In Fantasia Disney gives us a marvelous version of the old story of just what can go wrong when a student begins "to practice the Boss' magic tricks before learning how to control them."
Mickey Mouse, a sorcerer's apprentice, is tired and bored with his task of carrying water from outside well to indoor cistern. The buckets are heavy. The cistern is deep. The steps are steep. It is no fun.
His master, preparing to retire for a nap, has removed his "power hat"; and Mickey, no slouch when it comes to amusing diversions, dons the hat and conjures a broom into doing his work for him. While the broom happily fetches water, Mickey sleeps. But the broom has not been programmed to quit when the cistern is filled; and the mouse awakens to find the house flooded and the broom unwilling or unable to obey his frantic commands to stop.
Desperate, Mickey grabs an ax and reduces the stubborn broom to splinters; but the splinters, like so many clones, spring to life and proceed, en masse, to fetch more water. What to do? What to do? The inexperienced mouse has set into motion events which he is powerless now to influence. As oceanic waves engulf the house, an angry sorcerer returns to undo the damage, and we are left to assume that the reckless rodent has learned his lesson.
Here in the United States, when it comes to sesshins and the novices who hold them, there is no sorcerer around to save the day. Many people psychologically drown or come so close to it that the price of their rescue is the loss of reputation, career, money, time, and self-esteem. It also doesn't do much for their appreciation of Buddhism.
The sorcerer, in this analogy, would be of course an authentic master or roshi. In the Orient he would have a staff of competent sifus (monastery teachers). His seal and his emblems of office would literally be kept in a safe: apprentices would seldom gain even a close-up view of his "power hat." In the U.S., power hats can be ordered from a catalog. One size fits all when self-ordination is a mere precedent for self-coronation. Cynically we ask, "Who knows the difference? Where is the harm?" Unfortunately, the victims of such arrogance know the difference and suffer the harm. It is, in fact, the plight of one such victim which now provokes this essay. If I sound harsh, it is because the situation is so terrible.
From a neighboring state, I recently received a call from the father of a once - and we hope future - brilliant chemistry student. Bewildered, the man pleaded for advice. His daughter, after attending a sesshin, had been taken to the mental ward of a state hospital. I could get only second-hand information from him: He did not have much of his own to give.
He said that his daughter's entree into Zen had been social; her boyfriend, a student with whom she lived, belonged to a Zen Center. Challenged to test the discipline of her mind, she signed up for a five day sesshin. She was two thousand miles from home and medically uninsured, but she had the cash - from Christmas presents - to pay the fee.
On the appointed day, she and her boyfriend arrived at the Zendo and registered. They were issued 'fanny packs' to carry their wallets and small valuables on their person, but, since their other possessions could not be completely safeguarded, they were asked to sign a "release" agreeing to hold the Zendo harmless for any loss of property or, incidentally, damage to health suffered during or as a result of the sesshin. They were then given separate sleeping accommodations in little residential bedrooms which contained three or four other, same-sex students.
Nobody noticed that she barely slept or ate for the first three days. On the fourth day she announced that she was Maitreya, the Future Buddha. She had come to save mankind in the nick of new-millennium time. Attempts to calm her with gentle persuasion failed as badly as shocking shouts and face-slaps. Her boyfriend, whom she did not recognize, was asked to go in the company of one of the nuns to gather her belongings. As he picked up her sleeping bag he found two capsules in a baggie with a slip of paper that identified them as tranquilizers. He returned to the babbling girl and literally shoved the capsules down her throat; and when she grew quiet and manageable, he was asked if he thought she should be taken home and he said yes, of course.
Back at their apartment, as soon as the medication wore off, she became delusional again. Fearful of calling 911 and having her taken against her will to a county hospital (how would that look on her resume?) and being informed that without insurance she could not expect treatment at any of the private hospitals, he telephoned her father who, in a state of total confusion, agreed to take the next available flight. She, however, on a mission to save the world, was not inclined to wait for her father's arrival. Her boyfriend attempted to restrain her, but when her screams produced threats of their own to his resume, he released her. She went out onto the streets where, despite his protests, the police took her into custody and admitted her to the psychiatric ward of a county hospital.
Now, several days later, her psychotic episode having passed by the grace of thorazine or some similar drug, she was going to be released. Her father did not know what to do. Aside from the horror of seeing his bright girl look like a zombie, he was confronted by financial miseries. He was a store clerk by occupation and had little money. What would her treatment cost? How would this illness affect her scholarship and grants? Her future?
As her father sat in the hospital's waiting room, an orderly gave him my phone number saying that most Buddhist priests don't speak English but that I did. It was not much in the way of a recommendation, but it was all he had.
And so he called asking if I had any advice for him and what had happened to his daughter at that sesshin and how could it have happened and what could he expect next? The questions came too fast for answers. Finally his voice tapered into a whine, "What is Zen?" he asked ingenuously. "It is not this," I said.
In the Orient, there is a seller's market for the services of genuine roshis. In the U.S., the market is glutted with phonies. They and their equally inept staffs will do anything to lure the unwary into their membership ranks. They are at their most pernicious during the offering of sesshin.
A sesshin, of course, is an intensive meditation marathon designed specifically for the benefit of mature students. Many religions, in one form or another, hold these rigorous exercises as a kind of jolt - the necessary quantum - that will propel a ripe student into a higher energy state, i.e., a higher state of consciousness. Responsible religious groups understand the dangers inherent in the process. They also appreciate the physics of spiritual currents and voltages.
The roshi and his staff, after selecting the dates, which may vary anywhere from a few days to several weeks, give "public" notice of the event. The applications they receive will be evaluated. Strangers need not apply.
On the appointed day the participants gather and are assigned places in the Zendo where, under the rule of absolute silence and the watchful eye of teachers, they will sleep, eat, and meditate for the duration of the sesshin. This "togetherness" contributes, by the increased stress of peer pressure, to the effectiveness of the regimen.
For twelve or more hours a day, a participant will sit, immobile as a boulder, stiffly erect, legs folded, elbows extended laterally, hands conformed in mudra, and breath imperceptible. However much his mind may be a cauldron of activity and his knees and ankles burning logs beneath him, his body must appear to be frozen.
A fellow with a stick and a Samurai's tolerance for sloth patrols the aisles and at the slightest indication of snooze or slump, he strikes.
Day and night, trained personnel watch the participants, noticing what they eat and how they sleep. All of the incipient phases of Zen Disease, that strange euphoria that attends the mind's breakthrough into altered states of consciousness, are recognized. Inappropriate or bizarre actions, utterances, and facial expressions are noted and gauged; and if a participant does experience any symptoms of irrationality, the staff immediately acts. He is quickly removed from the Zendo and taken to a senior monk's quarters where he is calmed and, particularly if he has experienced a vision of the divine, he is, in a sense, feted with tea and sweet cakes and reassuring felicitations. He is gently shepherded through the euphoria which, except under the most extraordinary conditions, lasts no more than seventy-two hours.
In the Orient it is understood, in the legal sense, that anyone who enters a monastery for training of any kind, has forfeited his right to complain about the treatment he receives. He yields his citizenship to temple personnel and no master or priest takes the acquisition of this power lightly.
But this presumption of legal immunity is not yielded to American Zen Centers. Here, the Centers are liable for damages done through the negligence or incompetence of priests or temple workers. Temples here seldom have a parent Japanese temple in which the priests have been trained and ordained, and their Roshis, being spuriously ordained and elevated to high office by some democratic or plutocratic principle, are as much spiritual orphans as the organizations over which they preside. And it is no exaggeration to say that most in-house staffs consist usually of those who might otherwise be homeless.
Under this threat of tort, unfit to meet the challenge squarely, they must raise Disclaimer Shields.
No one should suppose that all psychological problems arising from sesshin have as their cause a pre-existing emotional disorder or even a predisposition to one. During World War II when, in the interests of safeguarding military secrets, studies were conducted to determine the effects of starvation on mental stability, all of the participants experienced hallucination. It is no coincidence that all religions prescribe fasting as a helpful means of inducing visionary experiences. Victims of anorexia nervosa, though emaciated and skeletal, will look into a mirror and "see" an obese person staring back at them. In fact, sharp declines in blood sugar levels (a result of fasting) may induce varying degrees of psychological abnormality and even epileptic seizures may be induced by such declines. In the Korean War we came to appreciate fully those "Manchurian Candidate" brain-washing and sensory-deprivation techniques which are part and parcel of the sesshin regimen. And, as anyone who has ever tried to stay awake for long periods can attest, sleep deprivation does not engender mental clarity. It also makes a person extremely suggestible.
To be sure, most of the participants at American sesshins do not get into emotional trouble. There are many adepts who relish a sesshin's actionless activity as an oasis of calm in their hectic schedules. More power to them.
There are even those who take an "Ironman Finisher" pride in having stayed the course. These persons perhaps needed a boost in their self-esteem. Sometimes it isn't a question of their not having gotten the message that pride is something we leave behind when we come to Zen. Leaving pride behind implies that we have pride to leave behind; and again, if sitting sesshin gives these folks this necessary sense of accomplishment, more power to them, too.
The true heroes, perhaps, are the fellows who say, "What the hell was I thinking?" and on that admission of temporary insanity get up and leave. (Our Southern School Zen does not much appreciate long periods of sitting. "You can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion." Not without reason did the Sixth Patriarch disqualify pillow-riding jocks.)
We are not concerned now with any of these individuals or even with people who suffer hemorrhoids, spinal or gluteal nerve damage or other physical injury. It is this other category, the person who is psychologically damaged and permanently scarred with labeled inscriptions of "nervous breakdown" or "psychosis," which concerns us now. Especially when his distress has been has been deliberately facilitated by the physical factors of sesshin stress and the incompetence of temple personnel, his misfortune is unconscionable.
Zen, as its name denotes, means "meditation" and as such it is a mystical path; and it is simply incorrect to assume that in traditional Zen a meditator is disabused of his vision of the divine or chastised for having countenanced illusion or "makyo" - a corruption of the Sanskrit "maya" (as if Samsara itself were not sufficiently illusory.) The statuary and artworks in Japanese temples, illustrated in the works of D.T. Suzuki among others, attest to the use of these archetypal images as instruments by which unconscious projections may be stimulated, which is exactly the function they serve in Christian cathedral art.
But in the U.S. there is such a sophomoric compulsion to differentiate Japanese-style Zen from ordinary religious experience that even visionary encounters with Buddhist divinity are regarded as evidence of a freakish apostasy. Devotees of this non-theological religion are advised, "If you should see a vision of the Buddha, spit in his face and he will go away." Sure...
And it is this childish attitude towards the divine that acts to place sesshin victims in double jeopardy. In Christian-majority countries such as the U.S., there is a kind of sieve into which unusual spiritual responses are dumped and screened. A Christian's experience is grand and impressive and never seems to pass through the apertures. But a Buddhist's experience tumbles easily through the holes and he is never saved from that fall from Grace. A Christian, babbling incoherently, "speaking in tongues," may be rewarded for that episode of glossolalia by the gain of considerable prestige. An audience will applaud his pathologic behavior and linguists study his utterances for clues to Babel's vernacular. If an angel appears to him he can write a book or sell his story to a prime-time TV series. He may dance with rattlesnakes or penitently crawl on his knees for a hundred miles and be cheered by onlookers for this auto de fe. Faith Healers may send him into paroxysms of "holy rolling" frenzy; and even the august Quakers may quake and Shakers shake, all with the approbation of their civilized neighbors. Thousands may journey for miles to see a vision of Mary on a screen door and then proudly buy souvenirs commemorating the epiphany, but let a Buddhist see Guan Yin in a temple garden and he is handled with a chain.
It is disheartening to witness the systematic destruction of spiritual elation, the mangled wings of those who were fortunate enough to have been given flight. It isn't always the sun that drops Icarus into the water. Too often it's those Red Barons of Majority Religious Convictions and their allies, Zen Phonies, that shoot him down. Medical science may not be up to keeping him afloat; for aside from that initial fall is the continuing trauma of being subjected to a medical regimen the drugs of which have such side effects as may be interpreted as further evidence of illness. In short, the medication may extend acute to chronic, and the patient may soon find himself being treated for the treatment.
Years ago, I received the first of a series of phone calls from a man who identified himself as "Jake." He admitted that he was a patient in a psychiatric hospital by way of explaining that there would be a time limit placed upon our conversation.
He had a mellifluous voice, deep and resonant, and he used it well. We talked about poetry and Zen and the things of the spirit.
After a few calls, Jake gave me some of his history. He had converted to Buddhism during the early days of the war in Viet Nam. Wounded, he had been hospitalized in Hawaii and while getting some additional R&R there, he joined a local Zen group. One day, at the conclusion of a sesshin, he was browsing in a shop at Waikiki Beach when a numinous bodhisattva approached him. The bodhisattva had something mysterious he wanted to show Jake and insisted that he accompany him to where it was hidden. Jake was astonished and asked some tourists and the proprietor to verify the apparition. They grew alarmed and the next thing he knew he was back in the hospital - but this time in the mental ward.
Since then, he explained, he had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Did I still want to talk to him, he asked. I said yes... in particular I wanted to know what the bodhisattva was wearing. The question startled him and he asked what I meant by it. "Celestial beings," I told him, "can often be identified by their garments.. both the style and the color." No one in his long history of emotional illness, a history that apparently began that day in Honolulu, had ever asked him about the apparition as if it might be genuine (there were no Buddhist Chaplains in the American military). "What's the difference what he was wearing?" he asked, adding emphatically,. "It was an hallucination!" "Yes," I agreed, "but none the less real for all that."
Much of his problem, I thought, had much to do with his thinking that other people could see what was a projection of an archetype, however collective, from his own mind. Culture assigns different names to these celestial persons or angels and culture variously valorizes them; but all human beings, if they are lucky, can see their own envisioned archetypes. Fifth Dimension possibilities aside, we simply cannot see each other's projections.
Jake, however, would not accept this explanation - to do so would have been to take a step backwards in his therapy. Nevertheless he gave me a detailed description of the garments the figure was wearing. (This remembered detail is often the cardinal test of a visionary encounter. We recall the precise shade of green or red and the exact cut of the coat.) He also asked if I could recommend a book on the subject. Not much was available in Zen or even Yoga at the time; but particularly since he was both intelligent and educated, I suggested that he get Sir John Woodroffe's The Serpent Power.
Several months later he called again. He had gotten the book but found it to be "too dense, exotic, and deliberately abstruse." I called his attention to the two deities in each of the chakra illustrations and assured him that these could be considered Hindu versions of the celestial figure he had seen. He laughed. He had already discussed the matter with his physician who challenged his relating "bonafide angels" to the many armed creatures of Hinduism. "When holding many packages," I asked, "have you never said, 'I could use another hand.'? Multiple arms is just an artistic convention,. The Bodhisattva gives us so many gifts that two arms are not enough to extend them all." "Oh..." he said, satisfied with the explanation.
More months passed and when I heard from him again his voice had lost all of its rich honeyed quality. It had a harsh edge to it, one that I supposed had been honed with some new psychotherapeutic nostrum.
Since our last conversation, he had been released from the hospital and had gotten a low level clerking position, the best that, between his history of emotional illness and the medication he regularly took, he could find. The pills, he said, prevented him from concentrating and left him just a little "off center" in the give-and-take of ordinary conversation. He had accepted his psychotic episode for the simple aberration it had been and had rejoined his former Christian sect. Then, well on his way to resuming a perfectly normal life, "Satan struck again." He had seen another vision and it, too, had caused him to babble insanely. A mysterious man whose face was hidden had appeared to him, and the sighting trounced him right back into the hospital.
"Oh," I interrupted, "Don't tell me! "He was walking fast... really striding."
I then reached onto my bookshelf and read him a passage from a collection of spiritual accounts of Native Americans. A Sioux woman related that she had once been lost in a snowstorm and, as she was beginning to feel the drowse of freezing death and had reconciled herself to her fate, she was suddenly roused by the startling presence of a large man who strode up to her, motioning that she follow him. He clapped his hands, issuing great bolts of lightning, which illuminated her path as he led her to the safety of a settler's cabin. When asked if the mysterious man was white or Indian, she replied that she could not tell since his face was completely obscured by a fur hood. (An examination of footprints in the snow revealed that she had been entirely alone.) "This woman," I assured Jake, "saw the same figure as you. I've seen it too and I know half a dozen other people who have seen it. I don't know what other mental problems you have, if any... but when you saw that striding, shadow-faced man, you may have been hallucinating but you were not crazy."
He was still unconvinced.
When he called again, months later, there was a resigned, mournful quality to his voice. After having been cured of his vision of the striding god, he had been released from the hospital. He had gotten a job and was doing rather well until recently when another vision got him re-admitted. "This one," he said, "was a beaut."
"I was driving down the Will Rogers Turnpike," he said, "when I made a stop; and when I got back into my car there was a huge sort of lizard - but with a frog's face and eyes - sitting in the passenger seat. At first, he looked straight ahead out the windshield; and then slowly he began to turn towards me until he looked me fully in the face and I could see glowing light stream from his eyes. Then he slowly looked behind, and then everything went dark. I was afraid to open my eyes again. I slumped over the steering wheel and cried like a baby. They came and took me to the hospital and here I am again."
"Jake," I said, "what you saw was a representation of the moon going through lunar phases and the creature you saw is called a makara... a strange amphibious creature. Will you please check the Svadhisthana Chakra. It's towards the back of The Serpent Power.
"I can't read that crap," he shouted. "It's ridiculous. Chakras! For Christ's sake, all I did was stop on the Turnpike to take a piss!"
Silence. And then I heard a shuffling sound and the flipping of pages and then a long groan. There was a shuddering sob that seemed to indicate that he had been reconnected to the universe. He was not the only person who ever saw a makara, who had ever gotten "up close and personal" with a benign sea-creature in an archetypal dream or vision or meditation or spontaneous trance.
I suppose he always sensed that these visions were genuine and that this was the reason he kept calling me and the reason, too, that he kept The Serpent Power with him.
It is a terrible thing to treat one man's vision as divinely sent and another man's vision as a symptom of insanity. It is even worse to see Buddhist officials acting so irresponsibly, offering advanced techniques to an uninitiated or immature person, tricking him into signing away his right to hold them responsible for undisclosed dangers, and then, when trouble does come, leaving him to the hostile mercy of alien faith care-givers who are all too eager to see Satan in anything that is not expressly presented in the plans and specifications of their own religious constructs.
I explained all this to the distraught father of the unfortunate chemistry student. I did not have much advice to give him. I said that if she were my daughter, I'd take her back home and consult a real Buddhist priest and a family physician - and I'd explain her whole ordeal to them both - and plan... yes...plan.. to have her resume her education within a few weeks' time.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts