I’ve made a post with this particular “Thank You” before on at least one social media platform. But now, as I am preparing to turn 65 in just a little over a week, with recent amazing events having to do with my spiritual landscape as well as my intellectual, it is time to make it again, here on the jcsbimp.com blog.
Twenty-something years ago, on one side or the other of the turn of the millennium, I decided that my self-taught zazen practice needed some verification. I had learned the just-sitting, breath-watching, centuries-old technique of seated Zen practice, first from an irreverent but useful book called “Zen Without Zen Masters,” and then afterward with many more historically respected and larger volumes of good teachings, but mainly from the admonition that came from that first witty and wise book: Do this practice for a month, and then you will know whether you want to keep doing it.
Now, however, a chunk of time had passed since that educational and amazing beginning, and it was time to check in with real folks, authentically practicing Zen, and find out if I was on the right path.
I had read quite a few books about Zen’s arrival in the United States of America, with names like Yasutani and Maezumi-roshi, and I knew something about which orders were authentic. I had learned about dharma transmission and how important it was, and is, toward both insuring and identifying proper Zen practice and where to go to find it.
What I found – and I’m not sure which Internet search engine of the time, or what other reading material, gave me this name – was that the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen teaching, in both the Soto and Rinzai traditions, had a headquarters in Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. I found, further, that they offered introductory weekend courses as an introductory Zen weekend quite regularly. The cost was somewhere around $140 to $150. My work and married life at the time providing no obstacle to doing this, I did this.
I took the Amtrak train to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in NYC, and took a bus from there to Mount Tremper. I walked from the corner where the bus dropped me off, and then had one of the most wonderful weekends of my life, sitting zazen, working in the kitchen and bathrooms of ZMM, waking up at the traditional ungodly hour of monastery life (but early to bed as well!), and soaking up the late fall coolness of that region of upstate New York, an area where the trees and the ability to immerse oneself in nature were breathtaking.
I met some good Monastery people. The monk running the kitchen told me – and I’m thinking he may even have put his arm around me when breaking our usual silent work to tell me – that he wished I could work in his kitchen all the time! And the monk running The Monastery Store that is set up there – as well as online – who told us we could reliably consult with him on which of the books they sold were good, and which were bullcrap. But the moment of personal encounter that sticks in my mind the most is when I sat down to the Saturday night meal and Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, sensei and currently the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, asked if he could sit down at the table I occupied. I said, of course, yes. He asked how the weekend was going for me, and I answered in my typically anxious, halting syllables in the company of someone I have just met, that it was going well and that I was enjoying the experience greatly. But I told him that the profundity of zazen as a whole and my monastery experience that weekend in particular made me feel like “this could ruin everything!”
Oh, what a way with words I have sometimes. I could just slap myself.
He smiled and replied to me, “It doesn’t have to ruin anything.”
During Saturday’s late zazen period, I had a chance to go in for a face-to-face meeting with Shugen-sensei, and he encouraged me to consider coming back to ZMM sometime for a week-long intensive – a sesshin. To be honest, I have not yet taken him or ZMM up on that offer.
But my zazen practice has continued through the years – over 25 years now! – and I have Zen Mountain Monastery and Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, now Roshi, to thank for that, and for so much. Whether or not my current amazing experience, with mathematics inspiration rushing into me and riding me like the “horses” of Haitian voodoo culture, relates to my zazen practice or indicates any sort of taste or foretaste of enlightenment at all, it profoundly occurs to me I should express my thanks to the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen in America.
Humbly written and posted from here at the Mountain River Chalet (yes! that’s the name of our house!) in Talking Rock Creek Resort, Georgia, by a happy student who needs to buy a new zafu and zabuton from The Monastery Store because the old one he bought via mail order from there is showing some real mileage! 😀 – with much love from me to Zen Mountain Monastery, The Monastery Store, and Dharma Communications, this is JCSBimp, aka J. Calvin Smith, signing off now.