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The Shitty Monk

Even a zendo enforcer, says Shozan Jack Haubner, finds his practice put to the test when trouble sneaks up from behind.

This past winter, as the temperature shriveled along with my remaining illusions about Zen practice, the great wheel of dharma turned once again here at the monastery and I rotated into the officer position of jikijitsu.

The jikijitsu is the bad-ass father figure in charge of making sure meditation in the zendo hall is tight, strong, and clear. He shouts corrections—“No moving! Breathe quietly!” and so on. He carries a big stick and hits people with it. He leads all of the sits, as well as walking meditation and formal meals. Don’t F with him. His is the most distilled embodiment of the spirit of Rinzai, or samurai, Zen.

Rinzai Zen practice can be brutal, savage even. It is designed to bring you to a crisis within yourself, to trigger a dark night of the soul. Zen attacks that one last thing you hold dear: your precious self-conception. It unravels any notion of a freestanding, unconditional “I” and shows it to be a lie, a fabrication, a construction. True realization, the old masters tell us, takes bone-crushing effort. We pulverize the very skeleton of ego—upon which the meat and skin and organs of our illusions hang—and we do it through intense, hurtle-yourself-off-the-cliffs-and-into-the-chasm practice.

To prepare for my training as jikijitsu I decided to get tough with myself. I loaded up daily on protein drinks and vitamins, threw away that Anne Lamott book I was reading, quit email cold turkey, and prohibited myself from partaking in all pleasures of the flesh, self-induced or otherwise. I was going to need a backlog of strong, masculine chi energy. I was like a boxer who steers clear of his girlfriend before the big fight.

“You’re a train wreck of overzealousness,” decided my mentor, a sinewy, green-eyed lesbian from Vancouver. “You’ve got a little power now. Don’t abuse it. The primary ass you should be whipping in the zendo is…?”

“That of those noisy, unfocused students?” I tried, smacking my fist into my palm.

“Your own,” she growled. “Don’t bring your personal shit into it.”

The following weekend I was patrolling the zendo when I passed the meditating form of Tico, our most eccentric student, a formerly homeless physicist. That morning he had tried to shave his head, but he’d left patches of soft, curly, gray-black down, which gave him that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fresh-from-electroshock-therapy look. He was quivering and shaking, his eyes rolling in the back of his head, his mouth open and frozen in an Edward Munch-ian silent scream. Clearly, he was convinced that he was in the throes of spiritual-mojo overload. How much, I wondered, do you let people drift into their own flames, like moths, before you shake them and say, “Enough!”?

In a shamanistic culture Tico might be revered for the trances he slips into. Ours, however, was a shared environment and he was rupturing its equanimity by deviating from the etiquette. It’s not about your own little personal trip. The body of practitioners is your body, and you really don’t want to be that one area of the body that’s an irritation, the inner-ear itch or belly rash. This is the reason for the rules. We move as one, act as one, function as one, and as one we beat our egos down like the redheaded stepchildren they are.

But I began to develop a creeping ambivalence about the inexhaustible ferociousness of this style of Zen. “Eyes down,” I grumbled incessantly. “Don’t sniff. Wake up!” I began to feel like a priest from some Neil Jordan movie about 1950s Ireland. “Keep yer hands in gassho, boyo, or I’ll rap ’em! Erin McMurphy, did I see ya dippin’ yer fingers in yer green tea at breakfast now? I know yer mum. Ya weren’t raised in a barn!”

The truth is, like many underweight, over-read sensitivos, I’ve always seen myself as an outsider, a nonconformist. My heroes have always been the rebels, the applecart upsetters—Nietzsche, Ikkyu, Cool Hand Luke. It’s ironic that so many of us who are attracted to a tough, no-nonsense discipline like Zen also happen to be repulsed by the practice’s endless formal punctilios and ornamented, brocaded behavior.

The battle between these two opposing sides of myself—zendo cop and irreligious rebel—began to take its toll. This is the monk-in-training’s challenge. The middle way isn’t all nicely laid out for him, like an insurance plan, as though to be enlightened is to sign on the dotted line—“Here ya go, here’s my desire, my self-interest: take ’em all. They’re my down payment on satori!” No, he has to establish the middle way within himself by testing the extremes. He has to constantly put himself out there. This is the true meaning of that religious catchall “self-sacrifice.” The monk puts himself on the altar, or else he’s a liar and a fake.

Which is what I felt like as jikijitsu—a liar and a fake. I felt wimpy half the time, sadistic the rest. I couldn’t strike the right balance. I couldn’t be strong. The truth was becoming clear; I’d been a rebel my whole life not because I was idealistic or original, but because I simply didn’t have the guts to stand for anything—only against. Ikkyu? Nietzsche? Please. Try Eddie Haskell meets Woody Allen. I was a coward. A coward and a bully.

Full of self-hate and self-pity, desperate for warmth, for a warm body, I did what we all do when we don’t want to face ourselves in the zendo. I fell in love with a new student. She was a carrot-topped, foggy-skinned Dane who had buoyed her smile with some recent cosmetic dental work. It was a welcome diversion, this dharmamour. We made love on every continent, grew old together. She got a dramatic disease; I stood over her fresh grave with flowers. Then I deeply regretted our time together and considered myself fortunate for only having lived it in my head for several sits, the downside being the arousal that made it awkward to take my rest periods standing up.

One evening she visited me in my cabin, where I cracked open a bottle of Jack Daniels. “When I got ordained,” I laughed over my shoulder, trying to be world-wise and charming, “all the junior monks got me books and all the senior monks got me booze. What does that tell you about this path? Ha ha ha!”

Alas, she had no interest in me except as a sounding board for various reconciliation scenarios revolving around her estranged boyfriend. The evening ended with her backing out of the room while thanking me for the drink, after a charged silence I had foolishly hoped would lead to a kiss.

I had barely crawled under my quilt with every intention of breaking my pleasure fast when my new roommate—a Frenchman—arrived. For the month.

“Ha-loo!” he chirped, his air-travel BO filling the room as he took in its dimensions. “Tiny!” he whistled, looking askance.

Jacques-san is no doubt someone’s idea of a tall, cool drink of water. Sinewy and athletic, he stripped to his skivvies, hit the lights, lit a candle, and started in with his ritual nightly asanas, standing on his head and scissoring those graceful, giraffe-neck limbs, which practically touched both walls. I rolled to my side and pretended to sleep. Blown up on the wall in monstrously immense proportions just inches from my face, the bulging shadow of his manly midsection bobbed up and down in the candlelight. It was like a soft-core porn image dreamed up by some cigar-chewing cinematographer.

Even in my bed, facing the wall, there was no denying that I was trapped on a macho, male-heavy mountain with a squad of spiritual Green Berets. I fled my cabin for the monastery’s small library, a run-down cottage nestled in a womb of conifers. My eyes flitted across the shelves, where the spiritually desperate (but always literarily sensible) had for more than forty years buried their intellectual discards. My fingers paused over a slim, turquoise volume by Pema Chödrön. I’d once perused an essay in which she was gracious and respectful toward Zen, but not without leveling a subtle criticism, which I would paraphrase as: “Geez, lighten up. You guys can be really asshole-ish!”

Pema Chödrön was just what I needed. Even her author photo on the book back was encouraging. First off, she was grinning. “Come on in,” she seemed to be saying. “The water’s warm. I’ll be your dharma momma and I’ll scrub you clean.” Second of all, she had a sensible haircut. Short, but not shaved raw to the skull, not revealing every crinkle and crease, every bony flaw, like the lack-of-hairdos in our Zen tradition. Pema was even showing a little bit of her bare shoulder in the photo.

Wild! Take me to your buddha-breast, earth mother!

Like a little boy perving on Hustler, I crawled under my covers that night, clicked on a book-light and poured through The Wisdom of No Escape. “If you are alive, if you have heart, if you can love, if you can be compassionate… then you won’t have any resentment or resistance,” Pema purred. “Loving-kindness is the sense of satisfaction with who we are and what we have… fear has to do with wanting to protect your heart: you feel something is going to harm your heart, and therefore you protect it.”

Surfeited, I laid the book aside and trembled with satisfaction. Were a cigarette handy I would have blown smoke rings and played with my chest hairs. But the following morning, bitterly ashamed, I vowed never to touch her tome again. It was schmaltz, I told myself. A onetime thing. I was perfectly happy with the husky-voiced, thick-ankled practice I’d taken vows to honor. I returned the book to the library—only to furtively yank it from the shelf again that evening.

And so I began an affair with her lush, seething dharma, cheating on my frigid-but-loyal Zen practice. On the cushion, supposedly steadfast in my zazen meditation, I was really thinking of paramour Pema’s vivacious birdsong prose and rich, voluptuous metaphors. “Go ahead,” I thought to the students, my jikijitsu practice going to seed, “move around all you want. Have a good cry while you’re at it!” Pema hit my G-spot: Gentleness.

And yet it was the great soft one herself who ultimately sold me on the rigors of Zen life. Toward the end of her slim volume of talks she extols the virtues of inconvenience. “Opting for coziness, having that as your prime reason for existing, becomes a continual obstacle to taking a leap and doing something new, something unusual, like going as a stranger into a strange land.”

“Stick with one boat,” one practice, she suggests, and let it “put you through your changes.” If you continue to “shop around” you learn a lot about different religions, but very little about your true self.

Inspired, I redoubled my efforts as jikijitsu, refusing to don my skullcap during walking meditation one evening as moonlit frost crunched under our sandals. By the time the last winter retreat rolled around I’d contracted the dreaded flu-cold and achieved great enervation instead of great enlightenment. This, combined with my militant new desire to do everything by the book, set off a chain reaction. It led to the low point in a quota-busting winter of lows, when forty of my peers witnessed—to hearken back to my mentor’s warning—my “personal shit.”

During the evening bathroom break of the final retreat, I didn't doff my robes and try to navigate the sea of students and their teeming bladders. Instead, I snuck down into a dank and grungy storage space behind our solar-panel shed. I made for a dusty corner and hiked up my robes to relieve myself.

After a few preliminary squirts I had an ominous, involuntary, sphincter contraction, and instantly my priorities changed. I needed to get to a stall. There was no denying this call of nature; no single-pointed Zen concentration would make it go away. This point was driven home with the first round of wet gas.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me,” I cried inside. “You gotta be friggin’ kidding me.”

I looked at my watch. The ten minute mark! Everyone was in the zendo right now, waiting for me to start the sit. Via a bowlegged crab-walk—an embarrassing proposition to begin with but made all the worse by my heavy, multilayered big-deal/Mr. Important robes—I awkwardly exited the storage shed into a flood of harsh winter light.

I contracted and released the appropriate muscles. But there seemed to be no denying it. I’d shit myself. A man’s life is made up of choices like this: Right, the zendo. Left, the bathroom. I never made it to the bathroom.

I can handle this, I told myself, slipping my boots off on the zendo porch. The shoji—the zendo’s kindly mother figure—opened the door for me and I took my seat with alacrity next to the co-jikijitsu, effectively corking my bottom on the cushion beneath me. That’s cool, I thought. I can sit this out, then dash to the can during the next break. Before my co-jiki peer rang the bell to start the sit, however, she turned and gave me a small bow.

No. No! It was my turn to carry the keisaku. During sits before koan meetings with the master, a member of the jiki staff patrols the room with the keisaku, a long, thick ruler-like stick tapering from handle to end. When he comes to a student or monk who looks too loose—or too tense—he taps him or her on the shoulder. They bow together, and then the recipient bends to one side and whack! whack! whack! Other side:whack! whack! whack!

A zendo is not a place to space out. To take your seat and catch up on personal fantasies or zone for a week. Get out of your heads and into your haras! the “encouragement stick” cries with every crack. Activate your viscera with your breath. Gut-sit!

I got up. There was diarrhea running down my leg. It was terrible. I could smell it. I reeked of fresh human shit. I had the dubious good luck to be wearing hot chili thermals and all the excrement running down my legs puddled at the elastic at my ankles.

I stood there at the front of the zendo, holding the stick.

There’s no rule saying the jikijitsu has to venture out to walk amongst the meditators. I could just stand there for the whole twenty-five minute sit if I chose, but Pema’s words came back to me: “Opting for coziness, having that as your prime reason for existing, becomes a continual obstacle to taking a leap and doing something new, something unusual, like going as a stranger into a strange land.”

Perhaps Suzuki Roshi put it best: “Zen is the path of no turning back.”

When I first started practicing there was one struggling student in particular who remained unconvinced by “boot-camp spirituality.” He carried on every chance he got about how artificial the extreme discipline was, how “not me” the kanji chanting and fierce sitting/koan meetings were. He respected the practice but he couldn’t “get into it.” It wasn’t his thing.

That student was me, a million lifetimes ago, it seems.

What I failed to realize was that my resistance was in itself a pose, a stance—a result of my conditioning as a free-spirited, individualistic American prone to respecting all paths and choosing none. I’d never been stripped of myself, and so I mistook a cleverly embroidered outfit of attitudes for my deepest self, which I had to “be true to.”

Through the path of negation of self, I began to get an inkling of just how thoroughly cloaked I was in attitudes and platitudes—in my own bullshit—and I also learned that despite this, I had to keep going.

Way down at the other end of the zendo, shivering, shaking, lost in himself, was Tico, the eccentric student. My sphincter spasmed briefly in rage. He’d been a thorn in my authoritarian side all winter. Now, however, instead of a threat to be quelled, he merely looked like his head was about to spin around in circles. I knew the feeling.

Standing there holding that stick, reeking like my nephew after he’s filled his diaper, I realized that this is when true practice begins: when you are officially in way over your head. “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake,” Pema tells us in When Things Fall Apart, “is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Zen is the practice of coming up out of yourself and into the situation, any situation, meeting it fully, with a complete heart—no holding back, no half-measures, no room for doubt or selfishness. You run the razor of practice from ear to ear, decapitating the dualistic dictator within so that the blood of ego flows forth as the milk of self-sacrifice, nourishing the world.

OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic. I simply went amongst some Zen students with a load in my pants. This was my humble contribution to whatever they learned that day: how to move forward despite your imperfections, despite the fact that you’re covered in your shit.


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