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.
Sailing is the most peaceful endeavor I have ever experienced.
Thanks. Yes, the title was exactly taken from the Motorcycle Maintenance work.
Agree. It's a wonderful teacher of Nature and man's relationship to Nature. And when a sudden fierce wind arrives, it can also be among the least peaceful endeavors.
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."
I always love the title of one of Alan Watts' books, "Your are IT". In three short words, he sums up the notion that we are all connected beyond individual selves.
I (or IT) thinks that eyes, ears, tongues, etc. do exist, but the self behind them is an illusion. When we say "me" we really are referring to a reference point in space. The reality is there is no sharp dividing line between you and me, the rocks and animate creatures.
When we refer to New York City, what do we mean exactly? Every living thing on Manhattan island will be gone in 120 years. And yet the City will live on.
Same goes for the human body. We see a continuous existence over decades, and yet scientists tell use the actual cells in the body have a very limited life span. In a few years, all the original cells are gone.
The rocks are a locus of some basic form of intelligence, otherwise how can remain solid. Dogs and cats are walking plants, a more survivable creature because they can forage for food on their own and not rely on favorable sun and water at a fixed point.
The irony is that we need language to even talk about these things. And the notion of a self is important to our training. We learn this concept as a child and it becomes our raft to adulthood. Hard to let that raft go...
As a teen we had a guy in the hood who would give free yoga lessons and afterwards lead us into a meditation session. Once done I would come out of it with a great calm. What it taught me was to free my mind, clear it of all thoughts. It didn’t lead me to any revelations it just taught me how to put all thoughts away for small periods of time. That little interlude I call peace. I do not need to do yoga or meditation to do it now a days I just calm myself and free my mind. Peace, it’s a beautiful and fleeting thing:-)
I wish I could learn that. You’re very fortunate.
Yeah - it's a different kind of 'hard' though. It's TRICKY. And it requires concentration, because as soon as you stop concentrating, the old hypnosis of 'there is a self and it is me and I must protect and guard it and seek out things to attach to it.'
That's NOT a bad thing by the way. Without it, you could not calculate 'your' way to the grocery store to feed yourself. It's there to keep you alive. It's the Darwin part. You NEED it to live. But if you are attached to it, you will live in SOME version of Hell. It's no different from 'The World.' It's WHY 'Heaven is already around, in and amongst you.'
But TRICKY and takes practice and concentration to HOLD this mind that experiences the truth of no self.
You said "no divisions"
I say "no divisions because nothing to divide."
I teacher once said to me "it's not that nothing exists, it's that nothing exists really"
The Buddha didn't want to teach. He thought no one would get it.
He said "The Dharma is SUBTLE."
It IS. It is very very very very subtle, because you have to un-hypnotize yourself. How do you do that? The first step is realizing that you are in a dream. It's not that nothing is real, it's that 'it's real as a dream'. Then you have to understand that you can not know reality. It's not necessary to know reality. It's only necessary to NOT think what you think is reality is reality. It's only necessary to NOT be attached to 'this' 'that' 'me' 'my' 'I' 'good' 'bad'.
The curse in the garden wasn't 'good and evil'. It was KNOWLEDGE of good and evil. This is a difficult point. 'good and evil' at the most basic level do not exist. They DO exist in that ignorance causes suffering. But even suffering is only 'just like this.'
It is very very VERY f'ing subtly, so very very VERY subtle, that language can't touch it. (That's why the Tao Te Ching says 'The Toa that can be named is not the True Toa.'
But once you see it ... (you actually never see 'it' ... once you UNsee everything -> you will laugh laugh laugh like the Buddha!"
OK end of unedited turbo typing from work! Must go watch Argentina crush Croatia!
Great. Maybe getting this training early in life is good for us.
As we get older, we’ve lived through tragedies and tight spots enough that we’re naturally calmer about the turmoil around us.
Peace is indeed an beautiful and fleeting thing.
Alan Watts is where I learn about Indian philosophies and religions. The guy gave scores of lectures and all of them are easily understood and many are peppered with humor.
He held a class with young students and asked them, "What is a thing?"
And a bright girl raised her hand and said, "It's a noun."
And that's true: the root origin of "thing" is a "think" -- a speech convenience for identifying a cut-out from a unified world that we don't want to label.
So perhaps we should revise your teacher's phrase to:
"it's not that nothing exists, it's that no thing exists really"
Which fantasying disconnection from reality and objective Truth is akin to drugs or is cultic, and can open the door to types of demonic deception, such as Eastern religions or Roy Master's meditation does, only to find Hell as a reality in death.
What is needed is repentant humble faith in the risen Lord Jesus for forgiveness and being born again, and surrender to Him, and and appreciation of and meditation in who the Lord is and what He did as manifested in so great salvation
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 3:1-2)
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)
I know both but am trying to only be the latter.
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.
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.
It is not in conflict with Christianity
[poconopundit ] I (or IT) thinks that eyes, ears, tongues, etc. do exist, but the self behind them is an illusion.
[poconopundit ] The rocks are a locus of some basic form of intelligence,
Reading such delusional one might think he was in a forum on the Democratic Underground" or the like.
But it's late and i am sleepy, so I am just going to post a couple links to articles exposing such.
This wasn't a personal experience with Zen, but it was quite profound for me:
My husband and I were helping friends bring to Florida a sailboat they had bought in Tortola, BVI. One of the longest legs of the trip was a four day, non-stop trek from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to the Turks and Caicos islands, Being that there were only the four of us, a wonky compass, troubled steering and no working autohelm - which meant hand steering, it was grueling four hour watches for each of us - two on, two off. About the second night while on my watch, it was a moonless, dark, clear starlit sky and we were at depths in the thousands. You couldn't really tell where the sky stopped and the sea started. I started thinking we were hundreds of miles from any land and then panicked as I realized we could go down here and NO ONE would ever find any trace of us. But no sooner had I started to be fearful, a passage of Scripture came to my mind:
My fear vanished and I began to delight in the peace and majesty of my surroundings. That was God speaking to me and was how I realized God while literally sailing a boat.
Oh, but you could have fantasied that you were "one with the universe and dismissed objective reality.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Death solves ALL of them.
There’s no place like home...
John 14:27 NIV
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
“Would love to hear comments from mediators and others who have had interesting religious or transcendental experiences.”
I don’t know, or want to know, what a “mediator” is, but my “interesting religious ... experience” is accepting Christ as my Savior in 1956. True peace comes from Christ. Chanting, mantras, and similar “vain repetitions” are not from Above.
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