Lone Zen

· Essays ·

by Bill Kigen Delaney
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: “Fear and Fearlessness” (1992)

At the very un-monastic hour of seven AM, in the basement of a house in the hills outside the Chilean capitol city of Santiago, the South American branch of the Mountain and Rivers Order begins the day. The ringing of a bell, forty-minutes or so of zazen, chanting the Heart Sutra. Zazen again in the evening, ending this time with the Four Vows.

In the stillness of a cold August winter morning, neighborhood dogs bark. At evening time, sirens drift up from the city. In the clear night, the Southern Cross rises over the back yard.

And here in the foothills of the Andes, there’s never a problem with over-crowding. Member­ship of the Santiago sangha: one.

photo by Tenku Ruff

For the many years I’ve practiced Zen, I’ve almost always done it alone. Two years ago, I met Daido Sensei, which has of course changed my practice, and brought it onto an entirely new level. The intimate encounter with a teacher is something books can’t convey.

Soon after meeting my teacher, though, I found myself eight thousand miles away from him. So far, I’m discovering that a practice closer to the South Pole than the New York State Thruway can present both special perils and rewards.

The absence of a teacher and a sangha, most fundamentally, makes this a different effort from sitting in the Hudson Valley, or in New York City, or even in Boston, where I used to live. From Boston, the four-hour car trip seemed like a big deal. Now, I’ll be able to manage one trip home a year, and that will always be a time crowded with responsibilities to family and friends. Announcing to people you see once a year that you’re going “upstate” for a week can be difficult. Explaining to them you’re going on a Zen retreat can be, well, let’s just say I keep it simple, leaving it with “I’ll be visiting friends.”

 This year, my first overseas, already has served as a kind of test case in the noble tradi­tion of Murphy’s infallible law. Everything that could possibly go wrong, went wrong.

I’d counted on attending sesshin in June, during my four-week home leave. Instead, within twenty­ fours hours of arriving in the United States, my wife had to be hospitalized. By the time she recovered, I’d missed the sesshin and had to return to South America before July’s sesshin. I managed two days in the hermitage. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to return this year for sesshin.

That should be a kind of disaster. It’s not. I think every experience, when you’re practicing, can teach. The days in the hermitage were difficult, restless. It seemed wrong to have abandoned wife and kid back in the city, to go rummaging around in the mountains enthroned on one’s posterior amid the birds, sniffing around for a dose of insight. By the time I finally saw Daidoshi, I had very little to offer except the accumulated frustration of the month.

No big bouquet of enlightenment.

Oddly, in the weeks after returning to South America and my basement zendo, the whole experience turned out to be as important a visit to the monastery as I’ve had. Missing sesshin, forced to return to the practice humbly, even hopelessly, has brought my meditation into a less precious level—made it more just a part of this messy life.

I’m seeing sitting lately as a kind of disaster anyway, like life. A futile, contradictory experience. The one thing in a life full of “purpose” that’s, well, utterly ridiculous.

I respect it for that.

And that’s perhaps the special lesson of practice in isolation, far from the monas­tery. Down here, your expectations will either bury you and make you give up, or liberate you, forcing you to drop them altogether and simply move on.

In my job as a journalist, I see a lot of suffering—people who’ve been screwed by life from the day they were born. I think we Zen practitioners can’t forget about them. We have to be careful not to remove ourselves. Careful not to hide out on the hill, literally or figuratively, with that ever-so-slightly-self-satisfied-half­ smile of the “Buddhist.”

Zen to me is about trying your best and then just letting things be what they are. That’s that. That’s what I like about it. It’s nothing more than common sense, and it’s utterly profound. It can be serene and exquisite, and it’s also downright silly. It can drive you nearly mad, and right at that point, you usually calm down and get a glimpse.

When you’re far away, you just slog along. You have no choice. No one’s going to tell you how well you’re doing or how lousy. And that’s a chance to de-mystify Zen. To just do it and see what grows.

Daido understands the problems of a foreign practice. That helps a lot. If he was pounding me on the head demanding that “the practice” be put before everything, frankly, I’d consider him just another guy with a bill of spiritual goods for sale. That’s not the case at all. He says do the best you can. I still feel like I’m working with him. He’s still my teacher, even if l see him once a year.

Maybe it’s possible to find Zen anywhere, with a little searching, even here in deepest darkest Catholic South America. The important thing is to be consistent. To keep sitting. So I do-where the water goes counter-clockwise down the sink.

Addendum 2018:

I wrote this little essay about a quarter century ago when I and my wife, Gale, and my son Liam, were living in Chile. As a journalist for many years we moved around quite a bit. My daughter Tess would be born a few years later, in Jerusalem. 

The year Liam was born I found the Monastery. I had been searching for a Buddhist teacher for many years. Like many others I’ve spoken to, when I first stepped onto the grounds of ZMM, and when I first looked into Daido Roshi’s eyes, I knew I was home. I still do. It’s just that over these decades I’ve rarely been able to be at home. We lived in South America, the Middle East, Europe. Now I live in New York but I spend half the month in Seattle. I’ve spent virtually all my years of ZMM practice mostly on the road.

All those years ago I wrote about practicing from afar. No doubt many in our sangha can relate. There are special challenges to practicing like this, and it’s not just about distance. Working a job, raising kids—living a life—can make it tough to get to ZMM too. But it is possible to practice like this. Once I stepped onto the path, I stayed on it. I just sat. Somehow, however far away I was, however busy my days and nights, in my experience I was guided. I found my way.

What has also flowered, preciously, is that Gale and Liam now practice too. I never overtly suggested that they should “try it.” Not once. But Liam has just spent a year in residency. Gale became a student last year. Each found this path in their own way. Whoever we are, whatever we do, wherever we are, there’s the Way, and a way. That’s the miracle. 

Thirty years is the blink of an eye. I know that now, for sure. I also know that if you’ve been fortunate enough to open your eyes a little along the way—there’s no greater gift. 

Bill Kigen Delaney still travels but now lives mainly in New York with his wife, Gale Delaney.

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