So, being a young professor at the time, I started reading books about Zen. But I quickly realized that reading books, though informative, was not Zen. After all, as the old saying goes, if you want to know what food tastes like, it will do you no good to spend your time looking at menus. Zen is a practice, not a religion.
To do Zen, one had to meditate doing a form of meditation called zazen.
So I got myself a little Seiza bench that enabled me to sit on my butt with my knees on the floor (I could never even come close to assuming the lotus posture), and tried to meditate, with indifferent success. It was not long before I knew if I were to pursue this seriously, I would have to take myself to Zen centers and receive instruction there.
Nevertheless, I found sitting (i.e., zazen) difficult. It was very hard on my knees and physically taxing. Still, I persevered. I knew Zen would not be an easy path to walk. But I enjoyed the atmosphere at that house and had already been drawn to the quietude of the Zen centers I had previously visited when sitting with other Zen aspirants. I really did feel “at home” in such settings, even if my knees did not.
In Zen, there are special intensive Zen sessions lasting several days called sesshins. My first one lasted three days, and, frankly, it was a bitch, though I found it worthwhile. I finally decided I needed to undergo a longer one, so I signed up for a weeklong sesshin in Massachusetts.
At the same time, it left me with no desire to go through another ordeal like that. Regretfully, I found that despite Zen’s appeal for me, I did not have what it took to become a dedicated practitioner of Zen. I could definitely see its value; I just wasn’t prepared to pay its price.
Nevertheless, I never lost my interest in Zen or in Buddhism generally. I still “hung out” in those circles and at conferences. I even danced one memorable night with a well-known Zen teacher in San Francisco, and for a time I became very friendly with a Tibetan lama. I met him once at his home in England where we drank saké together. And another time, when we were both speakers at a conference in California, he actually gave me a backrub when my back was ailing, and it really helped, too! He was very jolly and had a great sense of humor, but I never studied with him – I just enjoyed his company.
Finally, I should mention that the woman I had lived with during my “Zen years” had also been practicing Zen with me, but unlike me, she stuck with it and became a Zen teacher herself. We have remained loving friends ever since we separated as lovers, and I’ve spent a lot of time hearing about her Zen-based life and listening to some of her recorded teishos (a sort of discourse on Zen practice).
So much for my abortive life as a Zen practitioner, but just recently I finally learned “the secret of Zen,” and before long, I will reveal it to you.
I knew Huston, but was never really friends with him. We just had a nodding acquaintanceship when we would encounter each other at conferences or, once, at Esalen. That is, we would just nod at each other and sometimes exchange a few pleasantries. I know he was familiar with my work on NDEs, and of course I had read his book on religion, but we were never really drawn to each other. He had actually grown up in China, the son of Methodist missionaries, and wherever I looked at him he really did seem to have the visage and bearing of an old Chinese sage. Huston was widely beloved, both venerable and venerated, and, frankly, I was somewhat in awe of him. He had an august and serene presence of the sort that only a spiritual adept could evince.
Oddly enough, the only time I actually had a conversation with him was years later when I met him in an eye doctor’s waiting room. I had taken my mother there so she could be examined for her glaucoma, which had developed when she was in her early eighties. (I’ve had glaucoma since I was sixty, but my mother was a late bloomer.) But this was not an upscale office. It was full of down-and-out people like my mother, who by then was indigent and on Medicaid. I was shocked to see Huston there, and he seemed to be embarrassed when he saw me. Still, he was pleasant and kindly and we had a warm exchange. It proved to be the last time I was to see him.
Nevertheless, that evening, I received a delightful surprise, courtesy of a dear friend, now in England, who was kind enough to forward me something she had received from an American colleague.
You will now see why I was tickled all shades of pink to receive it. Here’s what my friend sent to me:
At the end of Huston Smith’s extremely arduous month-long practice period in a Japanese Zen monastery (the last week without sleep for most of the monks; though as a sybaritic Westerner, Huston was allowed 3 hours nightly), Huston went to pay his respects to the teacher, Goto Roshi (from whom, he says, “a Marine sergeant could have learned a few things”).
Goto Roshi then proceeded to knock Zen off its pedestal.
Koans can be a useful exercise, he said, but they are not Zen.
And sitting in meditation, he went on -- that is not Zen.
Then why had I been torturing myself with koans and body aerobatics, I wondered, and what the hell, then, was Zen?
"You will be flying home tomorrow," he said.
"Don't overlook how many people will help you get home -- ticketing agents, pilots, cabin attendants, those who prepare your meals."
He bowed and placed his palms together, demonstrating gassho, the gesture of gratitude….Then he did a gassho to me.
"Make your whole life unceasing gratitude," he said.
Infinite gratitude toward all things past;
infinite service to all things present;
infinite responsibility to all things future.
Have a safe journey home."
And he gave me a wonderful smile. "I am glad you came."
Huston Smith. (2009). Tales of Wonder. HarperCollins
Huston’s autobiography published on his 90th birthday.
There you have it, friends – the secret of Zen. It is one of Zen’s many paradoxes that you are still required to sit until your balls ache and your knees start to scream. That, at least, is not so simple, but I still prefer Goto Roshi’s version of Zen.
And now for a final word from our sponsor….
In those days, when I would visit her, I would take her out for a spin, so to speak, pushing her chair around the level streets in her neighborhood, chatting away while my mother, for the most part, remained silent, stoical and forbearing. She once told me that I talked too much.
She never did walk again, of course. She mostly lay in her bed, quiet and uncomplaining, waiting for death to come.
In a few weeks, I will turn 88. In the last year, my legs, already weakened by years of spinal stenosis, have become even more unsteady and fragile. For various reasons, I have not been able to exercise since the beginning of the year, but I used to be able to walk down and back on my street. No more. I can’t even walk to the end of my little court without stopping a number of times, so I no longer even try. My daughter, Kathryn, gave me some leg strengthening exercises in hopes that they would help me, but when I try them, they just strain my back and put it out of alignment. At least I am spared from having to do any more zazen!
I have to be very careful now when I walk, very mindful, which is the only form of Zen practice I can still manage. I must avoid making any sudden changes in direction. When I get up from my chair from which I watch my TV, I do so very gingerly. I hold onto surfaces as much as possible, lest I fall. I do stumble a lot as I shuffle about, but so far I have managed to avoid falling. Since I live by myself, falling could not only be serious, it could be a calamity. I’m not sure I could get up again.
I am my mother’s son, all right, and I seem to be following her course toward immobility.
Of course, I have no intention of winding up like she did. Sure, like everyone who has ever lived, one day I will die. But how and under what circumstances, that is the question I am pondering. I’m definitely not going to end up in a nursing home like she did. No way! I want to remain in my house until I croak, even if I have to crawl around the floor. But no, before it comes to that, I will have to find a way either to live with some dignity or to do myself in.
I have long joked that my body has expired before I have, and that’s true. But I have been lucky – knock on Formica – that as of now I am not suffering from any great pain, just the tedium of crippling infirmity in my small-compass life as a shut-in. For the most part, it’s not really that bad, and there are many days (I will elide the rest) when I feel tolerably well and can enjoy my life.
But as I grow weaker and more unsteady on these last legs of mine, which formerly and for many years had been so sturdy and reliable, I can see that the end is in sight. Whether it is in the distance or, figuratively speaking, around the corner, who can say? All I know is that I’d better watch my step. In any case, I’m determined to live on my own terms until the good Lord relieves me of the burden of my life.