The Accidental Buddhist (Dinty Moore)

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  After breakfast on Saturday, each of us at Zen Mountain Monastery is given a work assignment. Work, Jimon explains, is part of Zen practice, a way to integrate meditative concentration into our everyday tasks. It is also, clearly, an efficient way to keep the monastery clean.

Everyone works, we are told, from the lowliest weekend visitor like myself to the highest-ranking monk. Even the abbot of the monastery, John Daido Loori, works, though I don't see him sweeping floors anywhere near me. In fact, we have yet to see him at all.

I am paired with Tom, an affable glassblower from New Jersey, and we are instructed to merge our Buddha selves with a ten-pound bag of onions, to dice diligently until we completely fill a giant wooden bowl, and to talk as little as possible in the process.

Tom and I don't talk at all. We are high achievers. Instead, we chop like skilled chefs, running through the heap of onions in record time. And a lesson is learned. It is easier, more efficient, to chop onions when you are only chopping onions, not conversing, checking up on the rest of the kitchen, answering the phone, flirting with the young lady scouring the coffeepot, or whatever.

When done, Tom and I wash up the knives and cutting board with a bottle of Big Top blue dish detergent, and the head cook gives us a second chore: hauling a forty-gallon plastic garbage can of kitchen waste out to a well-composted compost pile the size of a Plymouth minivan. As a gardener, I am well impressed.

When the work is done, we retum to the main hall, meditate some more, then have instruction in Zen painting, the practice of catching an image in a single brush stroke. The lesson is so brief that all we really learn is that Zen painting looks simple but is deceptively difficult. Then a quick lunch, during which Harold, at my table again, lets us all know just how much of what we are learning he knew already, and complains about his aching back. I've noticed over the course of the morning that he has developed a minor limp, and my compassion is tested. I don't much like the guy, and I'm of the opinion that he deserves a pain in the back now and then, but I'm also beginning to sense that this is not a very Buddhist thought.

The monastery building is an impressive maze of rooms and hallways, but they are mainly small and dark, so in the break after lunch, I head outside for some fresh air.

The Zen Mountain grounds include 230 acres of nature preserve, and though a sign has been posted on the main bulletin board warning us that a hungry bear has been spotted in the area, I don't see one.

Instead, after a ten-minute climb straight uphill past cabins that house some of the longer-term residents, I run into three whitetail deer--does, nice-sized, very much alert and mindful.

Mindfulness is what we are focusing on this weekend: the unwavering concentration that comes from stillness. When we are sitting on the zafu pillow, we should just be sitting. When we are chopping onions, we should be chopping onions only, right there, right then, at the chopping board, as if the onions, the knife, and our hands were all that existed. Later, as we return to our lives as doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, we should ideally bring that mindfulness with us as well, and as a result, we should be far better able to focus clearly on whatever task comes to hand. Mindfulness is the antithesis of Monkey Mind. Turtle Mind, maybe.

Or Doe Mind. The does are totally concentrated, it seems, on the sounds, the sights, the odors, that surround them in the woods, are absolutely focusing on the moment at hand, not worrying ahead to the next hour or the next day or whether they'll have the money they need for retirement. They are sniffing the tall weeds, looking for tasty clumps of grass, and listening sharply, ever alert for change or danger.

Just then, amazingly, I am mindful, too, for what seems like an uncommonly long time, as I do nothing more than simply watch them stray nearer and nearer to where I crouch frozen behind a small stand of dry late-autumn brush. Watching the thin, sleek, elegant creatures, I lose track of why I am there or where I am going. The winter sun is shining on my back, and it all feels rather magical.

I suppose it is a Zen moment, but the quibbling monkey voices in my head start almost immediately to ruin it. How trite! the monkeys giggle. City boy merges with nature. He sees a few cute, dumb animals and imagines he has achieved some spiritual plateau. Had a cheeseburger lately, animal lover? Okay, bonehead, you paid your money, you saw the deer, now why don't you go write a poem about it. If you haven't yet noticed, my brain is home to some particularly skeptical, sarcastic, and mean-spirited monkeys. Blame it on the nuns.

Distracted by all of this, and with my leg muscles beginning to ache, I shift my weight, snap a branch under my right foot, and the does are off like lightning into the forest.

Walking back, I am filled with fresh misgivings. Remembering the hyperactivity of my mind during morning zazen, my discourteous questioning of the Zen liturgy, my distinct lack of Buddhist compassion toward my fussy roommate with the bad back, my natural mistrust of all things spiritual, I begin giving serious thought to the notion that perhaps I am being a fool. This Project I have concocted may be dead before it even gets off the ground. Perhaps my true nature is too frantic, cynical, volatile, and mundane for anything good to ever happen.

Back at the meditation hall, though, on the pillow again for the afternoon session, I have a meditative breakthrough. After sitting for fifteen minutes in total stillness and total silence, looking at nothing more than the gray robe of the stick-thin monk one row of zafus ahead of me, thinking of nothing but my breath, I lose track. I actually stop thinking for a moment.

Then of course, I have this thought:

Look, I'm not thinking.

And the bubble bursts.

But for that brief fragment of time, there was no real time, because I was not keeping track, because I had forgotten to grasp greedily at every moment and analyze every twitch and twitter of my life, and it was a remarkable feeling.

I could very well have been spaced out on my zafu for an hour or more, though in all honesty it was probably no more than a few minutes. What I experienced was not samadhi, the Zen state of "no mind"--or maybe it was. But whatever it was, it felt good. And immediately I want to get the feeling back.

Wanting that feeling to return is attachment, of course, and Buddhists say that attachments are bad, that as soon as I attach to a feeling and pursue it, it will elude me all the more. Our minds are tricky. If we want something, we can't get it. Once we stop wanting it, it comes. This is why Zen is so hard.

I am not at all sure why I experience this mini-samadhi, if I may call it that. Perhaps it is just the wonderful excess of fresh, clean mountain air that I have inhaled over the lunch break, or perhaps it is a timely answer to the doubts that washed over me on my walk back down the mountain, or perhaps it is random and meaningless.

I just don't know, but during the instructional session that follows, I find myself sincerely wishing the various black robes would talk less and let me sit some more.

In the late afternoon, Jimon takes a seat at the head zafu to prepare us for face-to-face teaching by Abbot John Daido Loori. Loori, an American-born scientist and photographer, is founder and director of the monastery. The students call him Daido-shi.

I know all of this from the brochure that came when I registered, though I have yet to see the man, and face-to-face teaching, it turns out, is not so simple as going into a room and asking Daido-shi a question.

Smiling her lovely smile, Jimon tells us the rules:

During sitting meditation that evening, we are to listen for an announcement. When we hear a voice saying, "All weekend retreat participants who desire dokusan now enter the line," we are to spring from our zafus and race for the hallway just outside the meditation hall. First come, first served.

But this is just the beginning. Once we reach the hallway, we are to wait in line, sitting in half lotus or whatever position our legs are able to accomplish, until a bell is rung. That bell, coming from an inside room where Daido-shi is waiting, signals the first person on line to approach and enter his chamber.

When the first person goes into dokusan, the formal name for the face-to-face encounter, the rest of the hallway line moves up one space. When it is our turn, and we enter the dokusan room, we are to put our hands together, bow twice, then step forward, then bow again, then do a full prostration bow, dropping to our knees and bowing until our foreheads hit the floor, then another half bow, then we should sit about a foot from Daido-shi's knees and introduce ourselves, first name only, and tell Daido-shi what kind of practice we do ("if you don't know,"Jimon tutors us, "just say that you count breaths"), and then we can ask Daido a question.

He will answer the question, or else he won't.

We can ask a follow-up question, perhaps, but as soon as Daidoshi rings the bell again, we are to spring to our feet, bow like mad, and get the heck out of there, because our turn is over.

"Dokusan is an important part of the teaching," Jimon warns us gently. "Don't waste this opportunity. Think, if you could ask a question of the Buddha, what would you ask?

Geez whiz, how intimidating. Daido-shi, we are told, has learned his Zen Buddhism from another teacher, and that teacher had a teacher before him, and that teacher can trace his Buddhism back to yet another teacher, and then another, and another, and another, centuries back, an unbroken string of face-to-face teaching, theoretically returning all the way to the historic Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama, the good fellow who started all of this. Direct transmission, it is called.

Zen is not learned from books, Jimon tells us, it is learned from teachers, and for a teacher to be legitimate, his or her transmission lines should be intact, and John Daido Loori is the real thing.

So because of this direct transmission, teachers of the lineage are sometimes referred to as "living Buddhas." Dokusan will be our chance to meet with a living Buddha, but we have to remember the rules.

The weekend training participants seem clearly unsettled by this prospect, and they pepper Jimon with worried questions. How exactly do we know when to get in the line? Which bow comes first? Are there two small bows and then a big one, or one small and then two big ones? What do we do after the third bow?

As for myself, I am beginning to feel skeptical again. Back in the old days, I never much liked the deference we were expected to pay our parish priests, or the idea that they were God's hand-picked representatives. They were just guys who had volunteered--I knew that, even as a kid. Anyone with a working brain had to question the idea that priests were special emissaries of God, worthy of so many exceptional privileges, because it was the priests themselves who had decided this, and kept reminding us of it. As the comedian says, isn't that a little too convenient?

So here is Jimon, touting Daido-shi's special standing in the Buddhist world, and it brings up all my deep-rooted cynicism. I haven't even met the guy yet, and I'm beginning to dislike him.

"Daido-shi is not a guru, Jimon says, as if reading my thoughts. "He is a teacher, with a deep understanding of the dharma, of the teachings."

Well, here is another fine Zen contradiction. If the man is not to be treated as a guru, why all the fuss, ceremony, and complex choreography just to ask him a question? I'm a college professor--I have office hours. Just knock on my door.

"Can we rehearse the bows? a young woman named Connie asks.

"No," Jimon answers with her calm, quiet smile, a smile that I'm noticing is actually common among the black robes. "I don't think so."

We have an open hour before dinner.

Many of the weekend participants settle on the couches in the dining hall, busily reading magazines that have been left on a big table. Aren't we supposed to be emptying our minds?

Apparently not. One of the resident staff opens the Monastery Store, and we are allowed to do some shopping practice. The small shop is filled with books, tapes, clothing, incense, and Buddha statues. I am mindful of not buying too much, but come away with a nifty sweatshirt, a coffee mug, and two postcards.

Supper is black bean soup, salad, corn bread. One consistent aspect of the retreat is the excellent food.

Our dinner-table conversations are dominated by more nervous speculation and anxiety over dokusan. I can tell from the strained voices that many of my fellow newcomers are as confused and intimidated as I am. Eventually we move on though, to a discussion of our healthy, tasty meal, which segues easily into talk about our various obsessions with losing weight and our nasty eating habits back in our real lives.

A few of us have young daughters, it turns out, and weight and body image leads naturally to a discussion of Barbie dolls, and how it is that after concerted efforts to shield our daughters from the anorexic Barbie culture, they still come home one day wanting nothing more than tiny clothes and a pink plastic Corvette. Direct transmission, obviously. The teachings are directly transmitted from one four-year-old girl to another, in an unbroken chain of Barbie dharma.

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Excerpted from The Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore. Copyright © 1998 by Dinty Moore. Excerpted by permission of Main Street, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.