Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Zen Beginnings

Someone asked on my alumni email list why we changed religions, specifically naming me among others.  Why, and at what point in our life, we came to Buddhism, etc.

First, I said,  Such a big question! So much to say...I guess I'll do the zen thing and boil it down to the essence....

St. John's is directly responsible.

Then, I sent another post:

that is to say...
When I came to St. John's it slowly dawned on me that I had difficulty interacting with the books and in seminar because I did not know myself. A momentous realization occurred during, or I should say after, the Symposium seminar, when quite a few of us piled into cars and the back of a pickup and went to Spike Venable's house to continue the party. (All Spike had left in the house was some sherry, which we eagerly drank because it was booze of some kind.)

Certain moments at that party blend together as the moment when I realized. Mr. Cornell saying "Ms. Hoog... is drunk! Ms. Hoog... is drunk!" and me thinking 'yeah so are you!' and me responding to something somebody asked by saying, "I don't know what I believe!" realizing that at that moment I could no longer call myself a Christian and two friends of Spike's, not Johnnies, who insisted it was possible to be Buddhist *and* Christian. I had no idea what Buddhism was, and if they explained, I was too drunk to retain it.

But I was beginning to uncover myself. I was busy imbibing Great Books, often reading them twice but still not knowing what to say.

Along about the time we were reading the Bible, my boss in the library, Jon Schaefer, [son of Jack Schaefer] would talk with much enthusiasm about his Buddhist beliefs and about his experiences meditating with Some Great American Convert I don't remember who, who so steadfastly meditated in the snow, etc. I was intrigued, but didn't know what about, really. Some unremembered amount of time later, I was in the bookstore buying up some needed Great Books, when I paused at the Eastern Philosophies/Religions bookshelf, vaguely remembering Jon's enthusiasms.

George Wen... noticed my pause and asked if I was wondering what to start with. I supposed I was. So on his recommendation I bought Zen Mind Beginner's Mind and Three Pillars of Zen. The first I began to read and was hooked. Yes! Yes! Yes! It felt like coming home. The second I used for the illustrations and instructions on how to meditate, but didn't much read because I didn't want to read about answers before I had a chance to experience, having got the message from ZMBM that this was very much an experiential religion.

I tried meditating, but it felt weird, so I gave it up. Long about the time I was able to choose my first preceptorial, and got into "Ancient Chinese Philosophy" with Ralph Swentzell, I thought it might be a good time to try meditating again, and Jon was starting up a pre-seminar meditation period. Never mind that this was pre-Buddhist Chinese philosophy, I knew nothing about that.

So I started meditating, and this time it felt right. That first time, I felt like I was swirling down into a vortex. This time I felt like a Weight Lifted, and I felt ebullient. I have long felt fortunate for that early experience, as it kept me on the path. Buddhist faith asks that you give it a try, and you will eventually experience why it was worth giving a try. This early experience became a beacon when I might have drifted for the sameness of the meditation experience.

It seems to have been a blessing of my life... Blessing? Serendipity? Coincidence? That I chose to walk a path for perhaps the silliest of reasons, and the path I chose turned out to be so important. It's significant to me now that I didn't start meditating until I was ready. The St. John's way was working to help me make the unconscious conscious to the point where I could be ready for the more powerful uncovering of meditation. Being away from my dysfunctional home was helping me shed fear that was instrumental in creating the wall that kept me from knowing myself.

Later on I came to see the religion of my childhood was a pasted-on belief. Since I was a child when it was offered, and at times forced on me, it wasn't something I really had a choice about. I didn't really have much choice about knowing myself, either, as for my survival in a dysfunctional house it was best not to fully face the unfairness of it. Come to think of it, having come to a safe place during a time of exploration, it was probably inevitable that I would lose my religion, among other things.

That's the beginning.