I have some unhappy childhood memories.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve felt out of place in this world, as if I should have been born into another one. My mother couldn’t understand me, I had no place at school… I hated it all. Until I was 13, I was utterly disappointed in society. I channeled my alienation into an insane thirst for knowledge – I read endlessly, book after book, from literature to philosophy, looking for some sort of answer. But I found nothing.
When I was 16, I was swept away in the current of love for the first time. A new energy flowed through me – I was obsessed with the question of how I could manage to make love to her. And therein was a problem: completely untrained in the arts of love, I lacked even the most basic intellectual underpinnings necessary for conjugal bliss. Then one day as I was browsing through a bookstore, I happened across a Taoist book on “The Joining of the Essences.” I flipped through it and silently cursed to myself: “What the hell is this? Complete nonsense.” I had put the book down and was headed for the door when a voice suddenly spoke up inside my head: “If you dismiss it after reading just a few sentences, won’t you end up being one of those phony know-it-alls? Why not give it a chance, try out a new point of view? If you’re right and it is rubbish, then why not use your own experience to prove it?” So I brought the book home with me.
When I got home and took out the book, I opened it (as if ordained by destiny) to a page with the words, “Focus all of your energy on feeling the desires within your body.”
I closed my eyes, relaxed my body… and was shocked when a powerful energy immediately blazed outw
That was my first experience with meditation.
This experience was like a door opening onto a journey of meditation practice. I slowly fell in love with Zen. Its obscure nature fit me better than Taoism; it was limitless, peaceful. It made me feel human.
When I was 23, I developed a desire to go to Japan to study Zen. Why Japan? I honestly don’t know for sure, but I did believe that Japan and I shared some sort of fundamental connection. As if by an order sent from somewhere in the spirit world, I received an opportunity to study at a temple in Shiga. I was unimaginably excited – before my interview process was finished I’d already applied for a visa, in faith that this was nothing less than destiny.
When I got to Kyoto, I met the one true love of my life. Love came over me with a new fierceness – there were fireworks, lighting up the sky with an incomparable brilliance. Bathed in that light, I forgot why I had even come to Japan. All I could think about was marrying her, staying with her, spending the rest of my life with her. When we went to see her parents, they received me with perfect hospitality and immaculate courtesy. At one point her father stood before me and, with a big smile, spoke a few words in a voice so smooth and gentle that, even though I understood nothing, I couldn’t help but think he was giving his blessing. Only later did I find out what he had said:
“From this moment on, sever all communication with this man. Never see him again. This man must go up the mountain to practice meditation. Never speak with him again. Have nothing to do with him.”
To this day I still ponder this moment. How can such a soft, warm voice give such an order?
My meditation on the mountain was more bitter than I could ever have imagined.
During the first year, students may not see the master. All that you can do, day after day, is be patient, and work. Sleep, rise, wash, eat, clean, sit… you cannot have any contact with the outside world, cannot even communicate with your fellow disciples. During that year, I felt the slow passing of each and every second. I thought, “Maybe this will be the moment that I can take it no longer, this zombie life, completely empty of feeling…”
Then, suddenly, there came the moment when I finally understood: no desire, no wants, no anger, no happiness, and no pain; isn’t this what I had come here for? Is this not true “nothingness”
In this way, three years passed. I grew accustomed to life in the temple, and yet I still felt that there was more to my life than this.
After my meditation was over, the abbot asked me to stay and live in the temple. I replied that I wanted to go back to Germany. To me, the temple was like a perfect little mini-universe, separate from the world. It was not a place where I could face the problems that I needed to face. I felt that I had become strong enough, peaceful enough, to handle my own life; I had no reason to run from it anymore.
On the way back to Germany, I had a layover in Shanghai and stopped by a bookstore. I picked up a book, opened it to a random page, and saw the words:
“The true hermit is not the one hiding in the wilderness, but the one who maintains perfect isolation even within the bustling city.”
How could this not be another message from the spirit world?
Portrait by Nancy Zhang
Photo by Xiaoyi
Nancy’s outfit –