Alternative titles for this tale were Zen Samurai Boot Camp, Zen Sharp Stick to The Eye, and Zen Iron Maiden, not harkening to the heavy metal band but rather the heavy metal medieval device of physical torment. The more edifying heading came about after finding an inner place of psychological clarity inspired by an outer place of physical practice - Arizona’s Haku Un Ji Zen Center. While The Temple of the White Cloud may sound exquisite, Haku Un Ji is in reality a modest home with a small backyard Zendo or meditation hall in a quiet, residential neighborhood of suburban Tempe. Upholding the martial tradition of Lin-Chi - a prominent 10th century Chinese Master -  Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism focuses on Kensho, or “seeing one’s true nature” with an emphasis on ongoing mind-training to embody the free-functioning of wisdom in everyday life. But before you can see a damn thing or there's even a whisper of wisdom, there’s negotiating the sharp severities of Zen practice.

Up at 4 a.m. Saturday morning to drive cross town and be in the hall and on the cushion by 5:30, I took part in a One-Day Zazenkai, in Japanese literally meaning “to come together for meditation”, often the name given to a short Zen Buddhist retreat. Saturday’s day-long Sit consisted of a number of Zazen periods - sitting meditation sessions - of roughly thirty to fifty minutes, coupled with short, ten-minute sessions of walking meditation, called Kinhin, good for rescuing hips and legs from complete implosion. Thankfully, these were sitting period lesser in intensity and duration than a Sesshin - literally “touching the heart-mind” - a period of strong sitting that can go on for days or even a week. Along with chanting and a Samu or physical work period done with mindfulness, we also practiced a meditative form of eating called  Ōryōki, meaning “Just enough” that  emphasizes awareness practice by abiding to a strict order of precise movements. Bowls are set out in a customary pattern, chop stick points hover just off the table, and hand movements communicate, “Yes, more please!” as well “I’m good. Thanks.” Finally, gestures and offerings were made to appease Buddhism’s Hungry Ghosts, a concept representing beings driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. In other words, the goading, unconsciousness desires we all share, uncomfortable inner urges that meditation practice helps disarm.

Well-known for its rigorous training methods, the bleakness, the blackness of Rinzai Zen practice goes beyond the dark robes of traditional Zen garments. There’s an austerity to Zen ceremony on a soul level, a gloominess, a sullenness, a just-you-and-your-mind-and-the-grind-grind-grind –on- the-cushion vibe. The bell ring three times and there’s nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide, as you’re left to contemplate your own inner chaos for ongoing, hour-long stretches of time in the voluntary cell of your tiny square Zabuton, hopefully cushioning aching ankles and knees. The good news, the Gospel according to The Buddha, is that standing your ground and wrestling with your psyche for a few hours opens the gates for a sweet Samadhi to arise, a trance of stillness or one-pointedness of mind that has one totally sensorial aware of the present moment. This stability of the intrinsic mind, this psychic grounding, is the mind-state writer’s like Jack Keroauc described as “feeling the ripples of birth and death… like the action of the wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water… a sweet, swinging bliss.”

On an even more personal note, the return to Haku Un Ji was a triumphant one. Living in Arizona from 1998-2006, the Center was a place of refuge during my wild, wild west days, a time when I engaged in regular psychic gun battles with my well-armed demons in fights for my spiritual footing. Back then, I was lucky enough to partake in Kōan practice with my Teacher Shinzen’s Teacher - Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi Joshu, a Zen Master who passed in 2014 at the age of one hundred and seven. Considering a Koan is a story, dialogue or question answered intuitively and designed to test a Zen student's progress, I’m not sure I ever answered one correctly. That said, I did find myself standing on my head with my shirt off in the Roshi’s presence once, which excited both him and Shinzen, who I later recounted the experience to. “That’s great, that’s how he can really get inside of you!" commented Shin. 

Half-exhausted but happily abiding in the pure land of practice Saturday morning, listening to a recorded Teisho, or Zen teaching of the Roshi's, his words, with renewed significance, found their way back inside. “The story of Buddhism is the story of a loving couple" he grumbled in Japanese, a translator conveying the colorful imagery.  "It is the story of the masculine and feminine coming together in a cooperative effort of perfect accord to give birth to the world. Plus and minus, negative and positive, expansion and contraction. The man gives a perfect gift to the woman, and where is the complaint? (laughter)". With hands in Gassho, at heart-center, a deep bow.