I’m on sabbatical the month of July but still wanted to release three episodes this month, so as a change-up I’m telling you a story of my spiritual journey (thus far!). In the last episode, 174, I talked about my early childhood up through my encounter with Buddhism at age 24. In this episode I continue the story from there, up through my departure from the home life to do monastic practice. I’ll finish up the story – including my monastic practice, up through my decision to start my own Zen center – in the last episode in July.
My Honeymoon with Buddhism
The first several years of my practice of Buddhism were quite the honeymoon. I couldn’t get enough of the teachings and practices, and they radically improved my life. Later, things weren’t so rosy and easy, but I might as well give a little testimonial about how awesome Buddhism can be, based on my experience in my mid-twenties.
From the outset, Zen meditation was mind-blowing and attractive. I remember reading about how to sit in the Shasta Abbey pamphlet, “Serene Reflection Meditation.” I read the directions, grabbed a pillow, and sat down on it in front of a wall. I had never conceived of doing such a thing, and I probably sat for at least a half hour the first time. It felt like an adventurous and almost crazy thing to sit with nothing but my own brain and body for company for a prolonged period of time. I felt like an astronaut setting foot on the moon, or an explorer entering a cave that has been sealed for millennia.
I can’t remember whether my first zazen sessions were “good” or not – with true beginner’s mind, such questions were entirely irrelevant to me. I never was one of those people who suddenly started sitting for hours a day all on my own, but I definitely wanted to sit regularly and continue this compelling internal adventure.
Similarly radical was the Buddhist suggestio I pay attention to my experience, regardless of how mundane or objectively uninteresting the activity I was engaged in. “Pay attention while washing the dishes? What a weird idea,” I thought. “Surely some activities – or most activities – are boring things you simply have to endure or get out of the way before you can do what you actually want to do!” Yet, when I tried Buddhist mindfulness, I again felt like I was exploring fascinating new terrain. How surprisingly amazing was the warmth of the dishwater, the almost indiscernible popping of the soap bubbles, the satisfaction of taking care of the plates and bowls, and the awareness of my passing thoughts and feelings!
Buddhist practice also showed me how to affect change in my life. At the tender age of 24, I already felt dysfunctional, self-critical, stressed, and stuck. There were behaviors I sincerely wanted to change, but I seemed unable to do so no matter how hard I tried. I was on the edge of an eating disorder. My relationships were increasingly disappointing and frustrating. I was – as an acquaintance once described me – “tightly wound.” I was perfectionistic and judgmental. Probably as a consequence, I bit my fingernails despite the reminders from family members to stop. Existential despair remained my constant companion, although sometimes I was able to keep it locked in a closet for a while. Then, miraculously, after practicing meditation and mindfulness for a few weeks, everything started to shift.
It was as if the unfolding of behavioral patterns slowed down just enough that I could see where I could make different choices. Before annoyed and provocative words left my mouth, I was able to recognize, “Oh, if I say that my husband will probably get defensive, and we’ll get in a fight. What’s going on right now? Is there another way I can respond?” My relationships started to change for the better, simply through subtle changes in my own behavior.
I noticed how my own assumptions, desires, aversions, opinions, and expectations could ruin my experience of something, and began to see how I might be less identified with or attached to my feelings and thoughts in order to be freer and happier. I saw how my desire to compulsively overeat was an attempt to fill an existential void inside me; I explored the sensation of minor hunger with curiosity instead of fear, and eventually my appetite returned to normal. Amazingly, I also stopped biting my nails. How did that happen? Biting my nails was a subconscious thing, so there was no obvious moment of realization where I understood the behavior and overcame it. Instead, I see this change as evidence that Buddhist practice was affecting me in a profound and deep way, even beyond what I was conscious of.
Best of all, Buddhism addressed my despair in countless ways. If nothing else, practice – the exploration of the Buddhist teachings and practices, and of my own mental, emotional, and physical experience – gave me a direction and purpose. Buddhism also identified my despair as being the central koan, or challenge, of human existence, and said it was possible for me to become free of it. Zazen and mindful awareness of everyday life were teaching me that my ideas about what might make life meaningful were extremely limited. It wasn’t that my despair was instantly gone, but even minor or temporary alleviation of it was enough to counteract it with some hope.
Exploring the Treasure of Sangha
It wasn’t long before I was fully committed to two of the three treasures of Buddhism: Buddha and Dharma. “Buddha” I thought of as the people who discovered or created the path of Buddhism, as well as the potential within each of us to recognize the truth and alleviate our own suffering. “Dharma” I thought of as the Buddhist teachings, and at a deeper level the truth itself, which was proving to be healing and transformative in and of itself.
The third treasure of Buddhism, Sangha – the community of practitioners – was something about which I felt a great deal of skepticism. Not long before I encountered the Dharma, I told my first husband, “If I ever get involved in an organized religion, shoot me.” I saw most organized religion as being an opiate for the masses at best, and at worst the justification for hateful prejudice, judgmentalism, tribalism, persecution, and even war. I couldn’t imagine what fellow Buddhists could offer me, seeing as I was getting so much from the books I was reading.
However, what I had experienced of Buddhist practice so far was so transformative, I was willing to give Sangha a shot. I looked up Buddhism in the phone book and went to the services at a Jodo Shin Shu, or Pure Land, temple. The people there were very nice, but we sat in pews and sang hymns to Amida Buddha. Then, at the discussion group afterwards, several people mentioned they were Pure Land Buddhists because they didn’t feel capable of the demanding kind of practice you do in other forms of Buddhism, including Zen. Instead, they cultivate devotion to Amida Buddha and look forward to rebirth in the Western Paradise, where enlightenment will be easier. Afterwards, I went home and immediately looked up Zen.
A few days later, I got my first in-person zazen instructions, meditated with others, and heard a Dharma Talk. Buddhism did not disappoint with its third treasure. These were my people. All my life I had felt alone in my orientation toward this life: Questioning, longing, doubting, despairing, hopeful, and inexplicably determined and fascinated. My lone companions in my spiritual quandary were writers I had never met. Of course, this is not to say that the people around me as I was growing up didn’t have deep thoughts or feelings, or weren’t on spiritual quests of their own, it was just that such things never became explicit between us. In contrast, these Buddhists were talking about the great matter of life and death as readily and nimbly as they might discuss the weather or the latest headlines in the newspaper.
I am eternally grateful to have encountered the Dharma – and the Sangha – at the relatively young age of 24. Since then, for over 26 years, I have been part of a community of people with whom I share a passionate commitment to living an examined life. Together we explore our fears and longings. We witness one another learn, grow, and gain greater and greater freedom. Buddhist practitioners don’t stop with accepting a set of beliefs, they see every day they have on this planet as an opportunity to increase their wisdom and compassion. No question is out of bounds, no form of suffering is seen as hopeless, no spiritual struggle is seen as a sign of weakness.
An important part of my Sangha encounter was meeting my teacher, Gyokuko Carlson, one of the two priests in the community I joined, Dharma Rain Zen Center. Her husband, Kyogen, was the more visible of the two, and he gave most of the talks. Kyogen certainly had a big impact on me and taught me a great deal, but when I was with Gyokuko, I felt like she could see right through me. When I spoke to her about my practice in private interview, she never seemed to fall for the story I was telling. Instead, she would ask me a strategic question or two that would fuel my practice for the next several weeks. I almost immediately became determined to extract every bit of guidance I could from Gyokuko, for as long as I could learn anything from her – although it’s inaccurate to say my “teacher” was guiding me, or that I was learning from her. She almost never gave any explicit advice. She just was who she was, and because of her own training was able to set aside her own self-interest, agendas, opinions, etc., and meet me in a way that provided a mirror. Her sincere and uncontrived responses provided a catalyst in my personal practice, for which I was always 100% responsible.
Encountering my teacher was like finding a friend you admire and trust so completely, you can ask them for feedback on your inevitable blind spots and know they will be honest, gentle, supportive, nonjudgmental – and insightful! It’s not that the teacher has some kind of superhuman skill that allows them to see how you can fix all of your problems, it’s that the teacher has done enough work on herself that she has unshakeable faith in the practice and the inner strength and stability to support others.
The Call of the Monastery: Putting to Rout All That Is Not Life
At some point, a couple years into my Buddhist practice, I realized I wanted to spend some time in a monastery.
If you were watching my life from afar at this point, you might conclude it would be impossible to squeeze more Buddhism into my life. When I still lived near the Zen Center, I was one of a small handful of people who attended pretty much everything on the weekly schedule, especially every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. I went to the center to volunteer, and attended all four of the week-long meditation retreats offered each year. When I moved 90 minutes from the center to go to graduate school, I drove up and spent the weekend at the center as a part-time resident every other week. While doing my graduate work surveying the state for northern pygmy owls (I was getting a master’s degree in wildlife biology), I listened to every tape recording of talks and classes available in the Zen center library.
As I was reading and listening and participating in all things Zen and Buddhist, however, I was intrigued by Zen monasticism. I loved residential meditation retreats, but they were too short. The story of my Dharma grandmother Roshi Jiyu Kennett’s ordination and monastic practice in Japan, told in her autobiographical book, The Wild White Goose, absolutely fascinated and attracted me. A monk – whether ordained or simply living in a strict traditional monastery – gave up everything but the barest essentials of life. Monks seemed to me to seeking the same thing Thoreau did by living in his cabin on Walden Pond. To use Thoreau’s words, he sought:
“…to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” (from “Walden”)
But Zen monks were doing this difficult and remarkable practice together – supported and guided by an established tradition. There were many ancient Zen practices I had not yet been able to try because they depend on living with others in a strict and traditional monastery. You just can’t do them at home, at least not in the same way.
For example, for the first year or two in the monastery (and here I mean very traditional Chan monasteries in China, or Zen monasteries in Japan, or one of only a couple monasteries in the West), new trainees live on what’s called a tan. This is a raised platform in the main meditation hall, about 6 feet wide. Each trainee gets assigned a section of the tan about three feet wide, with a cabinet at one end. The monk stores all of his belongings in the cabinet, which are very minimal: Monastic robes, a sleeping futon and blanket, a couple books, and supplies for personal hygiene and head shaving. The monk lives entirely on the tan – meditating, sleeping, and eating. She meditates facing the wall (or cabinet), lies down in her space to sleep at night, and faces outward (away from wall) for formal meals, which are served right in the Sodo, this residential meditation hall. The rest of the monk’s day will be spent elsewhere in silent work practice, study, or participating in chanting or ceremonies.
This may sound attractive or horrible to you, or somewhere in between. To me – both in my twenties and now at 50 – it sounds like both. Such strict practice can be a relief from the demands of everyday life, but it also can bring you face to face with all the crap in your own mind and heart you’re generally able to avoid by distracting yourself with work, pleasure, socializing, and other activities. When, as Thoreau says, you “put to rout all that is not life,” and “drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,” who knows what you will find?
At some point, I was reading The Wild White Goose and vicariously living Roshi Kennett’s existential adventure. I saw a photo of Jiyu Kennett sitting on the tan when she was a monk at Sojiji, the Japanese monastery where she trained. A thought arose in me, “I want to do that.” I didn’t just want to read about it, damn it. I wanted to do it myself.
Jumping Off the Conveyor Belt to Death
Running off to a monastery was a bit of a problem, though. I had a husband, a cat, a car, an apartment, a sewing machine, a tent, houseplants – in short, all the accoutrements of modern life. I was enrolled in a master’s program and in the middle of research for my thesis, for which I had raised all the money from funding organizations who counted on its completion. I had parents who hoped the tens of thousands of dollars they invested in my education would be put to good use (meaning a fulfilling and at least reasonably lucrative career). I was on the conveyor belt to death and it was moving pretty quickly. Jumping off was going to take some doing.
Bless his heart, my husband at the time was more than willing to let me run off to a monastery for as long as I wanted. However, this was incompatible with my desire to give up everything and drive life into a corner. I divorced, and I’m ashamed to say not very graciously. It was difficult to simply stand up and proclaim what I wanted, so instead I undermined the marriage in ways that led to its breakdown.
My cat I gave to a dear housemate, a woman I lived with after my divorce but before I finished my master’s degree. I’m happy to say Loki spent many exciting years slinking through the brush out on the property where Molly later lived with a flock of sheep. Gradually I shed everything – my car, my plants, my tchotchkes, my books… Everything I gave away made me feel lighter. I almost quivered with anticipation for my journey.
When my graduate classes were over and all I had to do was write my thesis, I moved to the Zen center, which was 80 miles north of the university in Portland. I dropped off my laptop and necessary books and papers there, gave away my car, and returned home one last time. Everything I owned – except what was necessary for my thesis – I strapped to my bike and I rode north, meandering the beautiful back roads of Oregon. I spent the first night at a friend’s house but made it all the way to the Zen center the next day. Thus began the next stage of my life.
Read/listen to Part 3: Phoenix Rises from the Ashes of Despair