Meeting the Buddha
Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D.
In 1975, anticipating the cement colored skies of a
Canadian January, I did something almost unimaginably
adventurous for a professor at a staid university. It
grew out of a sorrow that I was trying mightily to
ignore. On the outside, my life was going beautifully.
At the relatively young age of 32, I had acquired a
professorship, a book contract with a major publishing
house, and an elegant downtown apartment. But on the
inside, I felt like pressed cardboard. I had been
separated from my husband and stepchildren for a year,
living alone, and nothing I did seemed to matter much.
One day I attended a lecture at a nearby institute
and something peculiar happened. The constant heaviness
in my heart lifted for a few moments and a sense of
peace wafted in like a quick spring rain. I was amazed.
What happened? I hadn't the faintest idea, but I knew I
had to get more of this. At the end of the talk, the
speaker told us that he was leading a program at Esalen
for "therapists and healers." I was a research
psychologist, by no stretch of the imagination a healer
or even interested in healing anybody but myself. I
signed up anyway.
A few months later, I was in the airport on my way to
California, feeling quite contentedly anonymous. No one
knew that I was headed for the notorious institute by
the Pacific with all those people indulging themselves.
The customs official checking the destination on my
travel papers looked up brightly. "Esalen? I saw a
movie all about that place. Hot tubs, right?" I
The first week was an extra, tacked on to the month I
had originally planned. "Almost all of you are
professionals," the woman organizing the retreat
announced briskly on the phone. "Your minds will be
so full of what you know that you won't be able to take
in anything new. We recommend this extra week to open
your minds." The whole trip seemed so crazy to me I
thought I might as well go along with the extra week. It
was to be a "Zen sesshin," 14 hours a day of
sitting facing a wall, alternating with slow walking in
a circle, she explained. Since we wouldn't be used to
sitting in the Zen posture for that long, we could stand
up occasionally, as we needed, and try to stay in
meditation. And there would also be a one hour lecture
by the Zen Master, during which you could ask questions.
I mentally shrugged. Whatever.
On the first day of the retreat, about 25 of us were
seated on large round cushions and flat mats around a
spacious living room sitting on the edge of one of
Esalen's famous cliffs. It was a glorious room, full of
sunlight reflected from the Pacific and the sounds of
the surf smashing against the rocks. But judging from
the noisy jumping up and sitting down of the
participants, most of us were already in misery. I knew
for sure that I was. My knees were aching and my mind
were filled with angry hornets dive bombing urgent
messages: GET UP, GET OUT, GO HOME!
Finally it was time for the Zen Master's talk. I
could rest back against the wall, and listen to
something other than my obsessive mind chatter. In a
heavy Korean accent, he told us a story about a Zen
Master named Un-mun and a student. Un-mun was working in
the fields, spreading manure. The student bowed and
asked, "What is enlightenment?" The master
replied, "Dry shit on a stick." The student
shook his head and wandered away. He traveled on until
he came to Zen Master Dong Sahn's temple. Dong Sahn was
weighing grain. Again the student bowed and asked,
"What is enlightenment?" The master replied,
"Three pounds of flax."
The Korean Zen Master faced us, grinning. "So I
ask you, which answer is better?" Several people in
the room tried to answer, and he adroitly engaged them
in "dharma combat", sparring back and forth.
"You must find the mind that is before
thinking," he shouted. "If you are thinking,
you have good and bad, enlightened and unenlightened.
But open your mind and everything is just as it
is." He looked around. A few people shifted. He
didn't say anything for awhile. Then, in a voice filled
with delight, he boomed, "Deep in the mountains,
the great temple bell is struck. The truth is just like
I was hanging on by my fingernails. I understood the
individual words, of course, but my mind felt like it
was slamming into a brick wall. At the same time, the
whole thing was kind of fun. Everyone was laughing at
the way he was catching us in our own earnest,
determined mind-sets. Then someone raised a question
that set off a few knowing smirks.
"Soen Sa Nim," he asked, using the Zen
Master's Korean title, "I heard a rumor that you
were invited to teach Werner Erhard's staff."
Erhard, the founder of est trainings, was one of the
many blending psychology, Buddhism, and his own
particular version of getting ahead in the marketplace.
Yes, the Zen Master acknowledged, he had been teaching
the American guru and his assistants.
There was an excited murmur in the room. "So
what's he really like?" someone else wanted to
know. "Is he as enlightened as he claims?" We
were all grinning by now, feeling ever so slightly
superior from our morning of doing the real thing,
enduring our aching joints to sit with a real Zen
"Werner Erhard is the Buddha," the Zen
Master replied cooly.
Consternation. I peered around at the others. They
looked irritated, confused. How can Werner Erhard be the
Buddha? He's so slick, so self-promoting. Can it be
true? He's the Buddha? Maybe the Zen Master's been
bought. After all, Erhard is probably paying him a
"And so," the Zen Master announced
gleefully, "is dried shit on a stick!"
ZAP! This was my first, but not nearly my last, Zen
hit. The pile of opinions I have been carrying clattered
to the floor. I felt a shock of clarity, like the snap
of cold air right after a snowfall. "Let go of your
opinions, your situation, your condition," the Zen
Master shouted again. "Then your mind is clear like
space. And enlightened and unenlightened are empty
He looked immensely pleased. As for me, I was more
awake than I could ever remember. By the end of those
five weeks at Esalen, I was ready to strike out on a new
life path that would carry me back to my husband and
stepchildren, out of the university, and eventually to
start a Zen Center and a talk radio show on
consciousness in my hometown.
permission from "The Cultural Creatives : How 50 Million People Are Changing the World by Paul H.
Ray, Ph.D. and Sherry Ruth Anderson Ph.D. Copyright 2000.
All Rights Reserved.
Sherry Ruth Anderson, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice in San Rafael, CA. and co-author of the best-selling The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women (Bantam, 1991) and The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World (Harmony, 2000). She is also a founding partner in a new consulting firm, Integral Partnerships,
LLC, designed to help those organizations whose constituencies or customers are Cultural Creatives to be more successful, by aligning their internal activities and values with the values and needs of their constituencies or customers.