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Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan
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Chapter 55




Delighting in the unstructured time of a day off, I read and write, take hikes and just romp around like a doggy.  Actually, it's only called a day off by Norman and me.  Our hosts have almost no concept of day off or time off.  To them it's shiku-nichi and the purpose of it is to get your personal effects in order, sew your robes, do your laundry etc.  I do those things in the breaks after meals on other days so I can maximize the individual away-from-others and free-from-structure time on a day off.

We had the same dichotomy in Stateside Zen.  There are those who would prefer not to have days off because they don't know what to do with free time or because they want to give themselves to the structured schedule, to hard core "Zen," as much as possible.  No diversions.  Maybe such devotees think that being part of an ongoing religious practice is bringing them ever closer to the enlightenment that they seek.

Some are in the opposite camp.  Like me.  I know of many things I'd like to do with my time off and enjoy almost every minute of it.  I create extra time off by staying up late and getting up early.  I'm always interested in something else, something other than sweeping or chanting or whatever it is that I'm supposed to be doing at the time.

The eager beaver's problem is the hindrance of goal orientation.  Suzuki and Katagiri both warned us of the futility of "seeking practice."  But it seems to me that there is also the pitfall of "avoidance practice."  This means to run from the task at hand, the present moment, in order to get somewhere else or do something else.  If you saw an avoidance type and a seeking type sweeping leaves, you probably wouldn't notice any difference in their appearance - but their attitude wouldn't be the same.  The seeking type would be thinking maybe, something like, "Oh boy, I'm deep into Zen now.  This was Han Shan's practice - sweep the ground, sweep your mind.  Any moment now I might be struck by the Great Enlightenment.  Then the master will recognize me and I'll be known by all as a great teacher and thousands will flock to hear my talks and...."

The avoidance type might be thinking something more like, "Oh well, I can't get out of this I guess.  Hmm,  sure would be nice to walk down that valley - in and out of the oak and bamboo groves - walk by the  paddies' edges, watch the birds and the butterflies, maybe go down to the falls..."

In that spirit, one day during work, I raked myself off from the others and, putting a leaf in a runoff trough, followed it as it emptied into a larger trough and then a ditch.  The leaf floated across and down the hillside, around bends and over miniature waterfalls all the way to the creek.  Before I knew it I'd gotten myself far down the hill and had to hightail it back before they put out an all points bulletin on me.


Often the seeker and the avoider are at odds with each other.  Sometimes they even divide into cliques that roam monastic halls.  It could be said that the avoiders are seeking and that the seekers are avoiding.  They're merely different expressions of the age-old near impossibility of just being.     Due to the softening effect of zazen, sweeping, and the peaceful environs, both types of people may enter into less cerebral states and just be sitting or sweeping, aware of the motions of the body, the contours of the ground being appreciated and the borders of consciousness slipping away.

I'm quite used to watching my thoughts jump about when I begin some required group task like evening zazen or morning cleaning.  I even feel panic at times, or claustrophobia.  Then later I calm down and am content as can be.  I'm sure that the eager seeker has a sort of nervous grabbing for glory at times which later melts into something more simple and enjoyable.


Suzuki told me once that I should keep sitting and wait for something wonderful to happen.  He didn't mean, I don't think, that I should try to create this "something wonderful" by a meditative technique, but rather that I should practice "just sitting" alertly and continue just walking, just eating and so forth without any intention or striving.  Over the course of time, something wonderful would happen of itself, not as a result of my effort.  He said that I would definitely have "some experience."  He defined it as little as possible but I thought that he meant the type of experience that is sometimes called "beyond experience" and is indescribable and all that.  In other words, I didn't know what he meant.  So I was very pleased to hear him say that it would definitely happen because I had been all worked up about it back then.  But aside from various temporal, lifestyle and therapeutic effects, I couldn't claim that my first few years at Zen had produced anything close to "dropping away of body and mind."

"Don't fight," he said, "That is the key - don't fight."  And don't strive to gain what I've already got.  The point isn't to bring on spiritual experience but to cultivate the mind that can receive it, realize it - to "widen the stage" as I remember Dick Baker explaining to a Tassajara guest back in '67.  And this effort is not at all tied to huffing and puffing or to a forced slow motion, but to just "do what you're doing" (age quod agis - a saying of the Jesuits).  Suzuki and Katagiri imparted the empowering teaching that we are fine as is.  No need for something extra, just us as we are is all we need to stand in the footsteps of the saints and to sit on the zafu of the masters.

Suzuki didn't stop at "something wonderful."  He went on to say that not only would it happen to me, but that it would happen to everyone.  I liked that even though it definitely reduced my sense of being special, because it increased my odds dramatically.  It would happen to us all.  Good.  There was a catch though.  "You should continue sitting," he said.  "If you continue sitting, this wonderful experience can continue with you.  It can be yours forever.  But if you have no practice, it will be passing - like a psychedelic experience."

          Oh boy, he sure hit the nail on the head with me.  As divine and total as my psychedelic experiences had been, they certainly had no lasting qualities - they were mainly useful as encouragement to use other means.  They eliminated any doubt as to the reality of the so-called goals of religious life and cast great doubts on the ultimate reality of hard facts and the American Way as some narrowly perceived it.

I had left behind the quick fix of that chemical spiritual masturbation in order to follow the "gradual path," a controversial epithet for Soto Zen not used much by Soto Zenists.  It is said that Rinzai picks the fruit off the tree and that Soto lets it fall, but that practitioners of both ways throw all body and mind into zazen.  Even though psychedelic experience might, in comparison, be more like scratch and sniff, at least I'd had the whiff.  Suzuki seemed to be telling me not to emphasize the glitter of the way but to get it in my bones gradually, day by day.  I have almost forgotten the carrot and have often lost track of any horse or road but from time to time, like the drunk who pulls himself from the gutter, I pull my legs into zazen position or watch the breath while waiting for a bus.  Suzuki is long gone and can't answer my "what was that?"  I have continued haphazardly with his colleagues such as Katagiri and the teachers and fellow students he left behind and they have tried their best and have encouraged me greatly.  I have been told again and again that it's not enough to say I'm "already saved" as is taught in Jodo Shinshu, but that I should keep practicing in order to express it.  So I keep on plugging away as if by following this way of suchness one could prepare the infinite room for that which cannot be contained.