The unbearable enlightenment of being


Bells. Lights. The sound of — an earthquake? Galloping horses? No — I’m oriented now. It’s monks running through the corridors.

Numbly I crawl out of my futon and fold it. My four roommates do the same. We exchange not a word. They are shadows to me, as I am a shadow to them. Hurried wash, hasty calisthenics, frantic search for my meal bowls . . . what time is it? Ten past 4. No time for tea. Where are my slippers? Number 29; here they are.

Bowing before the main altar, I shuffle to the zendo, the meditation hall. I bow to my cushion, turn slowly clockwise, bow in the opposite direction and arrange myself on the cushion, facing the wall. A monk materializing by the bell strikes it three times. He vanishes. The echo fades. Frogs croak.

Strange world, the zendo.

“Just sitting,” the Zen men say, but to the extent that the word “just” suggests ease and repose it is misleading. This is a skill, an art, and I have not acquired it. The cushion, thick and black, soft and velvety, soon turns to solid rock beneath my ill-positioned posterior. I shift left, squirm right. I steal a guilty glance at my neighbor. Am I distracting him? No; he sits on undisturbed, his back straight, his legs crossed almost (not quite) lotus-style. He is unaware of my existence, as I should be of his.

I recall the plaque on a wall in the zendo: “Respectfully I appeal to you: Each of you must clarify the great matter of life and death. Time passes swiftly. Do not be negligent.”

Is that what I’m doing? Clarifying the great matter of life and death? I like to think so, but there are, I’m afraid, more immediate concerns — like the struggle to get through 40 uninterrupted minutes of meditation, to say nothing of the next 40 minutes after a brief break, or the 10 40-minute periods that comprise a day, or the five days that comprise the sesshin.

The word sesshin suggests putting the mind in order. More specifically, it means a retreat for concentrated Zen meditation. Hosshinji Temple in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, holds sesshin six times a year.

The sesshin is prefaced by an orientation — in English for foreign guests — at which an explanation of the rules to be followed takes 2 1/2 hours. The rules are minute, complex and non-negotiable. No unnecessary talk. No leaving the monastery. No bathing. No laundry. No wristwatches in the zendo. “In general, walk and move as quietly as possible.” No shoes inside; no slippers outside. No short sleeves. At mealtimes, carry your bowls with both hands; align them in front of you neatly and silently. Chopsticks point right at the start of the meal, left at the end. Hold your bowl with three fingers. And so on.

My heart sinks. Can I remember all this? The no-bathing rule I certainly will not forget. It’s 30 degrees outside in the midday sun, and the black jacket I’ve been given to hide my bare arms will ensure it a constant prominence in my thoughts.

I take myself to task. My complaints, though unspoken, are childish. Restrictions freely submitted to (nobody forced me here) represent a high freedom, higher by far than the mere freedom to follow your whims and pursue your comfort. Only the disciplined mind can know true freedom. And what seems to the beginner like ritualistic overkill is meant to remind us to pay full attention to every detail of everything we do. How much we miss, in the outside world, through sheer absence of mind.

You miss nothing here (except perhaps, in my case, the most important thing — whatever that is), but the heightened sensitivity is irritating and, if enlightening, not obviously so. You grow aware, as the hours and days pass, of your fatigue, of your unwashed body, of your digestive system rebelling against the unconventional mealtimes and intrusive mealtime rituals. How to forget the self, as Zen exhorts us to do, while teasing the self into ever more petulant outbursts of self-expression?

Breakfast is at 6, lunch at 11, dinner at 4:30. You eat in the zendo, sitting cross-legged on your cushion. Meals are not a pause in your devotions but a part of them. They have little to do with pleasing the palate or satisfying the appetite. As the Verse of Five Considerations, recited before each meal, makes clear, we eat “to be free from clinging,” “to be free from greed,” “to attain the Way.” Not for enjoyment — and there is none.

Careful to avoid forbidden clatter, you arrange your three black bowls. Monks, shaven-skulled and black-robed, circulate silently with wooden buckets. Grave bows are exchanged. Rice gruel is ladled into one bowl, tofu or miso soup into another. A third monk distributes takuan (pickled radish). Sometimes there are side dishes of sansai (edible wild plants). It’s wholesome, nutritious food, but the atmosphere suggests a prison meal: Don’t linger over it; you want to be finished when the monks come with kettles of hot water for bowl-washing. Hopefully you’ve remembered to save three takuan slices, because they are what you scour your bowls with. That done, you drink the hot water, eat the takuan, wipe and wrap your bowls, and make your exit with a relief your unhurried pace must not betray.

The next hour is free. The only possible recreation is a nap or a stroll among the graves behind the temple. From the top of the hill there you can look down on the city. How remote, how achingly inaccessible, in bad moments, it seems.

What did I expect from this retreat? I don’t know. Something everyday life doesn’t offer. “Enlightenment” seems too grand a word. Insight, maybe; a new direction; a glimpse, however faint, of a hidden reality. In a world devoted to pleasure, hooked on pleasure, gone crazy with pleasure, an environment in whose daily round pleasure plays no part has its attractions — from a distance.

Disappointment sets in early. I sit and sit, but my thoughts do not soar. I’m hot, the black jacket chafes. Is it permitted to scratch the itch in my ear? What’s happening in the World Cup? Have India-Pakistan tensions gone nuclear?

Twilight deepens. A monk approaches. I notice him out of the corner of my eye. Held upright in his hands is the kyosaku, the “encouragement stick.” Maybe that’s what I need. I join my palms in supplication. The monk pauses behind me. I feel a light tap on my right shoulder, followed by two sharp whacks. That stings! The monk bows. I bow. He passes on. I steal a look at him. His face beneath the shaved head is young. He couldn’t be more than 18.

During my last lunch I draw three whispered rebukes — for mixing tofu and rice, for failing to pick up a bowl I’m eating from and for absent-mindedly neglecting a prescribed gesture of supplication. My apologies, I fear, are sullen, my feelings more those of a rebellious child than of a seeker after the Way.

There are two kinds of Zen, I reflect as I pack my things: laughing Zen and frowning Zen. The Zen of ancient China was laughing Zen. It sparkled with wit and spontaneity. “What is Zen?” “Three pounds of flax.” “What is Zen?” “The silk fan gives a cooling breeze.” “What is the Way?” “When hungry you eat, when thirsty you drink.” And so on. Frowning Zen is strict discipline, arbitrary rules and blind obedience. A few days in a monastery hardly qualifies me to make a judgment, and this isn’t one — it’s an impression, no more — an impression, for what it’s worth, that Zen today is an ossified remnant of its former bubbling, creative self.

There’s a beautiful, secluded beach in Obama. I know it from a previous visit. From the monastery I head directly there. It’s a hot, sultry afternoon. I fling off my shoes, tear off my shirt and dive into the sea. What did I gain from those hours and days of strained meditation? That moment! Oh, and it was worth it!

“This is satori!” I cry inwardly, breaking the surface and diving down again. Probably it’s the only satori I will ever be capable of attaining. So be it. Not all of us were made for enlightenment. I think I’ll cling to my “ego-self” a little longer, thank you.