Hakuna Hakuna Burning Karma 
Credit: Russell Monk / Getty Images

Day one: wake up bell at 4:30, which leaves 20 minutes for my three anonymous roommates to perform our bathroom ablutions, get into our robes, and go to the zendo.  Kinbin (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 we get used to it. It’s also beautiful in the darkness before dawn, illuminated only by candles. 

After a long sit, Jiro Osho, the assistant Tanto (means the second-in-command under Roshi), 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 basic yet difficult konas, 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 your gullet, says Joshu, 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.

Breakfast at 7:30, rice gruel garnished with hot pickled cabbage, salted sesame seeds, and seaweed. Fruit. Orange juice. Wash bowls with  hot tea at the table. 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. 

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 in nonsense syllables to people who don’t speak Japanese, it takes incredible concentration to get through it. The monks really have this nailed, missing syllables only when they breathe. 

After lunch, during the break, I go out into the woods with 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 forests, it is a great place to go and loosen your 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. 

One of the more unnerving aspects of group zazen is that periodically, a couple of monks do a slow walk around the zendo with sticks that are about three feet long, two inches wide, and a quarter-inch thick. In Japan, they whack people for infractions or just for the enlightenment of it, but here you have to ask to get hit. Why would a sane human volunteer for the stick? Because your muscles are red-hot iron balls, and getting whacked loosens them up. As the monk approaches, you put your hands in the prayer position, then you bow to the monk, and he to you, and then you bend over so as to arch your back upward. The monk hits you sharply twice on either part of your spine and the red-hot iron balls go away for a minute or two. (I know this sounds like an S&M bar. It’s not. It’s the furnace burning karma an getting whacked makes the heat a little more bearable.)

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Day Three: in morning time, 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. Arms flail, people trip, people push you into walls. At all other times, the atmosphere is non-competitive. During the Scrum, it’s every man for himself. Every woman, too. I’m quick off my zafu, but someone pushes me into a doorjam, 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-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, identitfy 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 breath 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 stopped resisting the pain. My brain shifts to a place where 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. 

Day Four: All day I tried to arrange my brain waves to get the Perfect Bliss again. My brain fails to cooperate. During afternoon zazen, I see Mr. Peanut dancing 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! as somebody goes under the stick returns me to reality. WHACK! WHACK! Really annoying Mr. Peanut disappears. 

Day Five: I’m walking like I’ve got some degenerative join 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 the 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 do you want to lead a meaningful life?" 

Day Seven: Comfortable or meaningful? This is the question, another red-hot iron ball.  This 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 into 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. 

Day Eight: 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 that our Rohatsu mates are, I sit down in the dharma hall with Seigan, my guardian monk, to ask a few questions. Seigan, 33, was 20 when we saw a bookmark that changed his life. "I was studying painting in college and I went to this Japanese bookstore for books on Zen art. I left my bag behind, and when I came back to retrieve it, somebody had put it on a shelf. There was a bookmark next to it that said, ‘Practice Zen now’."

Seigan, then named Edwin Glassing, took the suggestion and went to Eido Roshi’s Shobo-ji zendo in New York City. "Something grabbed me on a fundamental level, something that I had always believed in. I started doing zazen every day and I’m going to Shobo-ji once a week. I’m working in advertising, making a lot of money, and hating it. The more I sat, the more I realized that I had to go deeper. I signed up for three months at the monastery in 1988, and after three months I realized this was going to take longer than I thought."  

Ordained as a monk in 1991, Seigan had recently returned from a grueling three-and-a-half-year stint at the Japanese monastery. The monks there go begging for rice and money three or four times a week, which entails a hike of 10 to 30 miles. "But the training is exactly the same: chanting, meditation, work, practice, the meal rituals. What you went through this week is what you’d expect at a Japanese monastery—except you get heat here and a nicer room." 

Is it true that Roshi used to be more strict?

"Yes, he learned through making mistakes. I remember my first Rohatsu in 1988. We were chanting in the morning. He went to get the stick and he hit every single person without differentiation. In his teisho (talk) that afternoon he said, ‘Some people got upset, but I have to tell you that it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t me who was hitting you, it was Buddha who hit you, so you will chant better and not mumble, mumble, mumble. The more you shout, the more you give of yourself. The more you give of yourself, the more you will receive. The more you receive, the better for all of us.’ And it was!" Seigan burst out laughing. "Now Roshi says that a gentle-hearted spirit does far more than scolding!" 

What is the point of all this pain? 

"What you just went through, any normal person would have a hard time with. But in just 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 that out, well, that’s it." 

I personally can testify 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 options of others, watching no television. Then I visited my family for Christimas, 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 some place…no, it’s waiting in here some place, if I can just sit long enough and stop trying to find it.