I am alone: my monk peers have traveled to northern California for a retreat. I stroll the Zen monastery grounds, touring the arid, stony terrain as though for the first time. Tears arise as I sit atop an enormous boulder I have cursed countless times after smacking into it in the black of night. The sun is setting, and, with the help of a great deal of smog, the sky looks lit as if by cinders from God’s own campfire. Every corner of this property throbs with meaning for me—as only a place can that you are about to leave for good.
I duck into cabin one, the site of my first night on this mountain. I inhale the rickety shack’s musky aroma. Mouse turds speckle mattress covers. Nonetheless, for me this is a sacred shrine. Memories rush in of that dream, the night of my ordination, the one I’ll never forget, the whole thing but a single image: a skeleton puts his hand on my shoulder as I weep in a corner.
How can I leave the monastery now? I think. Not now, not when these mountains have finally become my home!
For some reason, pretty much out of nowhere, my teacher recently set in motion the process of my “promotion.” Surely someone will stop this madness, I’d thought. But no. I have just discovered that our community has agreed that I am to be made a priest, which means I will leave the monastery to teach. In other words, right around the time you stop wanting to desperately escape the monastery, it’s time for you to go share what you’ve learned there with others.
I think of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s observation to the effect that living at a monastery is like walking around in a mist. At first, you merely feel dampened by the monastic structure and rhythms. But if you stick with it long enough, eventually you discover that you’re soaked to the bone in formal Zen practice. You have become this new way of life, only it is no longer new. Where before you were full of yourself, now you are full of Zen—which is to say, empty.
Moving off the mountain, and starting a city temple somewhere is not the end of my training, I assure myself, but the beginning of a whole new phase of it. No one stays here forever; it’s a place for people like me to grow up, not grow old.
But I have grown old at the monastery, I sigh. Or at least middle- aged—which is to say: newly old. I am touching the hemline of forty, a gown—more of a mildewed, old bathrobe, actually— which I will slip into next year. Exhibit A: my wee, gray gut, flopping slightly over my belted robes, like the chin of a child peeking over a fence. Plus, my hips have little jowls. When did that happen? Professional athletes and cops are now younger than me. Cops! “The Man” is my junior!
But I’m still twenty-five, aren’t I? Haven’t I always been twentyfive? Every adult I ever ignored warned me that this day would come. But I didn’t listen.
There’s only one consolation for getting old, I decide: becoming wise. Am I wise? A wise-ass, yes. But wise-wise? Am I nascently wise, at least? Wise-lite? I realize you can never field this question yourself; the answer has to come from others, and to prove it true, you can never believe them.
So I try for some lower-hanging fruit and conclude that I’m certainly stupider in all the appropriate Zen ways since arriving at the monastery. Wise will come much later, if at all, when I become stupider still, with my stupidity finally, hopefully, ripening into simplicity.
Simple is key. If you lose simplicity as you accumulate years, then you begin to look and feel very old indeed. After my first summer training season, friends asked what I had learned from my Zen master—himself now a hundred and five years old, though not a day over three years old at heart. During our private meetings, I explained, my teacher shook my hand or hugged me, over and over. It was so basic, but what I learned was how to embrace and how to let go. This is the secret to life, I tried to explain. When to hold on, and when to let things pass. I went on and on, but I didn’t actually hug anyone. That’s where I went wrong. Young men know the answers to everything and the meaning of nothing.
Now, instead of having a staged environment to support my practice, I will actually have to do what I had learned at the monastery in the real world. “Just make yourself master of every situation, and wherever you stand is the true place,” Zen master Rinzai said. I left the world and made a spiritual home at the monastery. Now it was time to leave the monastery and make a spiritual home in the world.
I stand outside the meditation hall under a light night snowfall and perform some heavy breathing exercises, the kind that help me relax. Which is to say, I have a cigarette. I’m not a smoker, mind you. I quit that habit years ago. Yet here I am again, back where I started, puffing away and staring off into the same set of fabulously snowcapped mountains that greeted me when I first arrived at the monastery eight years and a full head of hair ago.
Just yesterday the stooped septuagenarian at the post office had tilted her head up like a bird and shook her little freckled fist and exclaimed, “This mountain range is one of the fastest growing in the world, you know.” She’d told me this seven or eight times by now.
“Amen!” I cry. Yet I never know what she means exactly. How can a mountain grow? If a mountain is growing, what isn’t? Is grow really the right word? I decide now that it is. It feels right to me. I can relate to these mountains. I feel their seismic shifts within. I know what they’re going through.