A few years ago I dreamed Guo Yuan Shi, my favorite of the three monks then at the Ch'an Meditation Center, was teaching me the highest method.
Next morning, I arrived early at the Center to set out the cushions for our Saturday sitting group. The street out front was uncharacteristically quiet. I stood on the sidewalk that chill morning and knocked softly at the double gray door. No response. I rang the door bell and waited. The door opened. Guo Yuan Shi's cheery face greeted me. I bowed.
"I had a dream about you last night," I said as I stepped inside and removed my shoes.
"I dreamed you taught me the highest method."
"The highest method," he said, beaming from ear to ear, "is no method at all."
I had first been introduced to Zen meditation some twenty years earlier by a Korean kung fu instructor. "Use your breathing to relax your body," he barked out at us, Japanese style. That was the method I used. The first time I came to the Ch'an Center, it was for an all-day meditation. I crossed my legs and poised myself perfectly erect on the cushion. Guo Yuan Shi knocked the wooden fish three times to signal the beginning of the day's first meditation session. Then he said something that caught me totally by surprise. "Relax and enjoy," his kind voice intoned softly, with real caring.
That year a friend and I had made the rounds of all the Zen centers in the Metropolitan New York area. The approach to Zen meditation we'd found everywhere was strict, formal - even rigid. Inured to sitting bolt erect without moving a muscle while my knees and legs wracked in pain, I was caught completely off guard by the sweet voice of this gentle monk inviting me to relax and enjoy meditation. This was something different I recognized immediately, something of paramount importance. Nothing I've heard or learned subsequently at the center, even from the great Ch'an Master Sheng Yen himself, has had quite the same impact.
One afternoon upon the completion of our Saturday sitting, I passed by the kitchen on my way to the bathroom in the basement. Guo Yuan Shi stood in his monk's robes at the counter making dumplings for a benefit dinner that was to take place that night. With meticulous ease, his hands glided through the motions like a Tibetan monk performing the religious ritual with the bell - "Pluck. Drop. Fold. Flap. Pinch. Plop!" He deposited a finished dumpling with the others arrayed in an orderly fashion on the tray. Without interval, the next one started coming to life in his slowly-moving hands. "Pluck. Drop. Fold. Flap. Pinch. Plop!" proceeded the hands with the slow, deliberate, effortless care of a devotional rite. A second dumpling came magically down on the tray. "Look how he does that!" marveled someone who had come up behind me as I paused there an instant to watch in amazement.
"That's the enlightened mind," I said. It isn't some concept, difficult to fathom, that needs to be distilled from ancient texts and then translated, with much discussion back and forth as to the exact correspondence between meanings in the one language and the other. No. It's so immediate we tend to overlook it. It can't actually be spoken. The whole person conveys it.
One Saturday morning up in the meditation room on the second floor, I was instructing a new timekeeper on how to ring the hand-held bell for the prostrations. Guo Yuan Shi appeared in the room. He took the bell and kindly proceeded to demonstrate how it's done correctly, rooting the bell stick in the crotch of the palm, grasping it firm with the fingers and dinging the clapper with the loose forefinger of the same hand. This wasn't so easy. Over the years I slowly perfected the art. Especially from the prostrated position, with my forehead touching the floor, I found it difficult to hit the bell right. I would wang the clapper this way and then flip it that way. I couldn't see what I was doing and kept missing the bell. It was frustrating. For the longest time, when I served as timekeeper leading the prostrations, the main practice for me wasn't doing the prostrations at all, but correctly dinging the bell. In the end, it occurred to me the sound had to be soft, beautiful; not too loud - richly resonant. Not a cheap little ding, certainly not a double tink or flat clonk. I learned to recognize the way it felt special. And then I discovered I wasn't capable of producing that effect.
No matter what method I devised, I could not achieve the desired outcome. Nothing worked. The truth came to me in a flash. "It has to happen on its own!"
When I could let it do itself, it always came out perfect. Incredible as this seems, it was true! "The Buddha has to do it!" I realized. From then on, I let the Buddha ring the bell. Each ring came out perfect. Again and again, it worked this way. Leading the prostrations became a joy, rather than an ordeal.
"I'm so stupid!" I confessed bowing down in prostration. "I can't do anything right."
"Use my vast intelligence," whispered the Buddha. The bell tinged to perfection. There is a mind that has no end, an intelligence innate in everything. It's ours for the asking.
"I am so inept," I admitted next time I went down. "I lack the basic skills, the rudimentary knowledge."
"Take my expertise," replied the compassionate bell. There is an aptness that flows forth like a fountain the moment we give ourselves over to what comes natural. The moment it is not our doing, it comes out perfect.
A great and amazing realization came over me. "Doing prostrations is so enjoyable! So relaxing!"
My hands caressed the floor with the reverence of a lovers touch. I felt such great tenderness for the Earth and my connection with it. I was so grateful for this chance to bow down low to it.
Way back when I did my first seven day meditation retreat at the Ch'an Center, I rushed like mad through the work periods so that I could have time to take a brief nap on the floor upstairs before the start of the next ordeal of seated meditations. My assigned work task was mopping the basement floor. On the second or third day of the painful and troubled retreat, as I was exhaustedly forcing the big industrial mop through wide arcs back and forth over the white linoleum tiles as fast as I possibly could, Guo Yuan Shi happened by. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him standing there watching. I glanced up. His expressive face was contorted with sorrow. When our eyes met, he gently turned and continued on his way. A few moments later I slowed down to a more natural pace and immediately felt better. Rushing wasn't the way to get some rest.
A year or so after that, I found myself at another seven day meditation retreat. The retreat had started out easy for me. I sat relaxed and enjoyed the peace that came over me. But as day gave way to long day, the business of meditating from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. day after day exhausted me. I had to really work at staying relaxed. I labored at it because I knew the moment I grew tense my legs would fall into excruciating pain. To prevent this from happening, I struggled with my breathing to stay relaxed until which point my internal organs became so weary and spent from the effort that I was all knotted up inside and could hardly breath. I sat in perfect posture, gazing blankly down at the linoleum tile floor in front of me. My knees throbbed with pain.
A few days into the retreat, I was assigned to serve as timekeeper. I sat at the end of the long hall. Before me, to the left and right stretched the two rows of meditators seated immobile on their cushions, facing the wall. A short bathroom break was just coming to an end. I sat there in meditation, looking down at the rug in front of me, waiting for the last stragglers to return to their cushions. Feet came trooping reluctantly past. One pair stumbled awkwardly along in exhaustion. Another paraded insincerely by with perfectly proper composure. A third stomped insensitively past, so heavy on the heel that the floor shook and my knees were riven with pain. Then everybody settled in. I knocked the wooden fish three times, signaling the beginning of the next meditation period. A few minutes later, a soft silent flutter of white insinuated itself into the upper corner of my field of vision. "What is it?" I wondered.
It continued towards me, floating across the floor with the ease of a little white sea bird gliding over the surface of the waves. Two little feet in white socks came into view, padding along the rug with such soft effortlessness that, seated there as I was, tense and struggling to relax, I couldn't help but understand. By the time Guo Yuan Shi passed by in front of me, on his way to his cushion, I was at peace and the pain was gone from my legs. For the rest of that retreat, whenever I started becoming all tensed up in a knot inside because I was laboring too strenuously to relax my diaphragmatic breathing, the image of those little white feet came to mind - the way they moved with such ease across the floor, with unassuming steps, magic and unselfconscious. The instant that image came to mind, my breathing became like those feet. I relaxed and all the tension vanished. It was easy. I only had to stop my effort to get what I was struggling for.
In the most recent retreat I attended, I again became tensed up inside from trying to relax. I tried to stop trying. But the more I did, the tenser I became. I couldn't get comfortable. I knew perfectly well what to do. Why wasn't it working? I was exhausted and had little inner resource left. Right at that moment, I chanced to notice my hands, lying in my lap. Of my whole body, they were the only thing that was completely and totally at ease and relaxed. My legs were in pain. My back hurt. My lungs and stomach were all knotted up as were my throat and jaw. But there lay my hands in my lap in such perfect and serene repose.
I focused on them. My body bit by bit, without me doing anything, heard and heeded. In a flash I was seated there peacefully, completely relaxed and at ease.
This is the highest method I dreamed of so long ago. It is no method at all. This is what Guo Yuan Shi has taught me over the years. By being at each and every moment true to who and what he is - small, simple, and authentic to the bone - he gives the example, like those peaceful hands resting in my own lap, to spark a contagion of the same everywhere, all around.