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
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
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.