I Was a Zen Drop-out

Monks in study hall

Monks in study hall

The Jehovah’s Witnesses had been circling for weeks, leaving pamphlets on “Godly Parenting” and “True Wealth”. Could they smell my spiritual decay? My husband finally explained to them that we were Buddhists and didn’t want to learn more about God’s exciting plan for our lives. I hadn’t been able to say it. I would stare at their brittle smiles and almost say it, but whenever my husband said “Buddhist,” I’d sink back into “whatever that means.”

The trouble was that I was a Zen dropout. I used to practice with all my heart. Then one day I picked up my kapok cushion and ran away.

When I was 23, I became the Buddhist Chaplain at a prominent women’s college outside of Boston. As a Zen Buddhist convert with just two years of practice behind me I was to be a spiritual guide for the college’s Buddhist community, and the representative of Buddhism to others on campus.

This unlikely ascension had far more to do with my personality than my practice. As a kid, I’d had an unusually developed will-to-power, always calling the rope-skipping rhymes on the playground. That quality got me to the Ivy League from a working class family with no other college graduates. But I cracked after two years in the place, a hot egg in cold water.

When I emerged from the Xanax trance during my junior year, I found that I was drawn to Zen Buddhism. At the first “dharma talk” that I attended, the Zen Master said, “We’re not trying to be good Christians here.” That was a relief. Zen didn’t want me to be nice or strong or great. Just real. Of course, I couldn’t help trying just a little secret bit to be the best Zen Buddhist. A professional-grade Buddhist. Had I possessed a hardier constitution, I might have applied my ambition to a career at the State Department. Instead, I put it into my spiritual salvation.

After graduation, I went straight to Korea, shaved my head, and entered into a rigorous traditional Zen retreat. I told my bewildered parents, “This isn’t so much an immense gap in my résumé as it is a career training period.” I attacked the retreat with the ardor of a convert, performing thousands of prostrations and learning to love kimchee.

Monastic life was just like regular life except that the intrigues were conducted through notes, and related to the trade of hoarded chocolate bars. It suited me perfectly, so I didn’t return to the States until I hit the post-graduate wall of poverty. I needed a job, but I craved work that would keep me tethered to the spiritual brightness of the Korean temple. I thought that the chaplaincy position was a gift from the goddess Kuan Yin.

I have a photo that was taken at that first spring after I was hired, after the college’s graduation ceremony. I am standing with the six other spiritual advisors on the steps of the chapel in my billowing gray regalia. My cheeks are round as moons. I am at least fifteen years younger than any of my colleagues.

This made it all the more troubling whenever unfamiliar students addressed me in email as “Your Holiness…”  My what?

Zen history is full of stories about young masters who, through reincarnation or religious genius, precociously tear away the veil of delusion. I was not one of them. I was like the thief in the Hindu story, who is stealing gold from the temple. He is about to make his exit when he hears footsteps. To save himself, he pretends to be a meditating sage, and the innocent person is so convinced by the act that they ply him with questions. He is a pretty good fake, and more people come to see him. The thief never manages to get away. He eventually becomes a sage, through the power of the posture he has assumed.

I was that imposter, except that instead of growing into my immense teacher’s robes, I recoiled from the act.

“True wisdom means keeping a don’t-know mind,” I’d hear myself say.

“Mind makes everything.”

“Who is the self that perceives the self?”

Or some other half-baked dollop of Zen-ish stuff which I had not digested. Day by day, Zen became a mundane field of expertise at which I was not really an expert. I lost the feel of my own questions because, in my position as a “spiritual leader,” they were dangerous to have.

After about a year as Buddhist Chaplain, I began to dread practice. “Well, we’re off to jail,” I’d say at the start of a weekend retreat. People would laugh. But really, the first clap of the chugpi was like the clatter of a jailer’s keys. For two days I would be trapped with my neighbor’s wet swallowing sounds, and a vague clenching in my own throat.

I stumbled along in the job for a few more years, until I had my first child. Motherhood provided me with an exit from all that uncomfortable posturing in the temple. Since Zen had become a professional identity, it made sense to me that I should get maternity leave from practice.

When I arrived at motherhood I felt immense gratitude for my years (seven by then) staring at floors. Zen had taught me that all sensations pass, including the type that lead a person to bite a hole in the birthing tub. I could endure acute pain, as well as the dull throb of boredom and sleep deprivation. But this knowledge became a sort of conceit: Zen was the training, motherhood was the war. I didn’t think I needed to practice anymore.

I still thought about practicing. Does that count? Every night, as I fell gratefully into unconsciousness, I dreamed that I was folding my legs on the cushion.  It was like that dream you have after you hit the snooze button, where you’re getting out of bed and peeing and putting on your work clothes.

My mind had done its mind-job, turning “Zen” into a thing. I could love it, hate it, blame it, and neglect it. The last part was easy because, unlike my new obligation, Zen practice didn’t cry. Instead, I gradually replaced the companion of compassionate awareness that Zen had provided me with a gang of volatile moods.

One day, after exhorting my toddler for the fifteenth time: “nice to kitty!” I found myself gripping her arms and screaming, “YOU HAVE TO BE KIND TO ALL BEINGS!”

It was an unpleasant sort of Samadhi, that realization of my inner Scary Lady.  Motherhood took everything out of me. I had to find some way to fill back up.

I returned to the temple, the scene of the crime, through a pithy little scripture called the Prajna Paramita Sutra. It’s only one page long, and is supposed to contain the distilled realization of the Zen path. It declares at the end of a litany of non sequiturs that “There is no attainment with nothing to attain.”

Clinging to that morsel, I’ve started practicing again. In relation to the noise and chaos of my days, it’s a gift. The empty breath unburdens me. It’s only ten or fifteen minutes right before bedtime, without an altar or even a cushion.

I just sit on my bed, so that, if I fall asleep in the middle of it, I won’t land too hard.

Laura Hawes is neither attaining nor not attaining samadhi in Southwest Colorado. She is raising two children and a variety of farm animals while she recovers from her Ivy League education. She writes for several local publications and is working on a book about her apocryphal American Indian heritage.