From a lifelong pursuit that, for most of the time, remained on the surface, I found a deep practice. Although I have a great deal of respect for the structure, the practice form of the Kwan Um School Of Zen, I had to find my own way to realize it, and it wasn’t through the kongan, or starting a Zen group at a local college and evolving into a teacher. That wasn’t either my environment or skill set.
“All dharmas such as those purporting to lead to the attainment of Bodhi possess no reality. The words of Gautama Buddha were intended merely as efficacious expedients for leading men out of the darkness of worse ignorance.” – The Zen Teaching of Huang-Po: On the Transmission of Mind
I developed into a Zen monk, from what was available to me, how I could.
“If you really want to find the Way, don’t hold on to anything. Once you put an end to karma and nurture your awareness, any attachments that remain will come to an end. Understanding comes naturally. You don’t have to make any effort.” – The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma
A Zen teacher recently stated that some of us are hard-wired to have deep experiences, and some aren’t. Sometimes you can tell. This is from my own experience, not something I’ve heard. I wasn’t able to penetrate through the small self. I didn’t know this. In my reality, samadhi was a myth. After I was a monk, my father became very sick. It was urgent that I return to the United States. He survived, but in poor condition, slowly dying over a period of six years. I eventually gave back my robes and began working as a carpenter in LA. It was a very difficult transition. During this time I was injured in a wakeboarding accident, losing the use of my left leg for a few years. Just as I regained my leg, and buried my father, Zen Master Seung Sahn died, and the desert monastery where I’d first ordained caught fire. I was pushed to a breaking point. All of these forces together forced me out of my self. I didn’t need it or want it anymore. This culminated in the first real experience I had of deep practice. This was 2004. There was a certain shift from loyalty to the self to the One, what Bodhidharma described as the root:
“The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It’s like the root of a tree. All a tree’s fruit and flowers, branches and leaves depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort. Those who don’t understand the mind practice in vain.” – The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma
Does it have to be so difficult? Can we simply change the wiring? I think so. Maybe this is a Neo moment. For me it’s a question of building momentum, heat, to disperse the entity; some kind of extraordinary effort, a sincerity, a love of the craft — you have to be drawn to it — and a sacrifice, more than the hours, days, years of your life. You have to put it down the whole life. The same with music. At first you listen, then you study, learn, develop a skill, muscle memory — then you begin to write. Then everything you encounter/do effects your music. As for this, as in Zen, there are few great artists.
After about 14 years of hard practice in communities, long retreats, and a few years as a monk and all of that training, I spent 6 years just being in the world. This was an important time for me to digest, to set the teaching, to find my own way. When I returned to practice, there was a marked change. It was easy for me to let go. Meditation became very bright, a light which gradually spread all through my life. The teaching became more visible, the natural form of mind encountering itself. Now, when I perceive the thing, the meaning, I follow it implicitly, without hesitation. There is a beautiful harmony.
“Once the mental technique is correct, then you won’t need to use effort to clear your mind as you respond to circumstances in your daily activities. When you don’t actively try to clear out your mind, then you won’t go wrong; since you don’t go wrong, correct mindfulness stands out alone. When correct mindfulness stands out alone, inner truth adapts to phenomena; when inner truth adapts to events and things, events and things come to fuse in inner truth. When phenomena fuse with their inner truth, you save power; when you feel the saving, this is the empowerment of studying the Path. In gaining power you save unlimited power; in saving power you gain unlimited power.” – Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui
This natural teaching was far better than what I’d followed before. I wasn’t coming at it through dogma or tradition. Though I’d spent a lot of time with these things and they’d served their function, I couldn’t remain on the surface. I’m not wired that way.
From this process I could see the enormous forces required to break out of the initial cocoon. Now it’s easy for me to discern who’s who, who’s broken out. There were a lot of factors involved, but basically it was time, it was the right time. I had to develop it to the point that I could go on my own. For me it was cathartic, all of my adult life had been the pursuit of it. I had put down many things in the face of it, to allow it the space to develop. Guitar, when I first began practicing I was always playing guitar – I put it away. I never went to the University. I didn’t pursue a career. I was always in the Zen centers, so my break from this, it was some kind of end (death), but when I returned to practice, it was my own. Overlapping these two phases, I began writing, to illuminate, to render these things, to share, to understand. The writing and (to a lesser extent) the music, helped me to survive the process. They were part of it. No one understands this. I should be quiet. The guitar I hardly use. I write songs when I’m driven to write. Always something comes out if I sit down and play. I have my own language, though I seldom use it. As a Zen monk I have no reason to do this, so I don’t pursue it. Of course I’ve been asked to perform for the Buddha’s birthday at Musangsa.
The writing reveals things that can’t be seen otherwise, in detail, to say things that have never been said. It’s a life teaching that I can share. I have two pieces to demonstrate how this works.
I’ve never understood why the symbol of Christianity is a dead man on a cross. The religions idea never spoke to me until I wrote this, hardly a month ago:
“…it’s very difficult to develop a deep practice, and without it turmoil only leads to aggression. A lot of masters make the mistake of assuming the deep practice will appear by itself. It can’t exist of its own, you have to let “it” kill you. In my thirty years on the path, I’ve seen few examples. You can easily tell if you know the space, but there are signs anyone would recognize. The way someone interacts with turmoil, for instance. A deep state person is stimulated, activated by what would normally crush, demean, flatten, disembody, derange, unsettle, provoke, condemn, or in some way crucify. This is the meaning of Jesus on the cross. You have to let it kill you. All the teachings point to this. If you manage to break through, the engine, the fulcrum is activated — life itself provides the turmoil. Only that you go fearlessly in.” – Some Other Burning
This next piece needs a little more introduction. When Zen Master Seung Sahn was in the hospital, near the end of his life, Dae Bong Sunim would push him around the halls in a wheelchair. From time to time Seung Sahn Sunim would get angry and yell at him to turn a different way. Eventually Dae Bong Sunim realized what was going on. He was using these excursions as a practice. Each time he had to go a specific direction: to this end, turn this way, to this place, every time the same. That was all he could do, so he turned it into his practice.
I wrote about this… I remember struggling with it at the haengja kyoyuk at Chickjisa:
“We were entering the time-shift of the long retreat, where the days roared past. U2’s The Edge described this, his discovery of his wonderful echo syncopations. He noticed as he was driving past a forest in Germany that the trees would suddenly become aligned. What he thought a chaotic wilderness became rows of industrialization. There was a way to bring clarity to a mass of information, a very human one.
The human mind is inescapable in its need to put things in order. Everything involving humans has some kind of geometry applied, not so with nature. But to the point, when the brain becomes aligned with the schedule, it changes into a type of music. It may be that all of our activities are to reach this alignment, a naturally occurring, outward form of meditation.” – Some Other Burning
Not only the work to adapt to the flow of the universe, but to understand it. There are more and more correlations with modern science:
“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order.” – A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
There’s another kind of pattern, an intuitive one, much harder to explain. I call it the field of weeds:
“I’ve always been attracted to abandoned fields, where the natural forces won against someone’s idea. No more clean lines and monotonous order, instead a swirling chaos of weeds and flowers, so beautifully arranged. A stand of trees, all the intersecting branches moving in the wind, the scattered light — there’s some meaning beyond the simple fact that it exists. It conveys something of its origin, the One.
It became alive in me. I first noticed when I had to do the morning bell chant, solo. I’m not a vocalist. I don’t have any natural ability with the voice. I could do it, but not clearly. Out of desperation, I recalled the sunlight through the trees, and I found my voice. It took a few years for me to understand this. My voice became the same as the sunlight through the trees. When I chanted from that place, it conveyed the same information. Then it slowly began to dawn on me that I should live this way.” – Some Other Burning
Here I used an analogy to reveal another which was used to reveal a third. It’s something extremely complex that appeared by itself, but it was many years before I could write it. It just didn’t work until I had enough time to grow into it. All of this was illumed through life and practice, some kind of samadhi:
“That all lines return to the One, I finally realized that it’s not a place, but an event. The One Mind manifesting as this, due to the conditions and properties present, the thusness of it, its perfection.” – Some Other Burning
Meditation is a sea of rapture and illumination, it informs everything I do. With music, everything that I do enhances, furthers my understanding of the guitar, and my life is greatly enhanced by the wisdom of music. 80% of the brain is mapped to the fingers. Knowing the world in such detail is a kind of brightness, an important aspect of meditation, of life:
“With the self completely removed, everything is consumed in a kind of super-excited state, a pure expression. Something activated from the last movement of resolving Reine*, that moment of profound despair. The structure had altered. My emotions keyed directly to the One, as if tethered. I was still in the world, the suffering would rise and engulf me, no choice, but the wave would break against the void. Everything that occurred was in the stream of deep meditation, at times too deep, where I felt I’d gone too far and the life folded neatly and it was okay to go. Then I was made of pieces only, these left unsorted, left to soar and crash, shift and turn on their own, symbolism and inner communication; the deterioration of thought. The breath would come rapid and shallow, the body tense, spasming, the mind completely taken up in a light swell, a bright core of cascading time, fragmented reality, emotions locked to a hyper-real frequency of some elemental substantive state that resonated in ringing brilliance through the hours, all through my life.” – Some Other Burning
Recently I met an old teacher I hadn’t seen for many years. She was the first teacher I’d met back in 1987. I followed her to the Providence Zen Center, though she’d moved on by the time I arrived and I’ve seen little of her since. I’m talking of Zen master Soeng Hyang. She knows me very well at this point, my imprint. During an interview I attempted to explain how I saw the meaning of the kongan in a deep state of meditation years before, but hadn’t found the right words. I said, “I can go into samadhi very easily.” She said, “That’s bullshit. There’s no such thing. Only this moment.” I staggered back toward the door, somewhat shaken.
She continued, “You haven’t changed at all.”
I had no response. It had nothing to do with the reality or non-reality of samadhi or love or the universe or the moment or her ability to perceive or her desire to knock the legs out from under me or the mood, feelings, something between us. The thing that came into the room, it was the voice of the writer, the teaching, the One, the break in the cocoon, the time for me to let go, to change. I knew it the instant it was spoken.
I said, “I trust you,” but I wasn’t talking to her.
As I turned to leave she said, “I know I’m right.”
If samadhi doesn’t exist, what about love?
“Every animal is drawn to its mate, but only we can realize our true nature, so it goes back to the source — an occurrence of the One Mind through form. If you know samadhi you can see what love is made of.” – Some Other Burning
“…the human opening to the life force, aligning with it. In the One Mind, there’s only one emotion: a deep, unimaginable peace, radiant joy, love. I don’t know that it isn’t the original emotion, that everything we feel derives from that, is corrupted by our crude behavior with it, the closed-loops we contain it in.” – Some Other Burning
Maybe, maybe, but that’s an intuitive understanding. Just before Zen master Soeng Hyang left I bowed to her and said, “I still don’t understand exactly what happened in the interview room.” She hit me in the stomach and said, “It’s not understanding, not from your head. You have to attain it, from your center, from there.” There are many examples of this in the history of Zen.
“Zen Master Seung Sahn would often say, ‘The sun, the moon, the stars, everything is created by mind alone.’ Of course he didn’t mean that our minds created these things, but that we make our own reality. He also wasn’t implying that the One Mind created these things. That’s a religious idea, a dualistic one. The One Mind didn’t create phenomenal existence, it manifests as these things, as properties and conditions allow. The sun, the moon, the stars, a tree, a blade of grass, and we, ourselves are the One Mind.” – Some Other Burning
The thing that appears in front of us, whether samadhi or love or whatever, is the One Mind. It doesn’t matter what you call it, what you say or do. It can’t be otherwise.
* Reine is a central character in the upcoming work Some Other Burning.