Sometimes people ask me what the outcome of a long-term meditation practice is. My reply is that you may become more placid and better able to roll with the punches, but most important, you become more truly yourself. Many of the Buddhist teachers who have impacted me were quite eccentric, and at the same time true to themselves in deep, and sometimes inspiring ways. When I say more truly yourself, I mean not transfixed by your own image, instead able to engage fully in your life without continually needing to evaluate how you are coming off to others. This is what my first teacher called “Zen beyond self-consciousness.”
One of these eccentric teachers is the early 19th-century Japanese Zen adept, Ryokan, who fully immersed himself in Zen practice at a young age, devoting himself to meditation in a sequestered monastic environment. I call this the “cocoon phase” of his practice. At some point the cocoon broke open and a strangely beautiful butterfly emerged. Here’s a poem he wrote years after he left the monastery in which Ryokan alludes to his life afterword:
With no mind, flowers lure the butterfly; with no mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly comes; when the butterfly comes flowers bloom.
The monastic (or “cocoon”) practice which Ryokan engaged in before flying freely was based on the model developed by the 13th century Zen teacher, Dogen. Dogen articulated two complementary facets of training:
1. Constraining the impulsivity of the small self through ritualizing each aspect of life in the sequestered setting of a retreat or monastery. He gave precise instructions on how to sit in meditation, brush teeth, receive and eat food, even use the restroom. This ritualization of each detail can enable a practitioner to fully engage in each activity while maintaining a meditative flow.
2. Cultivating and expressing parental mind. Dogen tells many stories of monks who exhibited this feature. He mentions visiting a Chinese monastery and encountering the head cook, who he finds outside in the sweltering heat drying mushrooms. Dogen asks him “What are you doing working out here at this time when the sun is so hot?” The monk replies “What other time is there than this,” and continues with his work.
In our urban, American Zen practice, we also do our best to honor this commitment to caring for practitioners’ well-being, so they can practice inside the cocoon until it breaks open and they flap their wings with abandon, no longer being trapped by thoughts or images of themselves or others. One ancient Chinese Zen teacher referred to this emerging into authenticity as “letting the person of naked red flesh come forth.”
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher