2016-06-30
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 zendo (meditation hall). Kinhin (semi-aerobic, follow-the-leader walking meditation) around the zendo at 4:50. Choka, 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 Tanto (meaning the second-in-command under Eido Shimano Roshi, the abbot), tells the neophytes about mu. 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.

Chant Lotus Sutra at 9:00, then zazen. It's my knees that become the red-hot iron ball, not mu. Bent like pretzels in a semi-lotus position almost all the time, they demand to know with every throb why I'm not watching television on the couch.

Lunch at noon. Brown rice, tofu with hot mustard and ginger, and cabbage salad.

More zazen.

Supper at 5:00. Vegetable soup, salad, and bread.

End of structured sitting at 9:30.

Day Two: The first half of the Diamond Sutra, a dialogue between Buddha and one of his disciples, is performed in English and then chanted by everyone in Japanese. The chanting takes about a half-hour, and since it is all nonsense syllables to people who don't speak Japanese, it takes incredible concentration to get through. The monks really have this nailed, missing syllables only when they breath.

After lunch, during the break, I go out into the woods and mu with all the others who are doing their first koan. Zen, like opera, is big on loosening the diaphragm. Since Dai Bosatsu is surrounded by forest, it is a great place to go out and loosen you diaphragm by screaming "Mu!" Along with a couple dozen others, I walk about half a mile down the road and howl. Lots of fun, once you get over feeling like an idiot.

Day Three: In midmorning, a bell signals the Scrum for Enlightenment. That's my term for everyone in the zendo leaping off their zafu and running for the dharma hall to demonstrate their dedication to dokusan (a one-on-one meeting with the Zen teacher). Arms flail, people trip, people push you into walls. At all other times, the atmosphere is noncompetitive. During the Scrum, it's every man for himself. Every woman, too. I'm quick off my zafu, but somebody pushes me into a doorjamb, and I end up about 25 people back in line to see Roshi, which means a long wait sitting on the hard floor. The monkey in my mind is going apeshit with stage fright.

My heart is thumping wildly, and I keep hearing bells, even when no one is ringing them. Why is it so important that I not screw up in front of this guy? After two hours of watching others disappear down the hallway as my back goes red-hot again, I hear Roshi's hand bell in the distance. I clang the answering bell with a hammer twice, run down the hall to the dokusan room, open the door, bow, shut the door, take two steps to the mat, bow, prostrate myself, look up, identify myself. We chat a little about Zen and what I'm doing there. I tell him my problems. He seems quite amused, gives me a little advice, and that's it. I go through the bows and prostration in reverse and exit.

At night, the back pain reaches ridiculous levels. Even though we don't sit for more than an hour without a 10-minute walking meditation, during which the back pain dissipates, it is overwhelmingly weird to sit there contemplating mu with some small part of your brain while the rest of your brain is screaming for you to move. I keep trying to breathe into the pain by expanding my rib cage, except that some little muscle is pulled, and it feels like an arrow is going through my torso with every inhalation. Finally it dawns on me that I have to stop resisting the pain. My brain shifts to a place that it has never been before. I'm not hallucinating. Everything still hurts. I'm just above it somehow, completely aware, and I want to stay here forever. Perfect bliss? Rapture of the deep? What is this? It lasts about 15 minutes, leaving an afterglow of giddiness.

My brain shifts to a place it's never been before. I'm not hallucinating. Everything still hurts. I'm just above it somehow, completely aware, and I want to stay here forever.

Day Four: All day I try to arrange my brain waves to get that Perfect Bliss again. My brain fails to cooperate. During afternoon zazen, I see Mr. Peanut dancing with an umbrella in the middle of the floor, kind of like Gene Kelly doing "Singin' in the Rain." This is great, I'm thinking. I can hallucinate all afternoon and forget the red-hot iron balls in my back. A loud WHACK! WHACK! as somebody goes under the stick (the keisaku, or "encouragement" stick, used to help loosen the back muscles of Zen students) returns me to reality. WHACK! WHACK! Really annoying. Mr. Peanut disappears.

Day Five: I'm walking like I've got some degenerative joint disease. Ego inflating and deflating every few minutes, I develop these overwhelming likes and dislikes of people based on pure projection, and I can't talk about it with anyone. I'm too tired to talk, anyway.

Day Six: Where is that Perfect Bliss? I cannot find my zazen groove. Just back pain and more back pain. "You've heard it many times," Roshi tells me during dokusan, "but it's true: It's all in the mind." I conclude that my mind must really suck.

During his talk to the entire group in the afternoon, Roshi reminisces about all the problems he had building the monastery, all the stuff he had to learn about business and architecture in a culture that was foreign to him. "Do you want to lead a comfortable life?" he asks "Or a meaningful life."

Day Seven: Comfortable or meaningful? That is the question, another red-hot iron ball. That is what keeps popping into my head as I sit and contemplate mu. It's really bothering me how much of my life I've spent being comfortable. I redouble my efforts to sit up with my spine straight all the time, all day. During his dharma talk, Roshi exhorts us to eat less, sleep less, and sit more. We will have greater energy, he says, get more work done, lead the meaningful life.

This being the last night, we assemble in the zendo just after midnight to hear Beethoven's Ninth. I have been looking forward to this all week: my favorite symphony to commemorate the beginning of the end of Rohatsu. I'm so tired, however, that the music is excruciating. Too much emotion, too much joy, when my brain wants only to shut down. I curl into an upright fetal position and don't give a crap about the angle of my spine.

"By sitting down and shutting up for a week, you can find the whole universe," said Seigan the monk. "You can find what's essential and what's trivial about your life."

Day Eight: [After meditating for one extra hour each night of the week of Rohatsu], we're allowed to sleep until 6:30 on our final day; quite a luxury, except that I'm suddenly not tired. After an informal brunch, during which talking is allowed and we all discover who our Rohatsu mates are, I sit down in the dharma hall with Seigan, my guardian monk, to ask a few questions.

What is the point of all the pain?

"What you just went through, any normal person would have a hard time with. But in sitting down and shutting up for a week, you can find the whole universe. You can find what's essential and what's trivial about your life. And to find out, well, that's it."

I personally can testify that for three weeks after Rohatsu, I felt like I had a new brain. Hard to explain, but I felt great and noticed an enhanced

ability to seize on a situation and say exactly the apt thing. I was in the moment, dealing with stuff as it presented itself, eating less, sleeping less, sitting more, doing more, caring less about the opinions of others, watching no television.

Then I visited my family for Christmas, ate massive amounts of cookies, and found myself back in the cultural Trance of Crud. So it's back to "repeat as necessary." I guess you just have to do it every day, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Which is a pain in the ass--literally. But I'd really like to find that strange realm of awareness and detachment I discovered on the third night. It's waiting out there someplace...no, it's waiting in here someplace, if I can just sit long enough and stop trying to find it.

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