Hakuna Hakuna Burning Karma 

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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?   


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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. 

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.  

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