Swallowing a Red-Hot Iron Ball

Zen is hell, says the author. But after the eight-day 'monk killing' Rohatsu retreat, he decides it's totally worth it.

BY: Charles M. Young

Charles M. Young, a veteran journalist and fledgling Zen practitioner, decided to attend the Rohatsu sesshin at Dai Bosatsu Zendo in New York's Catskill mountains. "It is known as the 'Mount Everest of sesshins' and the 'monk killer,' for its marathon-like test of one's sitting endurance," writes Young. This is what happened to him.

Day One: Wake-up bell at 4:30, which leaves 20 minutes for my three anonymous roommates and me to perform our bathroom ablutions, get into our robes, and go to the


(meditation hall).


(semi-aerobic, follow-the-leader walking meditation) around the zendo at 4:50.


the morning service in the dharma hall, at 5:00. This is mostly chanting, accompanied by various gongs and bells and drums, and it's fun when you get used to it. It's also beautiful in the darkness before dawn, illuminated only by candles.

After a long sit, Jiro Osho, the


(meaning the second-in-command under Eido Shimano Roshi, the abbot), tells the neophytes about


. In the eighth century, there was a Zen master named Joshu. One of Joshu's disciples asked him, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Joshu answered, "Mu," in effect a nonsense syllable, and the monk attained enlightenment on the spot.

What did he mean by mu? Mu is one of the most basic yet difficult koans, or Zen riddles, and we are now to contemplate it during zazen (meditation) and solve it. Figuring out mu is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball that won't go up or down in your gullet, says Jiro, a stocky and vigorous man who looks like he should be leading the Seven Samurai against an army of bandits. Mu just sits there and burns.

Struggling with the koan is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball that won't go up or down in your gullet.

Monastery cleaning at 8:00. In Zen, everything is cleaned every day, and then you clean it some more. My assignment each day is to take a bucket and a rag and wash six flights of slate stairs in different parts of the building. I keep thinking about my apartment, which I clean once a decade or so. The most faithful of my lifetime companions, dust bunnies, have become my sworn enemies.

This piece was excerpted from "Hunka Hunka Burning Karma," which ran in the June 2000 issue of "Men's Journal." Reprinted with permission.

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