A distractingly noisy insect moves around my head several times and then lands on my left, upper arm. I can't see it as my eyes are closed, but I can feel it moving about exploring the territory. It tickles. I try to stay focused in the here and now with my attention fixated on the roaming explorer. What is it? A fly? A bee? Maybe it's not a flying insect at all. Maybe it's a spider. Anxiety sets in. Now I'm afraid I might be stung by a bee or bitten by a spider.
Should I open my eyes, look around, and check it out? One thought rushes by and then another and then another. Now I'm having an emotional debate with myself. Meanwhile, the fly or bee or whatever insect it is is busily exploring the contours of my inner elbow. Be in the moment, I say to myself. Stay calm. But my mind is racing ahead of me and I can't seem to put on the brakes.
So much for meditation. I open my eyes, glance to my left, lift my upturned right and and wave the fly away. Yes, it was a fly. It was a very harmless fly. Now my mind is busy admonishing myself for letting my thoughts get away from me; for building one thought onto the next instead of just letting the thoughts pass by and staying in the moment.
Now my hearing is tuned in to detect any insect that may come within range. I try to pull my mind back to center, to dwell within the calm of my meditation again. I hear someone cough. Silence. then I hear someone slowly switch positions. Is the fly exploring the domain of another person's leg or arm? Or is that person just switching position to avoid stiffness or cramps? Should I peek?
The gong i sounded and everyone, including myself, slowly sway back and forth. We uncross our legs, crawl off our black meditation cushions called zafus, plump them back up, and then stiffly stand up and move into a line for walking meditation. My right leg is fine, but my left leg feels like it's filled with cement. I'm afraid I will lose my balance. I can't feel anything. I'm sure I will step down in the wrong place and fall. Slowly I make my way down the three steps to the floor below. As I reach the end of the line I feel that strange tingling sensation as feeling starts to return to my leg.
How do people do this? The last 45 minutes was an agony. I thought doing meditation was a simple thing and that it was supposed to be extremely enjoyable and pleasant. Was I the only person here to feel so wretched? Was I the only beginner? I was certainly the only Caucasian in the group. When I had first inquired where I could go to do meditation practice I was directed to the Zen Buddhist Soto Mission on Nuuanu Street in Honolulu, Hawaii. I rarely drove to that area of the island so decided t make my visit in the early afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic in both directions and so I would be driving in daylight.
I finally discovered the entrance into the parking lot after driving around the block several times. I parked my ever-so-humble, pale blue Datsun and slowly made my way down the pathway toward what I presumed was the entrance to the Mission's office. Part of me hoped someone, anyone, would come by whom I could inquire where the office was or who I should speak to. Another part of me hoped no one would see me doing this. I slowly climbed up the outside stairway to the door and hesitated a moment. Should I knock first or just walk in? I quietly knocked. No answer. I listened intently for any noise from inside. Nothing.
I turned around and started back down the stairs. How foolish of me to even think of doing this. Who in the world did I think I was? Sure, I studied Buddhist philosophy while attending the University studying for my Business degree, but reading about Buddhism is a lot different than showing up at a Buddhist Temple. Who was I kidding! Whoever was inside would probably laugh non-stop when I presented myself and asked to be taught how to meditate. What audacity!
Half way down the steps I stopped. I remained motionless while my thoughts debated within my head. I desperately wanted to learn, but I didn't want to be embarrassed or ridiculed. You have to take chances or you'll get no-where, I thought to myself. But this isn't taking a chance. It's being foolish. It's not foolish to ask for help when you're trying to study and learn something new. That's what you think.
Picture 1.1: Zen Buddhist Soto Mission on Nuuanu Street, Honolulu, Hawai'i
Suddenly, as if on their own, my feet turned me around, and I started up the stairs again. My hand grabbed the handle of the wood paneled door, opened it, and I propelled myself to the counter on the far side of the wall. It was a dreary room. The pale green from the walls blended with the pale green floor. There was a dining room size wood table set in the middle of the room with straight-backed matching chairs arranged neatly around it. On the wall next to the door I had just come in was a smaller table with booklets and other information sheets piled in even rows. Each pile had a rock set on top of it. A wise precaution against the wind blowing the papers off the table every time someone opened the door.
I waited, but no one came in. I knocked on the counter. The vibrations stayed in my ears for several minutes but I heard no other sounds. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few seconds, I called out, "Is anybody here?" The sound of my voice startled me as it broke the tomb-like silence. I continued to wait wondering what to do. If I left now I didn't know when or if I'd return. I lived far from the Mission and it was difficult for me to get to. As I turned to leave a short, thin, Japanese man came up to the other side of the counter and said something to me in Japanese.
Feeling a sense of both relief and anxiety I turned about face and stepped back to the counter. I asked him if he spoke English. After looking into my face for a few seconds, obviously trying to make out what I was saying, he shook his head no. He signaled for me to wait and then disappeared into a back room. I was committed now. There was no turning back. I had just plunged into the water. Would I drown?
A few moments later I was face to face with a very tiny Japanese woman with extremely short cropped, black hair, wearing the black robes of a priest. She stepped closer to me and looked up into my eyes with a look of wonder and friendliness. She gave me a small smile as she bowed and asked if she could help me. It was obvious that she was not totally fluent in English, but since I knew no Japanese I was more than relieved that we could communicate at all.
"I don't know how to put this, but I want to learn how to meditate." My words stumbled out quickly before I could change my mind about asking.
"Have you done any type of meditation before?" she asked in a soft voice.
"No, I haven't." I replied.
"This is a Buddhist place," she explained, "perhaps you have come to the wrong place."
Ah, I thought. Since I'm a Caucasian she thinks I must have made a mistake. Perhaps I was really looking for one of the many churches in the area. I was probably lost.
"Yes, I know this is a Buddhist mission." I answered. "That's why I'm here. I have studied a little about Buddhism but it always talks about meditating and I don't know how. So I thought I should find someplace to go in order to learn. Books can only go so far."
"That is true." she thoughtfully replied. "What do you know about Buddhism?"
I fell silent. Did she want me to tell her everything I knew about it from my college courses and my book reading? How could I tell her all of that now, standing here? Is she testing me? Dies she think I'm making this up? Does she think I'm not sincere? I have to answer. I have to say something. I can hear the office clock ticking. She stands there quietly, not moving, not hurrying me, just standing there.
"Well, I know about Siddharta, the Gautama Buddha. I'm familiar with the Four Noble Truths; the Truth of suffering, the Truth of the origin of suffering, the Truth of the cessation of suffering , and the Truth concerning the path leading to the cessation of suffering which is the Noble Eightfold Path. It makes sense to me. I have read many books on the subject such as Buddhism in Translation, by Henry Clarke Warren, The History of Buddhist Thought, by Edward Thomas, and What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula. Plus, I've read many books by D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts."
"Books are good," she nods in approval, "but sometimes too much books is no good. I think, maybe, you read too much. It is time to do practice. Don't read any more books. Come and meditate. A small group comes every Wednesday night at 8pm. Come and you can learn. I am Reverend Ichinose and your name?"
"I'm Karen, Karen Lee. Yes, I would like to come. Thank you." I replied excitedly. I was going to have a chance at this.
"Good. Now I must return to my work. You come. You don't read so much." Reverend Ichinose smiled, bowed, and disappeared behind the office.
On the way out the door I glanced down at the neat piles of booklets on the table. Quickly, I grabbed a couple of them and walked confidently back to my car. I'd done it. I had actually done it. My heart pounded hard in my chest as I pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home.