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.
And if one meditates on compassion and peace ?
Very nice essay, thank you for sharing
The Supreme Absolute is in the heart of every living being. The more we think we know, the farther away from Him we are.
Kind of like in the dark of night (like in the country with no street lights, where I live), if the electricity is foo, and you don’t have any light, you can’t see anything. You have to wait for the rising of the sun to see yourself, the world around you, and the sun itself.
You can’t see the sun - or anything else - in the middle of the night, by your own efforts. Candles, pen lights, kerosene lamps - nothing will bring that sun up.
The sooner a person gives up the pretense of thinking they can find or know the Absolute Truth with their own mind or intellect, the sooner the sun of Truth will start to dawn in their own heart.
IF THE ELECTRICITY IS OUT!!!
I’m a natural skeptic...and I’ve always been leery of “alternative” methods, but TM was great. Thanks for nudging me to take another look.
Yep, exactly...your mantra. And your description is exactly right. No mumbo-jumbo, black magic, devil-worshipping going on. For me, it was just a mental exercise. I still went to a Presbyterian church!
Ditto on the old two-story house in downtown Charlotte that was the TM center. If the organization still owns that property, they’ve done very well property value wise.
Zen is not Zen. Zen is like, if you find yourself in a field of manure, making a walkway of manure patties to get out of the field. Zen itself like medicine made of thinking, to cure thinking disease.
It is not in conflict with Christianity. Consider if you were pinned beneath a tractor and suffering greatly. You probably would not be able to perceive, for example, the sweet smell of the air. But if I tell you how to remove the tractor using a remote control in your pocket, and you can then smell the sweet air, that does not mean that my method replaces, or is in conflict with, or competes against as truth, the sweet smell of the air. So Zen is only a tool.
The Buddha himself called Buddhism (and therefore Zen) a raft. It is a tool to get across the river. You wouldn't use a raft to cross a river and then drag it with you across the land with you all day.
So Zen is not the truth. It is a tool. What can be realized with Zen is the truth. Some call it 'God', some call it 'The Absolute', some call it 'Satori' or 'Enlightenment.'
But in true nature, there are no attributes, no essence. So if you say Enlightenment is this or that ... you are always lying. So how can you talk about it? Only if you know and agree, in the context of talking about it, that talking about it is only using manure patties as tools to help yourself and others get out of the manure field. What's outside of the manure field has no words, language, name, form, attributes.
The Heart Sutra says "No Attainment, with nothing to Attain." So how can you ever realize yourself while sailing a boat? If you say you can, then you are a squirrel chasing a nut. If you say you can't, then you are attached to emptiness. But if you are only sailing a boat, then the universe is Just Like This.
It is only necessary to put down all thinking, all opinions, all notions, and the universe is already clear. But it is hard to put down the tool which we mistake as ourselves - we sense that beyond that is death, so we cling to the aggregation of mind made illusions we call 'self,' just as if we were afraid to put down the framing hammer because we think the frame will disappear. We mistake the tool for the object of the tool. The tool of course can not 'know' it's object. A framing hammer knows nothing of a frame. Similarly, mental activity knows nothing of it's object, yet we think we are the mental activity, and with it, we seek to know 'the truth.'
The Koan might as well be 'what color is 2 + 2 = 5?.' Every thought is not necessarily wrong, but every thought IS wrong if you think it is the truth. So 'what color is 2 + 2 = 4' is equally as insane.
When you realize what the Buddha realized, just BEFORE you will be in awe, but just after you will laugh, laugh, laugh.
Here is a koan for you: Why is the Fat Buddha laughing and What does he know that you don't already know?
Thanks for writing - was fun to read! Hope you are doing Great! (And soon become enlightened!)
Norfolk, VA is the largest Naval Port in the world.
I’ve been offshore in a small sailboat in a full gale and wishing I was a farmer in Kansas. Talk about enlightenment!
OMG, you learned to make good with your Maker in that full gale. Can’t imagine that hell.
Robert Pirsig passed away not too long ago.
Your title indicates that you are familiar with his writings.
His second book was about another trip that he took. This trip was on a sailboat. The book is LILA. It is subtitled An Inquiry Into Morals.
Since you have read his first book, you should read his second.
Thanks, blueunicorn. I’ll look that book up.
Experience with Zen...
I used to be a Sailing in
I had a feeling this story would smoke you out of your manure field. Ha!
Consider if you were pinned beneath a tractor and suffering greatly. You probably would not be able to perceive, for example, the sweet smell of the air.
In Italy of all places, I was on a business trip at dinner and I failed to heed the warning to coat the bread with olive oil. I nearly choked to death when I laughed at a joke and a piece of bread go lodged in my throat. It was 45 seconds of hell until the guy next to me whacked my back enough times to disload the bread.
Never the forget the first breath after it dislodged. The breath tasted like a perfect sip of wine. That was my second Enlightenment!
We mistake the tool for the object of the tool. The tool of course can not 'know' it's object.
Also, the object has no knowledge of the programmer who created the object. It works both ways.
The Koan might as well be 'what color is 2 + 2 = 5?.'
Yes, and perhaps the skill of the Zen Master was that he chose the kind of manure pattie what would work for me. He succeeded in pushing me to meditate hard enough to break through the veil for a few seconds.
I like the raft story. It's a classic Buddhist story and it's powerful.
I think treating your "self" less seriously can be liberating. We are such stuff as dreams are made on...
Question for you. I think you mentioned Atlas Shrugged was one of your favorite books. But are there any shorter books you recommend reading?
I'm doing quite well, thanks...
This is important.
One of the fundamental principles in Buddhism is the doctrine of Anatta. It is a very simple doctrine. There is no such thing as self. Many religions and thought systems encourage people to humble them'selves', reduce focus on 'self', think of 'others'.
But they still all re-inforce the notion that there IS a self to reduce, humble, correct, take less seriously. Maybe the Buddha laughs because he understands the great universal joke: There is no self. No one to take seriously in the first place. The self is an object of thinking. It's as fake as a CNN news story. No Self. Nada. No self was born, no self will die. Nothing happens to self. "No eyes no ears no tongue no body no mind no suffering no origination no stopping no path no cognition no attainment and nothing to attain."
That's why the Buddha laughs. he REALizes that.
Ok onto Ayn Rand - anything shorter? Fountainhead is my favorite book. (Also happens to be Trump's). From Ayn, Anthem, Fountainhead and Atlas shrugged can be seen as I think as a development of a theme. Atlas Shrugged is a REAL slog at time, and I think while it's perfect for what it is, The Fountainhead is the jewel of the Three. It addresses the Individual as Hero. Atlas Shrugged does too ... but it's also packed with societal and government stuff, man acting in groups. It's also shorter and less of a slog than Atlas Shrugged, the stage is smaller, the plot is beautiful and smaller. Anthem is more of a sketch, and as I recall, doesn't really reflect a mature writer. It's more of a meditation on Self (not to be confused with 'no self!.'
Ayn is funny - Ann Barnhardt says "even though Ayn Rand was atheist, she was SO CLOSE to fully getting God." And ... she was ... I remember watching the video when Ann B said that and thinking 'Oh yeah, that's exactly right.'
So ... maybe check out the Fountainhead, which is my favorite. If not MAYBE Anthem, but I have a hard time recommending Anthem because ... it's just not fully formed. I THINK the Any saying "The most evil word in the English language is "WE"." comes from that. And she's right. If anything defines the left, it's identification with 'the group' and using the group as a means to bully others for people too weak to be bullies themselves.
Also Charles Murray 'What it Means to be a Libertarian' is I think one of the best conservative books ever written (it's rational small 'l' liberatarian -> not crazy Liberarian Party Libertarian.)
The most important thing is to understand Roarke's 'Self' in The Fountainhead, and then realize that 'Self' is not real, but it's a handy tool so long as we live in 'this world' or 'this fallen world' or 'The World' as Jesus called it. THAT self is the closest thing to 'no self' as any self.
It's an interesting juxtaposition ... as if often the case with the highest principles - they seem totally contradictory ... Ayn Rand's conception of self and Buddhist doctrine of No Self (exists.) If you can dance between the two AT WILL ... then surely you can not help but be a free man! Ayn's heroic man is a diamond made from manure. (No mud, no lotus)
As Ann Barnhardt said "Ayn was SOOOOOOOOOOOO close, SO close" to getting it.
Note also that Ayn Rand pointed out the most people think of 'Altrusim' as meaning Selfless, and Ayn agrees, but notes how disgusting that is.
It's because altruism's 'selfless' is not the same as Buddhism's 'no self'. One declares that one should reduce oneself to nothing and elevate all others above one self. (Of course, when they get in power, they are really saying 'elevate ME above yourself) ... so it's still playing in the realm of 'selves exist' and it's a hierarchy of selves when they speak of altruism.
"No Self" means ... it's a declaration of truth -> that all selves are illusions. (So another good Koan is "who experiences the self?" or "what am I."
If you can answer all these things, then you will laugh with the Buddha. Even if you are choking on food and suffering, you will note 'there is suffering, but no one is suffering."
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST. Note that the Buddha died ... choking on a piece of meat ... (some say food poisoning, but we will pick the former since it fits the conversation :-))
So if you can choke like the Buddha, then you can laugh like him too.
Don't mistake a feeling of freedom or transcendence as Enlightenment, unless you can repeat it at will. But it is a clue, and if you can understand the actual conditions (I don't mean sitting, or being away from a computer) as the conditions -> but the mental conditions -> what was there, what disappeared as a result of sitting ... ... ... then you can start to reproduce it.
Thank you for sharing your experience.
Balboa Park is a magical place. I used to live in a bungalow pretty close to it and it was a wonderful time in my life. Certain place seem to induce peaceful states.
When I was little, it was easy for me to enter such states. Elementary school was what ruined it for me, no daydreaming allowed, kind of like prison for children.
Long walks in nature work best for me now.
The closest to Zen was when the Karate Kid was seen.
“Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”
Politics: to break from this for a few hours is healthy for anyone. Why don’t doctors suggest this at times? Politics not only destroys nations, it destroys human beings just as badly. (not to suggest anything is ever destroyed ‘goodly’
That's a good description for why I meditate - to quiet my loud brain.
All I do is lie on a yoga mat with my eyes closed and count my breaths from 1 - 4, repeating that for 10 minutes. I'll get all kinds of random thoughts, but just try to focus on the breathing. It helps for dealing with this crazy world.
Thanks for sharing...Interesting. Was the title a take off on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
The Mahareshi himself declared it to be true.
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