Autobiography Part 5: "Sitting"

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[Describing a 7-day retreat with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim.]

Over 20 of us in a house, with a living room/study area serving as the Dharma room (where the formal group practice takes place; "Dharma" means "truth"). The crowded conditions made for a complete lack of privacy, confusion in storing and dealing with my personal stuff, lines to the bathroom, etc. The long hours of a new sitting style, plus the practice of 108 bows every morning, made my body ache. It was cold, keeping me awake much of the nights I spent in my sleeping bag on the Dharma room floor.

It may be a non-trivial part of the equation: that the first few days had this foundation of physical discomfort, exhaustion, and frustration. But mostly I'm interested in trying to articulate the mental experience.

In my earlier years of meditation, I'd spent plenty time obsessing about proper technique. Should I use a mantra? Which one? Should I control my breath in a particular way? Should I cultivate a feeling or hold some belief? Didn't I have to do these things just right in order to get the enlightenment prize? Different teachers I'd known had touted particular techniques as the surest, best path to the absolute... but they were all different.

ZMSS would talk about techniques -- mantra, breath, etc -- but without the sense that one was better than the other. He did stress, though, that if you considered the question "What am I?", you'd find yourself stuck, with nothing in the mind, just "Don't Know." Whatever technique you like, just do it, but do it with this "Don't-Know Mind."

Keeping a big question appealed to me, because it built on my earlier practice style, not negating it. Famous Indian teachers, such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, had spoken on self-inquiry, looking into the nature of this "I." There's a story in the Zen tradition that particularly struck me as in harmony with this practice:

Huai-jang lived in China centuries ago, on a mountain called Sung Shan. He somehow heard about a Buddhist temple where Hui-neng had a strange new teaching. This was in the early generations of the development of Zen in China; Hui-neng is now known as the sixth patriarch of Zen. Huai-jang was curious enough to make the long trek to the temple.

Eventually he completed the journey and found Hui-neng. The Patriarch asked the newcomer, "Where are you coming from?" Huai-jang replied, "I've traveled here from Sung Shan to receive your teaching." The funny thing about Hui-neng's response is that he didn't actually give a word of teaching, not in the sense that Huai-jang was expecting or looking for. Instead he asked, "What is this thing that has traveled from Sung Shan?"

Huai-jang had no idea what to say. He turned around, went back home, and continued his simple life on the mountain. Whatever he did now, throughout each day, he had that question in his mind, "What is this?" After 8 years, one day, boom, it became clear. He went back to the temple to see Hui-neng again. This time, when the patriarch asked that same question, Huai-jang replied, "To say even one word is to miss the point entirely." Hui-neng accepted his answer, acknowledging his enlightenment.

I took up this story as my guide, intending to compress Huai-jang's 8 years into my week-long retreat. It was just like the self-inquiry that I'd read about and tried in India. Except that the Indian teachers and scriptures tended to speak of this self in such beautiful, poetic terms. Stuff like: "Prajnanam Brahma: Consciousness is infinite, the absolute, the highest Truth." On web sites dedicated to Ramana's teachings, the self we're inquiring into is described with phrases like "ultimate truth" and "complete immersion in God."

Zen style would have none of that. It was always sparse: What am I? Don't know. What will all this effort get me? Don't know. So what should I do next? Just try, try, try.

Everything about it was simple and direct. The chanting had its appeal, but nothing like the lush melodic beauty of Indian chants. The Yoga sitting style had been more relaxed, with eyes closed, allowing a pleasant, dreamy mind-state. Zen posture was tighter, eyes open, just facing what is.

I sat there, keeping "What am I?", and it was interesting for a short time. Then it became more and more obvious that any answer I thought of, no matter how insightful or clever, was by definition thinking. So then what am I before thinking? ZMSS used to say, "Descarte said, 'I think, therefore I am.' But if I'm not thinking ... what?"

On top of all the physical discomfort, I now had the profound frustration of this self-inquiry process. How could I make the slightest head-way, when whatever idea I came up with was immediately useless? But I'd made the decision to stay the week, and wanted above all to not end up with regrets, with "What if I'd just tried a little harder?"

I'd remember repeatedly the advice I'd read in some classic Zen book. It said with this type of practice, you'd sometimes feel like a mosquito trying to bite through a thick steel door. When that happens, just continue the questioning with still greater effort.

Even if you're trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, at least you've got a tool that's of some value. But in this task of inquiring into my true self, it was becoming horribly apparent that the tool I'd always used before -- thinking, understanding -- wasn't just inadequate, it was useless. I looked to my will, the center of my being, all around, trying to find anything at all that I could throw at the question.

Thus passed the first few days of retreat. In the next blog entry, I'll talk about the other aspect of the retreat, the private interviews with ZMSS, in which he introduced me to the formal teaching style of this tradition. Through a combination of that teaching, my exhaustive efforts, and hell, I dunno, something different appeared.

madan_gautam's picture

Rolling stone

it is good to read your autobiography and I conclude it as a autobiography of rolling stone,who runs here and there in search of truth/enlightenment,even living with each enlightened masters.
In such circumstances no enlightened master can help you.
Seems that you are still in search of new master.

madan_gautam | Tue, 09/22/2009 - 07:46
RandomStu's picture

Re: Rolling stone

Thanks for commenting, madan_gautam. The autobiography so far is through Jan 1988 (the time of the Zen retreat in this post), so it's all over 20-years past. Reading the post, you get an idea about my ideas and experience that happened decades ago.

You write, "Seems that you are still in search of a new master." Are you talking about 20 years ago, or now? In either case, this idea is your own creation or speculation, right? What gives you this idea?


RandomStu | Tue, 09/22/2009 - 17:31