For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’ve been doing martial arts since 1993 and I’ve been interested in Zen and other things I’ve come across in passing while studying different styles. I was talking with one of the guys I studied jujitsu with a few years back and he and I had discussed the possibility of making a trip up to a place he’d heard of from a friend to check out Zen Buddhism firsthand. I stopped studying HYR Jujitsu, but kept in touch with the one guy over Instant Messenger. (as an aside, if you live in the Princeton NJ area, Fabian Sensei is amazing. I only stopped because I got a new job in White Plains.)
My 40th birthday is coming up and I was trying to decide what to do. My friend Alex got me tickets to see the RedSox play in Fenway in Sept for the first time, giving me the best birthday present ever. The question from my family came up as to what I wanted to do for my 40th in January.
After kicking around several ideas, I thought about the place my friend had told me about and I found the place again, Zen Mountain Monastery. I found an intro class that sounded cool, but it’s not cheap, and it’s 3 days. Everyone wants to go in together on a present and get it for me, but truthfully, I like meditating, and I do it quite often, but the package I looked at was for extended periods and I wasn’t sure if it was truly something for me or something I was physically capable of. They do offer a Sunday class that is a nice intro to what they do, how it works, and what to expect. So after getting in touch with them to find out what to do, they told me to just show up around 9, and someone would lead me from there.
6am – oye. Didn’t sleep much, maybe 5 hours. Mind racing a million miles an hour. Is that the alarm? Enlighten THIS!! Ugh!
6:01am – get up loser. You need to go check it out.
6:30am – fuck, it’s dark. Shut up and go. Wait. Oh, okay. It’s not really that dark, my eyes aren’t totally open.
6:35am – please please please don’t let me get into an accident before I can put the caffeine IV in. Ahh, Dunkin Donuts, thank heaven for you:)
6:36am – where are my fucking directions?!?
8:40am – wow, I’m awake, the mountains are really beautiful and I’m almost there. Man, I’m in the middle of NOWHERE!
8:50am – almost miss the turn, oh okay, the bridge is out. I have to park here and hoof it to the place on foot. Oh, thank goodness, it’s on the other side of the bridge. Met some nice people who took pity on me and showed me where I could park and walked with me. They introduced me to a woman who turned out to be the chant leader, very nice. She told me where to drop my jacket and where to go and wait.
The zendo (the place where everyone meditates) was a polished wooden floor with square padded mats, with a small round pillow on each one. Very beautiful, yet modest statue on the altar at one end, and very sparse and simple room. I found out that once the bell rang and the others filed in, I could find a place to stand and just try to follow along as best as I could. Lots of bell ringing and chanting, and a nice lady who showed me which page to read from. The energy was very clean and nice, allowing me to shrug off a lot of my stress. Did some bowing and more chanting, falling into the rhythm of the group fairly easily.
9:30am -chanting ends, 1st time visitors shown into another room. One of the monastics took about 10 of us to another room, and showed us the various positions we could use to meditate using different things. Most people sit with legs crossed in front of them, sitting on a cushion. Some kneel, sitting on the cushion, some kneel sitting on a hard bench(which I decided on), some use a chair. I have been kneeling for martial arts for a long time, so I settled on seiza – kneeling position with a small bench. (Let me tell you – BIG MISTAKE. More on that later.) Talked about breathing, counting, dealing with discomfort, being still, being in the moment. All made much sense 🙂
10am – went back into the zendo, and they managed to squeeze us in. The mats were pretty full. Who gets put right next to the senior students and monastics? Yeah. I swear the guy I sat next to was in his 80’s and he was a natural. (probably been doing it a lot longer than the 1 day I had:) So I’m kneeling, my posture is correct, my breathing is correct, my right foot has detached from my body, I’m concentrating on counting, I’m losing count, I’m focusing on the red hot poker someone has shoved through my right calf, I’m breathing, I’m trying to focus… You get the picture. One cool thing they did was there is one monastic that walks around with a flat wooden slat. If you like, they will strike you on the shoulder blade, right where your neck and shoulder come together – it’s the source of most people’s tension in posture, as well as an energy point – nice little wake up call. So I heard it start with a few people and when they pass in front of you, if you want to, you bow, they bow, you lean to one side, WHACK, lean to the other, WHACK, then bow once more.
Wait, did someone reattach my foot? Dude, I can actually feel it. Good. Oh crap, okay, there it goes again. But I did regain feeling for a few moments there. The energy jolt was pretty amazing, and instantly brought my focus back. I managed to limp through the rest of the zazen(meditation) fairly well and enjoyed it. Then we had walking meditation. Problem is, in order to walk, you need feet, and I had to find my missing right foot. Thankfully, after switching to sitting position, it came back. We did a bit of walking meditation (which I actually liked better) and then had a lesson – a talk – from the Senior. I don’t think there is ranking there, but I think he’s been there the longest.
It was before he started that I realized I had been sitting in that position for 35 minutes. I was pretty shocked that I had ignored or just bared the discomfort and pain for that long. I did understand a lot of what it was all about and I think I impressed myself just a little.
10:45am the talk about community. I won’t try to sum it up because I am really tired, but it was insightful, and I did feel it on a lot of different levels.
Noon: lunch. Talked to a lot of people from a lot of different experience levels – some like me, there for the first time, some like one guy who is like the lead disciple. Very laid back guy 🙂 Duh, ZEN?!
All in all, it’s something I would like to do again, this time hopefully more comfortably. I understand there is supposed to be a bit of discomfort at times, but with an old injury to my ankle and from working out HARD on saturday for 2 hours in Kendo, I am not surprised I wasn’t able to do seiza for that long. Again, I think I’m going to try sitting differently on pillows here at home for longer periods to see if it helps.
If you are at all interested in meditation, zen buddhism, or just a REALLY quiet afternoon, I would recommend the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt Tremper NY, it’s about 2.5 hours from my house, and about 2 hours from NYC. If you don’t need the rustic atmosphere of upstate NY, they do have a center in Brooklyn