Kyoto Journal, Vol. 57, pp. 26-31. 2004.
"Returning To The Source"
The first evening talk at the three-day meditation retreat in the Catskills was about attaining enlightenment. I was unconvinced. I'd meditated for over two decades, but had never attained enlightenment. My single taste, some years back, had been absolutely the other way around. It had, in a striking momentary flash, attained me. Subsequently, the long harangues by the master struck me as singularly boring -- even pedestrian. I stopped coming to the retreats. After all, I meditated at home several times a week and conducted the all-day sittings every Saturday at the Center in Queens. That seemed sufficient to me.
Now, here I was again several years later back at the upstate retreat center, sitting through another boring dharma talk. It was all because a young lady who had been coming to our Saturday meditation group for some months spotted the sign-up sheet on the bulletin board in the lobby and asked me about it. She was an intelligent young graduate student, seriously-interested in Buddhism, and full of questions about everything.
"You should go to that," I found myself advising her, to my surprise.
"I don't have the qualifications," she objected, reading the sheet more thoroughly.
"It doesn't matter, you're ready," I asserted with authority. She meditated well, didn't move, and was gifted spiritually as well as intellectually.
She signed her name on the sheet. The woman happened to be a member of the Chinese-language dream group my wife holds in our apartment Wednesday evenings. Because she'd signed up for the three-day meditation retreat upstate, my wife wanted to go too. I ended up being drawn into the affair. It turned out another member of the Saturday group was driving up. He came by at 5:30 p.m. and picked us up at our doorstep. The four of us drove up together. The whole thing had the feeling of something that had happened on its own. I didn't seem to have had much of a hand in it. I only found out later that the guy who drove us up had signed on because he saw our names on the list.
It had been a little more than a two hour drive up to the retreat center. In the parking area, down the hill from the main house, we piled out of the car and stood in awe of the majesty of a night sky dusted with stars. I kept looking up -- overwhelmed there was so much there. In the city, the lights block it all out. I was glad I'd come.
The retreat center was much-improved from when I was last there. When I was settled in, I went up to look at the renovated meditation hall. Gone was the grassy trail. A quaintly cobbled path, illuminated by bright lampposts spaced at intervals, curved artfully up the hill to the main building. The meditation hall itself was nothing like the girl scout mess hall it had been. A member of I.M. Pei's firm had turned the structure into an architectural masterpiece.
The monitor began banging the wooden mallet against the wake-up board at exactly 4 a.m. the next morning. I climbed out of my sleeping bag and headed up the cobbled path to the meditation hall. In past years, the moment I stepped outside I had been greeted with the vast starry night sky. Early in the morning like that, before the sun came up, it blazed with a preternatural intensity. The silence was palpable, delicious -- a wonderful way to start a long day's meditation. This time I kept looking up, but couldn't really see the stars. That's when I noticed the one design flaw in the whole place. All the brightly-illuminated new lampposts, with five or so lights apiece, blocked out the night sky. What a pity that the most beautiful thing about the place should be so mindlessly destroyed by "improvement."
I served as time-keeper the first day. That night, as the monk plodded through his evening lecture about attaining enlightenment, he kept going back and forth between English and Chinese. Waiting over and over again through long bouts of Chinese for the summary English translation fatigued me. Each time the English translation finally came, I found it disappointing. Like the bright new lampposts along the path, it was too much an attempt at illumination. It flew in the face of my experience that enlightenment didn't issue from this side, but came rather from the other. There wasn't much I remembered about my own experience some years back. It hadn't been the sort of thing that could be remembered, or even enter into memory. I knew the instant it happened that I would never be able to translate it into words. Anything I said about it would point away from it, not towards it. The closest I could come was to say that everything I wanted and needed was at hand and always had been. All the deprivation and lack of love I'd felt in my life was illusory -- a construct of my own making. I'd defined myself in such a limited way as to be closed off from the outpouring abundance of reality itself -- a fecundating love and compassion ever-present. It never was born and never would die. It was what I was, not this. This self, this world, all of what I called reality, was but its glimmery shadow, reflected upon some passing mist. No idea, no concept, could contain what was real. The moment passed. Nothing I could do could get me back there. How it had touched me in the first place, I had no idea. It never happened again.
I really had no expectation anything like that would occur on this retreat. In the end, I sat quietly through the evening lecture, focused inward, and ignored the English as well as the Chinese. I set about to design my own agenda for the retreat. Always, instead of following verbal instructions that didn't speak to me, it was my practice to follow the scent of inwardly-felt ones that did. Like a bloodhound with its nose on the trail, I sat cross-legged on my pillow with my back erect and my chin tucked in. In the masterfully-architectured new meditation hall there were windows all around. It seemed the architect had expressly designed a building that could contain as many windows as possible. This masterpiece meditation hall was all about windows and accorded with my inner dynamic in a way the lecture did not. It struck me, seated there on the cushion in meditation, that I was also a window. The light would flow in to the extent the window was clean. The only thing I could do from this side was to keep that window clean. Instantly, I knew I had been presented with my program for the retreat. During these three days, my method would be to clean the window, and to keep the window clean. What did this mean? I would discover that as I went along. My method was to invent my method. I set to work.
I immediately saw that cleaning the window entailed relaxing the body, stilling the mind. Keeping the window clean was surprisingly difficult. A thought arose. I saw that thought as dirt. "It's getting in the way of the light," I told myself. The moment I did so, the thought vanished. Or rather, my attention was suddenly elsewhere. The thought was probably still there but it had sunk back down to the subliminal field where it belonged. It couldn't capture me and pull me into the whole interconnected matrix of thoughts that constitute my conditioned mind. "All that stuff is the past," I told myself. "It's not real. Now is real." I sat there in the Now, patiently attending the window, focused on keeping it clean. What happened or didn't would happen or wouldn't. I had no control over any of that. All I could do was keep the window clean. This I could do. Over this I did have control. The rest was beyond me. I would not waste my time over it.
No sooner was I convinced I was on the right track, than another thought appeared. The same cycle repeated itself. This happened again and again until, finally, sometime the next day, the thoughts subsided. Then, just when it seemed I had managed to clean the window and keep it unclouded -- something new and strange started happening. At first I couldn't quite figure out what it was. It wasn't thoughts that were coming up now, but strange hallucinations that seemed more like dreams. Very vivid images and sequences, cinematic in nature, arose one after another, involving specific individuals I didn't even know or sequences of events which I wouldn't in a million years own to. I had met a Japanese woman years ago at a Zen center who informed me with pride that when she meditated she had the power to see into other people's thoughts. It occurred to me what was happening to me now had happened to her. But it didn't strike me I was seeing into other people's thoughts, or had attained any special psychic powers. Rather, it seemed I'd cleaned the dirt from the window, and these were cloudy smudges that remained -- alive and well, moving and changing like dreams, pulling me into their interlocking matrix, just as the thoughts had tried to do. I undertook to clean these smudges.
But it didn't prove so easy. They went on and on arising. I was alarmed at how readily and frequently they came out of nowhere, one after another. So various. So far-fetched. So inwardly connected to me that I always identified with them for at least an instant before having the presence of mind to wipe them from the window. I succumbed again and again to the hallucinatory sequences. They had a certain cinematic appeal. I even found myself desirous of giving in to them for purposes of curiosity or entertainment. Immediately I brought forth the idea of the window again and resumed my practice. An instant later, another hallucination. I couldn't understand why my practice was failing me.
Then, in a flash, it occurred to me that this idea of the window that I was imposing upon myself was only another thought. It too had to fall away. At the same instant I realized the dream sequences were functionally equivalent to lingering tensions in my body, which all along I'd been consciously attempting to relax. The moment I realized this, I stopped trying to relax a tension in my stomach I was working on at the time. The instant I desisted, I felt a tension subside on the left and right sides of my ribcage. I saw that unconsciously I'd been tensing one part of my body so as to consciously untense another. Thus the tension had only been moving around. I knew at that moment, the body had to be left alone. Not tampered with. The mind, the same. I had no idea what would happen. I began doing this. This wasn't the window anymore; this was beyond the window. This was no window. Immediately I found myself seated there in the most blissful peace -- mind and body totally stilled.
I couldn't help but notice that what had just happened to me was the functional equivalent of the story of Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch. The head monk had written a poem on the wall to the effect that meditation was like polishing a mirror on a mirror stand so that it perfectly reflected what was before it. Hui Neng had responded with a poem that there was no mirror and no mirror stand. The old master secretly gave his staff and bowl to Hui-Neng because his answer reflected a higher level of realization. There's a method. The method carries us a certain distance, but in the end we have to drop the method itself in order to go on further. The method was only another thought. True freedom is beyond thoughts entirely. Hence in the story, Hui-Neng is an illiterate, who can't read or write.
It flabbergasted me that the great and enigmatic realization by the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism had presented itself independently as a simple and ordinary insight to a common, everyday garden-variety meditator like myself. I realized at the same time how true the story of Hui-Neng was to my own experience and how false the institutionalized tradition that inflates such simple realizations into monumental enlightenments and, while preaching non-attachment, attaches these to larger-than-life semi-fictionalized figures from the past. In point of fact, these happenings are eternally present. All I had to do was to stay in the moment, and for only an instant, for the same story to unfold within me. It doesn't represent any attainment on my part whatsoever. All I can claim is that I was sitting there quietly observing when it happened.
Throughout the rest of the retreat, I let my body be. I let my mind be. I sat there, insofar as I was capable of doing so, quiet and peaceful -- in the present moment. At one point, the monk took us all out to do a walking meditation in the woods. What struck me most about the experience was that I felt nothing. It was as if I were dead inside. When I was a young man, all I had to do was step anywhere near a forest and I exploded with life. Subsequently, seated back in the meditation hall, the most amazing thing happened. The deadness in me gave away to an opening. I re-experienced a whole state of being that had swept me so deliciously along for a period of years in my youth when I'd harbored the ambition of becoming a botanist and going to Harvard graduate school to study under the famous Dr. Richard E. Schultes who had lived amongst the Indian tribes of the Amazon. I pursued that ambition with my whole heart and graduated from Duke University with Honors in Botany. But I hadn't gotten into Harvard. Later, that very summer while doing field work in Panama, I ran into Dr. Schultes. He invited me to come study under him. Bitter and constricted, I'd snapped back that I already applied and I didn't get in, I was going to Columbia. "Get a masters at Columbia and then come up to Harvard," he'd suggested. But I never did. I felt like I'd been shot through the heart. Something in me had died. In dreams I'd been revisited many times over the years with the hope, the excitement, the enthrallment of that desire to go to Harvard and study under that man. So I knew somewhere in me it still flickered, like a flame that hadn't completely gone out. But my life had taken a different turn. There was no going back.
What an amazement to find myself here in this retreat center, seated in cross-legged meditation at the age of 56, awash with the same richness of feeling I'd had in my undergraduate years at Duke. I'd always connected it with the Botanical Museum at Harvard University and with Dr. Schultes. At first when it came upon me while I was meditating, I mistakenly assumed I was falling back out of the present moment. But then I realized -- no. This quickening of spirit that I'd thought I'd lost forever had never been lost. It'd never been connected with what I'd connected it with in the past. I'd attached that degree of life that I'd had in me back then to the circumstances under which it arose. I saw now with perfect clarity it wasn't attached to those circumstances at all and never had been. It didn't dwell in the past. It came from being in the moment. Now that I'd inadvertently slipped back into the present moment with the same degree of fullness I'd had back then, I rediscovered all the wonder that I'd thought had been taken from me and was lost forever.
Later in the day, a different and even deeper fullness of being swept up through me. I was amazed to find myself awash in the wondrous enthrallment I'd had as a child newly arrived in rural Cuba where there were horses and mountains, thatched-roofed hovels with dirt floors, chickens and pigs in the living rooms. Once again, at first I interpreted the felt richness connected with those times as a stray thought. Immediately I saw it wasn't. I had stumbled once again fully into the moment and was experiencing something that I'd thought long lost but now saw was eternally present. Only, I'd attached it to the time and place in the past when I'd felt it first, and so after the Communist revolution, when I couldn't go home any more, and when I didn't have a home, I'd imagined that it had been stripped away from me, and that I'd been impoverished. In fact, it had never dwelt in any specific place, Cuba or otherwise, and it had never been specifically connected to the circumstances I'd connected it with. Every richness and beauty that had ever touched my soul, every love and enthrallment -- it had happened to me because being so young and inexperienced, I'd inadvertently slipped into the present moment like children and young people do. Now, I was doing so again. A much older man, seated in meditation -- being visited by the unparalleled marvel of the current instant. The mind loses wonder, mystery and joy by attaching it to this or to that, by perceiving it as residing in one circumstance or another. In fact it is always here, always now. The present moment is the only place where the real magic is.
In my youth I'd tried to go to Harvard and study under Dr. Schultes as a way of getting back to the earlier magic of Cuba that the Communists had deprived me of. I had tried to use one illusion to chase after another. It never could have worked. I felt life had defeated me and left me behind -- only to discover now, during these three days of seated meditation, that it had led me by the nose straight to the real source of what I'd always been trying to find.