Your feet are diamond-cutters

Thinking about Master Sheng Yen prompted me to run back over my own history of attempts at meditation, which dates back to the early 1970s and takes a ragged course up to the present day. It occurs to me that even without touching on the teachings themselves, just a brief note on the course of events might be an amusing trip for those of us who took similar journeys, or who might not have been born yet.

Even before I knew what meditation was, I had been very fortunate to know Kim An Wang, who was my Mother’s yoga instructor in Chicago during the 1960s. Kim is too complicated a character to describe here, but let me just say that he taught me the basic sun worship (soorya namaskar) when I was all of 6 years old. It was not something I practiced regularly then, but in 1971, when I first began to participate in the youth soccer league, I found that the yoga routine was much better for me than the harsh calisthenics proscribed by the coach. Hatha Yoga, then, is probably the first form of meditation that I encountered in this lifetime, and for some forty years has been my single most consistent form of practice.

My earliest memory of sitting meditation goes back to visiting to the Golden Temple ashram in Espanola, New Mexico some time around 1973 or 74. This trip would have been made with my Mother who drove me up there. I don’t remember much about what was going on, except that everyone had long hair and dressed in spotless white clothes. I was very impressed with the neatly wrapped white turbans and the mad looking beards the men wore. At that time, the compound consisted of a house and some ramshackle dwellings, along with tents and gardens and animals wandering around. I can’t remember anything about the meditation practice, except that everyone was very serious about it, despite the seeming anarchy of the living conditions. But I do remember that we all shared a big pot of zucchini stew for dinner. I don’t even know if Yogi Bhajan was there or not, and it was decades later that I associated the place in my memory with the famous organization 3HO and Yogi Tea.

My next encounter with meditation would have been visiting a branch of Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship in Phoenix, Arizona, around 1975. I recall being very skeptical of this place at first, because of the portraits of various figures on the walls, including Jesus. But the actual meditation there was basically a quiet sitting session, with no instruction, no preaching, and no expectations. It was completely hassle-free and dogma neutral. The Self-Realization Fellowship was a refreshingly good vibe. Right around the same time, I was discovering J.R.R.Tolkien (thanks to the famous Ballantine reprints), so the whole idea of Fellowships among seekers, was all the more interesting.

Parenthetically, I ought to mention my experience with Scientology, because my mother had also enrolled me in the Basic Scientology course during the same summer. My experience of that course consisted of exactly two one-hour-long sessions. During the first, I was given clay and told to mold it into the image of my theta. I was also given some sort of extremely bizarre pep-talk about the nature of my past lives and how, thanks to the brilliant genius of L. Ron Hubbard, I was going to free myself of the bad elements of my psyche, escape my reactive mind, and become “clear.” The fact that this talk was far from clear, even in the most mundane sense, and actually bordered on the incomprehensible ravings of a schizophrenic did not seem to faze the speaker to the tiniest degree. Finally, the session was capped off with the class rising to salute the photo portrait of L. Ron Hubbard. It was at that point, in the first session, that I balked. I simply refused to salute anyone’s portrait, especially that seedy looking idiot in a white Captain’s hat with little gold braids over the brim.

The only authority figure that I will salute in this Universe is Bullwinkle the Moose, in his persona of Mr. Know-it-all… because he is the only authority figure I know of who can completely embrace his own ignorance and, at the same time, still be amusing without expecting any allegiance whatsoever.

In any case, I walked out on the unbelieving group of prospective Scientologists — how could I be such an ignorant, obtuse, and insubordinate ass to the people trying to help me?! — and was determined to never go back. Needless to say, my Mother somehow made me feel so damned guilty about the $10 she spent on the tuition, that I decided to go back to the second session just to demand the money back.

That proved to be a big mistake. The Scientologists, it turns out, have procedures for dealing with people like me! When I said that I was only interested in getting my money back because saluting a photo was not my idea of learning anything, they sent me out of the group session into a little room with the auditor. This creepy lunatic assured me that he was only going to give me an “exit interview” to find out why I didn’t like the course. What this turned out to be, however, was something more akin to a psychological Spanish Inquisition, designed specifically to turn me into the most fucked up, self-hating creature imaginable.

The guy made me hold two tin cans, connected by a wire to an e-meter. This preposterous contraption, supposedly sensitive to my psychic vibrations, was the most overt psychological control and conditioning device I have ever seen. Fortunately I can’t remember the substance of what we said, but I do remember finally tossing those cans down and saying that they should send me my money back. Walking out on those freaks was an important lesson in dealing with cults, dealing with the control mechanisms that are built in to our seemingly “free” and innocuous society. So I offer it here as a sort of anti-meditation lesson, namely: stay away from people who try to pin you down with love you / hate you control scenarios, because they are evil, manipulative bastards. A lot of people could save themselves from lifetimes of mental torture, cult deprogramming, and self-hatred if they would just follow that simple bit of advice.

Next on my list of meditation attempts, would be sitting with the Zen Practice group at the Living Batch Bookstore, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This would have been in 1976, I believe. By that time, I had pretty much figured out that my Mom’s advice on mystical and religious pursuits, including her tries to interest me in the Essenes, sproutarianism, Arnold Ehret’s Mucouslous Diet, Crystal Therapy, the Rosicrucians, Sikhism, Macrobiotics, wheatgrass, red root weed soup, etc were probably not going to work for me. I decided to branch out on my own, and almost immediately got interested in Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Why Zen? The eternal question. But in the words of Alan Watts, Does It Matter? In any case, I found myself sitting with the group, had my first encounter with Buddhist ideas, with basic meditation techniques, and with zabuton cushions.

My early experience with Zen meditation was that is was confusingly difficult. The more I tried it, the more I felt physical discomfort and mental stress. Wasn’t Zen supposed to make my mind clear? All it did was muddle it up with random chatter. Since there was no real teacher among the group, I never got beyond the feeling that I was doing it wrong, and soon gave up. From there I went into a period of years much more devoted to Western philosophy and to meditation as a sort of cogitation on rational objects and ideas. Socrates, Aristotle, Camus and Mortimer Adler were my guides.

Following my brief interlude with Zen practice I became interested in the works of Carlos Castenada, and his purported studies with the mystical gurus in the desert, Don Juan and Don Genero. These somehow fit in with the Mr. Natural guru type, which greatly appealed to my sense of what a real teacher must be like. This also, not surprisingly, corresponded with the time of my life when there was a great deal of pot-smoking and experimentation with mind-altering chemicals of one kind or another. Let’s just say that my mind was more in tune with the average lava lamp, then with the insights of a real teacher.

When I moved to New York City in 1978, I almost immediately discovered Franklin Y.C. Kwong, who taught Tai Chi Ch’uan. Practicing Tai Chi twice every day, brought me a completely new awareness and energy. Not only did I find that I was suddenly more interested in the practice of the form itself, but also in the philosophical underpinnings. When Master Kwong invited me to join his Taoist meditation group in 1979, I jumped at the chance! We met in his uptown hi-rise apartment on the East Side, and practiced the cycling of ch’i and development of energy centers such as the triple burner and tan t’ien. I found this very fascinating. On the other hand, it was almost entirely abstract, which is to say that the methods were focused on an esoteric plane of endeavor, and had little to do with my daily life.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was around the same time (Winter of 1978-1979) that I first met Master Sheng Yen. From the very start, Sheng Yen plunged into the teaching of Ch’an meditation on the practical and philosophical levels. Not only that, but I discovered that Ch’an was not about any particularly esoteric concepts. Ch’an was focused simply and completely on your present state of consciousness and learning how to deal with it. At last I had found the right stuff!

In 1980 I took an interesting college course on the history of Buddhism, taught by the inimitable Dr. Fred Underwood. One of my classmates was Chris Marano, who later became an editor for Dharma Drum Publications. Underwood would come to the class impeccably dressed, with hat, umbrella, three-piece tailored suit, and attache case engraved with his initials. He was equally well-prepared to lecture, and reeled off an amazing outline of Buddhism, from the Siddharta to Tantric practices, all the while lacing his monologues with fascinating insider’s jokes, traveler’s tales, and occasionally salacious gossip about famous scholars in pursuit of mystical knowledge.

At the conclusion of the semester, Underwood promised to give a summary lecture to prepare us all for the final examination. The room was packed full of nervous Divinity School students, who had been more or less lost in the unfamiliar waters of that strange, pagan religion for all these weeks, and who waited with bated breath, sharpened pencils, and piles of lecture notes to get the answers to the coming exam. Underwood arrived, placed his bag on the floor next to the lectern, and told us a story:

Once there was a new Buddhist temple to be dedicated. The major abbots of various sects were all gathered to make benedictory statements and blessings for the founding of the new temple. The Abbot of the Hinayana sect said - I bless this temple and wish that all disciples here may perfect their wisdom by working on deep meditation and achieve enlightenment. Then the Abbot of the Mahayana sect arose and went to the podium to say - I too give my blessings to the new temple and hope that all practicioners here will tirelessly help others and through loving kindess and compassion reach the state of true enlightenment. Finally the elderly Zen Abbot approached the podium leaning on his walking stick. When he faced the gathered crowd of Buddhists and well-wishers he said not a single word, but instead reached up and struck the podium three times with his stick, turned his back on them all, and walked away.

While finishing this tale, Underwood had picked up his own umbrella, banged it sharply three times on the lectern, then reaching for his attache case, he marched straight out of the lecture hall. All of the students waited in silence for his reappearance, but only heard his footsteps fading away down the hall. Looks of confusion and exhasperation swept the audience. Finally two of the students, myself and Chris Marano, burst out laughing and picked up our satchels. Underwood was not coming back! He was finished with his summary. Indeed, the Divinity students all complained so vociferously against Underwood’s masterful lecture series and its concluding performance, that he was summarily sacked and never returned to teach again.

I too, soon summed up my career as a college student, and left New York in 1981. During the 80s my meditation practice was centered on Tai Chi forms (including some techniques I picked up from Ben Porter (a student of gong-fu Master Charles Lin); and my first encounters with the Vajrayana teachings.

During 1983-84, I built a small dojo and meditation studio using the planks from a burnt out saloon (I think those boards were actually tossed out from Okie’s during a rebuild). I laid out on a two-by-four frame on the dirt floor of the garage, and nailed those planks on top, as a practice space, over which I hung a full size 50 lb punching bag. That dojo was behind my apartment on the corner of High Street and Silver Ave, in Albuquerque, where I lived while working at B. Dalton Books (with John ‘Sanjuro’ Pray), then Salt of the Earth Books (with John Randall).

I painted a plaque on the door with the Chinese name 望月室 [Wàngyuè shì], meaning Moon Viewing Studio, which was my hommage to Herbert Giles’ “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio,” one of my favorite books ever.

In that cold garage, with no light or electricity, I practiced Tai Chi there every day and did some sitting… mostly choking on dust and freezing. In 1984 I moved to Woodstock, New York and visited the lamas at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on Mount Overlook. I wasn’t there to study, but to pick up my half-brother, Sangpo, from the living quarters where the lamas would look after him during the day one or two days a week.

All I can say is that there were some very weird events taking place in the community around the KTD during the time of its establishment, which I can only describe as spooky, unexplainable, supernatural. This prevented me from taking any great interest in the pujas or other teachings going on there.

During the late 1980s, I attended some public teachings in the Boston - Cambridge area, notably one event at the lecture hall in 2 Divinity Ave led by the Taiwanese nun Suma Ching Hai. Her teaching was flamboyantly fake, as she “channeled” messages from outer space, or someplace on the other side of the Dharmadhatu. As much as I enjoyed being in the audience of eager believers, I found myself all the more centered on my own sketchy and unproductive practice, based on the bits and pieces of teaching gathered together from Master Sheng Yen and readings in books by Chang Chung Yuan, Charles Luk, Philip Jampolsky, John Blofeld and Heinrich Dumoulin.

At the time of the first Gulf War (Jan 1991), I moved to Amherst, where I managed to complete my degree in Chinese, with many thanks to my mentor, Al Cohen. With my degree in Chinese in hand, I moved to Beijing in the summer of 1992. There I visited one temple after another, listening to the chanting of sutras and to occasional teachings. My favorite temple was the Lama Temple, [Yonghegong], where an entire complex of Buddha halls is kept open as a functioning temple and tourist attraction. Under the awesome gaze of the giant sandalwood Maitreya, and marveling at the gold-encrusted human skulls (made into drums and drinking cups), I was reminded once again of my disinclination to get too deeply into tantric methods. But at the same time, visiting the Yonghegong once or twice a month, I began to get used to it, and even found myself meditating in the small Buddha hall at the northeast corner of the compound. Except for these meditations, and despite traveling far and wide to famous temples across China and Japan, I kept myself at a distance from religious practices, and did not participate directly in Buddhist community events and practices while living in China, Japan, and Taiwan (between 1992 - 1998).

Upon returning to the United States, I began to take more interest in group meditation, visiting the Sanfo Temple [Foguangshan] in Central Square, Cambridge at the invitation of the Ven Nun Yifa around 2002. During those early years of the Bush - Cheney administration, I began to chafe at the Christian triumphalism that was somehow self-righteously claiming ascendency in the United States. At the same time that I wanted to avoid the tiresome explanations of why I was agnostic or atheistic or areligious, I began to convince my self that positive affirmation was a better idea.

So it was that I came out of the closet as a Buddhist around 2004, began to wear fozhu, (which I had been secretly collecting during my travels), began to do prostrations at the Sanfo Buddha hall, and generally to focus more on the practice. Miraculously, as if in response to my decision, in 2005 when I traveled to Shanghai to participate in a conference, I was asked to go on a side-trip with some colleagues. Without any input from me, they selected the destination of Emei Shan in Sichuan, which happens to be one of the most famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China! Imagine my delight as a Buddhist practitioner… The entire trip became a pilgrimage: doing prostrations, participating in chanting, and sitting in quiet meditation whenever possible.

Returning from the trip as a brazen, self-proclaimed Mahayana Buddhist, I began to look for a sangha to practice with. In 2006 I happened to hear a lecture, Taming the Drunken Elephant, by Trungram Gyaltrul Rimpoche, who struck me as quite similar to Master Sheng Yen, in some ways. For instance, Sheng Yen is famous for attaining a PhD in Buddhist studies in Japan before undertaking his career as a teacher of Ch’an. Rimpoche, who was raised an incarnate lama, had already begun teaching in his 20s, but then withdrew from active teaching in order to pursue a PhD in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. Having finished this course of study, he once again began to teach Vajrayana meditation practice to small groups in Cambridge. And so my tale comes to the present day, since I continue to receive teachings from Rimpoche whenever possible, and to meditate with a small group of his students every week.

You probably did not learn much by reading these notes on the chronology of my own experience of meditation studies, but I hope the journey has been amusing.

Let me wish you well on your own adventures in meditation, and leave you with my advice to fellow traveler Chris Marano, when he set off to tramp across South America many years ago:

“Walk carefully and be aware of your steps, because the world is like a big old diamond, and your feet are diamond cutters!”