That first morning when I arrived at the Zen Monastery I remember telling myself that there was a good chance that I was never coming back out again. Something deep inside me, that was deeply familiar with the seduction of meditation, was calling to me to beware. I was wary therefore when I first came into the room. It was an open room with the unmistakable pillars of a refurbished warehouse interrupting your gaze like an annoying information seeker when you are trying to read a really great book.
There I stood, half-naked and in sandals, hair long but neatly combed. There he sat, with the others, not looking or not looking at me, but rather just looking. After a while, I just sat down. I felt like it was the right thing to do. I sat there, for hours, not really knowing what to do. I sat for hours upon hours as people came and went and the person who appeared to be “in charge” just did things only an attendant would do. I began to think nobody was in charge and this was just a hangout for people who wanted to come and think. In that way, it was really not very much different than the library.
There was something different about it though. It was the ever sucking silence that was there. It was a presence beyond the occasional noise from the outside world that would bleed through the walls of the old warehouse. It was visceral and gelatinous and stuck to you like flies to flypaper. It was compelling. So I stayed, sitting in that ridiculous way for that equally ridiculous amount of time. I never felt foolish though. The setting was too somber for that. I am pretty sure if I had been anywhere else I would have felt foolish. Here, not so much.
Finally, at the very end of the day, the “attendant” came up to me and stood about three feet away from me. He was not standing over me nor was he even facing me. He was just standing near me. I found this profoundly interesting. Then he noticed I was looking at him and he then looked at me, no, really looked at me this time. I could tell the difference. I thought he was going to say something, but he did not. His eyes were always making you think he was about to say something but he rarely did. He then came closer to me one step at a time. Finally, he sat down in front of me, and then after staring at me for a good long time he finally said something to me. He took a deep, deep breath and after most of the air had departed his lungs he allowed his vocal cords to intercept the air and his mouth slowly formed the word, “why?”
One word. One utterance, almost like a windy whisper that could have been mistaken for any number of sounds a windpipe can make, came from him. Only one. So I said, “be…” and his hand rose sharply and quickly to silence me. Then the next word came out, “wait”. We sat there with me beginning to fidget, something I had not done all day. Finally, he uttered one more word, “tomorrow.”
Then he got up, went to the door, which was always open, and walked outside. He did not come back, at least not in the hour I sat there waiting for him. By that time I was profoundly tired. So, having no place to go (I had rented out my co-op space to another person for the summer) I opened up my grass mat (yep I was that trendy) and fell soundly asleep on it.
I awoke the next day to ice-cold water dumped over my entire body. I sat straight up and screamed as loud as I could. I was enraged and stood up ready to punch someone only to find that face, looking, not at me, just looking. I was immediately set back by that stare and backed down. He then said one word to me, “scrub”. He handed me the now-empty bucket, except for the wooden handled brush inside, and walked away to water some plants.
I could not believe what I was witnessing. Without saying anything more than four words to me this man had already had the most profound impact on me that I could remember anyone, even my wordy professors, having upon me. I put the bucket down, grabbed the scrub brush, moved my mat off the wet spot, and started using the water to scrub the wooden floor.
As I scrubbed I could not help but think that the way he was looking in my direction and where the water landed was nothing but a coincidence. It almost seemed like he was not expecting anything to be on that spot on the floor. Rather, he was wetting the floor and discovered that I was sleeping on it in that way. At which point I was enlisted in the scrubbing. It only seemed natural. So I scrubbed. It took me about two hours to scrub the floor while the sun slowly came up over the horizon and the whole room glowed in surreal orange vermilion.
When I had finished scrubbing the floor, he walked over near me and said, “follow.” I then was taken to the garden area where there was a sandpit with some stones and some bonsai trees surrounded by a redwood deck that was meticulously manicured and startlingly clean. He pointed at the deck and said, “scrub”. I sighed and said, “it’s already…”. Again, the hand shot up and silenced me. Again, he said, “tomorrow”. This time he meant I should leave.
That was the first of many nights I slept in nature. Something a break from school and the summer vacation made possible. It is quite striking how little food we actually need to survive. Granted I was rail thin, but I was not always hungry. I ate what I was offered, from friends or from the monastery, but nothing else. Towards the evening I would find a safe place to place my mat and sleep.
I arrived the next morning around the time I remembered must have been when the master had arrived and discovered that there was a bucket, scrub brush, and water waiting for me. So I scrubbed the floor of the main sitting room and then moved to the redwood deck in the garden area and then when I was done I placed the bucket where I had found it and sat down.
It was about another hour and the master came out and said, “follow”. I then followed him and he took me to a really amazing place. It was a small pool with a statue of a Buddha in lotus. Placed on a redwood bench next to the pool were a robe, bright orange vermilion, and a pair of plain leather sandals. He looked at me and said, “Bathe. Dress. Sit.” So I did. When I saw him next he had a towel and a bowl. He said, “on your knees.” I said, “OK.” He said, “bend over.” I was thinking, “OK, this is getting creepy.” I felt like I was supposed to be alarmed at this somewhere in my deepest being, but then he smiled and pulled out a big pair of silver scissors. So I bent over and he placed the large wooden bowl under my head and began to cut my hair.
Now, it must be said, I loved my hair. I took meticulous care of it. I was careful to brush it one hundred times with my head inverted between my knees to let the blood flow to the follicles. It was thick and luxurious hair and I was known for it all about campus. As I watched it fall from my head, all I could think about was that this felt like I was becoming naked even though I was fully clothed in the robe.
Next, he got out a razor and some shaving soap and shaved my head neatly down to the skin. When he was done he tossed me the towel and I wiped my head. He then said, “follow.” We went into the garden as the sun was just rising. He sat down and patted the redwood. I sat down. He then reached into his robe and gave me the book that would change my entire life. He gave me a handwritten notebook containing the neatly written Ambattha Sutta which is the treatise on Pride. It means, generally, “pride humbled.”
He got up and walked away. I then started to read the words in the notebook and from that point, I was whisked away into a world of understanding that has only grown as I encounter more of the wisdom of humanity on this incredible journey I am on.
One notebook at a time throughout the entire summer I read, sat, listened, and learned from the master. Finally, towards the end of the summer, I came across the treatise on the mental body. I remember where I was when I was reading it. I was in the coffee shop next to the monastery sitting at a table, bright orange vermilion robe and shaved head and all, and read the lines about the instructions on how to build the mental body. It was at this point that everything came rushing in upon me and I started to pulse in and out again.
I knew that this was the answer to what had happened to me and it apparently had happened to this fellow Gautama over a thousand years ago. He was experiencing something far beyond what was simply physical and it had real ramifications in the world, the physical world. According to this reading, there were many things that could be done in the mental body that could not be done in the physical body and that that which was seen in the mental body could inform the physical body and physical world. However, there were many, many cautions. Far more cautions than the cautions for the meditating student. This was precisely because this exercise was detached from direct corroboration. It was an exercise that existed entirely inside of mind. Progress had to be made slowly and with meticulous verification or one was surely lost.
However, at least I had a framework for what was happening to me. I could let go of the conspiracy lunacy and get down to brass tacks. I was, after all, a scientist and a philosopher, at the time, and I was after a rational explanation for the profoundly altering experiences that were happenstance-ing to me.