The Most Important Lesson From 50 Years of Zen

Walking up to the zendo in Mountain View I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. This was mostly due to the valet that greeted me in the parking lot. That seemed strange for zen. Maybe it’s a Silicon Valley thing, I thought.

This didn’t seem that far-fetched to me after having met my friend Zach Luczysnki in San Francisco a week earlier for the most pretentious pot of tea this Brit has ever warmed his hands around. I sipped my velvet cacao pu-erh dandelion tea mixed with yerba mate, coconut and vanilla bean beneath towering, glass-plated skyscrapers and larger-than-life billboards touting the latest network capabilities for start ups and at-home marijuana delivery. Leaving the tea garden I navigated busy oneway streets full of well heeled people hurrying to important places with piping hot drinks in one hand while looking down at the mesmerizing screen of their iphone in their other. Once in a while they would walk directly into the back of a stranger’s car marked only by a pink mustache or a fluorescent “U”. When it was time to step back into the DeLorean and head home I had the uncanny feeling that I had just witnessed the zenith of a strange city from the future.

“Hello!” Near the entrance of the zendo a monk greeted me with a smile big enough to mirror the curved contour of his shaved head. I smiled back and told him I was there early for the special newcomer session.

“Ohhh” his smile vanishing, “you picked a bad night for that, we won’t be having it due to the ceremony for Les.”

Les, I found out, was the resident teacher and tonight after the meditation they were celebrating his 50th year of zen practice. This explained the valet.

I informed the student, rather smugly, that it wouldn’t be a problem, I already had a practice. Almost instantly I could feel the pride beginning to swell up within me. I wasn’t new to zen…I was experienced. I identified with the warm, heady feeling. It felt good.

“Great, Rinzai or Soto?” He was asking which zen school I practiced under but the strange emphasis he put on the words had me baffled to their meaning. I stared back daftly, betraying my lack of comprehension. Shit, would a real zen student know this? Did I just fail the test?

I flashed back to my past as a non-catholic student at a Catholic high school where on special occasions we’d participate in mass at school. Catholics who were initiated would participate in the Eucharist by receiving the holy sacrament. Standard protocol for the uninitiated and eternally damned (me) was to cross our arms and receive a blessing from the priest.

One time I decided to give the sacrament the old high school try anyway.  This as far as I could tell, was frowned upon. It wasn’t until I was next in line that I realized everyone was saying something back to the priest after receiving the holy cracker. I was only able to catch the general cadence of the response from the person in front of me. Undaunted, I approached, hands open and extended. The Father handed me the sacrament and I mumbled some gibberish I hoped would pass for holy prayer. The priest looked back at me with a quizzical stare and a “huh?” Oh damn. I looked down, mumbled some more gibberish in a slightly more panicked tone and quickly walked away.

Was it possible the Father and the Buddha were in cahoots and I had been found out for a second time?

“Rin-zai or So-to?” The monk repeated the question and this time it clicked and I understood. After fumbling with an explanation about how I was of neither lineage, he escorted me and my now bruised ego into the zendo. Zen sure has a funny way of teaching me things.

In looking for a new zen community I had heard that the best way to evaluate a teacher was to observe his students. They would provide a true reflection of the teacher’s ability and understanding.

The zendo was immaculate. The floor was a light, polished hardwood. Directly across from me, on the west side of the room was an the alter to the Buddha. On either side, two perfectly straight rows of black mats ran parallel to the north and south walls of the zendo and were followed by two more rows of chairs. A raised platform with straw mats outlined the perimeter providing additional seats. I picked an out of the way cushion on the far north side and sat down facing the wall and waited. Two students debated energetically which way I should face and I was spun around twice before it was settled. There was a giddy energy in the room that was palpable. This night felt different than most.

After the meditation we turned around to face the alter and I got my first glance at our teacher, Les Kaye. Now in his eighties, Les had worked at IBM while also tending to the zen center as its spiritual leader. Les led us through two sets of full bows to the alter, pausing after each before nimbly hopping up from his knees to his feet. With a final hop he was up on the raised platform next to the alter and adjusting his robes which concealed his body from the waist down. He spoke with a disarmingly, squeaky tenor that dripped with a hidden vitality.

One by one, Sanghas from San Francisco, New York, France and as far away as Italy expressed their gratitude to Les for his work. And after, his students began sharing their appreciation for Les and the lessons he had taught them.

One student warmly recalled a day over a decade earlier on retreat. They were carrying wood on a circuitous path in the mountains (how zen is that?!). The student had suggested that they take a steeper route to save time and –to the student’s horror– had caused his teacher to fall on the more treacherous path. Les got up, dusted himself off and silently began picking up the logs he had dropped to carry on. At that moment the student realized there were no shortcuts in zen that were worth taking. It was a lesson that shaped his practice for the next decade.

Another student confessed to having accidentally overheard a private conversation between Les and another student on retreat. He had been washing incense bowls in a back room and the conversation took place just outside a window on the other side. The distressed student was looking for guidance in a difficult situation. Les, after listening to the situation, had shared three questions from the Abhayarajakumara Sutta given by the Buddha for considerate, compassionate communication: “Is it true? Is it beneficial? Is it the right time?” The questions had stuck with the eavesdropping student for over twenty years. They had helped him with his own challenges. That day, Les had unwittingly taught two.

A forlorn looking student, asked woefully, “who will lead us after Les?” –this to me seemed a bit premature judging from well-performed hop steps Les had demonstrated earlier. Another didn’t think she could ever repay Les for his sacrifice and instead promised him her own, life-long commitment to practice. One last student shared a koan he had struggled with 15 years earlier:

A pebble is thrown into a lake. The water ripples outward before returning to a calm, glassy surface. Is that all there is?

When he shared this troubling question with his teacher, Les had responded with another question:

“Is the pebble happy?”

The student had instantly understood.

When it was finally Les’ turn to speak, it was clear he had been deeply moved by the events of the night. When he spoke he shared how his interest in zen had initially been stoked 50 years earlier. A renowned zen master had come to the West to teach zen, at a time when it was not well understood here. Les had attended a lecture and the zen master had been challenged by a skeptic in the audience who asked what gave him the credibility to teach zen to others? The master smiled, and said “I have some experience.” That was it. There was no listing of his credentials and qualifications, of which the master had collected a lifetime’s worth. With the simplicity and modesty of his answer he had thrown a new pebble into the lake for which the ripples were now, 50 years later, beginning to wash upon the distant shores of my consciousness.

Les then turned his focus to his wife who was sitting by his side. Sweethearts from a young age, he glowingly recalled the day long ago, before he had begun practicing zen, when they had met. He had been boarding an airplane and after seeing her on the plane sat down next to her. His wife interjected here, pointing out that it had been the only seat left on the plane. He paused to let the laughter die down before continuing with his speech unfazed as only a zen master might.

Now he was arriving at the crux of his speech, turning his focus to a question he’d recently been posed and had been pondering ever since. What, over the last 50 years of his practice, had been the most important lesson he had learned?

Les shared a belief he had held when he first sat on the cushion a half century earlier. He had thought that the opportunity for one’s own spiritual awakening came once in a lifetime –maybe twice if you were incredibly lucky. Like other “wow” moments in life that seem irredeemably intertwined with chance and fate –the serendipitous meeting of your soulmate, the sudden epiphany of a profound truth glimpsed upon– spiritual awakenings, he thought, were a similarly rare and slippery breed. Blink and you might miss your salvation.

Fifty years of practice had shown him otherwise however. The ingredients of spiritual awakenings, he realized, were baked into the miraculously ordinary moments, sounds, and experiences of every day life. They were accessible to anyone, anywhere at anytime. They were much more common than he had ever dreamed. And because life is always changing, every moment brings with it a fresh opportunity. Instead of being finite, the opportunities to awaken were actually just the opposite. They were infinite. We just had to become aware of them. And that, was a skill that could be taught, learned, and strengthened.

In the final 3 lines of Walden, a self-reflection of two years spent at Walden Pond, Thoreau seems to have arrived at a similar realization:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There (are) more days to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

He arrives at his conclusion after lamenting that “we know not where we are” and “are sound asleep nearly half our time” while excitedly recognizing that “the life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it…” Exploring this vast and powerful potential that may still lay dormant within us, Thoreau recounts a remarkable story circulating around New England at the time of a bug which after sixty years, had hatched from its egg deposited deep in the dead wood of a farmer’s kitchen table and dug its way out.

Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb…may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy it’s perfect summer life at last!

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.