A Trip to Nowhere: An Unremarkable Pilgrimage to New York State, recounted by Mark Rivett.
It is futile to travel to other dusty countries, Thus forsaking your own seat — Dogen
The wind blows the tall pine trees and the water hurtles down the creek as I walk from the guest house up the road to check how far we will have to come the next morning when we attend Zen Mountain Monastery’s Sunday open service. A sense of excitement bubbles inside me, mirroring the wind and the water outside. I hear the sound of a bird I know we do not have in the UK, and I think I faintly hear the chanting coming from inside the building that is hidden within the trees. Why the excitement? Perhaps it has something to do with anticipation: we have come a long way to experience this tower of the Western Dharma. But I have had the same feeling all over the world when I have visited Buddhist sites. It might sound corny, but maybe it has something to do with coming home.
Two Go Buddhist in New York
Myself and my friend Eddy are on a pilgrimage to New York State. This is not the usual shopping “pilgrimage” that so many British people do every year. Rather, this is one of our occasional Dharma trips to visit sites of Buddhist importance. We have been to India and Hong Kong, but this time we decided to immerse ourselves in American Buddhism and chose New York State because of its closeness and significance. It might seem to be a strange thing to do. But in comparison to the UK, the wealth of Buddhist groups in the States is awe inspiring. Both of us have a long history of association with two separate groups in the UK. Eddy has been Chair of the Western Chan Fellowship for some time. This group is led by John Crook, a Dharma heir of Sheng Yen. A long while ago, I became affiliated with Throssel Hole Priory, which belongs to the tradition of Soto Zen founded by Jiyu Kennett (Shasta Abbey).
Our pilgrimages are just that. Despite our spouses thinking that we go away for a “good time” (a view especially prevalent when we announced we were going to New York), we structure our day with morning and evening services, periods of meditation, services at places of special Dharma importance, and a Dharma topic for reflection each day, and we limit our conversation. This recipe has worked before, and we were keen to test it in a developed nation. For New York, we had decided that we would visit Buddhist sites every day, which would include groups, temples, and Buddhist museums, and would finish our pilgrimage with a longer intensive sesshin with Barry Magid’s Ordinary Mind group. What follows are some reflections on the experiences we had.
“The koan appears naturally in daily life”: what is a pilgrimage?
Pilgrimages are time spent out of ordinary life; but they are not holidays in the sense that we think of them today (though I recognise the original word might have meant something like this: holy-day). Spiritual pilgrimages, for me at least, can both open up the heart and reaffirm faith, commitment, and resolve. They can also intensify all the doubt, mental baggage, and everyday struggles that litter my mind but can be ignored in the bustle of the demands of work, family, and social calendars. In many ways, the process of pilgrimage is like that of a longer retreat: there is anxiety, resistance to the imposed practice, but eventually the journey is accepted for what it is: going nowhere. Invariably, on pilgrimage a number of spiritual questions arise for me. These loosely termed “koans” come to define the pilgrimage and persist in my consciousness.
We began our trip in “upstate” New York, visiting firstly Sheng Yen’s Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC) and then Zen Mountain Monastery (ZMM), which is near Woodstock (a centre for another sort of pilgrimage for my generation). These immediately raised a number of questions about the Dharma which stayed with me throughout our pilgrimage. We were privileged to be a part of an open day at DDRC. Here we experienced a fully community-centred Buddhism: the Chinese-American followers of Sheng Yen came together to celebrate their commitment to Sheng Yen’s tradition. The day was full of events and classes such as raw food cookery, tea ceremonies, and moving meditation. We were welcomed to join in with no particular expectations on us to conform or to behave in any particular way. The meditation hall was open to anyone at any time throughout the day. There were a limited number of monks at this event, and clearly the centre is largely staffed by nonmonastic volunteers.
ZMM, on the other hand, was an austere and serious place. The Sangha seemed strong and purposeful; the teaching authoritative. As visitors, we were required to attend an introduction to meditation regardless of our experience. We then joined the full community (over a hundred) in the morning service of sutras, which was followed by a Dharma talk. As the morning proceeded, I watched my discomfort as it swam inside me. I knew this discomfort and have felt it in these settings many times before. Maybe it is a relic of my past as the son of a Church of England minister who rebelled against the formulaic scriptures and services. Yet there was also a strange, almost suppressed recognition: this was not just similar to the services at Throssel Hole Priory, but it was similar to those very services I had (and still occasionally do) attended at churches.
I know many Western Buddhists go through similar conflicts with these aspects of the tradition. For me, it is not without its irony: I fled the rituals of sitting, kneeling, standing, singing, praying, when I left the faith of my father but have come back to them in Buddhist practice. Zen is full of an awareness of the absurdity of life. It was indeed kind of absurd to have lay members of the Sangha rush up and down the lines of people pointing out which Japanese sutra we were reciting at each moment. Of course the irony is even deeper given that in my youth I recited English scriptures (which I could understand), and now I recite Japanese sutras the meaning of which, even in translation, is usually opaque to me. But underneath this ambiguous relationship with the tradition was and is something else for me: beneath the discomfort was a recognition of inadequacy.
Beneath my struggle to accept the “form” of the service was a feeling that I could not be properly committed to the Dharma if I could not appreciate this form. Surely, compared to the urgency and supreme faith of these monks who have given up everything to find everything (or nothing), a householder like myself is only “playing at the Dharma”? Inevitably, in meditation, these questions became centred upon the self: am I just pretending to be Buddhist? Can I really be taking the Dharma seriously if I cannot manage such discipline? Then, of course, came the disappointment: the excitement that prefigured the experience of this place had disappeared. We had come so far. I had accessed ZMM radio for so long, and here I was and I couldn’t even enjoy the centre of such teaching and understanding.
By this day, day two of our pilgrimage, I was well acquainted with doubt once more.
“Understand clearly that the truth appears naturally”: visiting the array of New York Zen groups
The next stage of our Dharma Trip was to spend four days in New York City with our discipline of morning, lunch, and evening meditation sessions, interspersed by visits to the numerous Zen groups in the city. Most of the groups had a lineage from the White Plum Sangha: a lineage which, to my knowledge, has no presence in the UK. What was refreshing for us from the UK was to find centres where it is possible to meditate with others both at the beginning and the end of the day. This is rarely possible in the UK. There are very few large-enough Buddhist groups or cohesive-enough sanghas for this to happen over here. Most groups in our cities have weekly or even monthly sittings. So New York offered me an understanding that the great monasteries are not the only centre for the Dharma in the US. This experience also had its absurd qualities: a Zendo on the 13th floor of an apartment seems crazy, but it happens (Village Zendo). At one Zendo I visited, the night guard was astounded to hear that I had come to visit some Buddhist practitioners (“What, in here?” she said. “Don’t know about that.”). We decided to visit as many of the Zen groups as we could while taking in some evening lectures at the Tibet Society.
We had asked all these groups before we arrived if we could sit in their temples during the day, a tradition which has always worked in other parts of the world. Indeed, in India it is unremarkable for anyone to meditate in a temple, whatever time of day it is. In Hong Kong the same practice exists. But in New York, this did not work. Most centres did not welcome visitors in the day, and especially not “Dharma trippers.”
This became the centre of my next challenging question, which arose during my sitting: Has an interpretation of Buddhism destroyed something about hospitality in the Western sangha? Like many others, I have heard so many stories of traveling searchers who are welcomed and challenged at each monastery that they visited. But this was not the case here. At times my skeptical mind translated this question into one which challenged the humanity of much of the practice I saw. It would be wrong to say our Buddhist colleagues were not hospitable on one level: for instance, ZMM provides an excellent Sunday lunch to its visitors. And of all the groups, Village Zendo was the most open and welcoming. However, I could say a suspicion lurked in many of our interactions with the groups. In India, the interactional space was usually cluttered with expectations about payment (a tip), but in America, what we were doing seemed to be the source of doubt and perhaps veiled criticism. A number of ways of understanding this came up for me. One was that the Buddhist Sangha in America replicated the insularity (and lack of curiosity in the traveler) that characterises American society more generally. Another is that American individualism translates into a lack of interest in the other. But the crux of my fears were that Buddhism itself, with its emphasis on the ‘no self’ of the ‘self,’ leads to a lack of engagement with the manifested self of others. Once more, my faith was being tested, and such thoughts entered my meditations.
“The Buddha seal has been preserved by both the Buddhas in the present world and by those in the world of the Indian and Chinese Ancestors”: Buddhist sites in New York City.
At the same time as these doubts assailed me, we were visiting the array of museums that display Buddhist art in New York: the Rubin Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, Tibet House, the Asia Society, and the Jacque Marchais Museum. Here we had ample evidence of the power of Buddhism to engage large numbers of people in various nations throughout history. Indeed, at the Asia Society they were holding an exhibition on “Pilgrimage in Buddhist Art.” How apt was that? They even had a version of our traveling altar on display. These experiences only served to increase, not decrease, my doubts! When Buddhism covered the spice route from India to China, were traveling pilgrims regarded with suspicion? Did the teachers and groups of the day see their wanderings as evidence of little faith and dubious intentions? Was Xuanzang, on his 10,000 mile pilgrimage from China to India, and back again, met with suspicion more than welcome?
By now exposure to this historical perspective had altered the “doubt koan” in my mind. I was stuck on trying to understand the place of the monasteries in my practice. Could I stay on the pathless path without being connected to a monastery? Is lay practice second best, halfhearted, even false? Eddy and I began to open up our Dharma conversations into ones that centred on this issue: was Western Buddhism reliant on the monastic tradition? Does it need the towers of Dharma like ZMM? At Tibet House we sat in on a talk by Sharon Salzberg, and the experience there was quite different: a more fluid sangha seems to have grown around some teachers.
Moments of quietness: “If your first step is false, you will immediately stumble”
Our pilgrimage ended at the Garrison Institute, where Barry Magid’s Ordinary Mind group have a twice yearly sesshin. Barry is one of Joko Beck’s Dharma heirs. We had chosen to join his group because Barry is a psychotherapist and his teaching seems to speak to both of us, who are also psychotherapists. Sesshins, for me, are never transcendental experiences. While Eddy and I joined a group of perhaps 20 people meditating in the spring weather, listening to the military training across the Hudson at West Point Military Academy, the doubts and questions remained: Why am I here? Why do I do this? Why put yourself through it?
Not surprisingly, answers did not arise. Just arising arose! Magid’s Dharma talks were powerful. I often seemed to have reached a fork in the road, and his words pointed out the unnoticed path. Indeed, by day three my thoughts were turning to “just surviving” the process when Magid talked about how it was unhelpful to see sesshin as an endurance test. Within this attitude, he said, lay attachment to outcomes and a lack of acceptance of the arising and departing of all conditioned things. Perhaps the most significant experience of that sesshin however, was not the rigour of the practice or the wisdom of the teaching. Nor was it the almost primitive chant of “Mu” which resounded in the meditation hall on the final night. No, it was an afternoon spent meditating in the outside gazebo, which looks out over the river. Boats chugged up and down; trains racketed on the lines; spiders crawled on my hair and arms; and the wind gently stirred the newly leafed trees. Of course all such experience contributes to new spiritual struggles. The form of Zen that we most experienced in this pilgrimage, is one which downplays the role of kensho/enlightenment experiences. As the sesshin came to an end, I noticed my mind missing those challenges to break through, to go beyond and to reach the other shore. In other words, I returned to Dogen’s koan: “Why are training and enlightenment differentiated since the truth is universal?”
The challenges of this journey were not over with the final closing ceremony at the airport (after which we allowed ourselves a beer). A volcano in Iceland had chosen the moment of the Mu chant to re-engage with the world. Flights were cancelled for 24 hours, and it took three days to get home again. Hospitality awaited me at home though: in compensation for the delays, the car park company had waived extra fees.
There are always many questions left. But the one now occupying us is: Where will our “do-it-yourself traveling pilgrimage package” take us next?