A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Enlightenment

Confessions of a wayward monk 

~Shozan Jack Haubner

At 7,000 feet, the Zen monastery where I live is level with the clouds, which should give you some idea of where my head usually is—not to mention the heads of those who visit our grounds. Let’s talk about them. Occasionally, college students from the basin below appear through wispy nimbi on our gravel driveway. I first catch sight of them via their hairdos—which are dazzling and neon, like art projects—bobbing spikily through the dull gray mist. They travel in brightly colored, body-buttered, scantily clad, cologned and perfumed packs, like wolves with iPods. They are everything I’m not: still in their twenties, hopped up on caffeine and red meat, and eager to talk about Zen.

“Tell us about meditation!” they implore, pens poised over spiral notebooks like cub reporters on the enlightenment beat. Sharing my experiences as a Zen monk is a great opportunity to take inventory of everything I’ve learned in my three-plus years on the mountain, and I avoid it like the plague. Not because I haven’t learned anything, but because the lessons I’ve learned have been mostly negative. Which is to say, I’ve unlearned things during my tenure on the mountain. You could say I’ve wised up a little: I don’t listen to myself so much anymore. I don’t take that voice in my head completely for granted. I try to follow my heart, which has no mouth. I’ve never heard a word out of it, yet it’s never steered me wrong. Nowhere is its muteness felt more strongly, however, than when someone asks me to speak about Zen.

Isn’t it shameful how you start to sound exactly like those experts in your field you’ve never understood when talking to someone who you’re pretty sure understands less than you? Nothing inspires confidence in a so-called specialist like ignorance in others. I listen to myself holding forth on Zen practice and I want to puke. Who is this fraud? I think. What the hell does he know? Last time I checked he was still putting his hakama underrobes on inside out and backward. Yet I can’t very well tell these diligent seekers the truth, can I? I couldn’t bear the disappointment on their innocent, curious little faces. They want to hear that Buddhism is the answer to all of their problems, not a big fat arrow pointing to the source of all of their problems: ego.

One thing I’ve discovered is that when people ask you about meditation and you pause to frame your reply, they usually waste no time in answering their own question. As it turns out, everyone’s an expert in the stuff that no one really knows how to talk about. People visit our grounds and a little bit of the Zen ambiance sinks in, with blue jays gabbling, the sun cutting affable arrows of light through the treetops, and a bald guy in black robes cross-armed before them, and suddenly it’s open season on the ineffable.

“Buddhist meditation is always like, relaxing and mellow, right? Kinda like soaking in the Jacuzzi but while reading a spiritual classic like Jonathan Livingston Seagull?” This charming description of what in no way resembles my meditation practice came to me recently by way of a bespectacled English major. She was brand-new to thinking. You could tell. She had that facial sheen that college students sometimes have, as if their mind were a child playing with a brand-new toy. For a moment I envied her: so young; so unencumbered by common sense, life experience, and logic.

“It is the Middling Way,” I quipped, but my pun was met with earnest nods.
“Now, what’s my mind supposed to be doing during meditation?” a student they were calling “Colonel Ralph” asked, winking as if I were a used-car salesman and he was letting me know that he appreciated my efforts and just maybe I had a buyer on the hook here. Days later, as I struggled to focus during our morning sit, the colonel’s still-unanswered question had assumed mythic proportions and was all but hunched before me on scaly, roiling haunches, glaring into my eyes and passing its forked tongue over my sweat glands, sizing me up for lunch. Why didn’t he ask me what his mind is not supposed to be doing? I mused. Then we’d have a conversation starter. It does no one any good to harbor illusions about this path, I concluded. You need to know what you’re getting into. You need to go headfirst through the windshield of your expectations.
I decided then and there to sit the next group of students down and give them “the talk,” speak directly from my own experience about the facts of spiritual life. “You’re old enough to know the truth,” I’ll say. And like a sex-ed teacher showing bubbly and clueless teenagers sobering medical photos of STD-riddled genitals, I will lay bare the scabby underbelly of serious spiritual discipline and so challenge them to deeper, more realistic religious views. For starters, deep and meaningful meditation often behaves like a love interest who’s out of your league, or a cat. The more ardently you pursue it, the more contemptuously it ignores you. One instant you’re almost shivering with insights, the kind you’re sure would send a jealous Eckhart Tolle back to his park bench, and the very next you’re wondering if you put deodorant under only one of your armpits that morning (again!), and you waste the rest of the sit trying to subtly sniff yourself to find out. Or you’ve got that song stuck in your head, the last one you heard on the radio before the retreat started—the one your kindergarten-aged niece can’t stop singing, about her booty or some drug deal gone bad. Occasionally, you even catch yourself counting lifetime sexual partners. (For some of us this is a swift game. It barely eats up 5 minutes of a 25-minute sit. The trick is, count them out of order. This makes it harder to catch yourself when you “inadvertently” double up on a partner.)

Deprived of external stimuli, you discover that your mind has a life entirely its own. And between the two of you there is no real consensus on where it ends and you begin. You try to get to the bottom of yourself, to catch your mind in the act of coming up with you, or vice versa, and it’s as though you’ve wandered into an M. C. Escher sketch of a house of mirrors, the subject lost in an infinite regression of reflections. This leads to a kind of mental vertigo, and so you compulsively raid your inner life for something solid to grab on to, some tangible insight, belief, or mantra, as though if you just kept pumping quarters into the inner jukebox, eventually you’d find the perfect track, which you could then keep playing in your head, over and over, grooving out to self-generated bliss. You’d never walk into the forest with the radio blasting and expect wild animals to appear by your side. Yet it never occurs to you to unplug the inner jukebox and get quiet inside so that a natural, organic state of mind can reorganize you and your life from within.