Dokai Fukui, a Zen Buddhist mentor from afar, once wrote to me from the small temple he ran in Japan that he was married and that he usually sat zazen in the mornings for an incense stick and then went about his business.
I stared down at the paper in my hands and was flabbergasted.
First of all, I didn't know at the time that Zen monks married. But what really floored me was his passing reference to zazen/seated meditation practice. I was hip deep in pedal-to-the-metal practice at the time and very much into a more-is-better mode. And more than just 'better,' it was, in my mind imperative.
Enlightenment was no joke; suffering was no joke ... the practice took a steely resolve and a constant effort and ... and ... and... here was someone I took and continue to take seriously saying it was just a part of his daily routine.
At the time, I was going to a Zen center forty or more hours a week, grinding my teeth, sacrificing whatever social life I might have had, going to retreats, reading Zen books the way other people ate potato chips, constantly needling myself with hopes and thoughts and efforts to understand ... and he was ho-humming through the day????!!!!!
An incense stick, for Christ's sake? Hell, I sat five or ten or more incense sticks in a day.
I was, as the French might say, bouleversé.
True, Dokai was older than I was by perhaps 20 years. True, he had been a slave laborer after being captured by the Chinese -- an enslavement that left his body in poor shape. But...but... I thought everyone who was serious about Zen was a gung-ho Marine. Semper Fi! Enlightenment or bust!
Dokai's letters over the years were filled with acute observations and kindly encouragements. The 1970's were a time before the internet, so his letters arrived at sometimes lengthy intervals. I trusted what he had to say even as I was sometimes left unsure of his meanings.
But one of the things I thought we had in common was Zen practice, was zazen, was an iron-fisted resolve was ... something like that. But the letter in my hands that day left me feeling that what we shared was not at all what I understood. I felt somehow betrayed and simultaneously knew Dokai would never betray me.
It did not occur to me at that time to reflect on my own presuppositions -- to ask, for example, what I imagined enlightenment to be, what I imagined practice to be, what, in fact, I was doing in my own gung-ho practice.
I didn't want to reflect; I didn't want to go backwards; I wanted to charge forward and get 'better' -- to somehow 'win.' I wanted to defeat suffering and uncertainty and bask in some compassionate serenity which, even if I couldn't really define it, was better than what the muddling and uncertain present offered up. I wanted to be enlightened ... and don't bother me with what enlightenment might actually mean! I wanted to get to heaven and the hell with the fact that the parameters of that heaven remained imaginary ... ornate, well-spoken, well-educated and with lots of supporting quotes, perhaps, but imaginary nonetheless.
A little at a time, I forgot Dokai's letter and his ability to flabbergast me, to set me back on my heels. I went back to being a Marine, endured the knock-knees that made sitting a painful business, slew the enemy hordes as best I could, faced down and even came to some understanding about both difficulties and bright openings. I failed and succeeded and failed again. Semper Fi! Onward and upward! Into the valley of death rode the 600!
And here it is so many years later. I'm married now and have three children. I wish I could remember half the stuff I once knew about enlightenment and compassion and emptiness, but the fact is I don't. I don't run a temple, but tomorrow I will go out to the small zendo I built in the backyard and do a little zazen ... an incense stick will be enough: The zendo is poorly insulated and I am more affected by the cold than once. So, a little zazen will be nice.
Thirty-five or forty years has passed since I first took and interest in spiritual endeavor. Dokai is dead now. I have no clue as to his enlightened status, then or now. I do know I wouldn't insult him by calling him 'enlightened.' And I do know he was a good man, a man I honor and honored.
I only hope I can be a good man too.