If it wasn’t for the good directions, I would have driven right past the Ocean Zendo, on into the surrounding cornfields, straight into the sunset falling meekly into the Atlantic at the end of Sagg Main Road.
It didn’t feel like a particularly holy time of day. Maybe a time of lonely regrets, or a time to remember the ensuing winter.
Not all the local Buddhists can make the 7 a.m. zazen meditation sessions, so the Roshi holds one in the early evening on Mondays.
I parked my car next to a row of sport utility vehicles, one of which had a brand new bumper sticker.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” it said, looking not at all like a faded version of that mid-80s slogan, but like a newly applied piece of adhesive-backed paper advice.
I grimaced. It seemed too cute for this frightening age, for this lonely evening.
The September breeze chilled me. I could hear haunts of crashing waves over the horizon, with the dead they had claimed, from the earliest seafarers to Flight 800, whistling their ghost tune in the wind.
A black cat slunk out from a gate across the street from my car, beckoning me. I crossed the street and followed it because I needed a guide and there was no other soul around. The cat rubbed its frail body around me, passed between my legs, and then walked back in through the gate.
I followed, trying to walk quietly and deliberately, with grace. It seemed to be the Buddhist way to do things.
Off the path to the left was a little wooden barn. I’d have walked right past if the cat hadn’t gone straight to the door. Its rough-hewn planks seemed new but intentionally simple. I slid back the wooden door bolt and the cat raced in. I followed.
Inside was a coat room. The air smelled faintly of burning candle wax and incense. It was dead quiet. I second-guessed whether this was the right place or time.
Someone coughed, from behind a door to my left, a door whose many cracks were streaming with late-day sunlight. I peaked desperately through the cracks, trying to understand what kind of mystical experience lay before me on the other side of the door.
The schedule for the afternoon’s activities was tacked onto the door on a small index card: 1/2 hour zazen, 1/2 hour kinhin, 1/2 hour zazen, 1/2 hour discussion. A recipe for religious enlightenment.
I’d missed the first zazen session, I guessed, while stuck in Hamptons traffic. I prepared to wait out the first half hour. I took off my shoes and put them in a closet with a slew of other shoes. An empty room stood in front of me. A simple alter stood in front of a half-moon shaped window, with no glass or screen to keep nature out. Along both sides were a series of mats and pillows.
I sat on one of the mats, knotted my legs into a reasonable approximation of a Buddhist pretzel and waited, memorizing the order of Buddhist hierarchy that my friend Billy the Monk had debriefed me on.
“Roshi is the highest form of monk. Then comes sensai, then monk. Ino leads the chanting. Geisha helps the monk and soge helps the geisha.” There are more I can’t remember.
“There are two schools of Zen: Rinzai, which is more strict. They study koens. Soto zen is the less strict form.”
A gong clanged and the door to the next room opened. People rushed out. A bald, dark-skinned man in a loose red tunic, with studious, wide eyes, examined me.
“Roshi?” I asked.
I searched his face for enlightenment. I bowed and tried to untwist myself from the pretzel. The Roshi grimaced, grabbed the cat and carried it sternly outside.
I felt rebuked, shamed.
Then the Roshi joined the other people who had rushed out of the room. They were walking in a circle around the rooms of the Zendo, slowly, then very fast, then slowly again.
This, I later learned, was called kinhin, essentially a brief stretching and exercise between zazen sittings. I joined in.
After a half-comical series of bows to one another, we all sat together in the next room. I looked around. Half the people looked like suburban housewives and the other half, both men and women, wore black and had wild white hair. They looked like cousins of Albert Einstein or Art Garfunkel.
One of the wild-haired women sat in a chair in the corner, her back turned to the rest of us. Was she being punished? I couldn’t concentrate on anything else but her as we settled in and sat still for half an hour, listening to the gurgling of each others’ stomachs, the coughs of our early winter colds.
A gong rang. We changed.
“Creations are numberless. I vow to free them. Delusions are inexhaustible. I vow to transform them. Reality is boundless. I vow to perceive it. The enlightened way is unsurpassable. I vow to embody it.”
Someone turned the lights on. The cloak of eastern mysticism vanished. We all became Americans again, laughing loudly, engaging in workplace gossip.
My friend Billy the Monk was sitting across the room. He nodded to me. The woman in the chair wasn’t being punished, he told me. She was sitting in a chair because she had a bad back. I nodded as if that explained everything, even though it didn’t.
My red-tunic friend wasn’t our Roshi. Our Roshi was the author Peter Matthiessen, whom I had mistaken for an Anglican priest. He shook my hand warmly.
“Hi, Beth. I’m Peter,” he said.
I knew that. Damn. I hate the Hamptons. Everyone is famous here.
“Everybody who is going to our retreat at Auschwitz, please sign up out front,” Peter told the group.
Everyone seemed nonplussed about the idea of a zen retreat at Auschwitz. I tried to keep cool, but the screaming Flight 800 wind and the screaming Auschwitz horrors were just not sitting well with me.
The discussion that night centered around the life of one of the Garfunkels in the room, who’d been called by Ram Das in the sixties. He went to India when Sai Baba called him. It had been a very mystical experience. He met a beautiful Indian dancer who loved cheeseburgers. They moved to Sag Harbor and opened a Caribbean restaurant. Would everyone please come to Sag Harbor to dance and party with them? Peter smiled and nodded his head once.
“Come to our service next Saturday,” he implored me quietly as I left for home.
The following week was a daze of ordinariness. I thought about what I’d learned during a brief adolescent quest for religion:
Buddha says that life is suffering. But once you realize that life is suffering, the suffering doesn’t matter. It is ordinary.
After sleeping through a few classes at Southampton College and eating some forgettable meals, I wandered through a literary cocktail party, listening to snippets of conversation.
“Are you a writer?,” asked other partygoers, hunting like thinly veiled sharks, with breath like grapes and jaws like piranhas.
“No,” I answered.
One of the Garfunkels was standing in a corner of the room, laughing boisterously, entertaining his hangers-on.
“I won’t see you all for a while,” he announced, attempting to sadden them. “I’m going to Auschwitz for a zen retreat.”
He laughed as if he’d told a joke.
“That sounds creepy,” said one of his hangers-on. “Doesn’t that bother you?”
“No. I can’t wait to get out of fucking Sag Harbor.”
I went over to Billy the Monk’s house and slept on the floor.
Billy woke me at 5:30 the next morning, shaking me gently from sleep, offering a cup of tea.
“You wanna go to the Zendo?” he asked.
“We’ll take my car.”
Billy stood in the driveway, looking over his crumbling Dodge Daytona as the sun rose behind his bald head.
“I was thinking of trading it in for a Mercedes when the baby is born,” he said. “It would be a lot safer. But I think this car may be a collector’s item in 15 years.”
The car door hung down to the ground when he opened it, nearly falling off. He searched through a mess of used coffee cups on the back seat. I buckled my seat belt.
“There it is! My Royal Jelly!” He said.
“It’s from bees. It’s the honey they feed to the queen,” he said. “Protein-rich. I keep thinking it’ll make me sprout thick black hairs like bees have if you look under a microscope.”
He fingered his whispy blonde goatee and smiled self-consciously. I imagined him with a head of thick black hair. It didn’t make sense.
We drove east on Montauk Highway in silence.
Billy works at a rehab. He got into that line of work when a social worker friend whom he’d often gotten high with offered him a job.
“Jeeze, I guess I was an alcoholic from a very young age,” he said. “My family is Irish, and drinking is what they did. But you can drink for a very long time and never admit that it is a problem. With crack cocaine, it doesn’t take long before you have to face up to your problem.
“I guess I did crack because it was like going back to the same pain every day,” he said. “It may have been torture, but it was my hell and I knew it well. I was used to it. We get people like that in the rehab all he time. You have to be prepared to deal with confrontations. I wasn’t ready for it when I started, but I’ve changed a lot in the past four years.”
“When I first came to study zen here, I’d heard the Roshi hit you with a stick when you were meditating,” he said. “I didn’t believe it. Then I went to my first zazen kai (all day sit) and I heard that WHACK! I couldn’t believe it. It made me so angry. I was determined to find enlightenment, in spite of the hitting. That first zazen kai was very difficult to do, but it was very fruitful. I learned a lot about myself.”
“I found out later that they hit you because if you’re hit in the back in a certain way, it makes sitting more comfortable,” he said. “It can be very invigorating. Do you know about koans?”
“Like, ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?'”
“Peter told me about a koan once, in which a student asks a Roshi: ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’ The Roshi replied: ‘Moo.’ Moo in Japanese means something like a computer when it is shut off. It stores information.
We nodded our heads as if this made perfect sense.
In the Zendo, we bowed to everyone and then sat. A Martha Stewart look-alike was sitting across from me. I could hear her mantra: ‘Cook dinner house guests what to say, wear, do.”
A young Asian girl sat next to her, her posture nearly perfect, as if she was thinking “Peace, peace, peace, peace.”
The Garfunkel women who’d been in a chair the last time sat next to her, hunched, despondent.
“Empty empty empty empty.”
Looking at her brought me closer to death but I couldn’t stop watching her. She was my own future.
After the kinhin, we all sat facing the walls. It was easier to meditate without looking at anyone else. I focused on the sheetrock in front of me, nails protruding slightly from the rice-textured walls. A gong sounded. It was over. We drifted from person to person, talking gently, then left our little Zendo, walking out into the Sagaponack sun.
“We have to go,” Billy said. “Someone was sleeping at the rehab last night and his hand slid under the bed and in between the prongs of an electric cord stuck halfway in an outlet. He was being electrocuted and he was stuck to the wall. He had to push off the wall with his feet to get free of the outlet. His heart was racing. It was very dangerous. I have to see what’s up.”
“Moo,” I said, as we drove off through the cornfields and into a new day.
• • • • •
The world lost Roshi Peter Matthiessen on Saturday. He is remembered in every grain of sand that washes up on the Sagaponack shore.
“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” he once told the British newspaper The Guardian. “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”