I don’t know what to expect from a private meeting with a Zen master. Part of me hopes it will be like sitting with Buddha himself. He will say some phrase that will ping around my skull releasing profound wisdom. Or maybe he won’t say anything, just put a hand to my head and pass on enlightenment via touch. I’ve been told that my “dharma interview” is a chance for me to ask a question, which seems like good timing because I have one that’s been gnawing at me.
I want to see if he understands why, at times when it seems I’m finally getting a hang of this meditation thing, I’ll be rudely yanked out of my peaceful contemplation by some awful sensation. It’s the sharp crack of panic, or some other random thing like the explosion of itches. They come out of left field, in response to nothing; I’m not considering anything troubling when I’m stricken with the anxiety. In fact, it happens when I’m especially absorbed in the meditation practice, which is why I find it perplexing. The Zen master will probably say I just need to ramp up my efforts to stay on the side of the metaphorical “thought highway,” firmly planted in the “big me” zone. When I get lazy, I must wander into the on-coming traffic.
This particular Zen master is a Jew by birth and psychotherapist by trade—two characteristics that apparently lend themselves to being a good student of Buddhism; I’ve found they are not uncommon among practitioners in the area. My consultation with him is part of a one-day meditation retreat. I became familiar with this opportunity and the master a few nights earlier at the weekly lesson for newcomers held at this particular center, which occupies an historic school house in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The Buddhism practiced here hails from Korea and often employs seemingly mysteriously combinations of words or strange little questions as part of the path to enlightenment. The master told us that during his own meditation he favors a silent statement for each inhalation and exhalation. “Clear mind,” he says, breathing in; “Know nothing,” he says, breathing out. He invites us to use these words or come up with others.
This Buddhism bears a resemblance to the type I experienced at the other Zen center I visited earlier, which came to the United States via Japan. At both, those further along in their practice are distinguished by robes, bowing is frequent, decorations are subdued, and walking is orderly. However, seated meditation here does not take place facing the walls. The cushions are set up so that we sit side-by-side facing the middle of the room. I’ve watched others coming and going, so I know to bow as I enter the main sanctuary and then again before I sit. Today, I am assigned a spot between two more experienced practitioners. I bow to my cushion and take my place.