In the late ’60s, before I’d read a word of Buddhism, the psychologist Erich Fromm laid the table for me in The Art of Loving. His premise, that the problem of human existence is separation, came as a revelation. The obvious solution was union, but not through the drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex that had already left me wanting. The book offered a vision of a transcendent way of relating, of being. And Fromm maintained that “concentrated meditation is the highest activity there is.”
The vision of an exalted reality was now in place for me, but not yet a path to it. My sisters, already practicing at the Rochester Zen Center, urged me to read The Three Pillars of Zen by the center’s founder, Roshi Philip Kapleau. I got through just the first few pages, then set it aside. After the soaring philosophical projections of The Art of Loving—as well as William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Alan Watts’s Zen and Psychotherapy—it was just too stark, too practical; I didn’t want to come down to earth.
That changed after a long night in the Detroit City Jail (for “possession of hallucinogenic drugs”). The worst night of my life, followed by more personal pain, had left me desperate for relief. Soon after, I was drawn back to The Three Pillars, which was a new book to me now. The accounts of kensho, seeing one’s true nature, were yoked to arduous practice, and Roshi Kapleau’s work spoke to me as no book had before. It presented not just an ancient teaching but a method by which to realize its promise.
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