In this brutally honest portrayal, Wisdom reader Robert O’Hearn makes himself—and the nature of spiritual seeking—bare in an effort to communicate the possibilities of retreat. O’Hearn’s story of frustration, perseverance, and devotion will strike a chord with readers of all faiths; the story’s Zen elements remind us of the challenges of language, loneliness, and human relationship. The Wisdom Blog is proud to share this marvelous and vibrant story of one man’s education in and outside of the Sanzen room as the first post in our Winter Retreat Series, a collection of responses to Wisdom's call for submissions on Spiritual Retreat. Look for the next post in the Winter Retreat Series next Wednesday, January 22. Also, stay tuned for The Wisdom Blog's upcoming Spring call for submissions!
“In the Sanzen Room: Mt. Baldy Monastery, 1971-73,” by Robert O'Hearn
In the Sanzen room, where Rinzai Zen Masters conduct formal interviews with their students, they require the aspirant to present his or her understanding with their whole being. Mere verbal play is rewarded with a quick dismissal, if lucky, or even a quick bow. At Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery, my first few months' answers to the initial koan (a kind of question used to test of one's insight into reality) I was given were gently laughed off, and often I was dismissed before I could even open my mouth.
After exhausting every conceivable approach, I was left with an interior devastation that I could not have imagined. Somehow, the inquiry proceeded regardless, on a level I had never known, nor can even now describe. More months followed, and I became very quiet, absorbed in an internal process deeper than thought.
The thinking mind was breached early one morning during kinhin (fifteen-minute walking meditation interspersed between hour-long sitting sessions). It was during a sesshin (a week-long intense meditation interrupted by four visits a day with the Master). As I walked in the slow procession, shivering in the predawn icy mountain chill, my heart suddenly welled up into my throat, and then something exploded there, and I was overtaken with convulsive sobs, so much so that I had to be led to the side to recover.
All that I had cherished about any sense of self was obliterated in an instant—as if it had never existed in the first place—and I stood alone in the universe, which was nothing but my own immense body, within which an unspeakable silent perfection manifested as the immaculate nature of being itself. These are only words for something that words cannot touch.
For the next several hours, all I could do was weep with a relief that, again, cannot be described. When it was my turn to go before Roshi, I was still weeping. He took one look at me, skipped the usual demand for an answer to my koan, and smilingly broke into English with, “Ahhh, crying Buddha!”
I don't have much memory of the weeks that followed (it felt as if I was in a serene floating world, not even in a body), but about a month later, in Sanzen, when he finally asked for an answer to my koan, I spontaneously shot my arm up and shouted a monosyllabic reply that surprised both of us.
He grinned and said, “So, the flower has finally begun to open!”
Now I was ready to begin in earnest. ...
About a year later, I had reached a point in my practice in which even the overlay of “zen” on whatever this is had simply become so excruciating that I walked out of my cabin in the middle of the night, dressed in my thin cotton robe in freezing weather, not giving a damn where I was off to.
About an hour later I found myself way up the side of the mountain, well above the small monastery nestled below, but now vaguely heard the faint but growing sound of the monks and students beginning the morning sutra chants, and this infuriated me! I rolled around on the ground, threw rocks in the air, smashed logs into trees, and finally just sat down, numb.
The chanting continued. I began to weep, not because of what the sutras were proclaiming, and not even because of the dearness of the fools down there going on in that strange fusion of one syllable Sanskrit and Japanese that constitutes the traditional Zen chants, but just because... Just because of what? Who knows… I just wept.
In the midst of those tears, it suddenly struck me how sweet the mountain air was, how fresh the morning breeze, how dazzling the dawning blue sky! I relaxed and just let go. All my cares dropped away like tattered old robes. I felt utterly clear, reborn, in love, but I didn't know with whom, nor did it matter.
Hours passed. I stopped weeping and just sat there on a rock, at peace, with a huge grin on my face. I missed the morning Sanzen. Roshi sent someone out to look for me. Somehow, I knew this; I “experienced” Roshi beckoning me, so what the hell, who cares, I walked back down the mountain and eventually found myself kneeling in front of him in his room. He sat facing me, studying my face and assessing my state. For the first time, I had no interest in his remarks. Who cares? He's a bald-headed little man with poor English. I said nothing. He looked at me, I looked at him. There was nothing happening. There had never been anything happening, except this ridiculous game of persona, and frankly, I couldn't raise an idiot's thought about any of it.
Contrary to the pop-psych cliché, this was not a form of disassociation, although there were certainly aspects of it that would seem so. There was no preference, no sense of polarities, not even any movement in mind—just the immediacy of the moment, of free, bare attention itself—just this clear transparency of now. All my previous quandary and frustration had long vanished, and I felt no relation to the person who had earlier stormed up the side of the mountain in the middle of the night. There was simply this, without any superimposition. It wasn't Zen, it wasn't me, it wasn't any of a thousand names we use to attempt the impossible task of describing this. Nevertheless, it is no different than what is right now—these fingers typing away, your eyes glancing over the little dots and dashes, earth spinning around the sun, the galaxies turning in vastness, the same vastness that moves these fingers, your eye muscles, our heart.
Roshi finally made a kind of grunt, nodded to me, and I got up and walked out of his room and into myself, and what that is I still can't say with any words of men or gods, but it's certainly not a problem to be solved nor a riddle to be figured out, and that's fine with me.
About the Author: Robert O’Hearn currently lives with his Beloved Mate, Mazie, and their lazy dog, Amos, in a lovely little mountain town called Paradise, situated on the ridge of the Little Grand Canyon, in the Northern California Sierra Nevadas. He spent seven years in a Catholic Seminary (age 13-20), moving on to live as a hermit by the banks of a mountain river in the Sierras. After doing Alternate Service at a residential treatment center for abused children (as a Conscientious Objector during the Viet Nam War), O’Hearn became a student of Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco. When Suzuki Roshi passed, O’Hearn moved to Mt. Baldy and spent nearly three years studying Zen Buddhism at the monastery. After that, he traveled to the East Coast and became involved with a natural foods company that would eventually become the East Coast Division of Whole Foods, the leading natural and organic foods supermarket chain. I went on to work in that industry for several decades, mostly at the distributor level, before settling into a more reclusive life in Paradise, California.
Photo of Robert O'Hearn meditating at Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery, courtesy of the author.