HOW ZEN FOUND ME
by Janet Abels

Zen is neither East nor West:
it is where you are.


JANET ABELS, founder and resident teacher of Still Mind Zendo in Manhattan, is a Dharma Holder in Soto Zen Buddhism (the last stage before becoming Sensei).

In September of 1991, I had a dream.

In this dream, I am on the back of an open platform of a train which is about to pull out of a station in India. All my belongings, including my handbag with everything in it, are on my seat inside the train. A small Indian boy has been darting uncontrollably around the platform of the station. A group of people, which at that time represented my spiritual life, is also on the railway platform. As the train begins to pull away, with me on it, the boy makes a bravado leap. He falls back hurt. I jump off the train to cradle him as it pulls out. I am upset that it has left with all my possessions. I confer with the group of people, hoping I can catch up with it.

After all these years, I remember and experience this dream as vividly as if I had dreamt it last night. It turned out to be the beginning of discovering the "foreign" part of myself, letting go of my old identity as it speeded away on those rigid railroad tracks and allowing the unknown, and therefore scary, experience of the East to penetrate me. Although I did not know it at the time I worked on this dream, I met Zen on that platform in India.

How did I get to this point?

All my life, since childhood, I recall having a longing, an ache for "something" deeper, vaster, larger. Being brought up a Roman Catholic, the "something" assumed all the written and taught descriptions of God. I loved learning about God and going to church and attending my religion classes. I was born in the then Czechoslovakia at the beginning of World War II, subsequently moving to India with my parents and sister after the war as we fled the growing threat of Communism. Our misfortune was to land in India on the eve of that country's horrific civil war when Hindus and Muslims, after having practiced their religious beliefs and having lived together peacefully for centuries, suddenly found they were somehow different and therefore to be seen as enemies. India was partitioned into India and Pakistan; millions were uprooted and slaughtered because of fear and insecurity. My family was right in the heart of it all.

My sister and I were sheltered from the worst of it, though we did live through some unspeakable scenes of butchery and death. Boarding school in Simla, in the Himalayas, where we had been sent for our safety, proved to be a bitterly painful experience in itself as I did not speak a word of English and was separated from my sister who was in the "upper house." My parents had to be in Lahore. Loneliness was my constant companion.

And yet with all this turbulence and pain and horror, with all the beggars and amputees and poverty around me, with the extremes of weather and illness (my mother and sister both had malaria), my overwhelming memory of India is of joy and goodness and, above all, a transcendent depth, a holiness if you will, that is quite beyond words. I still hold that experience within myself after more than fifty years. Just like that experience of the dream, it is as vivid as if it were yesterday.

Perhaps the silence of the Buddha found me way back then.

We left India after two years and settled in Sydney, Australia for the next eight. These were carefree days of sun and surf and friends and many years of happiness at the convent schools. Best of all were my high school years with the Brigidine Sisters -- Mother Mary Loyola who had us read Tacitus from cover to cover and Mother Mary Alphonsus, the drama teacher, who had the grace and compassion to allow me to perform publicly, at a time in my life when I had a crush on the young Marlon Brando, not only the Forum speech (bed sheet and all) from Julius Caesar, which Brando had just filmed but also the famous "back seat of the car" scene between Brando and Rod Steiger from On the Waterfront. I adored the nuns and the God they taught me about. And, of course, I wanted to be a nun.

Our move to the United States in 1957 brought me to Marquette University where (after a disastrous semester in pre-med) I discovered the theater. Acting was to become my life for the next fifteen years through university, drama school in London, repertory theater (I met Greg, my husband of thirty-two years at the Milwaukee Rep) and work in New York. At the birth of our daughter, Carrie, in 1973 the need to act seemed suddenly to disappear, and I spent the next fifteen years as a community organizer. My theater years were almost totally self-absorbed but I continued to "show up," at least in body, for Mass every Sunday. The Vatican Council put an end to this passivity.

We moved to Greenwich Village in 1971, right across the street from St. Joseph's Church, which was to be for the next several years the most progressive Catholic church in New York City. I, and later Greg, became heavily involved in parish life: parish council, liturgy committee, organizer of lectors, doing flowers for the altar, soup kitchen (St. Joseph's was the first church to serve as a nightly homeless shelter) -- even painting the church during its major post-Vatican II renovation. I attended Mass almost daily and, in short, participated as fully as a person could. I was a parish activist and loved it as much as I loved organizing Village Visiting Neighbors, a friendly visiting service to homebound elderly. I knew I was doing good and serving the God I loved.

Then, in 1977, I met myself for the first time.

Greg, who is always a step ahead of me in doing new things, had gone on a retreat at the now (sadly) closed Jesuit retreat house in Monroe, N.Y., the year before. At his urging, I too began going on retreat which opened up for me that world of "in-sight" or "sight-in" that has now become such a given in Christian practice in this country. On retreat in 1978 at the now (sadly) closed Ursuline retreat house in Oyster Bay, Long Island, I had an experience of the "not-two" of Zen (though of course I did not know it as such), when everything dropped away and I was seemingly held in a "just this" space/ time. It scared me very much, even more when it seemed to cause anxiety in my retreat director. But, being the truly genuine person he was, he sent me to, as he said, "a wise, insightful and practical woman" who was also directing on that retreat. She said not to be concerned, that it was simply a direct experience of the unknown, and that I should seriously consider meditation as my form of prayer. Her name was Sr. Kieran Flynn, a Sister of Mercy from Rhode Island, and she was to become my mentor guiding me into further depths and freedoms for the next nine years until her untimely death in 1987. This way of meditation, I now realize, had been present all the time. I had been fast asleep before some mysterious reality woke me in that chapel in that retreat house in Oyster Bay.

Greg also became a student of Kieran's; we drove many times to Rhode Island to be on retreat with her at Our Lady of Peace Spiritual Life Center. I also attended numerous workshops, both spiritual and psychological (that's when my dream work began), at Our Lady of Peace, which was then one of the leaders in what might be called "progressive spirituality" in the northeast. I deepened and grew and, quite naturally, became committed to that Christian form of meditation known as Centering Prayer. Although I read and was helped by Fr. Basil Pennington's book on Centering Prayer, I basically taught myself or perhaps "experienced myself into" this practice where one returns to a sacred word or imageless image whenever the mind wanders into its usual mode of doing and reflecting and finding answers.

It was tough. A difficult struggle, since in the first two years the act of just "showing up" was full of failure and frustration and a sense of not knowing what I was doing. My basic, developed activist self was now heavily involved in Pax Christi (as the doomsday clock ticked closer to nuclear midnight during those years of the '80s); I also served on the Board of Carrie's cooperative Montessori school. I seemed to be truly bent on saving not only New York but the world. Twenty minutes a day of not-doing seemed insane to my industrious, active and organized mind. But thanks to some mysterious inner knowledge that I had to do this, the encouragement from Kieran, and the growing strength I found in my times on retreat, I persevered. Somehow I knew it was right.

In 1986, while on retreat with Kieran, she turned to me one day and said: "Janet, have you ever thought of being a spiritual director?" I felt as if I had been slammed against a brick wall. I had been "in-sighting" myself quite assiduously, and the idea that out of "all that" I might have anything remotely helpful to say to another person seemed utterly absurd. "Who will come to me (nonpriest, nonnun, non-M.Div.?" I asked helplessly. It was Kieran's calm, clear, and how-could-it-be-anything-else answer that was the single force that allows me to continue that work to this day. "Oh, don't worry about that," she said, "if God wants you to be a spiritual director, people will come." They have come and I've let it go, and some have not come and I've let that go as well. My theory is: "I didn't search this out. It found me. Easy come, easy go."

On looking back, I realize that that slam against the brick wall was a coming-home, a crash opening into my true nature, crazy as it was to my critical and unsatisfied mind. It was, to use one of Kieran's evocative expressions, an opening into my particular "face of God." A year later, Kieran Flynn died.

I went on to take my training for spiritual direction at the Center for Spirituality and Justice in New York City, followed by training and supervision in retreat work at Our Lady of Peace. In 1988 I opened a private practice in my home, where it continues to this day.

During this time I continued to struggle with meditation, a struggle that began to abate as a more even, regular practice slowly developed. I discovered Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century Christian mystic and teacher, and felt deeply drawn to his words. I did not understand it with my head, but my experiential senses came alive as I read some of the passages from his works. I recall, for example, my response to the following from Meditations with Meister Eckhart, by Matthew Fox (Bear and Co.):

When I dwelt in the ground,
in the bottom, in the stream, and
in the source of the Godhead,

No one asked me where I was going or what I was doing.

Back in the womb from which I came
I had no God
and merely was myself.

And when I return
to God and to the core, the soil, the ground,
the stream and the source of the Godhead,
No one asks me where I am coming from
or where I have been.

For no one misses me
in the place
where God ceases to become.

My response was electric. Everything connected. I knew I had to follow this trail. There is a Zen saying: "You cannot enter a place you never left." No wonder Zen masters called Eckhart one of their own. But I could not seem to go much further. I came to what I felt was a stone wall and, although I felt there was an opening on the other side, I could not seem to break through. I had found a wise and supportive spiritual director some time after Kieran's death who helped me immensely to explore greater freedoms but that last piece just was not there. And I was very aware of its absence.

Then I had my dream. Because of it, I knew I had to move East, but the idea of doing that was extremely scary. Greg had been exploring Eastern spiritual ways for some time and his doing that felt very threatening. What was threatened was a well-known, safe way of going about prayer and spirituality; orthodoxy felt threatened; "this is who God is and this is how we relate to that God" felt very threatened. But I trusted my dream and waited for the right time. It came in 1992.

In April of that year I attended a six-day workshop in Bio-Spiritual Focusing, that amazing process formulated by Dr. Eugene Gendlin as Focusing and then developed into Bio-Spirituality by Drs. Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, both also priests. Focusing, simply put, gives you a way to be with yourself exactly as you are, especially your feeling self. Through the practice of a few simple steps, one learns to own and accept all the forbidden, unacceptable, fearsome, and criticized parts of oneself and to integrate them into "just this you" -- as it is and not as it ought to be. It has become a mainstay, in that I live a "focused" life, which is none other than an aware life, pretty much all of the time by being minutely aware and sensitive to my felt, experiential response to situations, people, life itself. I use Focusing in my spiritual direction work, and I teach the process to others so that they too can find authority within themselves to be who they are while letting go of who they think they ought to be.

Focusing opened the door to myself and the myself I discovered began to be trusted. And so when, in September of that year, I saw that the St. Francis Xavier Lay Spirituality Program was offering a day on different forms of prayer with an emphasis on Eastern spirituality, I knew I had to attend. Both Zen and yoga meditation presentations were being offered and, since I knew from Greg's input and my reading that my way seemed to be one of these two paths, I went to that workshop with an open heart, ready to receive.

I knew almost immediately that Zen was to be my way. Yoga meditation, for my temperament, seemed too caught up in the effort to achieve a state of bliss. I understood deep down, through my Focusing work, that I did not want to achieve anything but to BE WITH what was there -- reality -- life. And Zen clearly offered this way of reality.

The presenter of the Zen workshop was Fr. Robert Kennedy, S.J., Sensei, a Jesuit priest who had studied in Japan with Koun Yamada Roshi and in the United States with Taizaw Maezumi Roshi, late abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Kennedy had received dharma transmission (giving him the right to teach Zen himself) from Roshi Bernard Glassman, Maezumi's first dharma successor. That day began a relationship with someone who was to become my Zen teacher, great encourager, great challenger, and friend. Sensei (now himself a Roshi or elder teacher) Kennedy opened to me a vast and limitless universe where I might break through my stone walls and begin to experience the freedom of the endless NOW.

The most vivid memory I have of that workshop is Roshi's saying: "Zen is about developing a spine of steel." That's it, I felt. That's it! Discipline. Discipline to BE WITH "just this." I felt I had found the tool to get me through my stone wall. And so I wrote in my journal: "Today I feel drawn to Zen because of a discipline I want (not should have); a deep desire to live in the present moment; and an even deeper desire to live in the NOT KNOWING of the mystery."

And so began my life in Zen. I went over to Jersey City where Roshi is a professor at St. Peter's College and where he has a small zendo or meditation room. I was nervous and apprehensive and, above all, very much afraid of failing at something about which I knew nothing. I am a number 3 on the Enneagram, that fine and immensely helpful system of self-knowledge, and number 3s, in their quest for success, avoid failure like the plague. So for me to enter an undertaking at which I would clearly fail showed me how urgent was the sense of the rightness of this path. Roshi Kennedy generously took me on as a student and I threw myself into the practice wholeheartedly.

I assumed the posture and was able to maintain it -- not too difficult for me because of serious dance training in my theater years. I started out sitting in a chair but it felt so "off" I went out and bought a seiza bench on which one sits in a kneeling position (though I now sit on a zafu or meditation pillow). I bought the most expensive bench I could find, figuring it would be harder to throw it all over when things got difficult if I had invested good money in the endeavor! I began to see Roshi, and still do, in what is known as daisan or dokusan, a private interview with the teacher, once a week. Daisan is unique to Zen. It is not counseling or spiritual direction; it is not a question and answer period; and it is not a discussion about Zen. It's a meeting with the teacher about one's practice and only that: very focused, relatively short -- anywhere from a few minutes to 10 minutes -- and quite intense (or so it seemed to me at the beginning). You face the teacher directly, only a foot or two away. There is no escape. There are Zen teachers who are demanding and harsh, sometimes throwing students out of the daisan room. That would never have worked for me. I would have fled. But Roshi Kennedy's combination of compassionate understanding, patience, challenge and encouragement during the daisan process allowed me to stay -- sometimes by a thread, but stay in there I did. I began working on Zen koans, those paradoxical statements, conversations, and actions of the Zen masters of the golden age of Zen in China from the seventh to the tenth centuries that must be grasped in a way that is beyond thinking. They are challenging taskmasters that can unfold such depths.

Roshi Kennedy is not a Buddhist. His teacher Roshi Glassman believes that transmission can exist outside of Buddhism, joining a small handful of Zen teachers who have paved the way for non-Buddhist Zen teachers, much as other Zen teachers in the past paved the way for nonmonastics and nonpriests to be Zen teachers. It seems to me a vivid example of how the Tao, The Way, finds its own direction in the face of conventional wisdom and tradition. This limitless freedom of the practice is what made it, and continues to make it, so urgently attractive to me.

By 1994 I found it increasingly difficult to practice without a group. Since no interfaith Zen group existed in Manhattan, I decided to form one. Because of my community organizing contacts I was able to find a space. I got a few names of interested people to contact, and in January 1994 Greenwich Village Zen Community was born. Roshi sat with us, taught us "how to do things," and gradually a core group formed. We moved to two other locations until, in 1997, we changed our name to Still Mind Zendo and moved to West 27th Street, where we rent an evening space at GATE, Greg's acting conservatory with its beautiful, large, and open studio. Tuesday evening is the major sitting of the week. In addition, we recently opened a full-time zendo for additional sitting and teaching in the street-level apartment of our house in Greenwich Village, where we have lived for nearly thirty years. In December 1998, Roshi made me a Dharma Holder, the last stage before becoming a Sensei.

After those early years of struggle, sitting (as meditation is referred to in Zen), has become an unquestioned way of life. I sit twice a day, as well as regular zazenkai (all-day sitting) and sesshin or Zen retreats that last either a weekend or a week. The bar has continually to be raised, the razor's edge of awakeness continually honed. Continual practice. It's the practice aspect of Zen that is essential; the core of Zen practice is undoubtedly zazen, or sitting meditation. We are to practice all the time, of course, to be present to the "just this," to the "NOW," to the moment just as it is not as it ought to be. But in order to keep developing and sharpening those interior muscles that make this possible, we must keep sitting, we must keep working at the most concentrated level possible. We must practice developing a still mind. Without a still mind, "just this moment" is not possible because our mind keeps taking us elsewhere, into the past or into the future. That's why I love the name that we came up with for our zendo -- Still Mind Zendo. There are not too many still minds at any given sitting, but there are plenty of fiercely committed people working on it. That is all that matters. We never arrive, we just always practice. Zen, and life, are both endless beginnings.

How did I break through my stone wall? The first opening, and therefore the most crucial one, came about six weeks after I began daisan with Roshi. I was sitting in his zendo, waiting to go in for my interview, when suddenly, just suddenly, God dropped off. God as other, as concept, as object disappeared, and what "remained" was a vastness, a spaciousness, a fullness beyond any words. There was terror too but it did not dominate. On looking back on that moment (which Roshi helped me to hold at the time it happened), I realize it was the experiential awakening to everything I had always longed for but could never quite grasp because of a kind of scrim separating myself from "it." When the "other" dropped off, what remained was ONE. And ONE is always "just this." So in that moment, I was literally pushed off my safe map of certainty and knowledge and concepts and doctrines for the first time, pushed into a place of not knowing. My Zen journey has since been a continuing walk into that vastness of UNKNOWING that surely must be what mystery is all about.

The structured practice has made it possible. That is why I was so drawn to discipline. You cannot walk off the map of certainty without, paradoxically, a strong structure, a "spine of steel," a strength, and even courage. Being ONE means being ALL ONE or AL-ONE. That is very hard to admit. But AL-ONE also means EVERYTHING. It means fullness and aliveness and life itself. Ultimately it means freedom.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2