Conversation was not encouraged at the Abbey. Actually, it was more or less forbidden. We spent the entire day in silent contemplation, or meditation, talking only when necessary during work periods or during group discussions. There were times when I would go for days, weeks, without speaking a word. I loved it, but then of course, I was always the quiet, anti-social, introverted, loner type. Even as a kid, my mother would say that I was a man of few words.
Janet, on the other hand, had a problem with silence. She thought that talking ranked right up there with breathing, a natural and common thing to do in life. It took her some time and experience to realize the benefits of a quiet (open) mind, and how much energy she had wasted in the past by talking incessantly!
My mind was becoming exceptionally calm (released). Precisely how calm I didn’t appreciate until I accidentally ran a large sliver of wood into my arm while repairing the goat pens. This involved a trip into Mt. Shasta for a tetanus shot, my first trip out of the mountains for months, and the experience was eye opening.
The traffic, the people, everything seemed as if a tape was being fast-forwarded, and in contrast to how still my mind had become, it all seemed like chaos! Driving into town, I also noticed the sadness in the faces of the cars we passed as well, yet each might insist that he or she was happy. It is such a big step to admit such a basic and simple thing; that one suffers, because we gloss over it.
Except for Roshi Kennett and a few of her assistant monks, the rest of the community, about forty of us, slept in the zendo on the same wooden, raised platform on which we meditated. The platform was about thirty inches off the floor and attached to the wall, extending six feet into the zendo, and each individual “bed” was no more than a three-foot wide area delineated by a piece of tape. Built into the wall itself were small cabinets, one for each three-foot section that served as the occupant’s one and only storage area for all of their personal belongings, such as clothes, shoes and sleeping bags.
Men and women were considered equal in all ways at Shasta, but at night, of course, we slept in separate areas divided by portable screens. The little, laughable electric heaters scattered about the mammoth hall didn’t help at all during the winter months, with temperatures dipping to forty degrees regularly. Thank God for sleeping bags, and woe to the trainee who had to pee in the middle of the night. Not only was it freezing, but as the trainee attempted to inconspicuously make it to the bathroom, which was outside the hall, the creaky floors would wake each sleeper in turn, who would then attempt to identify who the pee-er was. Little tea was consumed after six p. m. !
Meals were eaten at long tables in complete silence. Plates of food were passed down, and each of us would take our share and pass it on. The plates went by only once, so we had to estimate how many people were at the table and accordingly take only an amount that would insure that everybody would receive equal shares. There were no seconds.
At my first meal, I didn’t know how things worked, and I was really hungry. To me, it was like a football training table, so I took about half the food on each plate that came by, leaving little for those further down the line. How embarrassing when about half way through the meal I noticed only a few spoonfuls of food on the monks plates down line from me. Flashing through my mind was my fourth grade Catholic school experience where I made a mistake as well, unwittingly putting my lunch box on the wrong shelf.
But this time it was different. Instead of being punished or reprimanded for my error, nobody seemed to notice, and without the distraction of criticism, I could see my greed clearer than I had ever seen it before, and I felt terrible. I wanted to apologize, but since the meals were taken in silence, I could only agonize about my gluttony, while watching everybody at the far end of the table quietly eating what little they had. This time I had no Sister to blame; I could only blame myself, and it troubled my heart greatly.
The food itself was unbelievable. Who would have thought that vegetarian cooking could be tastier than “regular” food? I never would have thought it, and not only was it delicious, but healthy as well — only now, thirty years later, are doctors beginning to recognize the benefits.
Perhaps everything seemed better at Shasta in that fresh mountain air, or maybe it was the meditation. Or possibly the balance I was developing between my body and mind — such as the regular schedule, little worldly stress, associating with kind, non-judgmental people — all quite a change from where I was coming from.
Janet was thriving too. Unbeknown to her at the time, sugar and sweets aggravated her moodiness and lack of energy, and since these were not to be found in abundance at the Abbey, she was feeling great. Breakfast would include granola, oatmeal, eggs, French toast, nuts, pancakes, fruit, and little surprises of all kinds. Lunch would be even better, with vegetarian dishes that were no less than works of art and love; vegetarian lasagna, goat cheeses and milk, homemade bread, tofu, rice of every description, other soy products, vegetables, and delicious sauces. Dinner was a light “medicine meal, ” usually only soup and perhaps some bread with a tofu spread.
Without a doubt, it was the best food Janet and I had ever tasted. The monk in charge of the kitchen had been the chief cook at the Abbey for years and was superb at it, very focused. He would agonize over adding one extra egg to a large recipe, always weighing the wellbeing of his monks against his meager budget, and would scour the local markets for bargains on fruits and vegetables. He is still at the abbey, 30 years later, still trying to make ends meet on a meager budget!
Of the many things I learned at Shasta, the most penetrating was this whole idea about life, and how life involves going beyond limitations — the restrictions that I only place on myself. I was also discovering the uniqueness of meditation; how it was far removed from any particular religion or belief, but at the same time easily accommodating to them all. Meditation helped me reach beyond my petty “self” toward that greater source, whatever that eternal “something” is which I could only describe as my roots, something that had no beginning itself. There are many names for this eternal something, but I tried not to use words that brought up old images. I wanted to see with new eyes, and wanted to drop old conclusions that lurked in dark corners of my mind.
I could disagree about names or descriptions of what Reality is, but words can’t come close to describing something so profound, and that I was only beginning to feel in my heart. The Abbey was the great turning point in my life, and as I look back now, something immense happened there, something that changed my destiny forever. I am positive of that.
Things were going well, extremely well. I had always felt that I was special, and that nothing could ever happen to me. Other people who were not special had accidents and misfortune, but I was somehow protected, because I was special. . . Hah!
Then, out of left field the illness came, maybe just to remind me who’s boss!
Initially when we first arrived, I experienced some chronic diarrhea for a few weeks, but one session of acupressure with a Roshi cured it. This new illness, however, was more serious; this felt more like complete exhaustion.
A Roshi diagnosed my problem as “Zen” sickness, a strange malady that occurs when internal or spiritual passages, akin to acupuncture meridians, become blocked and confused for various reasons; one reason being that a meditator with a coarse mind (maybe somebody running from his creditors?) suddenly begins meditating for long, intense periods without first cultivating gentleness, compassion and loving-kindness!
The illness worsened notwithstanding acupressure treatments by the Roshis and visits by a local M. D. (apparently, this illness is seldom diagnosed accurately by traditional Western medicine and therefore is difficult to treat) so I was eventually confined to the dark, dreary “sick” cabin — no windows and only a single candle!
Lying there, I found myself, for some odd reason, remembering all the people who selflessly helped me throughout life, people who took me under their wings as if I was the most important thing in the world. In this decisive moment, in the dark and sick as a dog, and clearly seeing my own unrelenting self-centeredness, all I could envision were the huge rocks that impeded my progress when I helped dig graves at the Abbey’s cemetery, and I was certain that the cemetery was where I was headed! I had a stone-cold feeling deep in my bones that I wasn’t going to make it this time.
Fear and death was closing in, I was sure of it; I could tangibly feel them. The mounting panic had not yielded to the heavenly peace that arrives just before the end; a serenity I experienced once before when I was nineteen, and almost drowned in Lake Erie. Actually, neither fear nor death would have concerned me had I nothing left to lose, but I had plans — my life still lacked. . . something, and because of that something, I was not ready to die. Not quite yet, apparently, because I was desperately clinging to life with all my strength, hoping beyond hope that something would rescue me. When the illness worsened, however, I handled it as I had handled everything in the past — I ran!
We bussed down to the Bay area and squeezed into a small apartment in some non-descript building in Lafayette, California, not far from the Abbey’s branch priory in Oakland. Janet went to work at a stationery store, while I tackled a job at Radio Shack, knowing that I couldn’t stay long before someone tracked me down. We both either walked or bussed to work, since driving a car was out of the question even if we had one. The lingering sensitivity that we developed at the Abbey, which was exacerbated by my illness, precluded any aggressive activity (and in the Bay Area, driving was an aggressive activity!)
In order to function in the world again, I had no choice but to desensitize my mind in some fashion, a desensitizing that would have the unfortunate result of impeding any further insights from arising for the time being. I needed somewhere to cool out.
The Zen sickness wasn’t improving, and I was getting bone-tired of looking over my shoulder for bill collectors; I knew that I had to change things up. So one afternoon I found myself writing Janet yet another note, and again boarding my trusty Greyhound with only a few bucks in my pocket, this time headed for Tennessee. I only hoped they would take me in at “The Farm, ” the famous commune headed up by the original San Francisco hippie-refugee, Stephen Gaskin.
And as I wearily climbed the worn steps of the old bus, I noticed the smell again —it hadn’t changed much. . .
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, http://www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit http://www.AYearToEnlightenment.com