Zen for me was like encountering some carnal primordial dance training. The whole life was a choreographed dance. We came to the training, confused, awkward, couldn’t get ourselves going in one direction. We were scattered, lost. And then we’d see someone wash their bowls, and it was like the world turned to flame, witnessing someone move from a place we know and want to be, but have no idea how to get there. We went to Japan with lots of questions, and instead we learned to walk, we learned to sweep, we learned to wash rice, we learned to make a fire. And in the great laboratory of zazen, we learned about the way of everything, by just sitting still.
In the monastery, we learn this choreography, and do it over and over. Over time, as we become more and more used to it, like a musician, we find ways to exploit it. In the midst of the form there is room to improvise. So the form gives us a simple container to explore reality. We can each day, each moment, explore its edges, explore what is real and what is false in the midst of this container. And zazen is the most simple way to explore this. If we are not interested in this, we will not survive life in the dojo.
At first, We just did what everyone else was doing. Without question, just keeping up. We did not understand why we were doing certain things. We did not know the stories behind the many statues in the great hall or esoteric Japanese words or even the meaning of some of the sutras.
Sweeping the garden, washing the rice, was a mad swirl of energy. Instead of being overly cerebral, we became more basic. When the bell was sounded, our mouths watered and we smelled rice. Like animals, more and more in our bodies, more and more physically in the room, in the moment. We were hungry, cold, wild animals, it was like we had shaved our life to the essential, just as we shaved our heads. No ideas could penetrate this world. We wore old worn farm clothes. We carried sticks in the zendo and hit each other with them when we were drowsy. We all felt like Jedi knights eliminating everything extra until all there that was left was the great life force filling us up.
And when something was coming authentically from our essential self, it felt right. Hitting the (umpon) gong, if done right, one can feel the metal bend and ripple, and the sound is a melodious wave. If done poorly, it is violent and vulgar, without essence. All of our ideas, all of our fantasies about ourselves, all of our cuteness, burned away in sitting 16 hours a day in a freezing zendo called The Hall of Thorns.
We began to move with less of the filter of the intellect. We cried our eyes out while chanting sutras as our bodies felt like they were exploding. We bellowed with laughter so easily during sarei (tea break). We became happy and full of light but had no reason for this.
Drinking macha and the world is singing! Ravishing brown rice, devouring miso soup. The Roshi removed our brains, hit himself in the head and said “Not Here!” ten thousand times.
A whole life, a choreography of dance. Like children learning to walk, each step a revelation, everything new, no inside and no outside. The body begins to unify, and move as a wave of clarity. Sublime primordial dancers, not knowing up or down, in our out, and yet firmly rooted in reality. Life emerged from a place beyond understanding.
We swept the grounds, we carried logs down the mountain to make a bath. A crane walked delicately through the graveyard, an awkward boy turned into an arrow of focus. An expression of something undeniably real and true.
And we could see how this training changed people. Seeing the head monk walk across the zendo, light shining under his feet, seemingly floating off the ground. A river of energy, coming from a source, a freedom unbound by our ideas of good and bad.
Seeing the tea master whisk a bowl of tea without self conscious awareness, so shocking! Reaching for tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and the whole universe begins to come with us. Walking in from yaza (night sitting) and seeing someone sitting alone in full lotus on the cold stones around the Hondo, shining in the moonlight. So still and so alive!
We learned to warm our bodies in the winter cold, not from some complicated technique, but from getting all of ourselves, all of our energy, unified in oneness. We had many experiences, many awakenings, not through an idea, through the body! The bucket shatters and the universe obliterates all conception.
Alone in the late night hours, no sleep, weeping in the dark, filled with incredible emotion! Knowing what Hakuin felt, knowing what Dogen felt, bowing, bowing, but not a word to say about it.
Those who fell in love with that training, fell in love with that life, the Roshi cut off our wings. And from that, we learned to fly, shining, shining! It got into our bones. Our bodies became a vessel for it. If we get cut, zen bleeds out. And that never goes away.
These days, I identify more as a dancer of life than a formal Zen student. I am enjoying venturing further and further into a world beyond understanding. As the great butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno said:
“I wonder what to you mean when you say, “I understand”? When someone tells me that, I really don’t know how to respond. Why not dance without trying to comprehend everything. The audience can be moved without having to know all that goes into making your performance. Isn’t that the very reason we dance- to engage the audience on a visceral level? That’s why I’m at a terrible loss to hear people talk of understanding my performance. Of course you could use your brains to think, but when it comes to dancing, just forget all that.”
Thanks for reading.