Chasing the Way
I don’t remember when I first heard of Buddhism. In a comic called Dr. Strange the protagonist, a prideful surgeon whose injuries force him to give up medicine, goes to Tibet and is trained in “the Mystic Arts”. As a kid I loved that book, and the Steve Ditko drawings of fortresses in the Himalaya, well before I knew that those places were real.
In high school I read Hesse’s Siddhartha and realized that the Buddha was a historical figure. I found his personage rather more appealing that the authoritarian and suffering Jesus of my own Midwestern culture, with his demands for obedience and threats of damnation. Growing up in an alcoholic family, in a little town in northern Illinois, I felt damned enough, and full of rage and self-pity. The Buddha of the images seemed to have found a way beyond that.
I went to college for a couple years, hated it, and dropped out to smoke pot and attempt a music career, which fizzled. In 1986 I went to California to march in an anti-nuclear walk. In my little bag I took a few books, among them the Tao Te Ching and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which someone must have recommended to me. By this time I think I had tried a yogic meditation technique of staring into a candle flame, which did not help to ease my growing emotional difficulties. The peace march ended and I returned to Rockford. I tried psychedelics around that time too, taking mescaline in a bar with a high school friend. Quite a ride, and I knew I wanted more of THAT, but in a different setting.
When I moved to Madison I got it, and for the next three years, with my friend M, I did psychedelics regularly (and even interviewed Timothy Leary for the Badger Herald). The experiences were almost uniformly wonderful, but the sense of alienation and separation never was entirely erased by the drug state. Coming back to my life in college was always painful, like putting on a suit of armor while trying to sunbathe. I continued to read widely in Buddhist and Zen books, but none of them mentioned meditation practice, or at least not prominently enough that I noticed it. I read all the Alan Watts I could get my hands on, but still felt terrible inside. In the winter of 1987-88 I finally found the book that would become my roadmap out of that.
While recuperating from a tonsillectomy I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. I was awestruck, not only by the content of it, which wove together all the disparate strands of my struggle, but by the clarity of Matthiessen’s prose. I got everyone I knew who would listen to read it, and I knew that I had to begin a Buddhist sitting practice and go to Nepal. And most of all, I needed a teacher.
The University of Wisconsin had, and has, one of the country’s most extensive Asian studies departments, so I took a couple of classes in Buddhist studies. I found these interesting but unsatisfying, and knew that neither the Tibetan Lama (Geshe Sopa) who taught the Vajrayana class not the Japanese man (Minoru Kyota) who taught Japanese Buddhism were the teachers for me. I delved into the library and found more books that spoke to my search, including Govinda’s Way of the White Clouds and Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage. Despite my growing obsession with the Himalayan region, though, I was still drawn to Zen as a practice.
My friend Jeff and I, needing to complete language requirements to graduate, enrolled in Nepali class. I learned that the UW had a study abroad program in Nepal. For the past few years I had been dating for the first time, and this stirred up a hornet’s nest of disavowed emotion from childhood that overtook me utterly and left me in despair. By the summer of 1989, after a trip to Glacier Park and my first sight of mountains, I knew that things had to change. As I began the study of Nepali I also mostly quit doing drugs, entered psychotherapy, and began attending 12 step meetings for children of alcoholics.
Jeff, too, shared my fascination with Zen, and one of us found the Madison Zen Center in the phone book. We did not know what it was, really, but we called and were invited to a Monday night orientation in November 1989. I was convinced that they would toss me out immediately, seeing that I was not worthy of the teaching. I boned up on DT Suzuki and Watts to convince them of my seriousness.
The introduction, or whatever portion of it filtered through my anxiety, was very relaxed and informal. Craig Carver, a senior student of Bodhin Kjolhede, explained the basic postures and practices and gave us a short history of the Madison Zen Center, its parent Center in Rochester, and its founder Roshi Philip Kapleau. We also sat zazen Zazen for a couple periods. It was difficult, but I left the meeting with a kind of high, better than weed, I thought, wrongly comparing meditation to the altered states I had known through drugs. Jeff and I resolved to come back and continue the practice.
In January I began to attend regularly, and I also sat at home when I did not go to the ZC. I tried an all day sitting and made it through on sheer willpower, my head howling with self-doubt and concepts about Buddhism.
But I had discovered meditation and therapy too late to avert the tidal wave of emotion that then vanquished me, and in February I took an entire bottle of sleeping pills, at night, in the woods far from anyone. I sat down beside a large tree, drank a beer, and waited for the pills to take effect. No one knew I had come there, and I was certain I would not be found until morning.
As I sat there in the dark I began to panic, and to think. What was I doing? This was a Wednesday night and I could be doing zazen. Was a woman really worth my life? Wasn’t it time to put down this self-hatred and move on? Suddenly roused, I stood up, made myself vomit, and walked a half mile to the nearest bus stop, determined to make it to evening zazen.
As the bus went east toward the capital building I began to feel dizzy and short of breath. I saw that we were passing by a hospital and I told the driver that I was ill, and to stop. He did, and I ran into the ER as I began to lose consciousness. I put the bottle on the counter and asked the ER staff to save my life. They did.
After acting out this drama I was somewhat free of despair for the first time in a decade. I broke off contact with my wrathful lover, continued therapy, and sat my first day long sitting mere days after my ordeal. Craig told me that there was a two day sesshin in Chicago the next weekend, and I signed up. I also visited my parents in Minnesota and had an emotional reconciliation with my father, who offered to pay for me to travel to Nepal for the fall semester. I was determined to meet Bodhin Sensei and have him assign me the koan Mu, which I knew of from reading the Three Pillars of Zen. Like my hero Peter Matthiessen, I was going to trek the Himalaya with my own ‘hot iron ball’ in my throat.
The sesshin, led by Sonja (now Sunya, another of PK’s Dharma heirs) Kjolhede, was agonizing. Each round stretched into what seemed like hours, and I vowed throughout to never do such a thing again. But when the final bell came I was ecstatic and full of purpose, and I asked if I could attend a week long sesshin in Rochester. Sonja said that I could apply, but that one never knows.
In May I did another weekend sesshin with David Sachter, who is now Lawson Sachter Sensei. I met Bodhin Kjolhede, too, and he told me that it would be fine to come to Rochester for sesshin. I visited the Rochester Center for Vesak first and, while walking to the Buddha hall for a ceremony, I saw Roshi Kapleau walking toward the hall. Stopping him, I asked if he could wait a moment for me to fetch my Three Pillars so he could sign it. We sat on a bench beside the dormitory and he hefted the book. “This is a good copy.” Roshi said. [at around this time copies were published with a cheap newsprint paper, which Roshi subsequently got the publishers to change – my copy was an older paperback]. “It’s good to see you here, Scott.” He inscribed the book and we walked together to the Buddha hall. I never saw him again.
In July I attended a full sesshin. I had been asking Bodhin to assign me Mu since I met him, and on the fourth day of sesshin he did. Despite, or perhaps because of, my self-conscious ambition to attain kensho the koan held its ground and what I recall mostly is sitting through seven days of relentless kyosaku (the Zen ‘encouragement stick’) whacking and back pain. After sesshin Jeff, my friend John Eich (who had just moved to the Center to train), and I went whooping it up down Arnold Park, to the dismay of many of the somber Zen students.
In September, against the advice of my therapist, who assured me that it would be too anxiety provoking for me to go to India (too much for his wallet, maybe), I flew to New Delhi determined to visit the holy places of Shakyamuni’s life and go trekking in the Himalaya. It was an astonishing trip, full of wonder and inspiration, and I worked on Mu the entire time. I knew that I had to come back to Nepal and live in those mountains if I could, for though I felt no draw toward Vajrayana practice I felt that, in some way, these mountains were my home.
I attended Rohatsu sesshin in Rochester and became Bodhin’s formal student in a small ceremony. Inwardly I did not feel ready to do this, but I was not informed until I arrived at sesshin that I would not be allowed to go to dokusan unless I did it, so I went ahead. For the next seven months I attended sesshin regularly, and in July sat through a week of 95 degree heat in my brown robe. On the third day of this sit, during the late morning rounds, I dissolved into Mu, merging completely with the partition in front of me. It was very matter-of-fact, and when I reported to Bodhin what had happened he said it was a “tip of the tongue” taste of kensho. It certainly did not satisfy me, and I moved to the RZC to train full time in September.
I found the Zen Center to be too rigid for my personality, and the frequent disparaging of other teachers bothered me greatly. Several of the staff were seeing a psychotherapist who had trained in Zen and practiced a style of therapy called Short Term Dynamic (STDP). The combination of intense daily zazen, monthly sesshin, and STDP was very fruitful for me. Many wounds from my childhood were brought to light and somewhat healed. But as I reclaimed parts of my emotional self it became more clear to me that I could not train in Zen in the Kapleau/Kjolhede style, with its frequent talk of the obstructive nature of ‘ego’.
There were other aspects of the Zen center that I found frighteningly reminiscent of my upbringing. When it was time for a celebration we were strongly encouraged to smile (“this is fun time, FUN, smile!!!!), but immediately at activities’ end a dour grimness was enforced. People who claimed to have attained transcendence of “ego delusion” exhibited wounded, aggressive behavior that resulted in deep shaming of staff. And, most disturbingly, persons who had experienced kensho were given power and privilege to ‘correct’ those who had not at any time, and in virtually any manner, short of physical and sexual violence, without accountability. Such actions, when brought to the attention of the teacher and his disciples, were invariably explained away as being for the benefit of the student, and stories of the old masters receiving rough treatment as precursor to kensho were regularly invoked.
I left Rochester and returned to Madison, intent on joining the Peace Corps. I moved into the Madison Zen Center, a Rochester affiliate where I hoped to continue practice in a way that also gave me freedom from the dictates of the RZC. But in the fall of 1992 a senior student of Bodhin’s, and the group leader in Madison, declared that “it was a mistake for [you] to leave Rochester” and that he would “continue my training” to rid me of my “enormous displays of ego”. This was his duty, he said, based upon his “attained level of insight.” When I protested to Bodhin that this man was not someone whom I trusted as teacher, Bodhin wrote to me explaining the man’s good intentions and awakened state, while acknowledging that he may have gone too far (about six months later, after conflicts with many others in the Madison sangha, he was told to take a one year leave from leadership duties). I was shocked by what seemed to be a cultic denial of aggression and moved to Minnesota, where I finished the Peace Corps application process, sat zazen regularly at the Minnesota Zen Center, and, after being contacted by Peace Corps in April 1993, waited to depart for Nepal.
When I began Zen practice I wrote to Peter Matthiessen, and wrote again a few more times over the years. He always graciously replied, and now, as I prepared to go live in Nepal, he invited me to Sagaponack to practice for a few days and meet him in dokusan. I met my hero at last and told him about Rochester and the harsh treatment I received there. He said, “well, Pai-Chang got his leg broken, but if someone tried to do that to me, I’d say, ‘you break my leg, you son of a bitch, and I’ll break yours.’” After zenkai we went for a walk around the premises of his house in Sagaponack, and Muryo Sensei (now Muryo Roshi) identified the migrating birds for me. It seemed that he gave me the blessing of an elder, and he encouraged me to sit with Mu while in the Himalaya. I was astonished and thrilled to be going to live in Nepal, with a koan practice blessed by Peter Matthiessen.
In September 1993 I became a Peace Corps trainee and went to Nepal to live and work. I hoped to be posted in the high Himalaya and, after training, I was assigned to the village of Kunjo-Taglung in the Annapurna region of southern Mustang district. I took with me Robert Aitken Roshi’s translation and commentary on the Wumenkuan. Although the cases remained opaque, I hoped to use the commentaries for inspiration during the two years of my stay.
It seemed strange to many I met during those years that I continued to do a Zen practice while having access to so many wonderful Vajrayana teachers. At times it seemed strange to me too, but not often. I found the farmers, traders, and herders of the Himalaya more inspiring than the monks thereabouts, many of whom seemed pompous and spoiled to me.
For the year of 1994 I was the happiest I had ever been, despite frequent dysentery and the hardships of mountain life. Each weekend I walked fifteen miles each way for my mail, meeting the other PC volunteer in the area (David Donsky) to talk and debrief. In my haste on those walks I would speed past an old woman at a tea stall overlooking the Kali Gandaki. “Hey babu (little boy),” she cried, “where are you going in such a hurry?”
On a bright September morning I shaved, as usual, atop my house and looked south toward Dhaulagiri. Feeling irritable and a bit ill, I swatted a fly and knocked it into a basin of water. Without pause, my host family sister Lobsang, bent over to spread fresh mud on the roof, reached into the water and set the fly on a stone where it would dry out. She worked all day to care for me and so many others, but there was no gap or hesitation when she was needed to save a fly. I did not recall hearing about the virtues of humility in my Zen training (though I did hear of the value of public humiliation), but I would remember Lobsang’s example.
My Peace Corps service ended nine months prematurely when I was discharged for asthma, which developed as a result of exposure to unknown toxins in Kathmandu. Leaving early devastated me, but my lover gave me great support and, after visiting the Everest area and saying farewell to Nepal, I returned to America eager to begin graduate school and resume Zen training formally. But the Lo-ba of Nepal remained in my heart as the greatest bearers of the Dharma I ever knew.
My partner and I decided to settle in Portland, Oregon. I knew that Jan Chozen Bays, an heir of Maezumi Roshi and thus kindred to Matthiessen, was there, and I was eager to fly to California to sit with John Tarrant. In New York I had read (and discreetly circulated) Tarrant’s essay ‘Soul in Zen’, which deepened my understanding of the callous behavior I had seen in Rochester. John Eich gave me Tarrant Roshi’s phone number and I was invited to sesshin in Santa Rosa, California.
In dokusan Tarrant checked my responses to several of the koans, and told me to keep working on Mu. He also said that another of Aitken Roshi’s senior students, Jack Duffy, was an apprentice teacher in Seattle. But I liked John and decided to keep going to Santa Rosa as much as I could to see him. I did go to meet Jack in March of 1996 at Indianola, WA. Jack tested me on Mu too, and gave me another koan to sit with: How do you make Mt. Rainier take three steps?
At sesshin in Santa Rosa in June 1996 we sat in a long narrow room that reminded the tanto, David Weinstein, of Yamada Roshi’s zendo in Kamakura. Late in the morning on the third day, the bell softly rang to begin a round of zazen. I exhaled Mu and dissolved into the bell, which resonated Mu. For an instant there was no ‘I’, and when after a moment my sense of sitting on the mat returned I could not suppress a laugh. Everything in my life, even the violence of my childhood, was perfection beyond perfection and could not have been otherwise.
At dokusan Tarrant confirmed that I had experienced a “tip of the tongue taste”, but he would not work on other koans with me since I was not his student. I returned to Portland and entered graduate school, a dark period of sporadic zazen, a painful breakup with my lover, and long hours in class with enraged postmodern narcissists. I went to sit with John again but I knew I wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest, so in January 98 I went to sesshin with Jack Duffy. I was certain that I would become his student but I was not ready, having parted from Tarrant and knowing that I would soon return to the Himalaya.
In the summer and fall of 1998 I was able to visit Tibet. I journeyed to Mt. Kailas and walked the pilgrim trail, and came at last by long roads to the citadel of Tsaparang, the Palace of the Moon that I had read of so many years before. I climbed past clay Buddhas and through a secret tunnel and emerged at the top. After doing zazen I looked to the Sutlej river flowing south and wished I could follow it, past the guarded border between India and occupied Tibet.
In America I became Jack Duffy’s student in January of 1999. He tested me on Mu but my responses felt flat and devoid of vitality. Jack encouraged me to attend sesshin with his teacher Robert Aitken, so I booked a ticket to Hawaii for the 1999 Rohatsu sesshin. In dokusan with Aitken Roshi, whose writings had inspired me for over ten years, responses to the Mu checkpoints flowed freely and seemed to come from some distant place I did not understand. The Roshi said there was “no doubt about it – you have a genuine inkling into Mu.” He asked me when this insight had happened and I told him about the bell in California. We worked through several more Mu checkpoints that sesshin, and in the summer of 2000 Jack and I continued the process. Mt. Rainier took three steps and Puget Sound stood still. I went to Hawaii again in December of that year and Aitken Roshi assigned me the Sound of One Hand koan, which often comes after Mu in the Harada-Yasutani curriculum.
It is now over three years later and I continue to work on the koan curriculum with Jack Duffy, though I often sit shikantaza too. Often the old cases are opaque but, after a few hours or days of zazen, the smoke clears and they stand forth whole and unimpeded. Coming forth, always already perfect, just as they are, just as I am, in this first, last, and only moment.