The Zen of the Semiconductor

A cautionary tale:

I continue to experience the lingering effects of allowing this silent retreat experience to be invaded by a strong-force from outside the retreat. (Even through something as banal as WhatsApp.) And the effects of this interference now get passed on to the community: A Precepts Ceremony that I had promised would take place at the end of the retreat, has now been canceled, since the abrupt disturbance caused by this interference threw my raw, highly-sensitized retreat-raw consciousness for such a loop that I could not, for several days, focus on the planning and preparation for this significant sangha event, and missed a vital working opportunity with a graphic designer who had traveled a great distance to work with me on the project, and now has returned home. Someone in the community just mentioned to me, again, that they notice some big change in my energy over the last few days, a deep sadness or something. And they are right, and I could not deny it to them.

I cannot emphasize this enough, though I have emphasized it again and again to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Zen practice (or my teaching): never, ever contact someone when they are deep in silent-retreat, however deeply felt are your personal needs. As Sting says, “If you love someone, let them go.” I mean, at least for a week or two!

It would seem strange that someone with such long experience in intensive retreats as a meditation teacher could feel thrown for a loop by someone’s communications through a chat app. But if you have ever done intensive retreat, you might know why:

The most powerful “machine“ in the world is the silicon wafer, the basis of the semiconductor. So much intensive functionality is concentrated in a space so small, in some chips it is nearly invisible to the naked eye. And yet the silicone semiconductor powers most everything we use, from our watches and smartphones and super computers, up to airplanes and satellites and guided missiles.

Why does the manufacture of such super-powerful machines require a perfectly sterile environment, completely absent of any dust or variation in temperature, with even the workers dressed head-to-toe in prophylactic, hermetically-sealed suits, and wearing breathers, their shoes even covered with paper booties?

Even one speck of dust, allowed into the manufacturing process, can upset and malform the processes of multi-million dollar machines and armies of PhD‘s and lab technicians. Just one speck of dust!

And so it is with intensive meditation retreat – – nothing less.

If you wish to attend a meditation retreat at Mu Sang Sah temple (the base for the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn in Korea), in addition to promising that you will maintain silence within the retreat, you are required to surrender your smartphone for the duration of your practice. The phone is taken from your possession, placed in a sealed bag, and kept under lock and key in the temple office. This is done so that you may cut off any disruptive input from the outside world.

When I was a young monk, sitting the 90-day intensive retreats beginning in 1990, in the age before smartphones and Internet, any mail that we received from our families was held for us until the end of the retreat. There were no newspapers, magazines, and of course no TV or radio anywhere accessible to us. I remember the hermetic sealing was so complete that, during one of our retreats at Shin Won Sah temple, the entire First Gulf War – – held under the first President Bush – – was started, conducted, and ended without us knowing even a single thing about it. An entire war happened without us ever knowing about it — and many of us were from the USA. How profoundly difficult it was for my Mother, sitting in her home back in New Jersey, sending off handwritten letters to me in Asia that were not even acknowledged for up to three months or more. But we all accepted that “cost“ because of the benefit it gave to our practice, to plunge deeper inside and realize our best human nature.

In this day and age, a teacher like me is regarded as being needlessly hard-ass if we ask the retreatants not to check social media during their retreat, or to send or receive messages from friends outside the retreat. Even proposing such a rule is regarded as excessive. And yet I do.

My Teacher enforced this rule on us strictly. He knew how to make semiconductors.

I have struggled to pass on this technology in our Zen center, while also balancing the fact that we are located in the world, in a city, and must maintain some minimal level of engagement that is not so possible as in a mountain retreat setting. It is a challenge, but it is definitely doable. And – – oh! – – the bungee jump of meditation is plumbed so much more profoundly when one can let go of these input/output synapses.

Despite constant reminders, even pleading for this time to engage deeply my soul’s work — if even for a few weeks — my “loved ones“ clearly do not remember this, however much I have asked for it. (When I “block” them on social messaging apps, to gain that space of peace, it is understandably regarded as too harsh, even soulless.) And that disconnect makes the interference so much more viscerally painful to handle, however long is my experience in this practice so far. It feels like something that is almost unforgivable. Am I being unnecessarily demanding, or even selfish?

Nah, it’s a semiconductor thing.

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