On Sundays at 1:00 am, the monks hit the highway.
Each week they’d drive around town and beyond, to pick up anyone who called by 1:00 to ask for a ride to Sunday morning services. On one occasion their truck pulled up in my alley too, through the trumpet vines and towering pokeweed. I had some serious church burn going on then, and was much too discouraged to venture out and find another church. While pining away for some spiritual practice and fellowship, I went and spent a quiet night meditating with the monks. It was good to see them pull up with a friendly greeting in their denim jackets and farming feed caps. In companionable quiet we headed out past starlit fields of wheat and corn, in the summer breeze with the nighthawks buzzing overhead. After picking up a last passenger the monks drove us back to town, to their little rented house. There our hosts put on graceful gray robes and brown aprons while we visitors took off our shoes and picked out hand-sewn black sitting cushions. We tiptoed across the polished wood floor, and settled down in the soft dim light.
Sunday service began at 3:00. There were long long chants in Korean, with written translations in English. One was probably the Heart Sutra, about release and freedom from one’s Self-centered sensations and perceptions. Here is an excerpt from the Center’s website. “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.”
(Editorial opinion here. Yes, these words have been beloved worldwide for centuries. They have proved a great comfort for people gripped and driven by suffering. Some of those people tell me how much it’s helped. But those words might not be a remedy for people dissociated from their own bodies, who don’t know what hurts, don’t know how to talk about it, don’t sense that they even have a Self, or were taught that their thoughts and feelings don’t matter and their perceptions of reality are wrong. End of digression.)
With the chanting that night, there was also bowing with prostrations. That means standing with hands folded palm to palm. Then it’s a deep knee bend with straight posture, sinking down to kneel with forehead and tops of feet against the floor, and then sitting back and tucking the toes up under, and then springing straight up as lightly as a heron. The monks led 108 of these floor prostrations, in a very fleet manner. I can not imagine how they kept count. Typing this just now, for the sake of interest, let me go find out whether my ankles and toes are still limber enough to manage a knee bend all the way down to the floor.
During the session, there were intervals when we sat in silence. I seem to recall that at times we turned around and knelt facing the white wall, that sitting up straight was hard, and that several times the silence was so absolute and lengthy that I was sure the monks had forgotten all about us and taken themselves off to bed. During those vast expanses of stillness, the meditation leader floated from corner to corner, tuning in to the energy of the room, balancing a stick which might have been bamboo. As the wee hours wore on, waves of drowsiness would roll in and drag the marrow in my bones straight toward the center of the earth. We’d been told that at those times, any one of us could place hands palm together and give the leader a nod. Several times I did just that. Then he would come over with the stick and carefully rest a hand on me to feel and shield my spine. Then on the soft part of the back inside the shoulder blades he would give me two hearty glancing thwacks on the left, and two thwacks on the right. This Awake Stick treatment was voluntary and reviving, like dunking one’s face in ice water. It certainly helped with remaining focused and wakeful.
Apparently, in traditional mentorship the Awake Stick was also applied when a Zen teacher sensed that a student was about to reach some next step of spiritual advancement. Then the teacher would give a few spontaneous thwacks to help the student snap out of everyday thinking and into the higher level of experience. (It sounds like Cesar Millan guiding a dog with a tap from the top of his shoe Tch! — but to snap the brain into a state of being, not out of it.) That night, the possibility dawned on me: What if one of the monks with Awake Stick at the ready discerned that I was about to reach some epiphany? Wouldn’t it be an amazing experience to feel an unexpected thwack to push me over the right edge? Of course, at a Zen Center, the great goal is not the thought “How am I doing here? Am I advancing toward spiritual insight? Is anyone important noticing my progress?” Still, as night crawled on (and on), that thought did captivate my imagination. So did thousands and thousands of other thoughts, including the complete jingle to the Bonomo Turkish Taffy theme from childhood TV.
Between silent sessions, there were also rounds of walking meditation. We would all slip our shoes on and step outdoors in silent single file, walking with palms together. The idea was to meditate while taking one small soft mindful step at a time, keeping the focus on the breath while letting the body be gently grounded point to point through space.
That was a tiring and laborious night. Still, this despondent temperament found benefit with silence in a household of minimal deliberate actions, thoughtfully arranged consistent ritual, meaningful well-intentioned speech, social synchronicity, and plain aesthetically uplifting surroundings.
By 6:00, Sunday morning service concluded with a short reading and lesson. The monks hung up their gray robes. Two put on their feed caps and drove us home. But first, they even treated us to breakfast and tea at the diner. These were industrious enterprising young men. They worked long hard hours in construction and farming and baking and industrial sewing by day, then by night devoted themselves to meditation practice and receiving visitors to the Center. They operated with open hospitality, humility, philosophical conversation, and gentle straight-faced self-effacing humor. In their kind company we all enjoyed a good sunrise conversation with our meal. One of the men gave me his tasseled prayer beads, unvarnished golden wood with a wonderful sandalwood fragrance.
Just today, 35 years later, I looked up their community back in that modest-sized town. At a time when the news holds so much polarized bombardment, when social connections are fraying at the seams, I expected that the group was broken up and the Center long gone. To my surprise, those sittings caught on and grew. Two of the original founding members are still right there leading the Center. (A third one now leads his own center back East.) The community has bought and renovated a house on the quiet edge of town out toward those corn and wheat fields. On their website, the premises show meticulous cleanliness and care. There are services in person and over Zoom, with open drop-in meditation hours, and frequent day retreats. It would be wonderful if more Christian denominations had a house and community of this kind, open for public worship and day events. (Over the years as congregations have discussed strategies for community outreach, I’ve told them to hold services at 3:00 am.)
Back to our story. That night we circled around the block in three walking meditation breaks, palms together, in unison, step by step. We eased our footfalls over brick sidewalks and tree roots and lacy leaf-shapes under the streetlights and once a strolling daddy-long-legs with a huge shadow. We walked to the sound of a questioning dog bark somewhere in the dark houses, a distant siren down Main Street, lawn sprinklers and the rustling walnut trees and katydids and crickets and a mockingbird and freight trains and the summer breeze over the river and one slow cruising car with a radio playing “In My Dreams” by REO Speedwagon.
A hearty bracing blow hit me square on the back. I looked up from the ground, catching my breath. Gee! Did one of the monks bring along the Awake Stick, and decide that I was on the brink of deeper awareness? Oh, but… wait, the monks were at the head of the line. I was last. The street behind me was dark and empty; just crickets and me. As I stopped and looked back my foot hit something softish but firm like a sandbag, a wrapped bundle weighing a pound or two. I leaned over for a closer look.
And we climb, and climb, and at the top we fly / Let the world go on without us! We are lost in time…
The appealing lyrics and tune trailed off down the street. All along his route, the driver of that cruising car tossed thick hefty Sunday newspapers. Most hit the doorsteps. One hit me, for my closest brush with Zen enlightenment.