Mt. Sumeru; Baltimore Zen Center; all true paths lead through mountains

A few months ago, I went to see Brad Warner speak at the Baltimore Zen Center. My good friend Mike Gurklis had been recommending Warner's work to me for a few years; I ended up quoting him twice in Why Buddha Touched the Earth, and had I finally got around to reading his book Hardcore Zen, so I thought it would be worthwhile to see him in person.

And it was. But more than that, I found that my old friend and former English teacher Alan Reese was a member of the BZC sangha. Also, when Brad was late (due to car trouble), the resident teacher, JB "MuSsang" Jaeger, gave a little talk -- and he started off talking about Ikkyu.

If you've been to my "Zen in the Art of Love" workshop, or read any of the drafts of my book, you know that Ikkyu Sojun is my favorite Zen lunatic. It's not just his "Red Thread" concept of Zen with it's explict acceptance and appreciation of sexuality, but the very human person who comes through in his poetry. Like "I like my anger / my grouchy furious love" -- right up my alley.

So between Alan's presence and JB's invocation of one of my favorite spiritual dudes, I thought, "Hmm. This group is worth revisiting."

Way back when I first started reading about Zen in the 80s, there weren't any Zen centers in the area. At least, not that I knew about -- in those pre-Web days it was not so easy to find each other, so I can't rule out one hiding somewhere nearby. But I remember as recently as about 2000 talking to someone who was going to visit the Zen Mountain Monastery center in upstate New York, both of us thinking it was the nearest Zen center to Baltimore. So, my Zen has been mostly my karate practice, my on-and-off meditation practice (though I think over the past three years I've finally got my daily token ten minutes of zazen to stick), my writing practice, and reading a bunch of books -- and, most importantly, the firsthand experiences that combination generated. More "Beat Zen" than "Square Zen", though with the martial arts practice to keep it from going limp, and a sprinkling of Discordian Zen to spice it up.

I've had a few encounters with the formal Buddhist community over the past decade or so -- reading poetry at the Baltimore Buddha Day celebration, spending a weekend at the Tekishin Zen Center near Kyoto, some great conversations with Eric Wiegmann, former Buddhist monk...enough to let me feel that I wasn't completely off base. But I haven't connected with any of the Buddhist groups that can now be found in the Baltimore area.

But after this experience at the Baltimore Zen Center, I decided to keep an eye out for an opportunity to return. Unfortunately, their regular zazen meeting is Tuesday, which conflicts with my karate class; fortunately, they have a full moon and a new moon gathering, which ends up being on various days of the week. Two weeks ago, the new moon gathering ended up up Wednesday, so I decided to go by.

As it turned out, it was just JB and I -- a private Zen lesson, as it were. So we sat, did some walking meditation, and had a nice talk about koan (or kong-an, as their Korean tradition calls it) practice.

My mediation practice has been more in the Soto "shikantaza" ("just siting") mode, since that's what's taught in my karate school. Of course I've read about koans -- literally, "public cases", recorded interactions of teachers and students, often involving some puzzling statement like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?". And occasionally, reading about one has helped something to click for me. But koan practice is -- as JB and I discussed -- more of a sort of sparring with the teacher than something that can be practiced solo. The idea is that by contemplating the koan, we can experience the state of mind of whatever master first uttered the puzzling statement in question. (Which sparks an idea about karate kata -- can the proper practice of kata put us in the same bodymind state as the kata's author? Something to ponder.)

So, he gave me the first koan of their curriculum:

A student asked Master Yun-Men, "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?" Without hesitation, the master answered, "Mount Sumeru!" Why did the master answer, "Mount Sumeru!"?

Mount Sumeru, it helps to know, is the central fixture of Buddhist cosmology, the axis of the Universe.

So, what's the deal?

As I try to write about it, it occurs to me that writing about a koan might be the sort of thing that would earn me a whack over the head from an old-school Zen master. Falling deeper into the trap of words to work a koan! But I think I can cite precedent: the Zen master Chinul said, "A person who falls to the ground gets back up by using that ground. To try to get up without relying on that ground would be impossible." So, if I have fallen into the word habit, I must use words to push against.

Or the advice that Dainin Katagiri Roshi gave to Natalie Goldberg: "Why don't you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace."

Or, outside the Zen thing, as Jim Morrison put it, "Words got me the wound, and will get me well, if you believe it."

So: Mt. Sumeru.

First thought, inevitably math-geeky and symbolic-logic bound: a false statement, in the rules of logic, implies anything, everything. According to the rules of logic, the statement "If 1+1=3, then the moon is made of green cheese" is true. If no thought has arisen -- but there's no such thing! False premise, therefore everything is true! Everything! Mt. Sumeru!

Another angle: the student is looking for the way out. "Ah, the way out is nothing! Nothing, not even a thought, nothing, nothing. Right, master?" He's stuck on nothingness. And so the master flips it around: "Everything! You want an empty head, I'm going to cram Mt. Sumeru, the whole damn universe, in there!"

Another idea: the student here is thinking that cutting off thought is the way. But "cutting off thought" is a thought. I imagine the student picking up a knife and saying, "I need to cut off this hand because it has a knife in it!" I'm reminded of the legend of Hui-k'o, who supposedly cut off his arm to show Bodhidharma how dedicated he was. (I believe the scholarly consensus is that he lost the arm in battle or in an accident, and the legend is a grisly retcon.) Hui-k'o couldn't hold the knife in the hand he was amputating -- picture it.

No doubt I'll be banging my head against Mt. Sumeru for a while. Well, as Snyder Sensei put it, "All true paths lead through mountains." Tomorrow is their full moon dharma gathering, which will be a nice contrast right before I head off for the Pagan debauchery of Fires of Venus.


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