Soon after graduation in 1956, I entered the U.S. Army as a second-lieutenant, thanks to ROTC. The Korean war had ended three years earlier but the draft of able-bodied young men was still in force. College ROTC allowed us to postpone military service while we were in school. I was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a one hour drive from Baltimore, two hours from D.C. I was a radar electronics instructor to new recruits and as well as career officers.
Fridays after work, officers would gather for happy hour to socialize and develop personal relationships, unrestricted by rank. One of my friends – a major – was a psychologist in the APG hospital, a man I respected for his humor, intelligence and amiable ways. On a warm evening in June, he abruptly changed the course of our conversation with a startling comment: “Why don’t you like yourself?”
Totally shocked, I immediately became defensive, insisting that of course I liked myself. But my carefully-crafted sense of myself was abruptly shattered.
For several days I struggled to push aside my friend’s words, not accepting his well-meaning, nonjudgmental perception. Yet over the course of the following week, I became less defensive, slowly admitting he was right: I was not entirely comfortable with how I was living my life.
It was a painful recognition, urging me to pay closer attention to the ways I conducted myself in everyday relationships, to become increasingly aware of my feelings, words, perceptions and gestures. Bit by bit, I started to recognize habits and tendencies that arose without warning from some hidden place, impulses that undermined attentive awareness. Over time, they became less intrusive, increasing my sense of stability and ease.
After Aberdeen in 1958, I migrated to San Jose, starting a career with good future prospects. I married a lovely, smart, caring young woman, with a quiet sense of humor. We started a family; we had a number of good friends with whom we enjoyed exciting times.
Yet despite the good life, I retained an uneasy feeling that it was somehow artificial, lacking what truly mattered. It was as if a window to a wider reality was darkened by heavy shutters, preventing recognition of a dimension beyond the confines of the ordinary.
In the mid-1960’s, I came across Zen. Its world view struck a chord immediately, just as when a haiku touches us with sudden immediacy, with a sense of clarity, and we feel: “Exactly right!” The teachings proclaim a spiritual practice without religious dogma, with emphasis instead on each of us discovering wisdom through our own awareness and efforts. The practice points toward living a life of authenticity, avoiding role playing and posturing. Making adjustments in family and work life, I become immersed in the practice.
Zen discourages pursuit of success, teaching that reputation – including acquired knowledge and fame – is merely a flattering poster of our self in the every day relative world but does not represent who we are inherently. What is more important, the carefully constructed and guarded image is not a valid criterion for “liking” our self. Life’s confusion and suffering are created by not appreciating who we are in a universal, spiritual sense, by not recognizing our intimate, inseparable relationship with all things. Here we find the basis for “not liking” our self ; it is what Zen practice encourages us to reveal.
My friend the major was a modern day version of the traditional no-nonsense Zen master, helping his student to see his true nature. Ten years after our conversation, I found Dogen’s message in the Genjo Koan:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.
Intellectually and emotionally, studying the individual self of our day-to-day world is the starting point for discovering the undifferentiated, impersonal spiritual self. Non-thinking zazen quietly sets the mind at ease, casting off ideas of a small “self” of feelings, desires, and ambition, leaving no “self” to dislike.
When we receive a friendly nudge about our self from an acquaintance, teacher, or especially from our own sense of discomfort, we should not turn away from it. Rather, we should consider that it has merit – facing it directly, exploring it honestly without hesitation. It is the first step on our journey of spiritual discovery.
Abbot of Kannon Do