Some years ago I was heading back to New York from Barre, Massachusetts, having hitched a ride with a fellow student at the end of a nine-day Vipassana retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.
My driver and I were saying how much we appreciated the simplicity of Vipassana practice: no robes, no bowing, no incense, no chanting: just sitting, nothing more. We wanted to continue practicing in that tradition, but neither of us knew of a place in the city where we might be able to do that.
"There is this group I sit with sometimes," my driver volunteered. "It's run by two women in their apartment in the Village. They practice Zen, not Vipassana, but they're fairly informal, they're not big on protocol. They call their place 'The Village Zendo.'"
I was intrigued, but wary. My one previous experience in a Zen center had stirred up a fierce, deep-seated resistance. It wasn't just the ceremonial aspects. I suppose I could have put up with the bowing and chanting and ritual, although these activities seemed to me to take valuable time away from sitting. No, what really troubled me was that the community operated as a strict hierarchy. The roshi was clearly the ultimate authority. Students advanced through the ranks, mainly by giving acceptable responses to increasingly difficult "koans" in a face-to-face encounter with the roshi—an ordeal that reminded me, for some reason, of the oral examination I had to get through before being awarded my Ph.D.
The senior students kept a sharp eye on those in lower ranks. If you placed your spoon facing the wrong direction in setting up for the formal "oriyoki" meal, some student who knew the right way was sure to pounce on you afterwards and drill you over and over in the proper procedure.
I never could remember which way to place my spoon . And I never got anywhere with my first koan, the traditional "Mu." There were times when I presented to my teacher what I thought was a profound understanding, but he would dismiss it in one curt sentence and reach for the bell.
I know, I know, you're supposed to get frustrated, that's the point. But the only insight that eventually worked its way through my frustration was the striking realization that I didn't really want to work on koans, I just wanted to sit.
Which is what brought me to Vipassana practice. And eventually, by a roundabout path, to the Village Zendo.
The two women turned out to be Pat O'Hara and Barbara O'Hara. I later came to call them by their "dharma names," Enkyo and Joshin respectively. Enkyo was later to became "Sensei," or teacher and eventually "Roshi," and Joshin became a "Dharma Holder," but in those days they were just Pat and Barbara.
Not necessarily physically. Their apartment, just off Washington Square, might charitably be described as "a bit cramped." It consisted of an entryway, two tiny bedrooms, a closet-sized kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room, probably no bigger than 12 by 15 feet, which had been converted into a zendo of sorts by placing an altar and screens in front of the window wall and arranging cushions along the other three sides. The room looked as if it could accommodate maybe a dozen meditators. (I later learned that if cushions were set up in the entryway, as many as twenty could be squeezed in for all-day sits.)
The evening began with a brief service, which I endured rather well, I thought (probably because we chanted the heart sutra in English!). The service was followed by three periods of sitting with short periods of "kinhin," or walking meditation, in between. I found it a calm and pleasant way to spend an evening, and I knew I'd be back.
Enkyo was not yet a sensei, empowered to give "dokusan," or one-on-one teaching, but she was able to give informal interviews, and a few weeks after my first visit I found myself at the head of the line to speak with her.
I came right out with it, all of it: my resistance to ritual, my discomfort with koans, and my wish to continue the practice that is known in the Vipassana tradition as "choiceless awareness."
Looking back, I can't believe my arrogance. Here I was, a rank beginner, telling the teacher what I would do and not do! But her response was even more astonishing. As I described to her what choiceless awareness was like, just sitting there and being with whatever arises moment to moment, her face began to glow, she broke into a broad smile and then announced, with enormous enthusiasm, "Oh yes, that's a wonderful practice! We call it 'shikantaza.'"
So. In an instant all my conflicts were dissolved. I no longer had to separate one practice from another and choose between them. I began to feel that, apart from what goes on before and after sitting, what happens while you are on the cushion is essentially the same, or can be, in both traditions.
There were still some minor differences to be negotiated. In the Vipassana tradition you sit with your eyes closed, in Zen with your eyes open, or partly open, gazing downward. At the Village Zendo, where you are inches away from the wall, I found that keeping my eyes open brought on attacks of claustrophobia. When I mentioned this to Enkyo, she said, "Go ahead and sit with your eyes closed." Actually, after talking with her, I didn't need to any more.
Another time I was troubled because I had been accustomed to focus on the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils, whereas Zen teachers say you should focus on the "hara," below the navel. "You have to do what works for you" was Enkyo's advice.
There was one thing about Zen that I preferred to Vipassana: you are held to a stricter standard of stillness. In Vipassana retreats I am sometimes distracted by people around me shifting positions restlessly. At the Village Zendo, where you are allowed to change your position maybe once a sitting at most, and then only if you are in agony, I find inspiration in the presence of a roomful of people sitting absolutely motionless
I soon found myself showing up at the apartment in the Village regularly, every Wednesday night. When we moved to a larger space on Varick Street and then to a still larger place on Broadway near Houston, I added Sunday mornings to my schedule. Once a month, on a Saturday, I would join an all-day sitting. And twice a year I would travel with the group to do "sesshins," or weeklong retreats, in the summer at Grail House in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, and in the winter at Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut. (I continued to do occasional Vipassana retreats at Barre as well.)
What kept me coming back to the Village Zendo was my deep appreciation for Enkyo Roshi. She became my guide and mentor, not just in the practice of sitting, but in the practice of my life. Many a time I would speak to her about some trauma I was going through, and she would listen with such warmth and compassion, I knew she felt what I was feeling, deep in her bones. And she would remind me to inhabit my body, to enter fully into what I was feeling, not to reject it or push it away, and to recognize that in some deep sense it was OK, it was all right, it was endurable. Of course this teaching is fundamental in all schools of Buddhism, but I needed to hear it over and over again from a teacher who was able to convey it with peculiar eloquence and force precisely because she believed it so passionately herself. I sensed in Enkyo Roshi a fierce determination to save all sentient beings, including the one sitting across from her at the moment.
Another centripetal force pulling me into the Village Zendo was the sangha, the thirty to forty people I sat with regularly. This is the only ongoing community I have ever felt a part of. As an actor I frequently form close friendships and develop a sense of camaraderie with other actors working on a play, but a year later I might run into one of those actors on the street and not be able to recall his name. My friends at the Village Zendo are here for the long haul. I sense the power of their presence every time we sit. I enjoy those occasions before and after sitting when we can have a good time together. And I appreciate how readily they rally round whenever they sense I am in need of support or encouragement.
Don't mistake me, however. My aversion to the ceremonial aspects of Zen had abated only slightly. I was secretly glad on those occasions when not enough people showed up to have a service and we had an extra period of sitting instead. And there were times when I thought I would be perfectly happy if the entire sangha converted to Vipassana and abandoned all practices except sitting, interviews with Enkyo Roshi, and her dharma talks.
I would go on and on in my interviews about my sense of alienation, tracing it back to my Roman Catholic upbringing, pointing out that so many of the forms of Zen are imported from Japan and that trying to fit myself into those forms was like putting on a costume for a role I was not right for. Roshi would listen with full attention, as always, then lean forward, look me in the eyes and say, with overwhelming warmth, "Jack, we are so glad to have you here with us!"
"I don't think you realize," she would sometimes add, "how respected you are, admired even, in this sangha. So many people look up to you as a role model." (I couldn't understand at first why that should be, but then I realized it was probably because I had started a new life at 55, retiring early as a college professor to resume a career as an actor, taking up meditation, along with tap-dancing and singing about the same time, and pursuing these activities enthusiastically into my sixties and seventies.)
A man can take only so much appreciation without crumbling. The first crack opened up with the realization (finally!) that the very forms that were alien to me were precious and deeply meaningful to Enkyo Roshi and to most of the sangha. Out of respect and love for them, the least I could do was give myself over to the rituals as wholeheartedly as I was able.
Through another widening fissure I saw that my aversion to the Zen liturgy could be traced to a stomach-wrenching fear that I might get it wrong. And so I began to cultivate a different attitude towards making mistakes. Take oriyoki, for example. I still can't remember which way to place my spoon, but now I simply take care to sit next to somebody who does know and watch them out of the corner of my eye. I have come to see that it doesn't matter which way the spoon goes. The point is not to get it right, the point is simply to practice paying attention. I now find, upon returning from a retreat where we had a lot of oriyoki meals, I am slowing down a bit and noticing what happens as I sit down to a regular meal. I am not trying to practice at these times, it's just that the habit of attending has taken over.
To my surprise, I found myself at times deeply caught up in the drumming, bell ringing, and chanting. I particularly savored the sound of the "han," or wooden block, being hit by a wooden mallet, and I was delighted when it was my turn to do the hitting.
There came a time when I felt ready to go through the rite of Tangaryo which entails an all-day sitting with no scheduled breaks followed by a visit with Roshi for tea, whereupon one is accepted as her student. In my case I was simply formalizing a relationship that already existed, and had for years.
But there was another rite of passage ahead of me, and this one was not so easily navigable. Most Zen students, after their first year or so of practice, go through the ceremony of Jukai, in which they vow to live according to the precepts laid down by the Buddha, such as not killing not stealing, not misusing sex, not lying, not "clouding the mind" with drugs, and so on. Since I was already trying, at least, to live by these ethical guidelines, taking the vows presented no great obstacle for me. However, the ceremony of Jukai also required going through certain forms and rituals that I dreaded.
First, I would be expected to wear a black robe, just like everybody else in the room. Second, I would be given a new name, using Japanese syllables, by which I was likely be addressed by the sangha. Both of these conditions, I realized, would require me to give up my identity as "Jack," and I found that incredibly threatening. (Of course relinquishing one's sense of a separate self is precisely what being a Buddhist requires!)
There was yet another requirement for Jukai, and this was by far the most daunting. By tradition each student must sew their own rakusu! That is a square "apron" of sorts hanging over the torso by straps around the neck. (Roshi referred to it once as a "lobster bib.") The design of the rakusu is stunningly intricate, and I would have to cut out all the pieces and stitch them together, a task I felt was far beyond my capability. I was not just making a neurotic excuse for avoiding something I probably could do if only I put my mind to it. It was a reality. I cannot sew! I am sewing-impaired!
Given such misgivings, I suppose it's not surprising that it took me seven years from the time I began practicing at the Village Zendo till I was able to take the plunge and sign up for Jukai. What is surprising is that I finally did. I couldn't explain my decision to Roshi or to anyone else. I happened to blurt out the news to her as we passed in the hall. She paused a second, said "Yes, it's about time, isn't it?" and went on her way.
And so I found myself one day sitting in a sewing circle with fellow applicants for Jukai, tracing patterns and cutting out pieces of cloth. My good friend Bob "Chodo" Campbell, who had been through the process before and volunteered to give us guidance, was sitting across from me. If I hadn't already known that I was botching the process completely, I could have found out just by the expression on Chodo's face. He was leaning across the table, staring at my handiwork, his mouth agape, clearly appalled. After a time, apparently unable to take it anymore, he reached over, scooped up my malformed, misshapen scraps of cloth, and said, "I'm taking these home, Jack, I'll bring them back next week."
A week later he returned, as promised, and handed me a nearly completed, impeccably crafted rakusu. I was deeply touched.
We were expected to complete our rakusus the day before the ceremony at Grail House under the guidance of another good friend, Sinclair "Shinryu" Thomson. There were still some finishing touches needed on mine, and Shinryu asked me, "Would you like to do this yourself while I sit in, or do you just want me to do it?" It was not a difficult question. "You do it," I said. And he did.
Wearing my rakusu at the Jukai ceremony, I felt it was more than a symbol, it was a palpable expression of the generosity of my friends.
I was surprised by the depth of feelings that welled up during the ceremony. Two moments in particular brought on a copious flood of tears. The first was when Roshi announced my new name. "I've been saving this name for a long, long time," she began, and everybody laughed. "Your new name is 'Baiju'. It means 'plum tree,' and I chose it because the plum tree is the only tree that blossoms in the winter."
The other overwhelming moment was when the entire Juikai group stood together on a huge tree stump while the others in the sangha danced around us in a circle and chanted, "Buddha recognizes Buddha, Buddha bows to Buddha." As each of my dear friends passed by, our eyes met for a second, and our faces came alive with recognition of all we had been through together.
I knew I was where I belonged.