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Meeting the Buddha
by 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 cringed.

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 this."

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 Master.

"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 bundle…

"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 words."

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.

Excerpted with 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.





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