I came to zazen through a series of fortunate accidents, the right encounters at the right times. Near the end of high school, my best friend’s dad was cleaning out his attic and found an old, dusty copy of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zazen that he had read in college. He tossed it in a garbage can, but my friend thought I might like it, so he fished it out and gave it to me. I’d read some books about Buddhism by then, but they were dry series of lists — so dry that I wondered if anyone actually practiced Buddhism anymore, or if it had died out (growing up in Montana, one can wonder such things). Three Pillars of Zen was a revelation to me. It’s been so many years now that I remember almost nothing about it, so it’s difficult to explain, but reading that book was the rare experience of encountering my own unarticulated ideas, articulated for me by someone else. Years later, I suspect I would find much to disagree with in those pages, but at that moment in my life, my cup was just empty enough for me to swallow it whole, to let it seep through my skin. That book changed everything about what I thought I wanted to do.
The second happy accident took place about a year later, after I’d graduated (and probably read that book twenty times). On a trip out East to see my brother’s college graduation, I’d had the opportunity to visit the Rochester Zen Center, just for a few minutes (I showed up unannounced, but they were kind enough to give me a tour. Philip Kapleau was in the building, but I didn’t get to meet him.) I was telling the story to my high school English teacher, of all people, and he informed me that he had actually organized a zazen group there in my hometown, and invited me to join. A few days later I went to his house, where he gave me a 5-minute explanation of how to sit, then we went together to a tiny room, and he rang a tiny bell (one of the members was a psychologist; we sat in the waiting room of her private practice). It was just the two of us, that time and many times after. I remember that an ant climbed up my sleeve and took a leisurely tour of my arms, torso, and face for the next hour. I’d been told not to move, so I just tracked that bug. It wasn’t zazen, but it was exhilarating, and I wanted more.
I like to say that the little group in Helena, Montana, was basically the Zen version of Fight Club: I got in because I knew someone, but it was basically a secret. Once, in a supermarket, I bumped into one of the members — she was with friends, and though she smiled and said hello, her eyes pleaded with me not to mention how we knew each other. A couple years after I started, I tried to do a journalism project for a class, interviewing the members about how they each came to Zen. Some refused, and every single one that agreed to the interview did it on the condition that I not use their name. Things are changing. That group (now the Open Circle Sangha, with their own website and everything) has changed locations and faces over the last twenty years, but in the process, it has become not only more stable, but also more open. It’s a different time. But I suspect that across the US, especially in more conservative states and smaller towns, invisible little Zen fight clubs are everywhere. One of the pleasures of driving through rural America is knowing that I am at all times surrounded by closeted Buddhists.
In the years after I first sat, I was constantly re-negotiating my relationship to the practice. Like most beginners, I had bursts of sitting once or more a day followed by a month or more of nothing, just a dusty cushion. Zen and zazen informed my sense of self in all sorts of self-serving ways –whether I was really sitting that month or not, I identified strongly as a Zen person, a guy with the inside track on spirituality and discipline. And college being the confusing time that it is, friends were happy to reinforce this image I had of myself by coming to me with their problems, looking for some Zen wisdom. I handed it out freely. I sincerely believed that I was sincere, but I was just as interested in my story of myself as a Zen person as I was in Zen practice.
After college, I moved to Japan for the first time. Meanwhile, in a different tradition and across the world in Philadelphia, my older brother Bryan had been turned on to meditation. He was completely hooked. We’d talk about it on the phone, verbally high-fiving, congratulating each other on our discovery. Then he came to visit me in Japan. Twice a day, he would lock himself in the bathroom to meditate. It drove me crazy. We were arranging our schedule around it. And at some point, I complained a little, or at least suggested that maybe he could skip it once in a while. He thought about it, and looked at my little Buddha statue and relatively untouched zafu in the corner, and he said something like this: “The thing is, if you really believe these teachings are true, then by definition, you believe they’re the most important thing in the world. You have to respond. I have to meditate. If you don’t feel you have to act on these teachings, then by definition, you don’t really believe them.” He raised his eyebrows and looked me in the eyes for a little too long. “Am I right?”
Bryan claims he doesn’t remember this conversation. But for me, it was a big moment, one I doubt I’ll ever totally shake off. By that time, I’d been identifying with Zen for about four years, and actually sitting for almost as long. But I had never once put myself in a situation where someone could call me on my self-serving approach to it all. I’d never once put myself and my ego in a situation that was the least bit unsafe, at least not in relationship to practice. I’d created a story about myself, and I liked it, and I invited no one to challenge it.
This is what teachers are for. We need to make ourselves vulnerable to that gaze, that honesty. We need to decide that we want that.
When I was twenty-one, I didn’t have a teacher. Only a few people could have said what needed to be said, and my big brother was one of them. Maybe he was the only one. It was perfect. It almost made up for all those times when we were kids and he sold me my own toys, or made me eat chocolate chips wrapped in American cheese, or left me to watch The Shining by myself in the dark at two in the morning.
But probably not quite.