Yogi Ashrams

Zen Is Great But A Bitch To Do

Staring At A Blank Wall

I’ve been meditating for a half hour every morning for over 40 years. I know half an hour is a paltry amount of time, but at my reckoning, that makes for 14,600 times of sitting in a chair trying to calm my mind. Most of the time this quest has been an abject failure, though a few times I’ve witnessed something with a little stretch of the imagination that might be called Nirvana—and it didn’t involve Curt Cobain.

What I was feeling was a deep-inner peace—but it didn’t last long. I started my meditation practice with Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation. After a six week course, one of the Maharishi’s disciples gave me a mantra. The mantra was a Sanskrit word. I never knew what the word meant and I repeated it every morning, but never neared anything that even closely resembled a transcendental state.

I then attended three Yogi Ashrams. Along with Yoga, I was given a whole new group of Sanskrit words. They weren’t any more effective than the Maharishi’s had been, but then I discovered Zen.

The Zen center I went to was in downtown Los Angeles (well before the area was gent). In other words, it was in the ghetto, but it was an oasis in this tract of misery. The Zenists had taken over a turn-of-the-century house and turned it into a magnificent ashram that the locals respected. There was graffiti on the surface of every wall but not a touch on the Zen house. There was also something about this place along with the noise. The ghetto is a noisy place, but the closer you got to the ashram, the quieter it got. It was like there was an invisible shield that was guarding the building. From the first moment I laid eyes on the Hazy Moon Ashram, I was impressed.

After a week’s introductory course, I was allowed to partake in the group’s meditation practices. From the first day, Zen was a tough trip. First of all, Sanskrit mantras went out the Zen window. They were replaced with dictum, which was to just sit still and watch my breath. On top of that, I was supposed to watch my breath with my eyes open. This was different because in all other meditation practices, one’s eyes are closed and it is much easier than staring at a blank wall.

The neophyte doesn’t get a koan when he begins the practice. A koan is a paradoxical question to a student, and an answer is demanded. This is concentrated on until one rids oneself of rational thought and thus gains sudden enlightenment…hopefully.

I never got to the koan plateau. The roshi and the Zen leader didn’t think I was ready. He was right. I remained pretty much in the category of watching my breath and staring at a blank wall. The wall had a couple of knots in it.

My fellow Zenists (and I don’t mean to sound derogatory) and I admired the group. We would all arrange ourselves in the meditation room wearing black gowns. These gowns had to be purchased, and since I wasn’t sure if I was going to follow the practice, I settled for a black t-shirt. But there we would sit in our black garments, in absolute silence for 20 minutes, while looking at the knots.

A typical Zen mediation lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes of staring and 10 minutes of silent walking. The Zen center I attended had weekend-long sesshins (the Japanese word for staring at a wall for days). I wasn’t nearly ready for that, but for six months, I went to the 2 hour practice every day.

At the end of some sessions, I was certain that I flew back to my car because my feet never touched the ground. At the end of another session, I was so discombobulated and deranged. I felt that I should have called 911, and sometimes I felt that I should have drove directly to Forest Lawn without stopping!

After six months of this up and down existence, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. I regret that decision to this day, and I’ve made a promise to myself that I am going back to Zen.

I have it all planned out; I’m going to ask the roshi if he’ll let me make up my own koan. If he allows it, I know what it will be. On my intake of breaths, my mantra will be:

“Ommmm…Oh mighty knot on the wall.”  And on the exhalation it will be, “Ommmm…oh mighty knot why are you there?”

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