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Buddhadharma : Fall 2014
60 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 1 4 of long johns, sweaters, and flannels underneath for protection from the cold. From where I sat, whenever the door opened, freezing air would gust over me. When I was awake, I shook. If I relaxed and softened, I would doze off. Dozing off would result in being hit with the kyosaku, a three-foot- long stick used in Zen for such moments. Being hit would then result in trying harder, accom- panied by more anxiety and shaking. Shaking would leave me exhausted. Being exhausted meant I would get hit. It’s Zen, you know. In at least one period, I was hit four times on each shoulder. That’ll teach you! What it will teach you, I don’t know. But it was the way it was done. I should point out that I’m talking about being walloped by my fellow students, which was noticeably different from being struck by my Japanese teachers. When Suzuki Roshi used the stick, it cleared away everything, revealing space that was pristine, clear, unconstructed. So refreshing! Then afterward, bit by bit, I found I was able to piece reality together again in a way that made sense. Though young enough and acquiescent enough to be game for a lot of torment, I finally called it quits. On the third day of sesshin, I put my knees up in front of me, clasped them with both arms, and put my head down. Almost immediately a voice at my ear whispered, “Let’s go outside.” Kobun Chino, one of our teachers, was urg- ing me to get up and leave the meditation hall. As I passed the threshold of the zendo, my face flooded with tears. Literally a veil of tears clouded my eyes, and I worriedly told Kobun that I couldn’t see where I was going. Kobun was matter of fact, telling me to hold on to him and he would lead me to my room. So at a cautious pace we proceeded along the dirt path past the kitchen, which was under construction, then up the short rise outside the dormitory and across the bridge over the creek. I stumbled along while the world passed in a blur of light and bare tree branches. Reach- ing my room, Kobun led me through the door and over to my bed, a futon on the floor. The tears turned into sobs. Following his instructions to lie down, my sobbing grew louder and more insistently full-bodied. Lying on the bed, my arms and legs began shaking, and then flapping up and down uncontrollably. Flapping! Kobun rubbed my chest, arms, and legs in turn, reassuring me over and over, “Ed, it’s okay. It’s fine. You’re doing great. Don’t worry.” My body in that moment was not in any sense mine—that is, my body was going to override any thought I might have regarding its behav- ior. Wave after wave of energy pulsated through me; the sobbing grew louder and then softer as my body was being shaken. Huge winds tossed me where they would, and I found myself in a world without pictures, at the mercy of elemental forces. Kobun Chino, bless his heart, gave me that opportunity to sob, and then as the bell began ringing for service, he excused himself. “Ed, I need to go now. You’re fine. You’ll be okay. Just rest. See you later.” Kobun and I never spoke about what hap- pened. Nor are these the stories in any of the books recounting Zen highlights—“and then, sobbed out, he lay on his bed like a soiled dish- rag now tossed aside, his body drenched with sweat, his head full of snot, unable to breathe through his nose. The next day he was back on his cushion. Nothing was said about it one way or another.” I find it fascinating that Buddhist practitioners barely acknowledge the existence of childhood trauma and what may be needed in order to release it. I feel fortunate that I got through it and was able to release some of the traumatic energy that my body held frozen inside. My breaking down had been a breaking through. Someone had seen me and held a space for me to come undone. The more common understanding seems to be that you can learn to practice in a way that keeps painful problematic emotions carefully stored inside. Buddhists are expected to be kind and loving, mindful and wise, compassionate and serene—not awash with elemental forces and in need of some connection and support as we clean our basements of their residue of ancient twisted karma. The truth is, we might well benefit from some form of therapy. But even then, finding people to assist with this work can be challenging EDWARD ESPE BROWN is abbot of the Peaceful Sea Sangha based in northern California. For two decades he lived and worked at the various practice centers that comprise the San Francisco Zen Center. He is author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. PHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN|COURTESYOFSANFRANCISCOZENCENTERARCHIVES