Meditation Isn't What You Think
By the time I went to my first formal retreat, I'd already been doing zazen for eleven years and going to Nishijima's lectures for two. But my first retreat with Nishijima was my first experience in an actual temple with an actual Japanese Zen priest running the show.
I hated it.
For starters I was completely confused about the arrangements. Bonehead that I am, rather than signing on for the annual English-language retreat for foreigners, I signed on for the one Nishijima holds for new members of the company he works for. The company president is enamored of zazen and requires all new employees to attend one of these. A bunch of spotty-faced new college grads who've just entered the fabulously exciting cosmetics industry are herded up to the mountains to sit still for three tedious days. There's no beer, no dried-fish snacks, no karaoke or party games --- just peace and solitude and sitting up straight facing a wall all weekend long. Needless to say these kids are not happy campers.
I ended up being one of three of Nishijima's special guests that weekend, along with Jeremy Pearson, one of his longtime students, and a strange Korean man who was apparently some kind of philosophy professor somewhere. The four of us shared a room on the temple's second floor.
I didn't know Jeremy very well at the time, but he had a shaved head, knew every chant and mealtime ritual, and wore a set of monk's robes all weekend. Clearly he was a very serious Zen guy. I never could work out exactly why the Korean guy was there. He spoke fluent English and could get by moderately in Japanese, and he had obviously studied a lot of Buddhist literature and considered himself quite the expert in the field. For all I knew he might have been one of Korea's most renowned Buddhist scholars. He certainly carried himself like Korea's most renowned something. Maybe he had come to get a bit of hands-on experience with Japanese Zen, no doubt so that he could go back to Korea and legitimately claim to have been through some real Japanese-style Zen training.
But my main impression of him was this: he farted a lot.
Now don't get me wrong, of course passing gas is fine and normal and natural. But this man seemed to have no idea that doing so loudly and odoriferously in the middle of a polite conversation was potentially a bit off-putting. He'd just be chattering away then lift a cheek and let one rip without the slightest pause in his speech. I'd heard about some Asian countries where nose-picking in public is not considered odd or rude, but I don't think there's any part of the world where farting is considered an ordinary part of polite social intercourse --- and Japan certainly is not such place. The man had a lot of the qualities of the autistic people I used to work with when I'd been an instructor at the Summit County Board of Mental Retardation. He seemed unaware that there were other people in the world. He spoke only in monologues as if he'd created his own mental images of people and reacted to those images rather than the people themselves. Before he asked you a question, he already had your answer worked out in his mind and no matter what answer you actually gave, he responded to the one he'd heard in his mind. It made for some very odd conversations. Something like this:
FARTING MAN: What's your favorite color?
FARTING MAN: You know red is a symbol of... (blah-blah-blah about red for an hour)Okay, I'm exaggerating a little --- but not much.
Anyhow, I arrived at this particular retreat with a chip on my shoulder. I'd been doing zazen for over a decade by then and I was pretty miffed that I had yet to reach enlightenment. I'd read all the major Buddhist sutras and had made a thorough study of most of the major Indian holy books. I had shelves full of dog-eared books by big-wig spiritual teachers like Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, Shunryu Suzuki, and anybody else who'd written on the subject of being enlightened. I'd even been to Christian churches to check out their ideas about "born-again experiences," which I figured might have been a kind of Christian version of enlightenment. (They weren't. FYI.) Buddy, if anyone shoulda been enlightened it was me!
One evening, I was upstairs with Nishijima, Jeremy, and Farting Man, and I steeled up my nerves enough to ask Nishijima about enlightenment.
Let me give you a bit of background. In a nutshell there are two major schools of Zen in Japan: Soto, to which Nishijima belonged and in which my teacher Tim McCarthy had studied and taught, and the Rinzai school, Soto's main competitor, as it were. The difference between them is this: the Rinzai school believes in enlightenment and the Soto school doesn't.
All right, admittedly it's a good bit more complex and interesting than that. But for now, that's all you need to know to follow the story.
Knowing that Nishijima was a Soto guy, I was trying to be cool about the whole enlightenment thing. I didn't actually use the e-word, I just kinda hinted around, saying stuff like "I've been studying for ten years and I still haven't got it, you know? I mean I don't, like, y'know, understand anything...." --- everything short of nudging and winking to show him I was in on the big secret.
So at this point Farting Man piped in, in a fatherly tone, like a learned Oxford don: "Don't worry, it will come," he said, smiling broadly, " . . . with enlightenment!" I'm sure he would have patted me on the knee if I hadn't sat myself a safe distance away to avoid being gassed.
"Don't say that!" Jeremy snapped. "That's not it at all!"
This reprimand made absolutely no impression on Farting Man, who continued to smile beatifically. I'm not sure he even heard it. Judging by the smug, satisfied smile on his face, what he'd heard must have been something like, "Yea brother, verily you speak the truth which this young one has yet to meet."
Nishijima himself ignored all this and tried his best to explain the problem to me. I don't recall what he said but it didn't clear anything up for me. I listened respectfully and asked a few questions but he seemed to be talking in circles.