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Only Read ‘The Good Book’

Our recent retreat in Helsinki was held at a small Buddhist center in the city, Buddhalainen Keskus Sampo. When you enter the center, there are several large bookcases, filled with all sorts of interesting-looking books on Buddhism and on some parallel philosophies, practices, and ideas. (Notably absent was any book by Zen Master Seung Sahn, the foremost avatar of Korean Zen in the 20th-century — but that is another matter.)

Now, during our retreat — during any meditation retreat that is worth its claims to facilitate the most subtle inner observation — there is a rule against reading any books. This is done not to “limit” or control the practitioners, but to free them from the normal ways of gaining knowledge and experience in meditation, chief of which is books.

During one of the breaks in meditation sessions, I came out for a cup of tea and found one of the retreatants gazing deeply into something he had pulled off the shelf. I looked at the guy for a few seconds, assessing his ability to handle direct teaching or not. (Again, everyone had been asked to refrain from reading and checking their phones.) I had never met this man before, so I was unsure of his capacity for receiving direct Zen teaching.

He must have felt my attention, glaring sadly at him wandering in the weeds of more dead concepts when we were all making an effort to develop the skills of “reading” something else in the retreat: our infinite True Self. He looked up from the book for a second, then looked down into the type again, clearly needing to finish reading a sentence or complete some thought that had been unleashed by the author’s views and thinking.

I said gently, “Friend, when you are sitting in a restaurant, and the food you ordered has arrived in front of you, is it helpful to continue analysing the menus instead of eating the food? Will that menu satisfy your hunger well?” He looked at me blankly, still holding the book, and then went back to reading.

I reached gently for the book (unfortunately, we WERE in retreat!), slid it from his fingertips, and — like Jesus with the fish — miraculously increased the number of “book” he could now consume.

The next day, the man was not on his meditation cushion. We never saw or heard from him again. But such is the way sometimes that Zen teaching “points”.

This reminded me of the story when Zen Master Seung Sahn encountered one of his first American monks — the young Stephen Mitchell, the famous author and translator — gazing deeply into a set of books in the semi-darkened kitchen of the Providence Zen Center, back in the 1970s. As Mitchell later told the story, “Sitting there under a single lamp, I suddenly felt this presence emerge from the darkness behind me saying softly, ‘You’re homesick…'” It was Zen Master Seung Sahn, his Teacher.

Mitchell remembers thinking, in that instant, “I’m not homesick! I don’t miss my parents!”

Zen Master Seung Sahn continued, “…homesick for your ORIGINAL home.”



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