Hakuna Hakuna Burning Karma 
Credit: Russell Monk / Getty Images

Longtime Rolling Stone writer Charles M. Young passed away on August 18 after battling a brain tumor. The wry, insightful rock journalist joined the magazine in 1976 and profiled the Sex Pistols for the magazine’s first punk cover story. He left the magazine in 1981, but continued writing stories for Rolling Stone and Men's Journal in the 1990s and 2000s on subjects ranging from Jerry Lee Lewis and R&B legend Solomon Burke to this Men's Journal piece in 2000 about his experiences in zen meditation.

Learning to meditate, in my experience, is a lot like learning not to drink. After a few days without booze, you notice that your brain is firing on all eight cylinders, your energy is great, and you draw the conclusion that you don’t have a problem, so you start drinking again. Your life gets worse, your brain is firing on three cylinders, you look as toxic as you feel, and you conclude that a few more days without the stuff—if only to prove once and for all that you don’t have a problem—might be in order. Repeat as necessary. 

Same with sitting, which is what they call meditation in Zen. You sit for a while, and for reasons that people have had difficulty articulating for twenty-five hundred years, your life improves. You notice a greater capacity for dealing with the fast balls that fate is throwing at your head. Your ego then takes credit for this sense of greater competence, and you conclude along the lines of "Thanks, Buddha, but I’ll take it from here. Sitting is hard, life is short, so why sit?" Repeat as necessary. 

Having a world-class case of what Buddhists call "monkey mind," I have found a lot of repetition to be necessary. I first took a medication class in 1974, the year after I got out of college. The swami was bogus, and I was too vain to wear anything but tight bluejeans to the class, so I didn’t get very far. Clothing that allows circulation below the pelvis is the first important secret of (a) meditation, (b) plane travel, (c) life. Something from the encounter stayed with me, however, and I would periodically try to meditate again, always concluding that I must be doing something wrong. I was. It is nearly impossible to sustain a practice if you’re alternately groaning with a hangover and frazzled on caffeine. So I quit drinking 11 years ago and cut way back on my caffeine, and then a couple of years ago a friend of mine started bugging me to accompany him to a Zen monastery called the Dai Basatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, in upstate New York, for a Zen weekend.  

You thought war was hell? No, Zen is hell. Forget the pretty paintings, the dramatic calligraphy, the cryptically humorous stories. From Friday night through Sunday morning, I was thinking, What had been worse than this? Two-a-day football practices in the preseason? Going to a dance in junior high? Acute gastroenteritis?   

RELATED: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

But by noon Sunday I had bought my zafu (a round, black pillow) and zabuton (a square padded mat) and resolved to sit on my own—a half-hour in the morning and a half-hour in the evening—now that I knew what to do and didn’t need any more help. This lasted a few months, until my discipline wore down and I gradually returned to eating too much and watching television too much an sank back into the vast cultural trance that keeps us all hypnotized. Repeat as necessary. 

In my case, it was necessary to repeat that weekend a half-dozen or so times in the next couple of years, after which I concluded that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from such a brief exposure. Maybe a sesshin—a five-to-eight day intensive immersion that is abut a hundred times more grueling than a weekend for beginners—would do it. Maybe the most grueling of all the sesshins—Rohatsu—would get me where I wanted to go. In Japan, Rohatsu simply means December 8, celebrated as the anniversary of Buddha’s achieving enlightenment upon seeing the morning star after a week of sitting under the Bodhi tree. It is known as the "Mount Everest of sesshins" and the "monk killer," for its marathon-like test of one’s sitting endurance. 

Dai Bosatsu owns 1,400 acres just outside of the town of Livingston Manor, about a three-hour drive north and west of New York City. What this lends the sesshin is isolation, firewood, and a sense of immersion in nature as you drive alongside Beecher Lake, past the ramshackle old guesthouse. A little farther up the road, the main building, opened in 1976, is a traditional Japanese zendo, consisting of the monks’ quarters, guest quarters, a kitchen, a dining hall, a dharma hall (for chanting), the large room where most of the sitting takes place (also called a zendo), and a few small offices under an arching roof of cedar shingles. Although it has modern amenities like electricity, hot water, and flush toilets, the complex also lacks such modern distractions as television and radio and magazines. The sheer differentness can be intimidating, but there is also a magnetic sense of beauty and calm. The rest of the world is out there while you are in here. 

Which isn’t the point at all. Eido Shimano Roshi, the founder and resident Zen master at Dai Bosatsu, had likened the zendo to a "furnace of burning karma," which is the apt short description of the process that I have heard. Externally, you’re getting this magnetic beauty and calm. Internally, you’re stepping into the furnace. 

When you’re not actually burning your karma, you get a room to sleep in. the basic fee for the eight-day Rohatsu is $450, extremely cheap for a bed, first-rate vegetarian food, and a shot at enlightenment. If you are willing to part with another $50, you can ask for a private room. Otherwise, you share one with three others. 

Probably the most intimidating aspect of Zen is that you’re always learning a new and odd way to do something that you always took for granted, such as eating or drinking tea. The instruction starts immediately. The monks doing the teaching are a friendly bunch who expect screw-ups over the years. Not much surprises them. The atmosphere is forgiving. At the same time, it is the most disciplined place I have ever been. Everything is choreographed. It’s like auditioning for the Rockettes, getting an hour’s instruction, and then joining the chorus line for a performance. Until you have the routine memorized, it’s nerve-racking. 

A monk named Seigan, den mother for us first-time sesshin participants, tells us about marching into the dining hall with our three little bowls and our chopsticks wrapped up in a napkin, kneeling at a long table that’s about 20 inches off the ground, unwrapping our utensils without noise, pushing the pots of food down the table, placing our chopsticks at the proper angle on the table. Oh, and don’t blow your nose because Roshi hates the sound of something coming out of your head when something else is going into it. Then the tea ceremony: when to kneel, how much tea to take, when to puck up a cup, when to put it down. I find it very hard to remember everything, and I start panicking that I won’t remember anything, which is a supremely ineffective state of mind for absorbing information. Seigan finishes by saying that on the one hand we shouldn’t worry, while on the other hand we will make him look bad in the eyes of the Roshi is we screw up, so don’t screw up. Which doesn’t calm the monkey in my mind at all. 

At the opening ceremony that night, I see Eido Roshi in person for the first time. At the age of 66, he has astounding posture. We’re talking coccygeal numinosity, hieratic osteology, all of which radiates: "Don’t screw up in front of me." Roshi, who had resided in the United States since the early 1960s, tells us (about 60 people from the outside, plus 15 monks and nuns) that he has received a letter from a friend in Japan who complains that the weather over there isn’t cold enough for a proper Rohatsu. In Japan, where the monasteries aren’t heated, windows are opened so the cold wind can blow on the monks while they meditate 20 hours a day. Roshi says his friend is missing the point. We’re not here for asceticism. This is an opportunity to find your Buddha nature, he tells us, to discover something that is hidden. Finally, Roshi issues a stern warning against making noise, talking unnecessarily, wearing a watch, making phone calls, and snacking. 

The first-times are then cut form the herd again for a lecture on dokusan etiquette. Dokusan is a personal audience with Roshi; it’s choreography is even more elaborate than that for eating or drinking tea, and it’s done right in front of the Vertebrae of Undeviating Perpendicularity. The monk lecturing us 10 beginners makes us walk through dokusan but I count 22 different moves—bowing, prostration, ringing bells, taking specific numbers of steps—and I have little faith in my ability to remember it all. When it’s my turn, indeed I don’t. 

After a one-hour sit, it’s 9:00 PM,--bedtime. I want to talk with my roomates and reassure myself that I’m not losing my mind. I want to hear what they remember about eating, drinking tea, and dokusan. But it’s against the rules. Not talking about an overwhelmingly novel experience turns out to be itself an overwhelmingly novel experience.