Once upon a time there was a 10 years old boy asking himself questions. The boy was quite happy and his hard working immigrant parents had done everything they could to assure him the most comfortable life they could afford. He was raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic father and was sent to a good Catholic school… so everything was OK.
Of course, he had learned from his mother that she had cancer but that didn’t know what it really meant. His mother seemed to be fine to him, she was still smiling, playing with her kinds and just being the extraordinary mom they always had. One day however, he understood what cancer was. Cancer was the sickness that made mom loose her hair and cry when she thought she was alone. Of course, his world fell apart. Like the young Gautama getting out of his golden palace, he began to look around him and realize that there was life and death in this world and that things were impermanent. In his words « why we suffer ».
In his Catholic school he had the opportunity to get interested in religion and began to ask the priests and monks he encountered about it. At the age of twelve, he had been authorized to stay twice at an urban monastery for a whole week-end to partake the monks duties and liturgy. But being also from a Jewish background, he would also go to the local synagogue every Friday.
And soon the spiritual child would share his week-ends between boy scouts and diverse liturgical services. At that time being a 12 years old and going by oneself to church or school was still quite normal… things have change a bit. His parents being very open and seeing his spiritual urge, just let him go to several services on weekends and soon he was familiar with not only his Catholic and Jewish background but also with Protestant and Orthodox Christianity. Asking questions, studying the texts and coming back with more questions that child felt that there was something more than what his eyes could see, there was something more to life than its end… death. Being from an immigrant family the child became obsessed with History and Religion, with what could tell his story and the story of the societies he was living in. But still, something was missing and the little child had that same inner doubt that made him ask himself all the existential questions one could ask: Why? How? Who?
Of course, people knowing me know the little boy was me. So there I was urging for what I felt was a real lack. There had to be something more to the world than the differences. You are different from your brother, from your neighbor, from … something didn’t felt right, at a deeper level I knew that everyone was kind of the same when in love, when in pain, when hungry, angry, …
From my own eyes, all these priests and rabbis I had been asking for questions for years were talking the same truth. We are not only impermanent things determine to die but we had a soul, something permanent and holy that we shared with God… What a relief. But yet, how to live that truth?
So, in my early adolescence I was searching for the methods to « polish the soul » if I may say. Prayers, good deeds, prostrations, services, contemplation… And I gradually encountered what I may know call the « power of silence ». When I shut up, my mind would shut up and was not alone in that inner silence. Things have gone and come but there was a relief there, a raft, a shelter. After sometime, I realized that letting time to silence, the quality of silence itself deepened, I was more concentrated and simply joyful to be in the presence of silence.
Of course, I was also an adolescent with friends and parties to go to. And the adolescent mindset being what it is, I was all about taking my spiritual thirstiness into action too, but in a more systematize way.
At that time, between 14 and 15 probably, I was deeply in love with a Vietnamese girl. And the only thing I could see to spend some time with her, her parents being very attentive to her not going to parties and such, was at her local Buddhist pagoda. So, I enrolled in the school journal and said I would wrote a column on spirituality, as people knew I was into that kind of thing… they just accepted right away.
So, there I was at her local temple, I could see her and talk to her… with her parents always being on sight. That thing never really got anywhere. But I had committed to do a series of articles on Buddhism so I was kind of obliged to go to that temple several times. After the first six articles I had promised to the journal, I found myself returning to the pagoda every Sunday and not at church anymore.
Very naturally, I felt quite at home in the pagoda. An old lay Buddhist man took the time to explain me the whole liturgy, the purpose of the different parts of it and everything. And so I began to read about Buddhism and identify as a Buddhist but never in contradiction with my previous Judeo-Christian background. I felt more of a complementarity. Soon, I realized that Buddhism was a really huge community with a wide range of philosophy, psychology and what interested me the most meditation practices. And I began to see that all the Christian or Jewish practices existed in a way or another in the « Library of Buddhist Practices ». That could seem nothing, but to me it made the certitude that it was the right path to me. Yet, Buddhism is very diverse and I still had to find what branch of Buddhism was the best for me.
And than I made the error every convert may make… I became more catholic than the pope. Suddenly, I had some certitudes, I read Walpola Rahula’s basic Teachings of the Buddha book and thought I knew the real stuff. Thus, the very family oriented and devotional Vietnamese pagoda, with their devotion to Amitabha Buddha and Zhunti GuanYin all wrapped in colorful lights and fabrics… just felt below my great knowledge and aspirations. I didn’t knew it but I had become a little sectarian know it all… or more simply a Buddhist jerk.
So I did go to the most authentic Theravadha authorities I could find from the Burmese and Thai traditions and attended their classes. They were lovely communities but again I didn’t felt in the right spot. Partly because I was a self oriented jerk lacking compassion and partly because this idea that you had to be a monk to experience the real stuff just didn’t sound to my hears. Of course, everyone could be a monk for a limited period of time, which is very very common, but still… didn’t felt right.
One day I realized from a Buddhist friend that a small Tibetan center existed two blocks away from home… Big cities you know, sometimes you don’t even know your own neighbor. So I went. At that time, I was quite sure I knew all kind of practices available to a spiritual seeker but encountering the Vajrayana sure was something I didn’t expected. I knew it from books but being in the presence of the teachers and the ceremonies and all that was amazing to my adolescent mind. Yet, what caught me was that I knew that beyond the deity practices (yidam), that were by themselves a true source of compassion… including the self compassion I probably lacking at the time, were the Dzogchen or Mahamudra. The texts relating to Mahamudra and Dzochen that encountered in this path just blew my mind. No need to look for our true self in an infinite quest, just here, just this clear mind … a taste of freedom that I would never forget.
When I used to go to the Vietnamese pagoda I didn’t quite understood what Mahayana Buddhism was all about and, in a funny way, I had to encounter Vajrayana to understand the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. Because from a young age I knew that there was not only impermanence, death and suffering but now I knew that I had the same Nature than the Buddhas and that holy « soul » was not from a different essence. Nirvana could be find in this very life. The Tibetan tradition had masters in his lineage that were prostitute or butchers, just normal dudes and that felt right.
So I went to ceremonies and attended training sessions for some years. The Dzogchen and Mahamudra texts were profound and, again quite funnily, they lead me to meet some Zen guys who presented me Zen and Daoist text. I could find in these Zen texts, the same « taste of freedom » that I was still striving for. But the setting was very different. These guys Patriarchs were really normal men… maybe a bit too much. Look at it for yourself: a Blue eyed dark skinned stranger as a first Patriarch, a disabled arm missing guy for second, and a leper for third Patriarch, not mentioning my favorite one, the illiterate one for sixth Patriarch.
So, I tried to go to Zen groups or dojos. And I could see that each group had is very own way to adapt not only the teachings and practices to their reality but also the material aspect of it. That could seem stupid but until that time I was so spiritual I was very denying of the material side of life… So seeing these groups adapting so beautifully and simply to their houses, community centers or Zen centers, finding ways to express their Zen thing with what they could really touched me. It was not only a discource for the mind but also a praxis for the body. And in ways I had find these in all other traditions, Buddhist or not, but so complicated by rituals and formulas and gestures and … that in comparison the minimal (yet no so simple) form of most Zen groups seemed very open and humble in comparison. It was just right for me, every little thing just seem to be at his very place… and thus I had found mine. And their, quite astonishingly, I found an old friend who had been around all the time: inner silence. The possibility to just be, to fully be, with body and mind. To enter into unity with that Silence. What the old master call the silent part of Emptiness… that that place with no inner chit chat, a place of vastness and union with silence.
And my Zen life went on for years on that path. Of course, I found sectarian and ridiculous views and attitudes in Zen just as I did in other groups. But I had find something that felt true beyond the differences, words, traditions, beyond myself. That blissful encounter with Amitabha light. Zen is samadhi, Silence and Union, a direct and mystical encounter with our very own Buddha Nature. But Emptiness as several sides and experiencing merely the Empty side of emptiness is still being totally blind.
And after some years, being very serious about the matter of Zen, I entered kind of a dark zone, a zone of deadly emptiness, deadly stillness in meditation… something didn’t felt right anymore. I was part of a very friendly and precious Zen community at the time, which is still very active on the Internet, they do an amazing job.
But I didn’t find in the Zen world I knew the answers of what was in fact a Zen disease. And fortunately it is at that time that I encountered our Zen Order and my main teacher since, Ming Zhen Shakya. First trough her book « the Seventh World of Chan » which gave me the answers I needed and then personally. Trough her teachings and advices, I became to understand that I had to accept things fully, to embrace my whole existence. And after some turmoils too long to explain, I really found the beauty of Zen in an Orthodox Christian Retreat. I came to realize that « seeing Zen » or entering Samadhi wasn’t enough. All the Zen masters had given their advices but I hadn’t hears to listen. Entering Zen is crucial but it is only the beginning of the Zen path. One must enter the inner road of Self Transformation through the letting go of the small self the Big Self manifests. That Was the Zen of manifestation.
No matter what faith, Buddhist school or Christian school of thought, some of the mystical members of these school would have direct experience of what is beyond words, that is entering Zen, entering our Universal Nature. But What is very peculiar to each one of us is that we have to manifest that Universal truth in our own way, our own lives, our own acts. And that is a « never ending actualization of Zen ». So that it takes a whole life to manifest what a Zen life is. No shortcuts, no sectarian door on the side to enter the Truth quicker or express it louder than anyone else. We must experience and then manifest Zen in our very life in our own very way.
The little boy is now way older, he has a wife, kids, house and all the joys of life. May he never forget that Life, Love, or as we say : Zen, is a life process to manifest.
May all being find the presence of inner Silence and unite with its Universal Truth.