We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know: The Practice of a Lay Monk

It is five in the morning and I am cleaning the floor in the monastery. I hate cleaning floors. I hate waking up early. How did I get here?

Browsing in a bookstore is not a life changing event. But for me it was. I picked up a book at random, opened it at random and read a sentence: “The Buddha’s teachings are that emptiness is just simply how things exist. No matter how we search within this table, there is no ‘table’ to be found. The table is empty of being a ‘table’.”

Something stirred in me. It was written by a Zen master, Anzan Hoshin, Abbot of a monastery in Ottawa, Canada.

I went to Ottawa to an introductory workshop. When the Abbot entered the zendo, I felt that this was my teacher. And this is how my practice started.

That was 20  some years ago. Since then I traveled between US and Canada more than 100,000 miles and now I am a lay Zen monk.

How did I get here? What resonated between a middle-aged Romanian/Hungarian/Jewish, married, mother of two, immigrant to America – and Zen Buddhism?  Nothing. Even the idea of someone telling me where to cross the street (at the crosswalk) seemed intrusive to me. Forget about being told how to breathe.

And yet… the pull to know what the monks knew was the beginning. Their eyes were shining. That was the only hint that there is more to it than it meets the eye.

The monastery was spacious. Even the small rooms. The instructions were absurdly simple. Pay attention and sit up straight. No indication of what to expect, just what to do.  I started to watch the monks more closely. When talking to them, I would gesture, I would smile to engage them, I would use all my “social” skills, which they did not reciprocate or mirror. They did not gesture, did not look left or right, they just looked at me and listened. Their answers were concise and to the point. Nothing extra. So were their movements. I watched a monk get up from her seat towards the end of a seven day retreat. She paid attention to every inch of getting up. Not in segments, but as a continuum. This was not a transition, from down to up. It was an activity in itself. There was no hurry. There was no part of getting up that was more important than any other part.

I was in awe. I understood what was meant by “your practice informs other people practice.” I have a responsibility here, which goes far beyond what I understand. It is in what I do and how I do it. It has consequences.

Washing the floor again, paying more attention. If I hurry or not, the half hour I have for washing the floor will still be half an hour. So I take it slower, more carefully. Fold the cleaning cloth, it is wet in my hand, nicely folded. I spread my fingers a little, I apply some pressure, and start wiping. No hurry. The practice hall is bright, the incense smell wafts through the air. Bird song outside. Was the bird song here last time I was at the monastery and I just didn’t hear it?

The sitting starts and I sit with the same quality of attention as when I washed the floors. The blank wall is like a canvas for my brain. It is active and very, very incoherent. And I don’t know what will be my next thought. I believed that I made them, I gave birth to them, but the blank wall reveals to me that I wasn’t even pregnant. Who makes them? Who is taking the responsibility? No one. The thoughts continue to come and go.

Slowly there came a sense of well being. An ease and a joy. I do not need to do anything. I do not want to do anything else. Just sit and pay attention to all the experiences which I ignored for decades.

I always felt that we don’t know what we don’t know, that the questions we have are born out of what we already know, so the line of questioning cannot reveal or point to something beyond itself. And yet I felt that there was more.

Paying attention to how I get up was the answer to so many questions that I didn’t know how to ask, or even knew I had.

I let the sensations be, without giving them names, labels, which help us when we need to categorize, catalogue things, but which diminish, step down, what we know about them, through the presumption that if we give it a name, we know what it is. We don’t. I do not know what a dandelion is. I know it is a weed, it is a plant, I can find out how photosynthesis and other chemical reactions within it work, but I do not know what it is. This simple unassuming weed, which makes elaborate parachutes, which are carried by the wind. What an exquisite engineering act. What is it?

Little parachutes float through the air, in between my thoughts.

Five in the morning, washing the floor, enjoying it.



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95% of life is spent on autopilot.

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