33 years ago, early in the summer of 1983, I participated in my first Zen retreat followed by a Buddhist conference, a full-on academic immersion in Buddhist studies which for me had, up until then, been primarily confined to a few undergraduate East Asian Studies/Buddhism classes, and independent study courses with just one teacher at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was 24 and a bit of an odd type: a Puertorican who liked to wear Salvation Army coats with t-shirts underneath, with a silver hoop earring, and a proselytizing propensity for punk who also wanted to be a Buddhist scholar-priest.
I saw a poster in said professor´s office for a Summer Seminar on the Sutras to be held at his undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, for the month of June. This was to be both preceded and followed by seven day intensive Zen meditation retreats called sesshin, led by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, then in his 70s and a pioneer in the bringing of Zen to the US. His retreats were known as the real deal, strict, no nonsense, austere affairs where discipline was tight and a passionate desire for satori, or an experience of awakening, to be one´s only focus. I was beside myself with excitement. For about 10 years, I had called myself a Buddhist and had practiced meditation as best as I could given the Miami limitations of no teacher and no community and no one sharing my interest. This was my time!
Sasaki Roshi´s 7 day Zen sesshin were grueling affairs, beginning at 3am and lasting till 9pm, sometimes later where about 11-14 hours a day are spent on one’s meditation cushion (or, as in my case, seiza bench as my knees were not yet able to bend yogically). The rest of the time was divided into walking meditation, meals, tea times, teisho or formal talks by Sasaki Roshi, chanting from one´s seat, and cleaning duty, all interspersed with 5 terrifying face-to-face sanzen periods where one sits facing the Roshi and presents one´s koan to then be prompted to answer it. And of course, a few hours of sleep and “free” time where we could run to our rooms, lay our heads down and, maybe 10 minutes later, be roughly awakened by wooden clappers signalling the start of the next period. Even the characters used to describe it 攝心 are made of compounds including a hand and 3 ears + heart-mind, suggesting a deep, internal practice of listening to one´s deepest nature. Sesshin were not for the faint of heart.
Lack of sleep, lack of movement, and lack of aspirin all conspired to make me a simpering wreck by the time it had ended but I felt changed and more formally committed to my practice than ever before. I was also set on my desire to become a Buddhist scholar as well, given the remarkable exposure and access to big names during that month. Luminaries in the field of religious or Buddhist studies such as Huston Smith, Taitetsu Unno, Alan Sponberg, Raoul Birnbaum, Tamura Yoshiro and others were to give structured talks each day. For those of us taking the month long seminar for academic credit, essay questions were to be answered and copious amounts of notes were taken. Many of us were university students in the field of East Asian studies or just curious kids interested in something different. One of my roommates was Prof. Unno´s son, Mark Unno, with whom I became friends.
After the sesshin, couches were moved, tables shifted and while the meditation hall stayed open, it was made smaller to facilitate the return of its original fraternity house atmosphere, complete with pool table and the ubiquitous guitars. People who hadn´t spoken a word to each other in a week were hugging and kissing like old friends as the buses or taxis came to take some home. New arrivals, a more “normal” crowd, also began arriving. The seminar began the next day and for 3 weeks we were treated to deep and profound lectures on Buddhist philosophy, from experts in different schools of Buddhism including Jodo Shinshu, Tendai, and Shingon. The days began with Roshi too giving lectures on his own Zen school of Rinzai which he called Busshin-shu (Buddha-Mind School). At night other, more informal talks continued as after dinner groups gathered to share experiences of the sesshin and notes as to how successfully we had solved, or not solved, our koans. Various clumps of people befriended each other and flitted about. There were long walks along the gorges, trips to local lakes after late night sweat lodges, and plenty of pot smoke and bongs discreetly enjoyed. All in all it was a was a mixed group of interested frat boys, old hippies, experienced Zen students, old Zen monks, young Zen monks, Europeans, Canadians and the usual assortment of Americans from every State including even Puerto Rico.
I met Leonard shortly after the sesshin was over, one afternoon at the beginning of the seminar. He was 49 or 50. A handsome, bushy haired man who looked to me like a Jewish Al Pacino, he had sat a few feet to my left in the zendo during sesshin where we all remained mindfully waiting for Enlightenment, our one koan solution, or for our knees to explode. (In my case, the aches were so bad, there were whole hours where I played Elvis Costello´s “Get Happy” from side 1 to side 2 over and over again in my head just to keep from crying.) I was told he was a “songwriter” but I´d never heard of him and honestly, I wasn´t impressed; gloomy folk songs are what they sounded like to me when he played some for the fans who´d gathered around him and requested something from him. I found his voice was too low and I felt the songs depressingly plodding. Of course, at the time I was listening to The Clash, The Jam, and Gang of Four so my tastes were a bit more, “charged”, let us say.
One night, after plenty of cigarettes and stories, a few of us made a liquor run as some of the professors were hanging out with us. We bought saké for Prof´s Unno and Tamura and enjoyed the opportunity to further pick their brains about topics the more serious students of Buddhism were eager to explore. Beer and whiskey and lots of pool sufficed for the rest. I believe it was the next night when, gathered on one of the well-worn couches, Leonard arrived among my little group. One of the girls was telling me how famous he was and I happily showed her my disinterest. “Look, I just sat sesshin with the guy, that´s alI I know,” I said. Leonard heard this and smiled, though afterwards she asked him to play a little music on guitar because she was sure I had heard something of his (I hadn´t. Honestly.) “You never heard that one?” She asked with barely disguised irritation. “Nope” I shook my head. She looked embarrassed. He finally gave up. Miffed it appeared to me, but not so much as to prevent us talking. He asked me where I was from and we talked about New York City and Miami, the drug scene down there, my family´s Puertorican background, crime, and of course, our favorite subject, Zen and our shared teacher, Sasaki Roshi.
Gradually he warmed up to me and we began talking about places in the world he liked. I liked his stories. They were rich with detail and he seemed to catch glimpses of people and places that other travelers might miss. I told him I intended on spending my senior year in Japan later that summer, that I was studying Japanese and that I´d wanted to go ever since my father, a WW2 vet, had told me of his experiences there. He asked if I intended to become a monk and I said I was considering it. “Hmm… Have you ever been to Greece?” he then asked me. “No, but I have a good friend from there and I hope to go sometime” I said and he then told stories about its women, its beauty, it´s beautiful women, and of the brilliant sun. He mentioned retsina, Metaxa, and ouzo and I said I´d never had any of them. “Never?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “No, honestly, never”, I said. Sensing an opening to repair the slight of not being impressed with his gifts, this prompted me to arrange a trip to the local liquor store where I bought a bottle of Ouzo. Returning to the table with the bottle and a couple of glasses, I watched as he carefully poured “3 fingers full” of ouzo and then added a little cold water in, stirring it up until it became milky white, then dropped a few ice cubes. “Try this” he said, handing me the glass. It was lovely! I savored its anise-type flavor and for the next few hours we just kept drinking and mixing, sharing stories about life and the world, the perils of women and the arduousness of Zen (or maybe it was the arduousness of women and the perils of Zen?). We killed the bottle and he managed to accept another request to do a song or two. The friends who´d gathered around applauded. It was nice.
I tried not to show it but, unfortunately, I still wasn´t impressed. Leonard looked at my face and nodded slightly. That´s alright, he seemed to say, We´re good.