Autobiography Part 3b: "Zen Master"

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I was in contact with E, an old friend from my year at Yale. He was the one friend back then who’d joined me in learning to meditate and going to Siddha Yoga ashrams. We’d both been influenced at the time by reading Ram Dass and similar books. Our minds had been opened to wider possibilities by taking LSD, though that was just one low-dosage trip; my more high-powered drug trips would come later.

E had since become a monk in the Korean-style Zen school founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS). He’d written me while I was still in India, and seemed enthusiastic for me to try Zen teaching and practice.

I couldn’t understand why E found Zen worth exploring. I told him that Zen seemed just like Siddha Yoga. The differences were superficial: a different language to chant in, a different posture to sit in, and a different statue on the altar. The actual practice of watching and quieting the mind, of returning to the witness that saw everything as One, was the real point; why care about any particular tradition? E said to me, “It doesn’t matter if you do Yoga meditation or Zen meditation or Christian meditation or any other kind. But it’s very important to look into WHY you meditate.” Hmmmm.

E’s words caught my interest a little, but it was more powerful when I saw him demonstrate them. I went to visit him in L.A. where he was staying at a Zen Center with ZMSS. E would soon go to Korea for an extended time, and I wanted to see him before he left. Coincidentally, Gurumayi was on tour at the L.A. Siddha Yoga ashram at the same time.

The first night I was there, E said to me, “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we get up early tomorrow, do Zen practice first, then go to the program at the Siddha Yoga ashram.” I didn’t see any point to it. All these practices were fundamentally the same, what difference did it make if we went to one or the other or both? But, whatever, I’d go along with him.

At the ashram, as we did the Siddha Yoga chants and practices, including going up to bow to the guru, I kept watching E, waiting for him to say or do something to try to convince me that Zen had something better than Siddha Yoga. But he didn’t show any difference. At the Zen center, he just followed the Zen forms; at the Siddha Yoga ashram, he just did the practices there like everyone else. The way he just did both practices, without offering any opinions about them… it made an impression on me. His attitude of just following each situation was a teaching that couldn’t have been expressed with just words.

Even though I saw all traditions as the same, there was a particular reason that I wanted to avoid Zen. I knew that part of that tradition was being confronted with very difficult questions from the Zen Master. I’m a shy person. I didn’t want to get involved in any fierce debates. I preferred being a still and silent witness.

But there we were later in the day, driving through L.A. on some errand. E was driving, next to him in the front seat was ZMSS, and I was in the back. I really wanted to avoid any sort of interaction with this Zen Master. I figured if I just stayed quiet, he wouldn’t bother me. It wasn’t like I’d ever asked him for teaching, after all.

E was telling ZMSS that the two of us first got interested in meditation back in college when we’d taken LSD. “Yes,” ZMSS offered, “sometimes when a person takes LSD, he sees that everything is changing, changing, changing, and he understands that attachment isn’t so good.”

E continued, “And after LSD, we started doing Yoga-style meditation.” Without looking back at me, ZMSS asked, “So, how long have you been doing Yoga?”

Crap. I didn’t want to get involved with any convoluted Zen dialog. But it was a moving car; I had no escape. “I’ve been meditating for 7 years or so,” I told him.

“After doing Yoga for so long,” he asked, “have you gotten anything?”

It was a big question, and maybe a good cliffhanger. In my next blog, I’ll complete this conversation, and tell how it led to me looking into ZMSS’s teachings, and eventually to an astounding week doing a formal sitting retreat with him.

[originally posted here]

gentlyok's picture

Only One

Thanks for your autobiography. I remember Swami Muktananda once talking about a wheel. The spokes were various traditions. I remember him saying that it didn't matter which spoke you took; they all went to the same place. As you got closer to the center you realized the commonality in the teaching of traditions. When you reach the center you have moved beyonf tradition.

gentlyok | Thu, 09/03/2009 - 20:53