The zendo

For most of my life, I’ve conceived of my past as something as solid and real as a ladder, and the events that comprise it as true as rungs underfoot. Frequently, I paused to consider the lowest treads, the particulars that had made it a difficult climb—the broken home, the financial insecurity, the frequent moving, the spotty schooling. In college, I clung tightly to the rails. I had to work harder than everyone else, I told myself. I had to hold down a job and study twice as diligently. I couldn’t let my white-knuckle focus lapse for even an instant, or I might lose footing. I was nudged forward by the sorrowful plot points. In a sense, the story was living me, not the other way around.

I was not fond of the ladder on which I stood. I thought if I changed my environment then everything that had led up to that moment might be transformed, that I might shed my story like a snake does its skin. I remember junior year I decided what I needed, the one thing that would brighten my existence, was an apartment with an outdoor space where I could sit. So senior year I moved into a place with a patio. But it was just a concrete slab with a few sad plants; I was no happier. My stupid story had followed me there.

To pursue Buddhism where I went to college is a funny task because it is here where my investment in “the story” solidified, where I fine-tuned and polished it to sparkly gleam. And it is just this sort of attachment to story that Buddhism attempts to rid us of by encouraging us to always come back to the present moment, to learn to release the steady stream of thoughts on which the story is built.

Still, being in Berkeley, a part of me can’t help but feel teleported into the past, to sense my ghostly doppelganger dangling precariously from her ladder. I see something and suddenly I’m looking through the lens of the 20-year-old me. This is exactly what happens when I enter a Zen center with a lush exterior courtyard. “This is just what I had in mind,” I think, referring to the outdoor space I thought could miraculously soothe me senior year. As this thought putters by, I am aware of how silly it is. Even if time collapsed and the old me somehow had access to this sumptuous garden, it wouldn’t have mattered. My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.

This particular Zen center is on a residential street within walking distance to the places I lived junior and senior years—the one without, and the one with, a patio. It is made up of two houses next door to one another and their separate backyards have been combined to create an oasis of serenity and to accommodate other structures. One is a zendo, a traditional Buddhist meditation hall that looks like a Japanese gingerbread house and adds to the charm of the courtyard. Long wood steps lead to the zendo’s porch and offer a perch for removing shoes.

When I arrive, the sun is only starting to rise. I’m 15 minutes early for the seated meditation that begins at 6 am. I enter the yard quietly, cognizant of the fact that several people live in these houses—a couple of monks who run the place, one of whom is married and raised his children here. As I sit on the zendo’s steps, the garden slowly illuminates, and I hear the reassuring rustle of people starting their days.

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7 thoughts on “The zendo

  1. “My interior terrain would have remained unchanged.”

    What an important thought to pack away as we all go on our journey…! How can we clean a house if the inside is disorganized? Methodically picking up each item, deciding whether it should stay or go, deciding where it should go…Thats definitely ourselves in a nutshell :)

  2. Corinna, I hope I understood your “story” well enough to mention a couple things from my own story. Although we’ve been on such different paths, what you’ve said reminds me so much of myself….perhaps only the metaphors differ….
    As a young adult, much of my life seemed to be about looking for that next big thing, counting on that to bring change for good (ie, maybe so I could feel better about myself): going from the army to school to marriage to Bible school to mission training to Africa…. I think it was while we were in Senegal that I realized that my next big thing, like your apartment with the patio slab, was always accompanied by my story: it followed me wherever I went, so the pain was always there….
    I’ve learned now to see my story and the ugly things about it through adult eyes as a son of my Father. This is something that has happened since 2007, not magically when I became a Christian in ’71. What this means is that I now–after nearly 50 years of searching–have a definite idea of my identity as a son, and it has made all the difference. With that perspective I’ve been able to let go of much of the trauma from my life (my distant father who died when I was 13, and other things), go back and re-embrace the little boy that I was who went through such great pain, and I am healing from a lot of that. In a sense, I am nurturing that little boy (me) so he knows he is truly loved…..In my case, I don’t feel that I have to let go of the story but I now see more of how the story will end, and it is good.
    Your journey is not my journey, but I pray for you a similar end…..:)

    • Thank you, Walt. That’s lovely. I think there’s the facts of what happen and then there’s “the story” we tell ourselves about those facts. The story tends to have power and follow us into the present where as the facts are just what happened in the past–they don’t have to have power if we don’t let them. It seems like both Buddhism and Christianity can help us see “the story” as just the simple facts. They bring us back to what’s real: here, now, love.

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