A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam documents the quest of one woman who, like many Americans, is part of the rising phenomenon of the “nones”—people who lack a religious affiliation but who may believe in God or attend places of worship. From church to synagogue, zendo to mosque, author Corinna Nicolaou chronicles her eager and inquisitive journey to learn more about the religions that make up today’s pluralistic American society. The excerpt below recounts her dharma interview with the roshi of a Zen temple in Berkeley, California during in a meditation retreat—a rite of passage for many students in the Zen tradition.
The Zen master isn’t in the room with us. He’s in a small room that shares a wall with this one, accepting his consultations. When the last person comes back, the next goes. In the meantime, the rest of us continue our meditations. At some point, I begin to notice a crashing noise that sounds like a two-by-four being dropped. At first I think construction is going on nearby. But, no, it’s perfectly silent in the space between crashes. No hammering. No buzzing saw. Just “thwack!” out of nowhere. It dawns on me that the crashing might be coming from the little room where the meetings are taking place. If this is the case, I hope it is a technique reserved for the most advanced students. As people reappear, I surreptitiously study them for signs of trauma.
My turn arrives. I bow to my cushion upon standing and again to the altar as I leave the room. I enter the dark hall and then open the door where the interviews are being held. The Zen master is sitting cross-legged on his cushion. I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing. I walk in and perform the “sandwich bow” that the abbot showed me earlier. It is made up of two bows at the waist with a single prostration of forehead to floor in between. Although it is optional, I was told it is the traditional way of greeting a master. I am hoping my performance of it lessens the severity of my beating should one be in store.
The Zen master invites me to sit opposite him. “Do you have a question?” he asks.
I nod. “I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’m meditating . . .” I search for the right words, wondering if what I’m about to say will make any sense. “Something will happen. I’ll be really aware of my breathing and the present moment, and then suddenly I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. Do you understand why this happens?”
He nods knowingly. “That’s your ‘little I.’”
“My ‘little I’?”
“You begin to occupy the space of the ‘big I’ and then your ‘little I’ gets scared. Before, the ‘little I’ is who you thought you were, and now you have the understanding that you are more. She is threatened. You are making progress, and you might not need her. That feeling of anxiety or panic is her tool. You have no choice but to come back to her.”
I’m amazed at how effortlessly he presents his answer, as if this issue was brought to him regularly. Then I remember a small detail I read about the Buddha. In recalling the years leading up to his enlightenment, when he was meditating in the forest by himself, he said fear and terror became his “constant companions.” They could be aroused by the smallest things like “a peacock dropping a twig and the wind blowing the fallen leaves.” That must have been Buddha’s “little I” rebelling against his increasing awareness.
So maybe these sensations aren’t a sign of my going backward, as I had believed. I recall the moments of panic, not just on this trip but at other times in my life, too. Perhaps they were all fueled by the dawning realization: I might be more than this individual identity. Maybe I was starting to sense that vast space outside the thought highway.
“So how do I get rid of her?” I ask my Zen master.
“My ‘little I’? How do I kill her off for good?”
A look of concern washes over his face. “You don’t.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“No. You need her.”
“I need her?”
“She takes care of you. She gets things done. Be compassionate to her.”
“But . . .”
I was about to say that I thought she was the enemy when it occurs to me what a bizarre thing that would be to admit. She’s me . . .
“Be aware of her. That’s enough.”
I’m staring at the nubs of the natural-fiber carpet between us trying to recalibrate my perspective when my Zen master asks, “What is all that exists?”
I look up. It’s a koan, a Buddhist brainteaser meant to slap me upside the head so I can see things with fresh eyes.
“Truth?” I say.
He slams his open palm against the floor, making the thwacking sound I’ve been hearing all afternoon.
“If you can name it, you’ve limited it,” he says. He’s transformed into a Buddhist drill sergeant. “This,” he hits the floor again, “is all there is. It has no words!”
He tries again. “What do you see?”
Now I’m worried. I don’t know the answer. I’m looking into his eyes. “A soul?” I say. The second it comes out, I know it’s wrong.
He looks disappointed. “You see a soul?”
“Uh . . .”
“Love?” Another stupid answer. That’s a concept, a mental construct.
He bulges his eyes out at me. “What . . . do . . . you . . . see?”
“Eyeballs! I see your eyeballs!”
He smiles. “What color are they?”
He looks pleased. “That is what you see.” He smacks the ground. “All there is with no thinking.”
Reprinted with permission from A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism & Islam by Corinna Nicolaou, Columbia University Press.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters