In order to fulfill my obligation as a designated Conscientious Objector (rather than going to Viet Nam and participating in that insanity), I was working as a Child Care Counselor at a residential youth facility in Ukiah, California. The year, if I recall correctly, was late 1969 or early 1970, and I had been studying Zen Buddhism for a number of months, since returning to San Francisco from the Sierras, where I had lived in a tent by the North Fork of the Yuba River. I had camped there to renew myself after dropping out of the Catholic Seminary in Mountain View (now Silicon Valley). It was there that I first read about Zen in a little book a friend had lent me, and where I had my first modest experience (or taste) of the awakening to which Zen pointed.
As I sat on a boulder by the river, contemplating what I had been reading, I was suddenly struck by the realization that everything was just appearing as itself, being itself, perfectly and completely. The trees were just treeing, the stream was streaming, I was selfing, and it was all connected in a most amazing way. There was nothing in need of fixing or manipulating — total freedom was always and already the case! There was nothing to search for, nothing in need of redemption, nothing to grasp or discard. I burst out laughing at the obviousness of it all, as shivers of ecstatic release coursed through my body. A big chunk of the Catholic conditioning program dissolved on the spot, and so I was determined to learn more about this Zen matter.
When I returned to the City, I found the San Francisco Zen Center in the phone book, under “Meditation”. I went over to their location, and met Suzuki Roshi, who had a book out called “Zen Mind Beginners Mind”. I was taught how to sit in the correct posture of Zazen, and immediately began the practice of counting, and then following, the breath. I devoured the book, almost to the point of memorization, and began to attend lectures. However, I was soon forced by my federal obligation to find qualified work, and so ended up a few hours north of the City, in Ukiah.
Nevertheless, I continued my sitting practice, and since I worked 3 days on and 3 days off, I took advantage of one of my “off” periods to participate in a Zen meditation retreat (Sesshin) at the Zen Center. Despite the increasing challenge of painful back and knees (unaccustomed to hour after hour sitting), I managed to get through the sittings. My position was situated facing a stippled, avocado-green wall, a view that became very familiar to me. I can still see it now. Oddly, a chief memory I recall is a wonderful slice of poppy seed cake and cup of green tea that was served during a break between sittings – it was the most delicious food I had ever eaten!
After the third day’s events, I returned to my family’s house in San Francisco. They were all off somewhere, so I had the place to myself. I found a menu and ordered some Chinese food, while I sat and stared into an empty fireplace, listening over and over to a record, “Music for Zen Meditation”. As I smoked a few cigarettes and assessed the Sesshin experience, I felt like something profound had taken place, but what that amounted to was not at all clear to my thinking mind, so I just enjoyed the music and the chow mein, while the evening closed in, and the room grew dark.
About a year later, I found myself living in a Zen Monastery, and eventually attended over 20 Sesshin (the full 7 day experience) as a resident there, but experienced nothing much different than the first one I attended back in San Francisco. Certainly, I had a lot of interesting and seemingly profound experiences, but they are all mostly forgotten these days, as if it was all a kind of dream, and indeed, that is pretty much the size of it, as far as I can tell now — dreaming, dreaming, dreaming . . .