My Eventful Visit to a Zen Temple (First Person)

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday February 14, 2012 - 07:40:00 AM

My visit of a couple of years ago to a Zen place of worship has left me with some loose ends that I don't know exactly how to resolve. When I went there I had already practiced meditation of another sort, and had done this diligently. By the time I went to this Zen temple, I believe I already had achieved some degree of meditative attainment, and yet was not accustomed to Zen practices. 

I went there to the Zen temple to take a beginning class. However, I had been to a different Zen center before and I had read numerous books on Zen. So I was not completely unfamiliar with my surroundings. When one of the Zen masters said that I was holding the laminated sheet, and standing there with hands together in a "good" way, I instantaneously felt self conscious in the sense of awkwardness. I was surprised by my own reaction, and I was surprised by my reaction with receiving a compliment not being pleasurable. 

I was intimidated by the customs at this Zen center. There was a particular way the blanket was to be folded, and I couldn't master this. I was wearing shorts, which I was told I wasn't supposed to wear. I wondered what I would wear the following week, since I did not own sweatpants. I was surprised at the rationale for not wearing shorts. It was out of the concern that someone would be sexually aroused, and this would take away from the focus of that person upon the Buddha. When changing positions, one was not supposed to point one's legs toward the statue of the Buddha at the front of the meditation room, this was said to be obscene. However, my thought was that we were dealing with a statue which is an inanimate object, and so I believed that this rule made no sense. When bowing, there was a certain thing we were supposed to do with our hands that I could not master. Altogether, I was finding my visit to be an awkward enterprise. 

When finally meditating (and they had asked me to sit on the side since I could not fold my legs, I am too fat) I heard a voice in my head asking if I didn't want to be acknowledged, apparently as someone with attainment. My mental health background wanted me to classify this voice as a delusion. However, my meditative background did not urge me to do this. 

When taking shoes off and putting them back on, someone provided me with a stool, since I am a "big" man. I was dealing with people who, despite being very traditional, were extremely aware as well as being extremely considerate. 

After we meditated, either in the meditation hall or in the classroom, one of the Zen masters announced that the following week, they would be picking people for a discussion group. At that point, in the back of my mind, I was aware that I wouldn't be back. Discussion groups about meditation make me too "attached" concerning the amount of progress I have made. It is a way that my ego gets reinforced, and it seems to detract from my meditation attempts. This is a real issue for me regardless of whether my meditative progress is real or imagined. 

Later, there was some kind of hubbub among the Zen masters, and I could tell that the head Zen master was very upset about something. I was terrified at some point that an object might have fallen from my pocket during walking or sitting meditation. This object whether it rested on my seat or on the floor could have been perceived as a defilement of their meditation temple. No one confronted me about it, and it was probably my imagination that this happened. However, the head Zen master was upset about something, and I had no way of knowing what it was. 

When the master was exiting, one of the students in the classroom issued the word, "Fake." And I saw, for just an instant before he regained composure, the Zen master's head snapped toward the gentleman in anger. 

One of the points illustrated by this story is something that was said by a meditation practitioner who was a master or close to it, who worked at a Zen temple I went to in the 1980's: Becoming an ordained master in Zen Buddhism is not an indication of attainment, it is one of commitment. Secondly, you can devote your life to enlightenment and you can practice meditation for ten, twenty, or thirty years, yet you could still retain the seed of anger, which is an indication you're not "there" yet. There are some people who enter the doors of a Zen temple, or even some of those who enter the priesthood in the Christian religion, who do so because they can't deal with the messiness, disorganization and lack of safety in the normal, non meditative world. Escapism, it's called. 

My practice has always been directed toward getting some relief from my internal suffering, while at the same time, not depriving myself of any of the goodies or the difficulties of the non meditative world. It is not in my character to be a renunciant. Secondly, my life is too short to have the goal of being a perfect practitioner. If I feel somewhat better after meditating, I have accomplished something. 

I am sure that over the thousands of years since the Buddha lived, just as in Christianity, the original message has been distorted. Sometimes I try to imagine traveling back in time and being in the Buddha's or Jesus' presence so that I could receive the original message undiluted.