When I first started reading about Zen, I was struck by the depictions of Zen masters as spontaneous, unconstrained beings. The word “spontaneous” came up a lot, actually. They did and said things that could seem shocking, and they always seemed to have just the right response for any given situation. Zen masters—as they have been presented to us in myth—are masters of a snappy comeback. They seem to represent a kind of freedom.
This has been confusing, I think, as Zen has made its way to the West. Zen masters were met on American shores by members of a counterculture that valued freedom above all other things, and there was ample evidence that these little bald men were offering exactly that. That counterculture rejected ideas of rank and formality. It rejected the idea that there were any “shoulds” in spiritual practice.
In fact, those bald men came representing a tradition of precision and conformity. Their training had been to do everything—from washing their faces in the morning to bowing to using the toilet—in a neatly prescribed way, the way their teachers had done it and their teachers had done it, for centuries. They were products of one of the most elegantly refined systems of vertical hierarchies the world has ever known. From any Western perspective, they had trained in a very, very tight box. If they had anything to teach, it was born of that training. This surprised people then, and it continues to surprise people now, half a century later.
Traditional Zen training, put very simply, is an exercise in living in such a constricted way that one has no choice but to find freedom within those walls. From my first moment in a monastery, I was told that the only word I should say—for at least the first few months—was “yes.” When told to do something, the reply is “yes.” When offered an explanation (rare—more often, one is simply shown), the response is “yes.” Asking questions suggests that one wasn’t paying attention the first time. There is no room for complaint; and since no one will ask about your well being, there is no need or opportunity to lie. We take off our robes just so, pour water just so, hold our bowls just so, walk just so, sit just so, arrange our personal things just so. We sleep (barely) and eat (barely) and sit (constantly) on a single 3×6 mat, and to this, we say “yes.”
This is not prison. This is not a punishment. I chose to be there. I could walk away anytime. During the first days, this was like a mantra in my head: “I chose this.” In fact, people leave all the time. During spring and fall, when new monks enter, it is not unusual to wake and find that a person is simply gone, that all their possessions have been cleaned away. A phone call later that day will find that monk at home, and we never see him again. No one pressures anyone to stay.
The first week, called tangaryō, has been written about a lot, but I’ll add my story. I entered Zuiouji on March 1, and though it had been cold in the days previous, March 1 was a sunny, beautiful day, so I didn’t wear any long underwear or think in terms of keeping warm. After standing outside the gates and finally being granted provisional entry, I was placed with one other monk in tangaryō, a corner room with thin walls and window frames that didn’t quite fit the windows. We were told to sit in zazen all day, and so we did.
We knew this was to last a week, but we were constantly threatened with more. Inspecting monks would burst in at odd hours to see if we were really sitting or not. We were told that if we couldn’t use our bowls skillfully by the end of the week, we would be a burden on the group, and would have to stay one more week in seclusion for good measure. We were constantly encouraged to go home, told that we really were not monk material.
The first night, I went to sleep tired but full of resolve. The second day, it snowed hard, and the snow came into the room through those ill-fitting window frames and gathered on my lap. Thus began a week of being so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking, ever. At night, in bed, I shivered so hard that my jaw ached, and I often felt I couldn’t breathe. And of course, doing zazen literally all day every day, my legs felt as if they’d been hit with hammers. I would lie in bed, moving between two thoughts: first, that I had chosen this, and second, that I did not know why. I tried every kind of pep talk, every kind of mental game imaginable to somehow escape that physical reality, or to feel better, or to feel stronger. I felt I had been reduced to nothing, in a matter of days.
But around the fifth day, I gave up. I gave up trying to make it better. And I gave up hope that it would get better with time. I had settled into a very cool place, as if sitting still in the most remote chamber of a deep, deep cave. I did not feel warm—I was still freezing. My legs still ached so badly that it was difficult to walk to the bathroom and back. I had chillblains on my ears—they looked, and felt, as if they were made of bloody crepe paper. I had let go of my fantasies about how wonderful this would all be, how spiritual. I no longer imagined that I would be transformed here into a certain kind of person, or that I would learn things that no one else knows. I could see in the monks who visited us that while some were quite kind in their strictness, all were human, and some were simply children, enjoying power over someone of lesser rank. Even in seclusion, I could see clearly that this monastery would not transform us all into walking embodiments of compassion. Until that day, I could not have known how much baggage I had carried with me into that monastery.
So I gave up. But I did not quit. I did not do what a rational person might do, which is to pack up my things, politely thank everyone for the food and shelter, and go home. I cannot say why I didn’t leave—I’m certain that at times in my life, I would have. But I stayed. It may seem too simple, but now, years later, much of my understanding of Zen practice comes down to just this: to give up, then to continue anyway.
If we delve into classical Buddhist texts and teachings, we come across the word “liberation” countless times: liberation from suffering, liberation from desire, enlightenment as liberation, the liberation of all beings, and on and on. And Zen—again, especially in what we’ve received in the West—seems to add to that this word freedom, this idea of being somehow unbound. Both of these words, liberation and freedom, absolutely belong in any conversation about spiritual practice. But, as with all the keywords of the tradition, they also require extreme caution.
Perhaps the greatest mistake we can make in this practice—or in any endeavor, any relationship, anything we undertake—is to have a clear idea of what success looks like. I, like many, have watched my definition of success change over the years, but it has always been there. At first, in high school and in college, I understood Zen to be something mental—reading about koans led me to believe that Zen was about breakthrough experiences and realizations that caused a permanent shift in the mind. My assumption was that there was something I was not seeing, some great universal truth that was the domain only of the initiated, of the enlightened. I wanted to see that. I pictured that it would come to me in a flash, and that my thoughts and actions from that day forward would be based on a greater truth than what ordinary people could understand.
Later, after I had started sitting and had met others engaged in the practice, I held on to this idea of a mental realization, but my focus shifted from that experience to being a particular kind of person. I had tasted a bit of the discipline of Zen practice, so I imagined that if I continued, I would become a model of discipline, a kind of spiritual warrior, unstoppable in my pursuit of truth, and recognizable—to myself and others—as, again, one of the initiated. When I was very young, I watched Star Wars and wanted to be a Jedi; Zen, I think, offered me a real-world path to achieving that status.
Over the years, I broadened and narrowed my gaze. In many instances, my vision of a true practitioner was based on compassion and compassionate action; at other times, it was all about insight; at other times, it was about single-minded focus, a kind of clarity of gaze. Every time I sat down and faced the wall in zazen, I wanted something. When zazen felt good, I imagined myself to be in the process of becoming the person I imagined; when it felt awkward or difficult, I despaired at my failure, or questioned the practice all together.
For the record, I don’t think we can avoid this goal-seeking mind. Especially in the beginning. “Practice for the sake of practice” means nothing if you’re not actually practicing, and to actually practice, there must be some draw. There must be some reason, some hope—perhaps we can’t even define it to ourselves, but there is something we look for when we sit down on that cushion for the first time, or we would not sit there at all. So this is a problem we cannot avoid.
But it is a problem. Over the course of years of practice, do people develop some insight? Do they investigate the nature of compassion? Do they become more intentional in their own behavior? I do not doubt that many of them do. That practice sometimes bears fruit should not be surprising, and we can celebrate when it happens. The problem is that by defining freedom, or insight, or compassion, we limit them. We rob them of their true boundless nature, and in the process, we eliminate any possibility of seeing that nature for ourselves. To say “I desire freedom” is, whether we mean to or not, to have a definition in mind of what freedom really is. But that definition is wrong. Because to imagine that you want freedom is to say that you are not now free; a person with boundaries cannot conceive of what it means to have none. We have an idea in our minds, but it is not of true freedom—it is of a state with slightly broader boundaries. That’s all. That’s a very small wish.
Compassion, truth, enlightenment—these, too, are emphatically without boundary. By definition, any definition we offer up is limited, and therefore false. It falls short. We fall short.
Our only hope of seeing into the true nature of things is to let the practice play itself out, and to do that, to let go of our idea of it, is to abandon all hope of fruition. Sesshin (zazen intensives of multiple days) can offer this, sometimes. Sitting all day is painful, and no one pats you on the back for it, and you could be doing any one of a thousand fun things instead. So it’s not uncommon to spend the first few days just complaining to yourself about your legs, and about the teacher, and about Zen in general, and to think, over and over, “What am I doing here? I should just leave. Maybe I’ll just leave. Maybe I’ll say I’m sick. Maybe I’ll just storm out, or maybe I’ll sneak out at the next break. Maybe I can get more kitchen duty, so I’m not just sitting here all day….” Obsessing like this is not zazen, but we cannot really separate it from zazen, either. Because one day, we wake up and realize that our legs are not going to feel better, that all the compelling reasons for leaving are not going to go away, that maybe this is not going to give us what we were looking for, and we stay anyway. Zazen begins on that day. Practice begins on that day. Our lives begin on that day. From that moment forward, anything is possible, because we have let go of what we needed it to be.