Prostrating Fool

In April, a Zen center opened in Grand Rapids. At first, I just dabbled. As I was returning to Buddhism in the last few years, reading Brad Warner, the punk contrarian Zen Master, and listening to podcasts from the San Francisco Zen Center, I had begun to think of myself as a Soto Zen Buddhist. In actual fact, I had never darkened the door of any Buddhist temple let alone a Soto one. I dipped my toe in the Korean Zen center only because it was the one I could get to. I held myself aloof. Then again, I was excited and happy to have a local temple and local practice opportunity.

Soon it became apparent, even to me, that it really is much better to study in a sangha, under a teacher. The author, Karen Maezen Miller, ironically a Soto Zen Priest, said “If you think there's a difference between Chinese Zen, Japanese Zen, Korean Zen, Vietnamese Zen and American Zen, it's not Zen.” I began to feel comfortable at the local center. As Fall approached, I joined a group at the center who aim to take the precepts in the Spring. To 'take the precepts' is to officially and publicly declare that you are a Buddhist and that you will strive to live your life accordingly. It is kind of like a confirmation or a baptism – only not.

With a bit of delicious pleasure, Sunim told us that we would have to do 3000 prostrations before the springtime ceremony to take the precepts in the Korean tradition. There was also something about burning our forearms with the end of a stick of incense to leave a permanent reminder of our commitment. As soon as he stated these requirements, my imagination ran wild. I was going to be the best prostrator they every saw. I would get my 3000 done right away. And not only that, when they went to burn my arm, I would lean into it and then have an enso tattooed around the scar.

Reality soon came to mock my silly ego. As soon as I started doing prostrations, I realized how unnatural a motion it was for my old knees. About the same time, my day job was causing a stiff back nearly every day. Often as I sat for meditation, rather than peace and harmony, all I knew was screaming knees and a painful knot in my back. The little whining ego began to chip away at my resolve. My meditation schedule waned. I stopped doing prostrations. The smallest distraction caused me to get up off my cushion and quit.

We preceptors are keeping a practice journal. The journal lists meditation time and number of prostrations along with what obstacles we encountered and a statement of gratitude. I began to dread when I would be asked to present my journal. Despite what I thought I was willing to strive for, my practice was sliding. I was sure that I was behind everyone else on prostrations. It seemed certain that I was lagging enough in effort that I might be asked to stop coming. My ego reaction had flipped and caused me to shrink away, rather than charge at my practice. I was feeling inadequate.

When I tried to make a big splash to restart, when I forced myself into a heavy practice session, all I ended with was sore legs and a couple more days off. I was very frustrated.

Last week, we were asked to use a new form and email a weekly journal. There was no request to see the journal in which I'd been recording my haphazard practice. Nevertheless, when I had to send in the first email journal, I had nothing to report. The holidays were a terrible distraction. It was wonderful to have lots of family around and catch up with them, but it was hard to carve out time for meditation. Then just as I was looking forward to having the house to myself again, contractors arrived to redo the kitchen. I was starting to doubt what I thought I wanted. I wondered if my distracted little pea brain could actually concentrate and begin to allow me to walk this path.

Rather than being asked to stop trying, I got the most wonderful answer to my empty practice report. Of course, my inadequacies were not deemed a problem. I was not judged and found lacking. Sunim told me that he thought that I was being pulled in a lot of directions and that it was more important to establish a habit, however light, than to try to take big swings at it and miss. Regular practice was more important than grandiose plans about long meditations and leaping up from prostrations. I think I can handle this.

It's already beginning to come back for me. Some of things in my crazy life may not be necessary. Some of it may be distracting. But rather than thinking of it like taking a stand, a small regular effort will erode at the rest. The dust and the chaff will wash away. That which is permanent – solid – will not only remain, but will shine again.