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An author and practising Buddhist discusses his manyfold spiritual path – and how he chose which school ...
2021-02-24 09:00:00

How Was I Supposed to Not Know?
A Personal Journey Across Buddhism (Part 2)

Illustration by Igor Kubik
How Was I Supposed to Not Know?
How Was I Supposed to Not Know?

“I distinguished the schools of Buddhism by their colours. I didn’t know which one to choose.” Julisz Strachota discusses his search and his choice in the second part of our new series.

Read in 7 minutes

I decided I would leave Buddhism to the Buddhists, and work on something more serious.

Once again, life had failed to keep my promise, but first, addiction and anxiety therapists, and psychiatrists, worked on treating everything I had to be treated.

When I had recovered a bit, my life became, in a certain way, open and empty. The emptiness I encountered was psychosomatic. I wasn’t certain whether it was bad. The hole after the past, the lack of visibility of the new, of a restart for life. The zero point. You can start over.

I told myself that maybe now was the time. That this was the opportunity. It didn’t bother me at all that I was treating religion like therapy, but I also didn’t know what else I was supposed to expect from it. Why do people look for religions if they’re not made to practice them in childhood? I was convinced that it’s from fear, and actually from the greatest fear, which isn’t a clinically-defined condition: the fear of non-existence. Because after all, all the rest is regulated by other institutions.

I wanted to start meditating, right away.

I meandered around the internet and I didn’t know which Buddhist school to choose. I distinguished them by colour. I had three to choose from: Zen – black, mysterious and ethereal; therawada, which I didn’t know much about other than that it was the oldest surviving school of Buddhism (closest to the teachings of the Buddha, where the monks wear yellow or orange robes); and finally, red Tibetan Buddhism, but I was ashamed to go back there. Besides, Lama Ole Nydahl was described on Wikipedia as a controversial teacher, and I had had enough controversy to last me the rest of my life.

Training

Chance decided, and I’ve always believed in chance. My addiction therapist knew a Zen teacher and gave me his contacts. He was bald, with Japanese-style clothes – this was when it seemed to me that everybody over there was meditating – and he spoke completely differently than other people. He wasn’t a mindfulness salesman. He had practised for many years under renowned teachers, and he inspired confidence in me.

At the start he didn’t give me too much life-changing guidance. Strange, laborious work lay ahead. In a humid cellar on Turecka Street, which had been transformed into a zendo – a meditation hall – he told me to count my breaths. From one to 10. If I made a mistake or got distracted, I had to start over.

So that’s what I did, once a week, at so-called formal practice, and every day at home. I bought myself a mat and a cushion. I was a Zen adept. Me and a few others. Some were beginners like me, and seemed to be garden-variety weirdos, but others had a sort of different spectrum of emotions and behaviours, which was so attractive to me. Joy. Calmness of spirit. Helpfulness. Gratitude.

And serenity!

I deeply believed that there was a certain border, beyond which I too would find myself in a sphere of permanent serenity. And it would be like being on Xanax, just without the side effects.

I was counting on that, so I stubbornly counted my breaths. I didn’t understand, but I counted.

The essence of Zen training for me is its elusiveness, and if something else is the essence, then unfortunately it eluded me. This elusiveness can be grasped sometimes, and it becomes commonplace, interpenetrates with the rest of daily activities, but at the beginning it’s a Great Mystery.

What does this kind of training look like? You empty your mind by meditating. You sing fun, incomprehensible things. You don’t understand anything, but you sing. You practice koans, which sound like this, for example:

A monk asked, “Does a dog have a Buddha-nature?”
The master said, “Mu!”

Stop the sound of that distant temple bell.

Hide in a pillar.

Freely I watch the tracks of the flying birds.

Sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a sentence ripped from context. What to do with this? I didn’t know, and I discussed it at each meeting with the master. He asked me questions that didn’t help. For example: where is the Mu when you’re driving a car?

As a rule, I would reply with a fantastic joke, but the teacher wasn’t satisfied. I worked on the first koan for a year, until one day I heard that maybe that was enough, and I got the next one. And I had no idea why. I felt that he had just waved me off. That I hadn’t made it.

The singing seemed particularly stupid to me. I kind of liked meditation, though it didn’t cause any unusual experiences. At the start, I still didn’t know that Buddhists in the East don’t have this obsession with meditation that the Buddhists of Warsaw do.

Though the training itself seems to be completely different from everything else at the beginning, it serves a very prosaic purpose: liberation from suffering. Meaning what? I asked at the beginning, but the answers weren’t given, or didn’t reach me. Later, I would find them myself.

Meditation was frustrating (because thoughts kept appearing), but it quickly began to produce effects. I noticed them. I wasn’t very good at naming them, because they were new, but I was happy they were there. Nor did I know how you’re supposed to talk with a Zen teacher and not look like an idiot. Because he wasn’t an instructor, or a therapist, or a doctor; he was a figure completely unknown to me: he spoke about matters that nobody around me had referred to before. I suspected that that’s exactly what a sage looks like. Cheerful, calm, spontaneous, unpredictable.

Today I’m making an attempt to identify these initial effects, though it’s all sort of escaping me. Zen is about experience, not about naming, my teacher told me, adding that I shouldn’t read any more books on Buddhism. I cheated a little, because he didn’t mention Wikipedia.

After three months sitting on a cushion, I noticed that during the day my thoughts didn’t run so far ahead of me anymore. This was beneficial, because my rushing forward encouraged anxiety and forced me to worry, for instance, that my money was going to run out in a week, and as a result I had to start worrying today. I still didn’t know how to make myself at home in the present moment, but I noticed it. This was also something new: that the mind doesn’t have to get so distracted, shaky, and ready to set out again and again. Anxiety used to flow in parallel with my time, and now they had fewer and fewer points of contact. Prickly, but not crushing.

Thoughts disappeared. Well, maybe they didn’t disappear completely, but they stopped forming into long chains in which one thought set off the next, because of which after five minutes and an hour I was still stuck in a world that I didn’t want to enter, but which at some unknown time I had somehow entered on my own. Well, now I suddenly knew when that moment was, and I was able to give up the first or one of the first thoughts leading where I didn’t need to be. I didn’t have to block my thoughts, I learned to discard them.

And beautiful periods of my life began, which I spent in thoughtlessness.

All my life I had thought that my thoughts or feelings were me. And then I understood that these were autonomous phenomena. They happen without my control, the come out of some place, they drive each other on, as a rule they don’t make any sense, they can be insistent, they obscure what’s happening here and now, and most importantly they’re not me.

This was very strange.

So what is me? I didn’t know. And here stepped in the teacher, with whom I discussed my progress. He suggested that I was heading in a very positive direction. That I should know as little as possible.

And once again: illumination. All my life I had pretended that I knew how I operated and how the world operated, and in fact I don’t know. This was truly a discovery. To the whole heap of questions that people asked me and that I asked myself, finally I answered truthfully: I DON’T KNOW!

All of a sudden, I had less opinions to form. I stopped pontificating, clinging to my opinions. It was a very slow process. I’m still a master at judging others, but slightly downgraded, demoted. Maybe after another 10 years of practice things will really be good.

There’s nothing to be achieved, there’s only time to be used, my teacher used to repeat. With my eternal unfulfillment, negative sense of self-worth and broken self-esteem, that turned out to be liberating. Only time to be used. It’s not worth struggling, because there’s no healing around the next corner.

The day also came when impermanence seemed great to me. Earlier I had taken it exactly the opposite way, and that resulted from my private discomfort. When on the micro scale I started to perceive that a thought appears and disappears, a feeling appears and disappears, and then the next ones appear, I began to embrace impermanence on a macro scale. From that small, quite unprepossessing action, over the years something developed in me that I’d call a fascination with impermanence. Mortality. Disappearing. Slowly the resistance to non-existence, which I feared, was lowered. The obsessive thoughts about death died away.

I also stopped wanting objects. My desires were disarmed, undermined.

Alright, enough. We know nobody wants objects, only the experiences that they supposedly conceal, but it got through to me that beyond the fulfilment of desires there is no satisfaction, there’s just a very momentary absence of desires. Which passes by exceptionally quickly.

Alright, that’s really enough. Religion for me had been reduced to a reduction of tensions, and that disturbed me a bit. Religion for me had become suspiciously private.

This text is part of the series “A Personal Journey Across Buddhism” by Juliusz Strachota. To be continued...

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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