In the early 2000s, I dabbled in Zen meditation at Berkeley Zen Center. Twice a week, after work, I’d drive from my apartment to the center for zazen, sitting meditation. I went alone and knew no one there.
It was a silent ritual. Walk through garden. Remove shoes at door. Step into zendo, muted and cool inside even on blazing summer afternoons. Choose seat, marked with zabuton and zafu, and bow to it. Sit cross-legged facing wall.
Zazen lasted for 40 minutes. Then the group would stand—what a relief—and chant the Heart Sutra in droning monotone, we newbies using laminated cheat sheets.
Afterward, the abbot, Sojun Mel Weitsman, would stand at the door and make eye contact—not a scattershot glance, but a moment of connection—with each person leaving the zendo. I can’t remember if he bowed or shook our hands. I don’t recall ever conversing with him. I was merely exploring, content being a nameless visitor. But I appreciated the eye contact, the human-to-human acknowledgment.
Sitting for 40 minutes was not easy for me. Physically, I dealt with feet gone numb and sometimes with drowsiness (although I never gathered the courage to get whacked by the “encouragment stick“). Mentally, I struggled to still my mind, constantly herding back wandering thoughts. Nevertheless, I did a few half-day sesshin, extended practice periods that comprised zazen, kinhin (walking meditation), dharma talk, and tea break.
Everything was foreign. While I soon learned the protocols, I felt like an imposter. Not only was my mind unruly, but I’d never done anything so overtly “spiritual” before. In a rare chat with a few regulars, however, one of them commented that the first years of meditation are special; everything is strange and you have no expectations, no habits. “Enjoy it,” he said. Hmm, I immediately thought of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
Why did I go to Berkeley Zen Center? I could say that I was curious. Or that I wanted to calm my mind.
But my real goal was something else: I was trying to come to terms with death.
How could I be truly happy, I thought, if I lacked a belief system? If I couldn’t see reality and the congruence of life and death? I grew up in a Buddhist family, but I wasn’t religious. I was a keen, if new, yoga student, but the physicality of asana, which I loved, made me ambitious and attached to my body. The higher limbs of yoga were eluding me.
I figured that Zen meditation was worth a try. To see my true nature, sit. Just sit. I sat at Berkeley Zen Center for a couple of years. And for home practice I bought my own zafu, which I used with a zabuton made by my mom (who has neither done yoga nor meditated, but is more “Zen,” constitutionally, than I’ll ever be).
Did I achieve my goal? Come to terms with death, whatever that might mean?
No, this is an unfinished project.
Do you, like me, have a bunch of unfinished projects? Maybe you call them your New Year’s resolutions or your Bucket List. But don’t some projects stay on your list forever?
Stuck on my list: become proficient in Japanese, discard trivial mementos, learn to knit, improve my flip turn, make amends to those I’ve wronged. And what about Zen meditation and death? My zafu and zabuton remain in good condition and in plain view, serving mostly as home decor, but ready for my return.
Some projects can’t be finished, don’t you think? Yoga is one example. I can never be done with a pose; I can never master the practice. Likewise with coming to terms with death. Every day, every year, the project changes as I change.
Images: Yanaka Reien, Tokyo, April 2019, Luci Yamamoto.