You Must Become Completely Crazy

…meaning, “free.”

Jon Habat-Zinn is one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s original Western students. Later, he went on to use his meditation work in the service of helping patients afflicted with various physical and mental ailments, and is now internationally recognized as one of the founding exponents of what is called “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or MBSR.

When I was writing the book Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake, I asked him to please consider contributing a foreword for the book. He agreed without the slightest hesitation.

In the Foreword he offered, he related a funny story from the 1970s about Dae Soen Sa Nim and his insight into “crazy”:

“One night, with [Dae] Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’

“Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”

Here is a teaching-video that Pablo “Yorae” Rodas and I made yesterday in the Zen Center from a recent snippet which was taken while following this great nearly-free spiritual monkey and Zen Center Regensburg resident Housemaster on a midsummer night’s walk after Evening Practice. The video was spontaneously filmed, without planning, unexpected, in the moment; the teaching is eternal. Thanks to Ji Bong.

A Rave in Athens

I was recently invited by some of our precious Greek Zen students to a true rave in an abandoned factory in the old industrial heart of Athens. The place was so hidden in shadows on such a nameless street that even the taxi driver had a hard time locating it. There was no door or discernible entrance, even; only the sound of a few barking dogs behind rusty chain fences on a faceless dead-end street with no name. Needless to say, no streetlights. Garbage and metal refuse strewn here and there was the only sign that humans might actually have commerced here at some point. The place was so pointless, the walls of these factory-spaces had not even attracted the graffiti artists who are ubiquitous in Athens.

But out of the darkness, a steady stream of partygoers merged from side-alleys and taxis which had long slowed and were searching the dead-end street for signs of anything passing for an address. We were soon guided to a corrugated sheet of metal hanging thinly from old hinges, and passed through to an inky-black courtyard in what must have been some sort of infernal smelting concern. Through the blackness, a “THUMP! THUMP-a THUMP-a THUMP-THUMP…” dimly touched the inner-ears. We were led into a thoroughly abandoned space with a rusted spiral staircase leading to a roof. The bone-deep techno beat throbbed the physical soul, and sweating bodies emerged from a lower room, drenched and smoking.

On the rooftop, there was only one drink available — gin and tonic made by flashlight at a folding table. Even water was not being sold. Descending and ascending from roof to the room where the DJ was hyper-blasting mixes and projecting abstract shapes on a bare concrete wall, it was so weird to be back in an environment I had left many many years before (albeit in New York).

Friends screaming things in my ear that are pixelated into static buzz by the soundtrack. Everyone, everywhere, truly seeks a kind of transcendence from the narrowness-grind of life-job-relationship-politics-money-family-climate/crisis-future/fear. “But is it true Samadhi?” I am often asked. “Does this no-mind experience rate with the don’t-know of Zen?” 

I also don’t know. But unplug the priestly DJ’s extensive lights and BUNGGGGGGGGG-ing sound-pumping: Now, in that silent factory space, without pumping sound-and-graphics, gathered with so many unknown travelers, maybe drained of helpful pharmaceuticals — “Where is the techno-driven transcendence THEN?” My skull and jaw throb with the micro-manic force of inexpressible decibels pumped straight through the invisible marrow of these bones. And yet…? If this sound is suddenly unplugged, these lights silenced: Where is true Samadhi?

Practicing Zen in Athens among the post-apocalyptic Greeks, their vast communitarian consciousness so expressive of the sincerest tribal wish for survival. An infernal kind of Zen Center, whose allure is completely faded for me, and whose effects whither the soul far far far more than they samadhify. But great to check out, if just for an hour or so.