Entering Nirvana by Mistake

In The Empty Mirror, Janwillem van de Wetering writes about his time in a zen monastery in Japan. He personifies the endurance Caroline Myss talks about in Spiritual Madness, with both humorous and poignant results. Here is an excerpt that always gets me laughing and crying.

Sesshins, the meditation weeks of a Zen monastery, fill the first seven days of six months of the year… Rohatsu is the sesshin which rules all sesshins. Fifteen hours of meditation per day… No human being can sit still for fifteen hours a day… I was a westerner of today—a restless, nervous, noisy seeker without insight, without power…
That day, I was called to see the head monk and two of his colleagues. They spoke to me at length, but I didn’t understand them very well. After several repetitions I nodded. I had understood that they weren’t very happy with my progress and that this Rohatsu would be a final test. If I managed to get through the week all right I could stay in the monastery, and the master would continue to receive me. But if I gave up halfway through Rohatsu I should have to leave the monastery. They even gave me the name of a small hotel in the neighborhood where I could go and stay.
I bowed and returned to my room. Very well. What has to be done has to be done. I swore that I would get through the week even if my legs were so stiffened with cramp that they would never be usable again, and even if my mind gave way. Even if I went insane I would sit it out, if need be as an idiot, dribbling at the mouth, but I wouldn’t enable them to chase me out of the monastery…

I had another two days to prepare myself. I bought chocolate slabs and ordered a large bag of the peanut and raisin mixture via Gerald. I bought an extra heavy jersey and six undershirts. I even bought the heating apparatus which most of the monks were using. It looked like a spectacle case but instead of spectacles contained smoldering sticks of charcoal.

When Rohatsu began the head monk locked my room. During that week we wouldn’t just meditate in the hall but sleep there as well, if sleep it could be called, for we were only given two hours a day, from midnight to 2 a.m. I came into the hall with my sleeping bag under my arm. A small cupboard would hold my chocolate, nuts and raisins, toothbrush, soap and small towel. The clothes I was wearing would have to last all week. I sat down, moved into the most comfortable position I could find and the head monk struck his bell. The spectacle-case glowed away, wrapped in a thin piece of cloth, against my stomach…
My belly was getting strangely warm. I didn’t understand it, couldn’t I manage this either? All the monks had these cases and I saw them sitting all around me, apparently at peace and quietly happy in their concentration… The feeling of warmth was slowly changing into pain. I had the unmistakable feeling that my skin was getting scorched. For the first time I felt no pain in my legs. It seemed as if I didn’t have any legs. But I did have a belly, and it was on fire.
When the bell was struck I… rushed out and pulled all my shirts out of my trousers. I had a burn of several square inches. Gerald, who came to see what ailed me this time, shook his head and looked puzzled.
“Did you just wrap the case in that thin piece of cloth?”
“Yes…”
“…You should have wrapped it in a towel and then have stuck the whole bundle in a belly-wrap. You can buy them in any store…” He started to laugh but controlled himself. “That’s a nasty burn. It should be treated…”

The first day passed. The second day passed as well. The third day wasn’t too bad. The fourth day was one long interminable hell of pain and boredom and frustrated restlessness… The fourth day is the worst, the others confirmed later. Six laymen had come to join us that week… During the fourth day they all disappeared.
…more than ever before I had the feeling that I was crushing myself against a thick wall but that the wall, in some mysterious way, was trying to help me—that there was an opening, and that I could find that opening. The sixth day the pain became so bad that I began to groan and the head monk sent me out of the hall. I had to walk up and down on a slightly elevated stone-tiled path, and on both sides, some three feet below me, were low shrubs. I must have closed my eyes and suddenly I found I was lying in the brushwood, not knowing who I was or where I was. I hadn’t fainted, I had fallen asleep.

The seventh day passed reasonably quickly… Nothing irritated me anymore. The last day… At two a.m. the head monk struck his bell with force…We streamed out of the hall, after a last formal bow to the alter.
When the head monk told me again how pleased he was with my effort I said that I didn’t understand him. Hadn’t he told me that I would have to get through Rohatsu? That I would be sent down if I dropped out?
“What?” he asked. “What is this nonsense?”
Gerald was asked to join in the conversation and I finally realized that I had misunderstood the instructions which the head monk and his two colleagues had given me. They had tried to explain to me that they didn’t expect me to be able to get through the complete exercise. But I could, they had repeated at least three times, give up. Only, they couldn’t have me wandering about the monastery while the others were trying to get through Rohatsu. That’s why they had given me the name and address of a hotel close by.
Gerald sat down and laughed till he had tears in his eyes. I had to throw cold water over him to make him shut up. “You,” Gerald said,” are such a nitwit that you’ll enter Nirvana by mistake.”

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