I didn’t sleep so well during the night, thinking about my upcoming meeting with John, a studio art professor and an experienced meditator. I counted sheep and wolves and wondered if the weather would be bad in the morning, if my body would be ready after only a few days of a vegetarian diet and if my sleeplessness had anything to do with not eating meat. I was not a perfectionist, but I was nervous and anxious like I always was.
Then, the morning came.
12:45 P.M. I showered and shaved before leaving.
12:55 P.M. I rushed up the floors of Johnson, the Art building, and stopped in front of the double doors of room 403. Slowly pushing the unlocked door, I opened a gap of a few inches and peeked in. The room looked big. The fragrant smell of incense that permeated the air leaked from the gap. No one was there, but I recalled that my respected Japanese professor warned me not to act like an American in a strange place. So I backed up a few steps, took off my boots, put them outside the doors, bowed and walked in gently.
To avoid direct eye contact, I took out my cell phone from my pocket and glanced at the lock-screen. 1:16 P.M., 50 F. I always do that when I feel the need to. And then, I quickly turned off the cell phone. I never figured out whether or not looking people straight into their eyes is good manners in America. But I was almost certain that doing so is not good in terms of Zen.
There wasn’t a lot of talking between John and me. John soon instructed me into the proper position for meditation. During the sitting, he kept reminding: “Don’t repress your thought yet don’t get involved with it. If it comes, let it go.”
My first meditation ended with two hours of intense practice. To be honest, I wasn’t able to “let go” of most of my thought. I struggled to turn my mind into the carefree autumn clouds. I doubted that I could ever do that. To me, thinking and worrying seemed human instincts.
Four days after I met John, the cold and snow came back together.
“We made it on time,” I said. Dew leaned towards me with both hands still on the wheel. He and I, both strangers to this place, looked at my cell phone.
“Google maps say it’s here, 480 Thomas Road, Shelburne, Vermont,” I said.
I got out of the car and let Dew wait for me. I circled around the place, trying to find a sign that said Zen. Then, in the garden I saw an effigy of Buddha. I knocked on the door.
7 A.M. Starry, starry night. Paint your palette blue and grey… I woke up to the music from the alarm. I lifted the curtain a little and peeked out of the window. The moon was a silver balloon that got lost in shadowy-blue sky.
7:05 A.M. On a scrap of paper, I scribbled a quote from the Buddhist scripture. Reciting Buddhist quotes already became a daily habit of mine.
The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.
I mumbled this one to myself.
7:20 A.M. I got out of my dorm. Dew, my friend from Thailand, a stout and tanned-skinned guy, was already waiting in his car. We didn’t talk much on the road. I was sleepy. Dew also seemed tired from last night’s badminton game. He always overworked himself when it came to badminton.7:55 A.M. We got off Route 7. The car made a right into a small road, crossed a bridge above a frozen stream, and turned again into an unpaved driveway. A bungalow emerged before I had a chance to change my mind.
8:10 A.M. Dew started the engine. I took off my shoes and entered.
A lady in her thirties, with pale skin and big eyes, offered to show me around. Her eyes looked somewhat weary, but her smile was genuine.
In the west wing of the building, a long corridor connected the entrance area to the public meditation room or Zendo. Parallel to the corridor was a huge glass wall. Intact and vulnerable, the snow outside rested peacefully, reflecting the sunlight. Through the glass, the light shined on the wooden floor, clean and smooth. My toes felt no friction. Every step was as quiet as a snowflake.
As the time of sitting approached, people started to come in. Inside the world of Zen, believers followed the same discipline no matter where they came from, like snowfalls obeyed nature. Though light and free, snowflakes fell on Mother Earth.
The bell is rung.
The vacant sound travels with a message, hitting the walls and echoing in the space, like ripples carry an autumn leaf. The recipients silence themselves and walk toward the Zendo.
For the second time, the bell is rung. Every one is present. People sit on the futons, adjust their positions, relax their muscles and do deep breaths. I do the same.
For the third time, the bell is rung. All movements stop. I close my eyes.
But the time continues to flow. I struggle to give up chasing time. For too long, I have been chasing it. Appointment at 8:30, paper due mid-night, graduation in May and other trouble in my life whirl wildly in my mind.
I have felt like this before: If my focus is not on my breath, I am on the sea of suffering. Morphing into a helpless turtle in the tsunami, I drift desperately from oceans to rivers, to lakes, and to waterfalls.
Water falls - Cold drops of sweat drip across the warm surface of my straightened back. Tear wets the corners of my eyes. I breathe heavily with my chest tightened and the joints of my legs soured.
I try hard to let fear go. However, the anxious i can't stay calm as if it desires to chase and play with the snow outside.
7:00, 7:05, 7:20, 8:10, 8:30… scenes flash through my mind like a train rushing through a dark tunnel. The more eager I am, the faster the train runs. Yet, it hasn’t arrived.
Deeply, I inhale.
“Meditation has enabled me to be fully present, right here, right now in my life,” I recall what John told me and try to follow that.
And then, before my closed eyes, snowflakes fall as the sun rises, and the night starts to recede.
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. Resonating in my empty mind is this line from Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.
…(Ding). I awake from meditation.
Visiting the Zen center became my weekly routine. One afternoon, after intense practice, I came back with my neck, my shoulders and my back aching. I walked straight to my room, talking to no one, and shut the door tight behind me. I had a little antropophobia recently. Since I really interested my friends with my sudden declaration of being a vegetarian, they would always ask me: “Has meditation made any positive change in your life yet?”
But I didn’t know the answer to that question. I forced myself to search for it, making intense reflection. I tried hard to recreate what I saw and felt during meditations and make sense of them. But as I tried, I felt myself trapped by my own thinking. My own memory deceived me, telling me a different story every time I talked to it.
Once, my memory told me that the snow was intact and beautiful. And, the moon was bright and clear. But in the next second, my own thinking tore the beautiful scenes into pieces. The pieces fell like snowflakes. When I opened my eyes, the smooth surface of snow was already cratered by millions of ruthless footsteps. The once compassionate moon retreated to the clouds and dimmed.
I couldn’t focus because my mood changed like the weather. When the snow wasn’t here yet, I was excited about meditation and looking forward to snowfall. As snow fell, I was happy to see the snow rest peacefully on Mother Earth. But the excitement disappeared when the snow stopped. I realized that I wasn’t gaining anything transcendently beautiful from my mediation. When the snow was ruined by the countless footsteps, I felt impatient, frustrated, and vulnerable. I wasn’t sure about what I was doing at the present. I didn’t know where to find the “positive changes.”
“Dew, take me to the mountains. I want to meditate,” I said to Dew one day. It was Jan. 19th.
Dew looked at me and looked behind me. Clear, blue and wide was the sky in his eyes. No big snow seemed to be coming. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll pick you up at 1:00, in the back of the library.”
1:00 P.M. was on the road. “GPS sometimes drives me crazy,” I recalled what Dew told me before as I looked out of the window. The beautiful landscape evolved, from icy ponds to frozen streams, from plains to mountains, from bushes to forests. In the floating world that had no constant form, I had no clue where the road would end, but why bother?
2:00 P.M. My boots were on the snow. I exhaled, watching my breath lingering for a fraction of second before dispersing into the cold air. I wished my mind could be like that.
Step by step, we climbed up the mountain. Dew is leading.
Dew took a deep breathe. “Just keep trying. But there’s not much I can do to help,” He slowed his pace and said, without turning back towards me. He walked on. I knew a life-long Buddhist wouldn’t lie. Occasionally, Dew’s broad shoulders touched the stretching lower branches along the trail, and snow fell, liberated from the branches. But he didn’t seem to care.
2:35 P.M. The backpack on my shoulders finally became unbearably heavy. “Here!” I shouted at Dew, who was already far ahead of me. I dropped my backpack on the snow. When it hit the ground, I hardly heard the sound.
I found myself on a strip of land in the middle of the trail, surrounded by trees but open to the sunshine. Shadows and light printed the shapes of trees and brushes on the snowy ground, masterfully drawing a map of grey and white.
Dew left me alone, standing somewhere far away and quietly observing the changing nature. He understood that I needed a moment of silence.
I take a deep breath as I close my eyes. Standing still in the cold, I try to feel my connection to my surroundings. Wind blows, snow falls, and shadow changes. They make me a little uncomfortable, and I tend to resist them. Even though right now I am in a wild Vermont mountain covered in snow, my indulged mind is lingering in a warm and comfy coffeehouse in drowsy New York City. Through unstained glass-window, the eye of my mind is watching myself escaping from the snowstorm in the street.
But, escaping or resisting is not the Zen way. Human life is so humble before the mighty and eternal nature. There is no way to escape. I must get up from the cozy sofa in the coffeehouse and go back to the snow and the present. I walk my first step into the magnificence of nature, trying to be part of it.
I walk too fast, and I slip and fall. But the snow on the ground is so kind, cushioning me from my falls. My human instinct drives me to abuse this tolerance of the nature. It propels me to continue walking fast and straight forward, telling me that it won’t hurt. I have been living my life this way – looking into the future, racing time, and making progress… My own thought again sweeps me away from the present.
Striving to free myself from thought, I start to walk in circles. Circles have no ends as nature lasts eternally. Though it takes me nowhere, walking in circles makes me forget that there is a goal or a destination. Slowly, I walk. Insecure people chase; frightened people escape, so they run. The former are looking forward, while the later are looking backward. I want to look at the present, so I walk slowly and steadily. When I do so, there is some power in my movement. My own steps are able to calm me, reassure me and comfort me.
I gradually give up struggling. I walk on and on. The sky is slowly changing its color, from blue to golden. The sun starts to sink and sets the horizon on fire.
Then, I stop. I know my mind has not been perfectly purified yet. There is still obsession and anxiety in it. I still desire to grow, but at the same time I worry that it means giving up something that makes me who I am. Practicing Zen and meditating does not mean to be a linear process. At least in my case, it is not so effort-less as others imagine. It takes time (a truth that I only realize after a lot of doubting and sweating). Through Zen, I am learning to be more and more patient with my own life, and being in it. As Buddha says, suffering never ends as long as you struggle to escape it.I am glad that I am experiencing Zen in a harsh Vermont winter.