The society occupied a house in an elegant Georgian square. You rang the doorbell to be admitted. To the left was the library and straight ahead, the stairs. In the basement was a room where we gathered. There would be some chatting here but really we were supposed to sit quietly, collecting ourselves for the meeting.
When told to do so, we filed up the staircase to the first floor and queued to enter the meeting room. On the landing was a table with an open ledger where we were supposed to sign our names. We removed our shoes here, and placed them tidily in the rows of other shoes.
The door opened inwards hiding part of the room and when it was your turn to enter you stepped into the room, turned on your heel to face the left, and bowed to the Buddha on a table in the window bay.
There were two rows of mats along the floor and in the middle of each, a round black cushion. You walked between the rows until you came to an unoccupied cushion. You stood with your back to it and bowed to the room. Then you turned and bowed to the cushion.
Very few could manage the full lotus position; the rest of us got as close to it as we could, buttocks firmly planted on the hard cushion, back ramrod straight and hands in lap, the left on top of the right.
All was quiet now and no one looked at anyone else, eyes cast down, breathing slow and regular. At one end of the rows was a wooden armchair, the sort that you might see at the head of the dining table in a baronial hall. When everyone was settled, the teacher entered and sat in the chair.
A gong in the form of a metal bowl was struck and on its clear note, meditation began. We were beginners and expected only to perform the simplest kind of mediation, mentally counting from one to ten over and over again.
We were told that as beginners, we would find this difficult. Stray thoughts would arise to distract us and we would lose the count. No matter, just start again. Maybe there was something wrong with me because I never had the least trouble repeatedly counting from one to ten. I never lost the count. Thoughts did arise, of course, fluttering in the background, flirting with my brain but I just went on counting, one, two, three, four… I concentrated on the numbers, seeing their shapes in my mind’s eye.
When the gong sounded again, after perhaps 15 minutes, we reached under the corner of the mat and found a laminated card. We then chanted in unison the words printed on the card. The text was in Japanese, transliterated into Roman letters. Not knowing any Japanese, I, and I suppose many others, had no idea what we were chanting.
The chanting finished, the teacher began his homily of the day. He had a syllabus to cover and, meeting by meeting, mentioned all the familiar precepts of Buddhism, illustrating them from his experience and from the daily news. As a new recruit, trying to fit in, I listened carefully to what he said, trying to accept it and apply it to myself, but I often found his assertions bigoted and contrary to what I knew of life. I tried to stifle these critical thoughts but grew more and more irritated.
Other things annoyed me too. Beginners are considered ignoramuses whose opinions are naive and foolish. Only the enlightened know the truth but they cannot express it because the unenlightened are incapable of understanding it. Depending on your character, I suppose, this either inspires you to seek enlightenment for yourself or slowly but surely incites you to wonder whether that which cannot be explained actually exists or whether it merits the panegyrics lavished upon it, especially as you never meet anyone who claims to be enlightened. That, apparently, would be an unacceptable faux pas.
The room was prepared for the meeting and tidied up afterwards by a small number of people who wore peculiar pieces of cloth, like black bibs strapped to their chests. I got into the habit of helping them tidy up afterwards. I learnt that these were more advanced students of Zen, admitted to the next level. What did this membership mean, I asked. The young woman I spoke to smiled a wan smile and replied “Basically, it means they can ask you to do things.”
They always thanked me courteously for helping but I nevertheless had the feeling that I was trespassing, being tolerated until I realized this for myself and withdrew within my boundaries. It was my way of trying to make human contact in a situation where we were supposed to leave as quiet and self-absorbed as we had been in the meeting.
If I had continued, perhaps I too would have eventually been invited to wear a black bib and “to do things”. Perhaps then, much that remained a mystery to me might have become clear. Perhaps I would even have achieved satori and been invited to wrestle with koans. Or perhaps not. I will never know.
For me, the whole thing fell apart quite suddenly. It had taken me a long time and a lot of study to decide to join the group. This investment of time and effort made me determined to persevere, despite a growing feeling of being out of my element. One day I went to a meeting as usual and the next I decide not to go again. I wrote a letter of resignation and turned my attention elsewhere.
I am not sorry that I spent time sitting on a cushion and counting, both in the weekly meetings and also at home. It was an experience, something from which to learn about oneself and the possibilities of life. Nor do I regret leaving. On life’s journey, there are many places where it is good to stop and tarry a while. One of these may become a permanent abode, the centre where everything comes together and life makes sense. Zen turned out not to be mine.