It took a few too many years to completely attain a basic fact of my existence: That the strength and intensity — and sometimes, the pure toxicity — of what has come out of my mouth when under stress was directly proportional to an early childhood of being severely beaten, even for minor or non-existent offenses, by a bigger relative. Only relatively recently have I begun to come fully to terms with the nearly decade-long brutality I experienced at the hands of a very, very twisted and sadistic elder male relative, from approximately my kindergarten age on until my low- to mid-teens. There were belt whippings, wire hangar-lashings, choking until blackout, sometimes being locked in a room for hours with two younger brothers, not allowed to use the bathroom well past the “release“ point, crouched in tears while forcing the bowel movement to “reverse direction” back inwards.
When I reported these incidents to parents, there was complete disbelief and dismissal, because the older male relative was a high-achieving, otherwise “model“ student who would later go on to become his family’s first Ivy League attendee — for second-generation immigrants from Europe, this sadistic relative was the Goose That Lays the Golden Egg, and therefore was never questioned.
There were chokeholds, there was having my face held down into a feather-down pillow while the relative “rode” on my back as on a horse, hitting the back of my head, all for some mistake that had been made: leaving puddles of water around the bathroom sink after washing our faces; leaving a few drops of pee on the floor in front of the toilet; even for not capping the toothpaste, or leaving a smidgeon of grape jelly on the table or counter after eating. And many times, the guy would beat one of us just because he was having a bad day. This direct physical and verbal abuse and taunting went on for at least 10 years; when I grew to teenage height, this person continued with a constant stream of humiliating, slicing put-downs for many years after that.
As a result, a profound hyper-sensitivity to “injustice“ ran through my life like a thread, until more recently than I would care to admit. I began to view my own birth-home as a place of terror to be avoided: and as quickly as I was legally able to, I escaped from family and hometown and — except for a few infrequent, brief holiday visits — I never lived a day of regular residency with my family ever again. I had lived in terror, in that house, and I thought that, by leaving, and getting as far away as possible, that nervy-fear and rage would “go away”, too.
Unfortunately, the rage must have slipped into my checkin luggage, because it took root, anew, in my monastic experience in Asia.
As my practice developed in the first days and years of early monkhood, I remember being shocked at seeing – – as if for the first time – – the vast accumulation of unrequited rage that had boiled within me since as early as I remember. Periods of profound, serene meditation could suddenly be cracked open by some blinding rage that came from I-don’t-know-where. On one holiday visit to my family in rural New Jersey from the temple in Asia, sitting alone with my beloved and saintly mother on the couch one night after everyone went to bed, looking through the family photo albums, she commented on the earliest pictures of my childhood. She stated that, from birth, I smiled and laughed to a manifestly unusual degree for our family (and it was clearly present in the pictures!), but that at some point during elementary school, I suddenly became surly and negative and criticized people and began shouting and fighting with family members and teachers: eventually, I was asked to leave the school, despite having the highest grades they had seen for many years. “I think that was due to your friendship with So-and-So and So-and-So. They must have changed you.“ Immediately, out of nowhere, my hand felt as if it were rising up uncontrollably to whack her across the face, this saintly woman who had never listened to my complaints about the beatings for years and years, or told me it was my own fault. I remember thinking, on that couch, “Wow, I am a Zen monk, fully ordained, just come back from retreat in the temple, and I’m sitting here thinking about whether I should slap silly the sweet mother who I adore. How strange!” The rage that bubbled up to the surface was palpable, and made me shake. But I still did not know exactly why. It was just “there”, in the background, a web of static-noise that I’d grown used to, a sort of psychological tinnitus of the soul or something.
Though 30 years of intensive meditation practice has definitely saved me from the worst sequelae of this decade of childhood sadism, and given a vast space of forgiveness to this vicious man who I nicknamed “the Beast,” there are still things that I must always make efforts to be vigilant about. And sometimes I slip. The synaptic reactivity is there when over-fatigued/over-worked/over-stretched. People around here do tell me that this sharp, sometimes fiercesome reactivity has become much, much rarer, but only in the last few years. (Years of that toxic fame and arrogance fueled the flame and kept it alive despite arduous practice.) Some intimates have recently been calling me a “very changed man“.
And yet I know how much remains. I know, inside, the constant vigilance that must be maintained. The reptilian limbic system doesn’t take a day off — or even a half-day off! — especially when regular, deep, silent practice becomes overly-challenged by too many work demands, or just from plain laziness.
My Teacher is regarded as one of the greatest Zen teachers of the 20th-century. He tasted the Great Awakening, was confirmed by a great Master, and spread that infinite Moment of pure wakeup to people all over the world for over 50 years, nonstop. You would think everything would be psychologically “smooth sailing“ for such a one as he moved actively through the world.
And yet, despite this universe-cracking insight he had, Zen Master Seung Sahn STILL needed to do 1000 prostrations every single day, for decades, no matter what the place or time or his body‘s condition. (It is now legendary how he would even complete his daily prostration-regimen in the backs of airplanes as he traveled around the world doing his Dharma work.)
When people would ask why he, a fully self-realized master, needed to make such strong daily effort in practice, his answer was simple: “Have human body, still have karma.” (“As long as you have a human body, you still have karma.”) People who read his Wikipedia page sometimes come to me with questions about that aspect of his life.
It reminds me of that great teaching by Master So Sahn in the 500 year-old classic, The Mirror of Zen:
I have many times wondered if this terrible trauma is the fire which has driven my practice, or not. I know that others who received the trauma were not as driven to practice as madly as I was, and I know my existential questions probably pre-dated the years when I was put into this young man’s care. But if this was not the inspiration, it definitely gave a white-hot urgency to the first decade or two of my practice. Unfortunately, along the way, while
In any event, “sudden enlightenment; gradual cultivation” is no theory or concept. It really is a lifelong bit of work!