Skip to comments.Zen and the Art of Sailing: My Excellent Zen Experience in California 1978
Posted on 06/20/2018 4:08:50 PM PDT by poconopundit
Im going to relay a one-time experience I had with Zen meditation when I was in my early 20s.
I didnt need to visit Japan for this experience: Zen came to me in the form of a 2-day weekend retreat held in San Diego. The event was held in a large two-or-three floor neighborhood house facing out on lovely Balboa Park with its large trees.
I gained much from this meditation retreat, and I would definitely encourage others to give it a go. Before attending this retreat, Id read that it may take a Zen monk many years to experience a Zen enlightenment or satori as its called in Japanese.
Though probably not a full satori, I did experience an insight that was moving to me, and I will explain how that happened and what I experienced.
The Weekend Zen Retreat
I attended this retreat in 1978 during my tour in the Navy. I was stationed aboard a destroyer ported off 32nd Street in San Diego, the largest naval port in the world, a charming little city with some of the mildest weather anywhere. For most of my time in San Diego, I lived aboard ship, but I could get off on weekends when we were not doing exercises at sea or deployed for 6 months to the Western Pacific.
Ever since college I was fascinated with the Zen I read about in books. So when I saw this weekend Zen retreat advertised, I jumped at the chance. The fee was reasonable, too maybe $100.
Let me first explain that Im a Roman Catholic and I discovered that Zen is quite compatible with Christianity. In fact, Zen has nothing to sell in terms of a philosophy or religious doctrine. As it was practiced here, it was a pure meditative practice whose object is to transcend your intellect (or as Alan Watts says the incessant chatter of the skull). The idea is to acquaint yourself with the ground of your being ( God or the ultimate reality) which language and too-much-thinking hides from us. I suspect Zen enlightenment is similar to what Christian mystics like Thomas Merton experienced as the grace of God.
I joined a group of 20 or 25 students at the retreat. There were also 3 or 4 senior instructors who taught us by example. We were fed very simple vegetarian meals and we could not talk to each other, no electronic gadgets (transistor radios) werent allowed :- ) A female instructor led the event and briefed us on the rules of the retreat and answered our questions each evening. We wore loose fitting clothes no monk robes or anything like that and we walked around barefoot.
Most of the day we would meditate whats call zazen — sitting erect on the wooden floor with a zabuton a small pillow to support the spine, and which made it more comfortable to sit for hours meditating. To break up the monotony we would go outside for a light jog as a group on the neighborhood sidewalk, keeping our heads straight ahead and not being distracted by on-lookers or traffic. The idea was to keep yourself in a meditative frame of mind, even when not meditating. We would sleep late into the evening, then wake up very early, maybe 5:00 AM and go for another jog outside before coming back for breakfast.
The Training Method of the Zen Monks
What each of us meditated on was a koan, a mind problem that a Zen Master gives you. Maybe youve read in the Zen literature about the famous koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Ive read the purpose of koans is to shake the student from the habit of always solving problems with the intellect because enlightenment getting a glimpse of a reality beyond language — cannot be achieved alone through a brute force use of the mind.
Theres a saying in Zen, the fool who persists in his folly becomes wise.
Alan Watts tells the story of the Zen student who could not believe the Earth was a round sphere. And the Master told him, Im going to prove to you that the Earth is round. Get a compass and start walking due West. And so the student walked from New York straight West across the US, took a ship sailing from California to Asia and so forth.
Many months later the student arrived back in New York and revisited his Master. And the Master said to him, See, youve proven to yourself that the Earth is a sphere!. But the student said, Master, Im still not convinced the Earth is a sphere, but I do believe it is at least cylindrical. :- )
But I digress
Meeting the Zen Master and Receiving my Meditation "Koan"
What was cool at this retreat is we actually had a real Zen Master there. And on the first day, each student met the Master to receive his/her koan in a private meeting with him. Each of us, in turn, climbed the stairs to enter the small second floor room where he was seated. And as we entered, we were instructed to bow and keep our hands folded together as we sat facing him 3 feet away.
Now the guy looked the part of a Zen Master straight out of central casting. He was a thin, middle-aged Asian man wearing a monks kimono. His head was completely shaved and he was seated on his zabuton on the floor. He was also grasping a pretty cool wooden stick with a few gnarled knobs on it, and he would use that stick to emphasize his points. He had a heavy accent (which added to his authenticity), he spoke very few words in English, but got his points across to you.
The koan he gave me was, How do you realize yourself while sailing a boat?
I was kind of taken back on hearing this koan, for sailing was a big part of my life as a teenager when my family had a small sailing boat on Cape Cod. Sailing was a rich personal experience of mine. But how could the Master know my personal history? After all, this was 30 years before Facebook and the Deep State. Well, it really didnt matter :- ) I certainly warmed to the personal flavor of this koan.
Then he also gave me an alternative koan to work on, How do you realize God while sailing a boat? And he quickly added, Believe in God. No believe in God and he shook his head and then emphasized Realize God! And that struck me as profound. Belief, after all, is an intellectual activity. But having Faith that you can realize God regardless of your belief was a compelling idea.
Having received my koan, the Master wasted no time and struck a bell in front of him. The bell had a pleasing resonating sound to it, and it was my signal to get back to meditating and to alert the next student to come in and meet the Master.
Going to Work on my Koan
My task, then, was to go back and sit on my zabuton cushion alongside the other 20 students and quietly contemplate this koan for a few hours. Then, two times a day I had to return to the Zen monk and report on my progress.
Well, as you can imagine, I racked my brain for many hours and came up with no answer that made sense. And its because I was trying to grasp the koans meaning analytically, just as Id solved problems in college.
And each time I would revisit the Master, he would ask me, How do you realize yourself (or God) while sailing a boat?
And at first, being the fool who persists in his folly, I would try to explain my thought process. Yet as soon I started intellectualizing the koan, the Master would shake his head, interrupt me and say. No, no, no, no. And then hed point his stick to the door, bong the bell, and it was time for me go back to my meditating.
Sailing into an Imaginary World
But after spending a day of meditating on my koan, a wonderful vision did come to me.
I imagined myself sitting in a small boat at sea on a breezy day. And in my left hand I held the main sheet or rope attached to the boom from which the sail hung against the breeze. In my right hand I held the tiller which controlled the boats rudder in the water.
The insight I had was that my physical body was not a separate entity: I had become integral to the boat being sailed. Subject and object disappeared. Whatever I was doing was in concert with the entire sailing process -- and all the other agents of that process.
Saying I felt one with the universe might be an apt description, but universe suggests big things like stars and planets. Rather, what I felt was a unified microcosm of movements and forces going on at that specific time and place the immediately surrouding sea, the wind, the sail, the tiller, and the boat. There was no ego here. I just happened to be the central gear of this sailing clockwork — another worker bee in the hive.
I also didn't feel any particular pride in being the brain of this sailing experience. In fact, I wasnt controlling the sailing at all: each party in the process (wind, tiller, sail, sea) I felt was equally doing the action. Those parts of the process were influencing me as much as I was working the tiller or pulling the sail into the wind.
I was quite moved by this insight -- understanding at a different level how the world around us is highly connected. It seemed wonderful.
Meeting the Master Again
Well, as you can imagine, I had some news for the Zen Master the next time we met.
This time, instead of trying to answer the koan mind problem in words, I did a pantomime of pulling on the sail and working the rudder. And the Master looked at me with curiosity and delight. Somehow he knew I had experienced a key insight.
And yet, his job was to keep his students meditating. He didnt congratulate me, per se, but he kind of nodded his approval, rang his bell, and sent me back to zazen.
What Difference Has it Made?
After this experience, I was feeling very good about the world for the next 24 hours -- until the thrill gradually wore off and I was back to being a Navy sailor again.
Occasionally Ive thought back on this experience, but I cant say Im eager to go through the same effort again — although, Id like to explore other mediation practices.
My biggest takeaway is to be patient in seeking answers to mind-warping questions. Answers dont come easy. I think the best strategy is to rest the mind from time to time and let it go to work on the problem by itself for awhile. Its this relaxation after long periods of thinking that often yield results. In my work as an industry analyst and tech journalist, I've seen this strategy play out enough times to keep following it.
So rather than seeking a "big kahuna" satori, Im content to experience fairly regular micro-satori's in my work such as discovering a clever phrase, some neat HTML code, a fresh market analysis, or a useful business principle.
Finally, I discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson knew a thing or two about the workings of the mind. This particular passage of his seems to be Zen-inspired:
For example, a man explores the basis of civil government. Let him intend his mind without rest, in one direction. His best efforts over a long time deliver him nothing. Yet thoughts are flitting before him. We all but apprehend, we dimly forebode the truth.
We say, I will walk abroad, and the truth will take form and become clear to me. We go forth, but cannot find it. It seems as if we needed only the stillness and composed attitude of the library to seize the thought. But we come in, and are as far from it as at first.
Then, in a moment, and unannounced, the truth appears. A certain, wandering light appears, and is the distinction, the principle, we wanted.
But the oracle comes, because we had previously laid siege to the shrine.
Would enjoy hearing other peoples' experience with Zen and other meditative practices.
Zen. Don’t even think about it
Here’s a personal story I’ve long wanted to write for my FRiends on Free Republic. Consider it a break from politics.
Would love to hear comments from mediators and others who have had interesting religious or transcendental experiences.
I’m a Christian Bro. Christ is the answer for every need in our lives.
It’s like low light night vision. Don’t look directly at what you want to see.
Looks like the sailor in the small boat pic has his left hand on the tiller....
I was involved with Transcendental Meditation after leaving the Navy. Pretty diligent about it for couple of years. For me, it was more of a mental exercise that left me feeling rested, relaxed, mentally sharp and focussed. I enjoyed it at the time but let the wild side of life intrude. Probably wouldn’t hurt to revisit it.
I’ve read that the zen master Dr. Suzuki tried to persuade the WWII Japanese imperialists that they had chosen the wrong path that would lead to defeat, and the imperialists tried to throw him in prison.
Thus ends my understanding of zen buddhism.
TM is purely inviting the demon whose name you chanted to take over your eternity.
Every mantra is the name of a demon.
Zen is now.
The Dali Lama says it’s always good to meditate on
Oh, and it’s good to have a bell.
I also took TM in college and I also found it excellent for staying sharp and rested. I was given a one-word mantra.
I still use the mantra as an aid to falling to sleep.
Thank you, I will read carefully tonight and reply.
Truth is not only seen by people with certain labels or particular beliefs.
Truth exists deep in the heart of everyone.
Oh! That isn’t me. But it might be me in an altered reality :-)
Jerry Seinfeld is also into Transcendental Meditation from before he was famous. He meditates twice a day and totally subscribes to the practice.
As a result, I called my local TM center and am making plans to take it up to see if it solves some of the problems of aging.
I’d love to hear your experiences.
It was causing me visualization problems, but I got it now.
Truth exists deep in the heart of everyone.
Even in the bible isn’t it said that one should
“be still and KNOW”?
I believe you and I have talked about this before.
Recognize the void as your own intellect, blissful
Oh...I'm also a Christian. It's hard to connect with my Savior when my brain is so full of the garbage of this world. I've already parted ways with TV so that was a great start. FR is my guilty pleasure but writing like yours makes it less guilty.
Going off now to stare at my flower garden and ponder the sound of color in the fading daylight.
I'm another cat lover. Did you ever see my two-year ago vanity about Trumpazine, the drug to cure TDS?
If you're looking for a laugh, check out that post and the comments from other cat fanatics.
Really, there was nothing mystical or religious about it. I considered it more mental exercise/relaxation.
I was given a mantra to repeat and used it to meditate twice a day. It was a peaceful way to relax. Sometimes I would just fall asleep. But 9 times out of 10 I would feel better. Seemed to help my mood and outlook on life. Drugs and caffeine are disruptive to the process, so I would try to limit those. I never attended any of the weekend or week long retreats, although they probably would’ve been beneficial. I think the cost was something like a hundred dollars, but that was the mid-70s.
If the cost isn’t unreasonable now...go for it.
In fact, Seinfeld does not claim it is mystical ... he, and even the people from the TM center do not claim anything religious or mystical. He seemed to indicate it left him feeling refreshed.
The TM center that is by me here in LA is a very small and modest house on a business street. No obvious activity or noise. I was lead to believe they would give me a word to meditate on ... that’s it.
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