The Lesson is Clear: Just Be – Meru Doug Szper
Why is Buddhism important to you?
I’m not sure what Buddhism is. I’m fairly certain that Gautama did not show up to create a religion or even a religious movement. He awakened and decided to try to convey what this awakening meant to him and how others can achieve it.
This Zen practice is important to me because it has transformed my life. The first several week-long Sesshins were painful and a tremendous physical challenge for me. After a while I found a place of pleasant stillness, within and without, that I look forward to.
How did you come to Mondo Zen and why?
I have been a student of ‘comparative religion’ and a seeker all my life. I was raised as a devout Catholic and believed all that I was taught, until I began to see the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of those who claimed to follow those teachings.
In my early 20’s, I spent about 30 months as a confirmed Atheist. I had tried the approach of believing there is a God, and that failed for me. I was left with the quandary of an agnostic, not knowing whether to believe or disbelieve. As a Mathematician, I am aware of ‘proof by contradiction’, so I decided to go that route. I adopted the assumption that there is no God and lived my life accordingly.
My studies of Mathematics along with Cosmology and Quantum Physics brought be to a place of awe: a deep appreciation for the structure and beauty of this Universe in which we live (i.e. the 10,000 things). I could not accept the idea that this beauty is all just an accident. Hence, there must be some ‘intelligence’ behind it all.
This was the contradiction I was looking for. This intelligence that ‘pervades the whole universe, revealing this Self, right here right now’ qualified as the God I had been seeking. This only left me with one question: “why am I here?” That is, what is the purpose of my individuated Self in the Grand Scheme of Things?
And I realized that I had a lifetime in which to seek the answer. I also realized that the mere seeking of purpose, was – in itself – the answer to my question. What a relief!
I moved on from that, continuing my attempts to understand this Universe ever more deeply. Advances in Quantum Physics and Cosmology helped fuel my curiosity. And then there was marriage and children – the apparent need to earn money to support a family. In spite of great professional success, my emotional development was at a standstill. I wore a three-piece suit (the uniform of a Professional) while knowing that it was all just a façade. I was a terrified five-year old inside that armor. Constantly fearful that someone was going to find out what a fraud I was.
As my family grew, I knew that we needed a spiritual center in which to raise our children. I had spent years reading and studying the Bible (including the first five books which comprise the Torah). We sampled every church in the area, only to find ‘hellfire and brimstone’ wherever we went. So we visited a few synagogues and realized this was where we belonged. After many years of study and practice, my entire family (me, my wife and four daughters) converted to Judaism. We raised our children within this spiritual tradition, and when they reached age 12 (time for Bat Mitzvah) I let each of them know they should seek their own spiritual path.
However, the responsibilities inherent in being a parent and primary provider, along with my emotional immaturity, left me in a lot of fear and anxiety. Financial fears, fear of failure, fear of being ‘found out’, fear of fear. Drugs and alcohol became my solution to this chronic anxiety. Eventually, with four teen and pre-teen daughters, I decided that the alcohol was no longer working, so I bought a $1 million dollar life insurance policy and began to plan my own destruction.
Somewhere along the way, a ‘minority opinion’ within suggested there might be another way to go, so I sought out people who had found a path to recovery from addiction. After some fumbling around I got involved in some 12-Step programs and they saved my life. Then my whole life changed.
The 11th Step talks about prayer and meditation. I understood the prayer part, but meditation was not yet part of my world. I had tried Zen meditation 25 years earlier and discovered that it didn’t work. I sat for 30 minutes for two days in a row. Nothing changed. What a waste of time – I could have been DOING something for those 60 minutes.
My youngest daughter got me involved with Tai Chi – which is described as moving meditation. She only needed a ride to the classes, but we both got hooked. I recall starting to learn the ‘form’ which has 72 parts. We spent an entire class on the first position. Just standing in Wu Chi. My internal dialog was amazing! Every time the instructor said ‘now relax your shoulders’ they would drop an inch or more. Over and over. The lesson was clear – just be. I eventually learned the form and practiced it twice a day. Beauty.
At about that time, I had received a flyer from Bill Kauth about a week-long retreat called “Warrior Monk”. A counselor I had been seeing had received it, and said to herself (correctly) “I think Doug would be interested in this.” I went to that retreat and my whole life changed (again). I was introduced to many variations on ‘meditation’ and was invited to try them all and see what fits. I also had the opportunity to delve more deeply into my emotional ‘stuckness’ (Dukkha) and my deeply held beliefs that might not actually be true.
After the retreat (which also led me to MKP), I added a sitting practice to my twice daily Tai Chi form. I started with 10 minutes at a time. This quickly turned into 20 minutes, because I couldn’t think of any reason to stop at 10. Then twice a day, each of which grew to 30 minutes. I was now on a mailing list, from which I received an invitation to the very first Hollow Bones Sesshin with a real Zen Master in 1999. That year had been quite transformational for me, including four different, very powerful ‘retreats’. I was tempted to go to Sonoma Mountain but was also afraid that if I went there for a Zen retreat, I probably wouldn’t return. So I didn’t. My family still needed me, you see.
Until three years later. I kept getting these invitations to Hollow Bones Sesshins, and I finally decided to call and find out more. I may have exchanged two or three sentences with JunPo when he simply told me to sign up and come, so I did. He seemed so certain, who was I to argue.
I showed up at Sonoma Mountain, ready for anything. That first evening, JunPo simply went through the Sutra book as we read and he explained. That night, I had a ‘vision’. It was an amazing dream in which I understood with absolute certainty that this was my path. Then I had to stay for the rest of the eight days and suffer thru the knee pain. The meals and the silence made up for it. Again, my whole life changed.
I made a commitment to return within a year. I only made it four months before the ‘samadhi’ started to wear off, so I went to Providence Zen Center for a refill. They put me on staff! Bummer! What a delight. More retreats followed, then a toe in the water toward ordination as a Priest. Silly robes to wear! I witnessed FuGen preparing for his ordination, and the challenge of slippery robes and kesa while bowing. I told JunPo “I don’t want no robes”, but he was certain that I needed them, so who was I to argue.
After ordination, I continued to ripen on the cushion and eventually inquired about the next step. Hence Inka in 2014.
What are you learning from the sangha?
I took vows at the end of my first Sesshin, and made a commitment to practice and offer this Zen stuff to others. So, I cleared out my living room, bought some cushions, and started “Still Point Zen Center”. When I started I kept track of how many people showed up. At first it seemed very successful, then attendance started to fall off. I talked to JunPo, and he told me ‘it’s not about numbers. It’s about your practice.” What a relief. And he seemed so certain, who was I to argue.
Over time, Still Point has gone thru many changes, the most recent being shutting down in early 2020 for some major repairs and never restarting, due to COVID-19.
Today, my primary sangha is a group of men in Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution. And I haven’t met with them face-to-face in many months. I look forward to the face-to-face connection restarting because doing this over Zoom becomes a one-way practice due to the limitations they have. When we sit together, I usually offer a short dharma talk on a topic and simply ask them for feedback. They continually offer me bits of insight and wisdom that feeds my practice and supports my belief of how important the Zen stuff really is. Any tiny bit of relief from suffering makes it all worthwhile.
How do you see Hollow Bones growing over the next few years?
With JunPo slowing down and/or retiring, it is up to the next generation to pick up this Dharma and run with it. I too am slowing down and retiring, but I have seen and listened to those ‘young whippersnappers’ who are following in our footsteps (and making some of their own) so I am confident that the Hollow Bones Dharma will continue. I am skeptical of ‘certificates’ and the movement to ‘professionalize’ the Dharma of Mondo Zen. I understand how the need to make a living in this world can intersect and interfere with the desire to practice this Dharma in all our activities. I leave it to the next generation to solve this dilemma.
-Meru the Fool