Three Paths to Balance
By Bess Hochstein
I’m standing in front of a long table with about thirty other adults, calligraphy brush in hand. I dip my brush in the bowl of ink, slowly exhale, and pull it across a blank sheet of paper, lifting it at the edge on the inhale, and bringing it back to the left edge. I repeat these breath strokes with complete concentration, filling three sheets of paper with quavery black lines. The teacher, at the head of the table, then asks us to paint the environmental noises, and then to paint the essence—not a representation—of words she calls out, such as anger, wind, warmth. “Let the brush be an extension of your arm,” she exhorts. “Be the brush.”
We are engaged in “art practice,” one of the Eight Gates of Zen as transmitted by the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. All of us have enrolled in the Introduction to Zen Training at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York. That morning we participated in other “Gates,” including caretaking in silence, or “work practice,” which for me meant single-mindedly cleaning and dicing peppers for lunch, the main meal of the day, as well as kitchen clean-up after lunch.
Following several more painting exercises—including an attempt to ink the face of the individual standing opposite each of us without looking at the paper—Hojin, whose shaven head easily identifies her as one of the monastery’s monks, leads us in a session of “body practice,” consisting of a few simple, yet powerful, Qigong sequences. Throughout work, art, and body practice, we maintain complete focus on the activity at hand, staying present in the moment.
Such focus is harder for me to attain in zazen, seated meditation, which is the core of the monastery’s Zen practice. The Friday night that we arrive, Hojin, in her black monk’s robe, enthusiastically provides basic meditation instruction. Spine straight with chin slightly tucked, we try out the postures: cross-legged, lotus, half-lotus, wide-kneed with ankles aligned or kneeling on a round zafu cushion or meditation bench. Some opt for a chair, feet flat on the floor. Hojin demonstrates the correct hand position—palms up, fingers of the dominant hand under fingers of the other hand, thumbs lightly touching to form an oval slightly below the navel, at the hara, which Zen practitioners view as the physical and spiritual center of the body. She also explains the soft, downcast gaze of open-eyed meditation, breathing deeply and easily into the belly. We’re encouraged to maintain our posture, even if our legs fall asleep or our shoulders fatigue. She introduces the beginner’s technique of counting each inhale and exhale through the number ten, then backward to one, at which point we start again. She also explains the multi-purpose gassho gesture—hands in prayer, slightly bowed head—that serves as hello, good-bye, and thank you, similar to namaste in Indian tradition, or the word “shalom” in Hebrew.
That’s useful when John Daido Loori, the monastery’s abbot and founder of the Mountain and Rivers Order, enters the room with much ceremonial bowing, taking his place before the altar to Buddha. He describes his order’s practice of Zen Buddhism, a training system designed to bring its adherents to the realization that there is no self—no distinction between the individual and the universe—and that we are all born perfect, but are subject to a life of conditioning that obscures our Buddha nature.
These are heady concepts; clearly, the Zen approach is no short-cut to finding balance. Indeed, in what seems like marathon zazen sessions, my restless mind makes it impossible to get beyond “one,” the first inhale, and I can’t wait for the gongs that signal a spell of walking meditation. My legs fall asleep—I endure the pain. But my overriding physical discomfort reflects the thousands of thoughts running rampant through my consciousness. In each period of zazen, I become more frustrated with my inability to quiet these thoughts. And I’m taken off guard by the rituals in the zendo (meditation hall), which no one has explained, and which we neophytes must pick up from observation—such as various obligatory gasshos and deeper prostrations during Buddhist services; emphatic, resounding chants; and periodic shouts of “Sit still!” or “Wake up!” by monks who monitor the zazen sessions. These and other aspects of training are fully explicated in Loori’s The Eight Gates of Zen (Shambhala, 2002), which was given to us at Friday night registration, but—presumably by design—the jam-packed schedule leaves us no time to read up beforehand.
Late Saturday afternoon, I tell one of the monks that I am researching a story on balance. “You’re in the wrong place,” he laughs, putting his foot on the rail of my rocking chair, as if to tip me over. “Here, we throw you off balance.” And they have succeeded, causing me to question just about everything I hold true. However, where I find frustration, other participants find something grounding. One woman (among the five with whom I share a simple dormitory), distraught over the loss of both parents in the past year, finds solace in the peace of the monastery and the beauty of its Catskill Mountain setting. Other newcomers find inspiration for their meditation practices. Some participants are returnees, bringing friends to share the experience. In this short weekend, we are given a tiny taste of all eight gates, whether through discussion or direct participation in zazen, Zen study, academic study, liturgy, right action, and art, work, and body practice. We are even given the chance to have a private interview with the abbot, called dokusan, to address specific questions or clarify our understanding.
In its systemized training matrix, the Mountain and Rivers Order of Zen offers a clear path for anyone tackling the larger questions of life—issues such as “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” Ryan Gallagher, a 23-year-old practicing Zen at the monastery since November 2004, told me he became a resident: “to join a spiritual training system [in which] every facet is pointed directly at the study of the self, to such an extent that my entire life here is precisely the same as the only question that motivates me: What is this? It’s difficult for me to explain how utterly precious this opportunity to live out that question has been. In a sense, I feel as if the choice of taking up this practice is really the only choice I’ve ever made.”