Several weeks ago, the local newspaper published a feature article on our Zen group. Since then, we’ve seen an unprecedented influx of new people coming to practice: both this week and last, we’ve had a full house with 12 people occupying 12 meditation cushions.
Our parent Zen school is the Kwan Um School of Zen, “Kwan Um” being derived from the Sino-Korean name of the Bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Seum Bosal. (“Kwan Um” means “perceive world sound,” so “Kwan Seum Bosal” is the Bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world.) With Zen centers and groups like ours all over the world, the Kwan Um School of Zen is almost (but not quite) evangelical in its zeal: although we don’t proselytize on street corners, we have Dharma teachers leading practice sessions in prisons, nursing homes, adult education centers, schools. Someone once asked our founding Zen Master whether it disturbed him that Christians believe Buddhists will go to hell, and he responded, “Going to hell is no problem. If I go to hell, I’ll make a Zen center there!” Given this outreach-oriented outlook, long-time practitioners have sometimes joked that we should change the name of our school to the “Count ‘em School of Zen” since we regularly ask the leaders of other centers and groups how many people come to their sessions.
There’s nothing wrong with counting, only with being attached to the result. If you’re attached to the notion of gaining lots of followers, you’ll be disappointed when few (or no) people show up for practice, and when people do come, you’ll treat them like anonymous numbers. During the five years that our Zen group has met in various towns in New Hampshire, there have been many weeks when no one has shown up; in the eight months that we’ve had practice sessions here in Keene, we’ve occasionally had nights when only one or two folks have come to practice. This, our founding Zen Master would opine, is no problem: whether there are twelve people practicing or only two, what’s important is that each of those individuals is heeding the present moment. In a sense, the philosophy of our Zen school is “sit there, and they will come”: if you perservere with your practice, if you try to create a welcoming environment for new people, and if you try, try, try, eventually people will show up. The Dharma is a seed, so if you give it shelter, nourishment, and plenty of time, eventually it will blossom.
This being said, many people investigate our brand of practice and choose not to continue. Last night several newcomers left in the middle of practice, something that is not uncommon in larger centers and on retreat. Although “just sitting” sounds (and essentially is) simple, formal Zen practice can be scary and off-putting: how strange it must seem, I’m sure, to have quiet people in long flowing robes asking you to chant in Korean or sit silently for 30 minutes? When I first began meditating, I was hugely intimidated by the formal aspects of Zen practice: as a Christian, I recoiled at Buddha statues and presumably idolatrous chanting, and I resented the fact that I was “supposed” to be quiet and “supposed” to act mindful. Although part of this response was due to my own spiritual baggage along with the peculiarly quietistic bent of the first Zen school I practiced with, formal Zen practice can be very uncomfortable for newcomers. In our school we try to do everything in our power to make beginners feel comfortable–and, to our credit, many folks remark that our sessions are much more friendly and “open” than those of other, stricter styles. Still, though, sitting through a half-hour chanting service can be extremely scary, off-putting, and outright strange at first.
Apart from the oddities of formal Zen Buddhist trappings, however, meditation practice itself, even when stripped to to its bare bones, can be very difficult. Again, “just sitting” sounds (and essentially is) simple…but it can be very difficult to do. Pausing to examine your mind often involves uncovering those very things that you’ve spent your entire life ignoring. Since many people come to meditation practice looking for clarity and calmness, they are alarmed to find themselves becoming (seemingly) more anxious, tense, and distracted. The first step toward becoming calm and clear is realizing how anxious, tense, and distracted you really are. For folks who have buried these emotions under decades of overwork, overactivity, and other distractive coping mechanisms, the process of slowing down can be terrifying: right here and now you get to face all the psychic crap you’ve been avoiding. I’ve often likened meditation practice to a combination roller-coaster/amusement park funhouse ride punctuated by thrills, chills, and quick turns as the ghosts and beasties of your own past pop out at you from every direction.
Although I don’t often refer to the life of the historical Buddha, preferring to focus my practice and teaching on the realities of this present moment, the mythological story of how the Buddha attained enlightenment is actually quite interesting. According to traditional accounts (which are, incidentally, vividly depicted in the film Little Buddha in which none other than Keanu Reeves plays Lord Buddha himself: whoa!), right before Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he was beseiged by Mara the Tempter who used three tried-and-true ploys to distract Siddhartha-who-would-be-Buddha from his practice.
First, Mara tried to tempt Siddhartha with desire, sending his three beautiful daughters to dance lasciviously before him. Second, Mara tried to push Siddhartha off his game through fear, sending a torrent of arrows right toward the spot where he sat. And third, Mara tried to stop Siddhartha from practicing by raising the shadow of doubt, whispering in his ear one naggingly simple question: “Who do you think you are?”
These three temptations are very interesting because they are precisely the kind of things any practitioner, newbie or veteran, regularly experiences during practice. When you sit to meditate, you are invariably flooded with all sorts of desires, wishes, likes and dislikes. I’m hungry. My leg itches. It’s too noisy here. I love the person on my right, and I hate the person on my left. Just when you’ve started to deal with this “desire mind,” then fears arise. Did I unplug the iron before I left to come to practice? What if someone sneaks up behind me while I’m meditating and tries to rob me? My heartbeat sounds irregular…maybe I have a heart condition! And just when the voice of fear has begun to quiet itself, self-doubt arises. Who the hell are you, thinking you can get enlightenment! You’re the most scattered and neurotic person I know! You’re ugly, stupid, you can’t write or take pictures, yet you have this deluded notion that you can actually achieve enlightenment and teach others about it, fool!
In the case of Siddhartha-about-to-become-Buddha, each of these temptations proved to be illusory. Once ignored, Mara’s daughters grew bored and wandered away. Sitting firm and undeterred, Siddhartha watched as those oncoming arrows turned into a shower of flower blossoms, his greatest fears being imaginary. And when Mara asked that troubling question “Who are you,” Siddhartha refused to respond with a laundry-list of his titles and accomplishments. Realizing that confidence comes not from what we do but from our connection with the present moment, Siddhartha simply touched the earth with the fingers of his right hand, calling all of creation to bear witness to his impending enlightenment. Right here, right now I touch earth, and that’s all the confidence I as an incipient Buddha need to face even the most troubling doubt.
New meditators have yet to learn that even veteran practitioners struggle with practice: even the Buddha himself struggled. Sometimes it takes all the energy you can muster simply to sit still in the face of temptation, distraction, and doubt; sometimes even I want to run screaming out of the meditation room. But one thing you learn from hours of “just doing it” is that we all harbor a secret strength that is greater than even our strongest desire, fear, or doubt. Some years ago on retreat, a newly-arrived retreatant packed his bags and crept out of the monastery, convinced that he couldn’t continue a rigorous daily regimen of bowing, chanting, and sitting. Realizing that someone was leaving the monastery, the monk leading the retreat raced onto the deck overlooking the path toward the parking lot and broke the monastic silence to shout, “You’re stronger than you think!”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve reminded myself of that burst of impromptu advice: you’re stronger than you think! Zen practice can be off-putting, and our minds can be alarming to consider. Sitting quietly watching your own mind can be the most annoying, terrifying, and intimidating thing you’ll ever do. And yet, if we don’t watch, what sobering moment will transpire as on our deathbed we realize the show’s over and we slept through the whole damn thing? Our minds and their delusions are strong, but the jewel of true awareness is even stronger, a diamond cutting through mire. You’re stronger than you think. Given this strength, do you dare begin and then continue?