WHAT IS ZEN TRAINING TO ME?

by MARK UNRYU SEMAN march 2021


I’ve been training on and off for thirteen years now, since I was twenty-three years old. What brought me to Zen? A niggling sense work, career, relationships weren’t everything. I remember making a practice of going to the river at sunset when younger, to scratch an itch which nothing else could. Of course, this was a romantic gesture. My spiritual impulse has evolved. But this was as good a gateway as any. Not long after, as a fierce reader, I remember reading some commentary on my favourite writer: David Foster Wallace. He wasn’t a Buddhist but there was something to his writing -- an awareness, a focus on the path without destination, an ambiguity -- which the commentator described as ‘Zen-like.’ So I Googled Zen, read about it. Early authors included: Charlotte Joko Beck, Maureen Stewart, Phillip Kapleau. I still have their books in a corner of my shelf, gathering dust. Using makeshift pillows at home, I tried sitting according to their instructions. I wasn’t otherwise doing much at the time: a relaxed film graduate with part-time work and a penchant for travel, more gifted at appreciating films than making them. Eventually, I found Jizoan Zen Centre in my hometown of Perth, Western Australia. Thirteen years later, here I am. Rinzai school, Mujyo Roshi. Plenty of change and variation has occurred along the way, including three or four years of half-hearted sitting at home, unapologetically distracted by a girl who herself taught me things about myself. Would you believe that we don’t talk anymore? Everything is a gate. My initial conviction, propelled by that thoughtful writer David Foster Wallace, was that it is a moral act to pay attention, to miss nothing, to be most alive. That you only live once. I’m surprised I feel as passionately about this now as I did then -- it must be true. But of course, things change and evolve. Life happens. You assume roles: partner, professional, nemesis, naif. You sit zazen through it all, you sit and sit and sit. And the more things to change, the more they stay the same. You learn it is possible to see through all your bullshit, your hang-ups, your lies large and small. You learn it is possible to be naked in the moment, to be the master even when you’re not in control. I have experienced this. I have experienced this more and more, through zazen and its corollaries: sesshin, zazenkai, okyo, sarei. Through Zen training. That nameless thing expands, tears down borders, permeates your private and public spheres outside of the zendo: work, the commute, friends, family. Sleep, parties, fights. You realise you are alive. Your roles expand at the temple as in life: jikajitsu, tenzo, mentor, leader. You come of maturity and pass it on, sustain the infrastructure, help others. Yes, to me this is what training is about: militant observation of the contents of your mind, heart and body, in order to be of most use in the world. Every moment has a spotfire, a gravity, a need. So lean into it. Act! The deeper you go, the more you realise everything is action: a thought, a dream, a sneeze. Everything ripples inwards and outwards in a web of cause-effect from what you and others do, consciously and otherwise. So it matters -- everything matters. You have agency. Even when you are alone, seemingly doing nothing. Pay attention. Sit up. It turns out by taking your mind seriously, you can change the world. There are byproducts: energy, sharpness, confidence. Even health, stability, security. Life has byproducts too: I got sick at thirty years old and it’s been a battle ever since. But you cannot pick your moments: it is all one and the same. I have learnt and am learning to be sick, to be most helpful to others and myself given the circumstances of pain. Re-invention is key. Leave the old you behind. Look forward. Oh -- there you are. In sesshin, one cuts to the chase. One burrows to the bottom of koans, screams in the sanzen room, breaks their bones on the zafu. Why? Because it is our tradition, what our masters practiced. Listen closely and you can hear Dogen breathe whenever you sit, Seppo adjust, Unmon blink. This is the vehicle to reality, toward yourself, toward others. It is the path towards peace and truth, not war and lies. To me, training is a choice: do you have the nerve, the courage, the commitment to say yes to this one thing, this beating heart and fleeting moment, over and over again above all else? It is to climb the mountain, slay the dragon, look Buddha in the eye and topple him. It is to hang your hat, take a punch, watch your house burn down, to die. It is to forgive yourself and others, for everything. I remember having moments earlier in my time, where I realised the moment of death was the same as any other -- only dressed as death. Saying yes to now is saying yes to that. It is the same thing. So why, I thought, be afraid? There is so much work to do, people to meet, things to start and finish. It is all there, at our feet. The clock is ticking. This is training to me: zazen, koans, Rinzai. People, objects, places. I look out the window of the Esperance library and the wind blows whitecaps upon the ocean. The tall pine trees waver. The four-wheel drives are ubiquitous, all white. In the library, the air-conditioning hums. Two boys with hoods walk by. I am here. So are you. Everything is

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