By Andrew Peers
Woke up this morning, put my body and mind on and stood up.
Opening the window for some fresh air, I bend through the knees a couple of times with arms stretched out at chest level.
“Anda… one, anda two, anda… in, anda out… and in…and to hell with this!” The fresh air is still a bit too fresh for pyjamas, so the window is quickly closed again. Then I set my white Anglo-Irish butt down on the meditation cushion. It fits like a porcelain cup on a saucer.
Next, the search for the breath.
Not for the first time, I sit here in the last few months of my 45th year, somehow feeling near halfway through life. Not that I expect to make 90 particularly. Am I sitting here just to fill in the time? At least I’m sitting here consciously.
This year my intention is to live more consciously, more mindfully.
Breathing in and breathing out, it could be a long sit this morning. One day we’re going to exhale for the last time and move on to unknown pastures. “You only have another half to go…” I think to myself. But dare I leave it all behind and just drift off with my breath one day?
From the small bookshelf to my right, the eminent Chinese Zen master Huang Po calls to me one last time; “People do not dare to forget their thinking for fear of tumbling through the Void where nothing will stop their fall” he shouts. “They do not know that the Void is not a true void, but the realm of the true Dharma…”
His voice is already thin and far away. Ignore the old geezer. Away with all those bloody Zen riddles and wise sayings of Zen masters! Nothing can help me now. I’m sitting here on my own and will have to manage. Pissing is a small thing, but you have to do it yourself as Chao Chou would say. It’s quiet in the room. The atmosphere seems to soften pleasantly. The intimate voice of the heart opens like a flower in warm air.
Out of my mouth comes an undeniable song of praise which I say out loud:
“Hail, Awakened One, Hail! Good morning, Thou who never sleeps. You who were watching over me and the world last night. You who never sleep and are always watching over us. Thou who art without beginning and without end, the Alpha and the Omega, the origin and source of the ten thousand things and to which everything will return. Thank you for being there and thank you for all that lives. Because it lives. In the spirit I bow to you and to all the saints in heaven and all the demons in hell. I bow my head to the floor… and see another one of those bloody dust mice under the bookcase. To them also I reverently bow.”
The spontaneous prayer dissolves again in the oily silence. A gap of light appears, opens and elongates and I step through the large welcoming mirror like a hairy Alice in Wonderland. If in this body nothing can be found about what really lives or what really saves, this letter and all these words are empty, just so many rheumatic fingers pointing to the moon.
What’s the point of these koan riddles or doctrines of the Church when lying on a deathbed, sweating in a damp room in Djibouti? On one side of the bed the angels sing beautifully in choir and on the other side, excited devils are playing the drums, with both parties pulling on my pyjamas. What then? What do I do?
I believe that my meditation this morning will help me in that moment. Sitting in meditation is a wonderful act of faith, a re-acquaintance with the bare essential of the gift of life itself and a mini-exercise in dying. Put more positively: sitting is an exercise in trust.
Hairy Alice has stepped through the mirror and discovered a wonderland behind her thoughts. Despite her beard, Alice is still a well-meaning child with courage and curiosity. Most small children have these qualities by nature and Alice is no exception. She dares to step into the unknown. She doesn’t think twice, she just does it. Without conditions or calculations. No matter what she has done in her life.
It doesn’t begin that way of course. Hairy Alice might have started meditating because it’s trendy or because her friend does it. Maybe she just finds it nice way to meet new people. Or it could be a case of, “I had to sit in order to survive.” All these are reasons enough to start, if only she does start!
It’s actually not so important to know why she’s meditating. The fact that she is trying it, is already a grace and a miracle. And with sitting comes the chance of insight. Zen masters wanted above all to bring insight to their students. But what difference do the wise sayings of Zen masters or the testimonies of modern saints in the Christian tradition make if I can’t experience the true and living freedom of Mu Ke Ge for myself?
(Mu Ke Ge: no limits, totally free—from the Heart Sutra).
Sooner or later comes the ‘Jonah and the whale’ situation anyway, like it or not. This Bible story describes how the prophet Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale who had swallowed him whole after the crew of the ship he was sailing on threw him overboard in a storm, having heard he was trying to escape from God. Very nice of them, I’m sure.
Question: who would like to volunteer to be swallowed by a whale? Imagine the enormous black hole of a whale’s mouth coming at you. Who would freely choose to jump in there?
Thomas Merton, American monk and author, wrote The Sign of Jonah. It is a book about his first challenges adapting to life in the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani. His Jonah experience lasted some years. In the dark stomach of the whale he encountered himself fully, shadows and all.
The whale was in himself.
According to the Rule of St. Benedict, the monk is to keep in mind this empty black hole constantly. But just thinking about what seems like death is not enough. It is life that implicitly invites me to get to know its opposite much better than that. If I don’t agree to be immediately swallowed up by the big fish, I can at least politely shake its fin.
Almost everyone in the Netherlands knows what a Trappist is, namely a delicious frothy beer. Trappist monks are therefore those bearded brothers who are primarily engaged in brewing, right? How many people know that the name ‘Trappist’ comes from the French abbey called La Trappe?
In the 18th century, La Trappe implemented a more rigorous interpretation of the original Cistercian charisma of simplicity. These days that rigour has been toned down and the Order has returned to emphasizing its original inspiration, though the name Trappist still remains. Today Trappists and Cistercians are two names for the same monastic phenomenon and the delicious beer is probably more famous than both.
The original Cistercian abbey was founded hundreds of years before the name Trappist was ever known. This new community at Citeaux in France was described as a schola caritatis, a school of love.
What all these bearded brothers occupied themselves with was apparently not primarily brewing, drinking and selling their own product. No, those bearded primitives were actually beer drinkers who went back to school, a new type of school. As adults, they volunteered to become students again in order to learn charity and goodness from each other.
The Maha Karuna Chan meditation group has, according to its description in its news magazine, no formal structure. It has no official groups, no membership, no hierarchy, no fixed curriculum study, no formalized koan practice and no specific training programme.
However, the traditional customs of Zen practice are respected: silence, zazen, chanting the sutras, talks by the teacher and private interviews with him. Maha karuna means Great Compassion, a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism, and Chan Buddhism is considered a Mahayana tradition.
This summer I was given permission to attend the 10 day meditation retreat organized by Maha Karuna Chan in Steyl in Limburg, the Netherlands. Returning to Zundert afterwards, I began a four-day retreat led by Brother Jeroen Witkam at the abbey. Sealed by silence, one retreat flowed seamlessly into the other. In both retreats people sat together in silence, brothers and sisters in suffering yet embraced by a boundless compassion.
Friendship with one particular suffering brother or sister, however, can bring other insights with it.
Friendship has been given a special place in the Cistercian tradition as it is recognised as something that can never be confined by rules or subjected to the law. It is an invitation that defies human calculation. Its beginning is often not planned and there is no indication of future intensity. A true friendship has many painful vicissitudes which can pull apart conventional structures: the heart is woken up, and sometimes with violence.
What am I going to do if that happens to me, how will I cope?
From the beginning of a true friendship, a willingness to let go is required. That you are as you are, represents the unknown for me and that can be scary. Then your mouth begins to look like that of a whale. Aelred of Rivaulx, a celebrated Cistercian abbot of the Middle-Ages, attached great importance to the mutual inherent in friendship, a process of building up despite the disillusionments within it. Aelred’s writings are based on personal experience and are still cherished by many people today, both religious and lay.
After the 14th century and The Cloud of Unknowing, Christians in the West have largely lost contact with the apophatic way of their own tradition, with minor exceptions in Spain in the 16th century. Apophatic prayer, in which every name of God falls short, brings us into the realm of what is called Emptiness in the East. Zen serves to remind us of the value of the forgotten jewels in our own prayer traditions.
The lofty spirituality of India was brought down to earth when it passed into China. You have to ‘do’ kensho (sudden insight into enlightenment) is the message, and be able to demonstrate your understanding. This demand remains confrontational and personal.
No philosophy please: the Chinese approach is about learning by experience and through the body, about being driven into a corner in what feels like life and death situations where no theology can help. These type of koans are in the Christian tradition. You could even say that the monk lives out the koan of his vocation.
The many and varied tasks of monastic life tear apart who I believe myself to be and familiarize me with the painful process of letting go. A formless ‘cloud of unknowing’ descends when these koan-like experiences wrong-foot me and cause confusion.
Feeling cornered I can get like a wild beast in a cage. Like the bread of the Eucharist, I am broken, torn up and distributed among the community. But each time I experience life continuing on through these little deaths, each time I am shaken into remembering this. Alice even believes she is acquiring an expertise in keeping her balance in these things—at least she knows now what to expect.
She (almost) enjoys the exposure involved as she becomes increasingly established in a space beyond all reference points of the ego. The more I die, the more I enjoy of the fullness of life. I don’t get it at all.
“Just sit for 20 or 30 years and you will understand,” says the 120-year-old Chinese Chan master Chao Chou. It seems so simple but learning the truth about myself is never easy and inner setbacks remain painful. I can have confidence and dare to be less perfect in order to become more complete and whole.
The Pharisees of the Gospels held that it was arrogance to assert that anyone could be one with God, but is it not more arrogant to say that you could ever be anything apart from God? Whatever the case, through meditation I learn to look at myself without judgment, without thinking, without self. I break the cocoon of my rather strict Christian conditioning.
Alice returns to the world and everything is different.
Not that she is ‘cured’ of her fear of death. On the contrary, she now feels the full spectrum of emotions and the juiciness of her humanity, at the same time knowing that she is also more than this. She strokes her beard and looks with new eyes from the quiet space neither sarcastic demon nor preachy angel can reach.
“This is the place of those…” sounds the Avatamsaka sutra. This is the place of those who have accepted themselves and found peace. If it can happen here, if it can be born here in my heart, then I’m already awake and have already gone beyond the last soft border of death, even while still breathing.
So with the help of grace I can and will endure myself and grow a little more in the second half of my life, adopting a milder attitude excluding nothing and no-one. A ‘don’t-make-opposites’ attitude that will find no contradictions even between life and death.
This is the disposition of Maha Karuna (Great Compassion) and a different name for the God I so badly need to believe in.
I sit here meditating on my own, frittering the time away looking like a zombie, yet I’m not really alone.
I never sit alone.
My sitting is connected to everything and everyone. I know myself as on the path with everyone else and that we will all ‘pop our clogs’ one by one …together. Such an understanding is to taste the boundless compassion that my heart longs for: “Hail, O Prajnaparamita! Wisdom beyond all wisdom!”
The half hour of zazen is now over and while I get up to go for breakfast in the silence of the refectory, I think back for a moment to yesterday evening when a confrere composed a most elegant ikebana flower arrangement on the steps of the altar in the chapel. It was a simple alignment of sunflowers with reeds and small rocks next to a shallow oval dish filled with water. Shortly after completing it a robin flew in and flitted around looking for a way out again.
After 10 minutes of searching it took time out to think for a while on the head of the towering statue of Mary carved into the wall behind the altar. As is often the case, it will probably never find the window we left open before it dies.
But last night while we monks were singing Vespers a short distance away, the little robin was thoroughly enjoying a lively bath in the flower dish.
*excerpt from The Family Jewels: Letters on Zen Koan by a Trappist Monk.
Andrew Peers is Anglo-Irish and spent over 20 years in Trappist monasteries in England, Ireland and the Netherlands. In 2011, he left the Order, traveling to the home of Celtic Buddhism in America and returned to Europe to work as a meditation teacher in the Celtic Buddhist tradition. He combines this work with a passion for writing. Check out his website for more information. You can also read more in his recently published book, The Family Jewels: Letters on Zen Koan by a Trappist Monk.
Editor: Dana Gornall