Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Fight with a Zen Master

On Saturday (yesterday) I attended my first Zen retreat. I stayed for 6 hours, which was comprised of meditation, a formal Zen meal, a walk, a small break, and a koan (or kung-an) interview with an authentic Zen Master. For those who don't know, a koan interview is a teaching tool by which a teacher prompts the Zen student with a question that can't be answered through thinking, only through intuition. Additionally, the term "Zen Master" denotes a very high ranking in the Zen world. It's akin to the president of a university, but not exactly.

I was really excited to meet the Zen Master and ask her all sorts of existential questions that have been stewing in my thoughts: How do I sustain meditative states that seem to happen when I apply no effort? Are my career choices on the right path? What's the best way to overcome self-consciousness? How deeply should I pursue Zen and incorporate it into my life? During my prior meditation, I realized how excited I had gotten and was worried that I would be disappointed.

The bell rang and I went downstairs and entered the room. There sat the teacher with immaculate posture. She asked me if I had any questions.

Me: Yes, many, I'm not even sure where to start.
Zen Master: First, relax. You're all stressed out. Stop fidgeting and sit still.
Me: Okay.
ZM: So what would you like to ask?
Me: *Thinking* I guess I'll start with meditation questions.

We talked for a few minutes and ZM gave me a few tips. Then a few more. I said I was confused because I was trying to map out what she said and saw multiple solutions. One of the big challenges I have in meditation is that I have too many instructions and techniques. Adding more variables and possibilities will just frustrate me more, so I asked for clarification. Okay, got it. Do this...great.

ZM: Anything else?

If this is my only chance to talk to an authentic Zen Master, you better believe I'm going to ask more questions. Lady, I can bombard an ALGEBRA TEACHERS with questions. I'm a curious kid.

Me: Well, actually, can I ask you another question?
ZM: [Visibly annoyed] Well, if it's a good one.

So at this point I'm thinking "well fuck you very much." I feel bad writing that--even thinking that--about a Zen Master, but I was really offended. Was my last question not "good enough?" I'm sorry, am I bothering you with my silly existential dilemmas? Isn't that kind of your niche? Isn't that why you're here? Maybe you're not here to answer questions, but couldn't you at least be nice about not answering? I know that if I was a teacher and someone like myself was asking for advice and clarity, I wouldn't rush them and presume their problems were insignificant.

At this point I didn't want to ask my question and wanted to walk away, but she had already agreed to hear it. I said "I have a question about career." She jumped in and told me to meditate on the question before I had a chance to explain myself. Again, maybe the explanation was irrelevant to her, but just seemed really dismissive and really rushed. I asked why she had said "if it was a good one" and she said because some students ask dumb questions, but assured me that mine was a good one. Yeah, okay.

So at this point, I turned off. I wasn't smiling anymore and wasn't even trying to engage. I had that "whatever, fuck-off" attitude. (I know I sound ungrateful right now.) I went back to my meditation cushion noticed how annoyed I was. Fuck Zen, fuck this teacher, fuck this teaching. I'll do it myself.

It reminded me of the Buddha's death. As the Buddha was dying, his sidekick Ananda was sad and worried about what the future and his practice would be like without his friend and teacher. Buddha replied:

"Ananda, be a lamp unto yourself, be a refuge to yourself. Take yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth as a lamp; hold fast to the Truth as a refuge. Look not for a refuge in anyone beside yourself. And those, Ananda, who either now or after I am dead shall be a lamp unto themselves, who take themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast to the Truth as their refuge, shall not look for refuge to anyone beside themselves, it is they who shall reach the highest goal." 
-- Mahaparinibbana Sutta

So I don't know. Maybe this teacher had it all figured out and pissed me off on purpose, but I don't think so. Part of me wants to forget all this and go back to the center where I've found some great friends and great people. But this whole experience has opened my eyes up to how much I've come to depend on teachers, teaching, books, and in a deeper sense, the approval of others. I don't want anything to do with it. "Zen" has become a source of serious guilt for me, whereby I feel guilty for not being awake or aware or peaceful or connected. I can see how much I've been running from the mediocrity of my life and how that has made me incredibly uneasy. Spirituality has become a weight on my shoulders and has been converted into more suffering, rather than relief. It's time to table spiritual pursuits and rely on my own ingenuity.


ANJALI said...

Feeling guilty about not being spiritual enough has to weigh on a persons psyche... That just doesn't even sound healthy.
This whole experience seems to have had a profound effect on you. Sometimes it seems that an epiphany can come from the most unexpected situations. I am sure you were expecting an enlightening conversation with the ZM and it seems that the result was very enlightening indeed.
Good for you, but, how do you feel now? Do you think you can really shelf or minimize your self proclaimed need for approval?

Anonymous said...

I love this story! :)

Linda said...

Good for you. It sounds like she is a little full of herself, not to mention impatient (not great qualities for a teacher of any kind), and this came out through her "Zen guru" mask. Don't let it put you off.

Anonymous said...

Humility is a necessary part of the practice. Being willing to surrender the egoistic notions (and in this case it sounds like your superego is running the show, though I certainly can't say for sure). Basically, you gave up. You quit because you were annoyed. That certainly isn't going to lead to clarity, but will only reinforce the self of separateness and righteousness that pervades our culture. I'm not suggesting "Fuck you" isn't an appropriate response, sometimes. But just because you're not having an expectation met isn't one of them. And I DO speak from experience, as it's the same lesson I am trying to embody for myself. Don't get stuck on the Buddha's final teaching. You have to go through all the other teachings first before that one will really jive. When we adopt a negative, defensive, reactive stance against someone when we don't get what we want, we can be sure we are not anywhere near being able to be our own lamp. I suspect surrendering your need for approval will be the flame that lights your "inner lamp". May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Best of luck.