What a Wall Teaches

Illustration by Kim Scafuro

By Lin Jensen

Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who is credited with having brought Zen to China, is said to have spent nine years facing a wall in a cave near northern China’s Shaolin Temple. If the story is true, the Zen he introduced was a Zen of wall sitting.

I first learned to meditate one summer when I was building a studio for some friends in the Carmel Highlands on the Big Sur coast of California. The project took several weeks, and one of my hosts, a practicing Buddhist, encouraged me to come and sit with the Zen group in Carmel. “If you come on the first Tuesday of the month,” she told me, “Catherine will teach you how to sit.” So I went, and Zen priest Catherine Thanas taught me proper sitting posture, as well as what to do with my hands and eyes and with the thoughts that might arise. I asked, “What am I supposed to learn from facing a wall like this?” She said, “The sitting will teach you that.” Then the other sitters arrived and I was left to work it out on my own.

Catherine Thanas was right. That very first night’s sitting must have taught me that sitting like this is good for me. After facing a wall with my legs aching for forty-five minutes, I was somehow compelled to continue. I sat the very next morning before going to work on the studio project, and then sat again that night, and every morning and night from then on. I never quit. It seemed from the beginning that my proper place in the world was somehow clarified and amplified by this simple practice of sitting facing a wall.

After a few weeks of sitting with the Carmel Zen group, I finished the studio and headed home. For the next five years, I sat alone, without a teacher other than the sitting itself and without any companionship other than that of a pine-board bedroom wall thirty inches from the tip of my nose. As it turned out, the wall has held all the teaching I needed, and Bodhidharma’s ancient example has proven to be enough.

What is it about a wall that so penetrates the consciousness of one who sits with it? For one thing, there’s nothing you can make of a wall but a wall. It’s obstinately resistant to imagination. My wall never tried to be anything other than a wall. It didn’t try to be a floor or ceiling or even a sunset, the colors of which light up its pine surface on summer evenings. It was perfectly content to be what it was. I found that hard to match, often wanting instead to be other than I was.

I saw how naturally the wall fulfilled its function as a wall. I saw that it met the horizontal floor and ceiling with vertical exactness. And the particular section of wall that I faced daily met two other sections of wall at a perfect ninety-degree angle. Over time, I had the feeling that the wall wasn’t so much a wall because it supported the bedroom ceiling. Its wallness had to do with something other than its function. It wasn’t a wall relative to anything else; it was a wall in and of itself. From hours, days, and years of intimacy with a pine-board bedroom wall, I, too have gradually become just what I am, regardless of external circumstances, with only the wall as my witness.

From the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.


Lin Jensen is the author of Deep Down Things and Together Under One Roof: Making a Home of the Buddha’s Household. He lives in Chico, California.