddha nature.
That romantic view of zen eventually runs into the actual practice of Zen Buddhism, which is highly disciplined, formal and hierarchical, with a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than a millennium — a tradition centered on prolonged periods of rigorous zazen, preferably executed in the full lotus posture.
When I began sitting with Shunryu Suzuki in San Francisco in 1965 the practice was straightforward, consisting primarily of zazen and an occasional talk by Suzuki. He emphasized the “way-seeking-mind,” with urgent exhortations to practice zazen “as if your hair is on fire.”
Suzuki Roshi pretty much fit my conception of what a zen master should be — humble and humorous, yet highly disciplined and dedicated, with a single-minded attention to what was happening in the present moment. As one of his students said later, “Whatever it was he had, we wanted it.” In his presence enlightenment seemed within reach.
My own meditations, which had been short and sporadic, received a huge boost after I started sitting with Suzuki. Every morning when I first got out of bed, and every evening before going to sleep, I sat upright in the half lotus and meditated for the length of time it took a stick of incense to burn down (about half an hour).
What impressed me was the simplicity of zazen. Here was something that one could actually “do,” a remarkably concrete and physical practice that opened up an inner realm of inexpressibly profound experience. All it required was the zeal to persevere through occasional boredom and persistent discomfort (no small matter).
There’s a direct cause and effect relationship between time spent in zazen and enlightening experiences. Such sudden “openings” do not necessarily occur during sitting meditation, but can happen anytime. As Kobun, another Japanese zen teacher I used to sit with, liked to say, “Enlightenment is an accident, and zazen makes you accident prone.”
Practicing with a teacher and a group (sangha) is crucial, at least in the beginning. It’s unlikely that most people could develop the perseverance and disciplined practice necessary to make progress on their own without some real experience of the unique environment encountered in an established zen center or temple. This is especially true of longer retreats or seven day “sesshins,” where silent sitting and walking meditation continues daily from early morning til night. There usually comes a time (about the second or third day of sesshin) when resistance and resentment surface and the whole endeavor appears absurd. At that point, without the support of fellow practitioners, the urge to quit is likely to be overpowering.