Mad Monk Shozan Jack Haubner
A "punk of a monk" dishes on the trials and tribulations of monastic life in his new book, Zen Confidential.
Zen practice is good for angry people. The form is tight. It squeezes that deep red heart pulp, pushing up emotions from way down inside you. A lot of “stuff” comes up when you do this practice. Zen gets your juices flowing. And with these juices come seeds—the seeds of your behavior, your character, your anger, all flushed out into the open for you to see.
None of this happens in a vacuum. Zen is a group practice, but the thing about groups is that they’re made up of people, and we all know what people are like. So not only does Zen practice flush your issues out into the open, it flushes them into the “container” of your relationships with fellow monks and nuns. Energies and issues that had no discernible dimension within you are externalized and embodied with the “help” of your peers, one of whom, say, unwittingly takes on the form of your stepmother, who once bullied and humiliated you. Meanwhile, to this peer you represent the weakness and stupidity within himself that for more than 30 years he has felt the compulsive need to stamp out, as his father once tried to stamp it out of him. Only neither of you realizes (at least initially) that the other represents something within yourself that needs to be dealt with, for it is only in the dramatic playing out of your interactions that these powerful patterns and deep psychological dysfunctions are brought to light.
It’s amazing to watch sometimes. One morning, this troubled monk we’ll call “Tirade-san”—towering over six feet, girthy, garbed in his turquoise stretch pants and a T-shirt with a picture of the cosmos and an arrow indicating YOU ARE HERE—exploded at the densu, the monastery greeter, when she forgot to fetch a student from the airport. She in turn barfed a curdled remark on the tenzo after he misplaced her laminated chant sheets. The tenzo then went Vesuvius on the shoji, the zendo mother, when she innocently swung through the kitchen door to brew some green tea.
“Knock before entering!” the normally mild-mannered Pisces roared.
“Have a fucking cow!” the grandmother of three and part-time caregiver blasted back.
As shika, the head monk, I felt like Bill Paxton in Twister, chasing the tornado of devastating emotion as it touched down from one end of camp to the other.
Later, when I pushed through the sutra hall’s great double doors for the monks’ nightly meeting, I could feel T-san’s glare frying the hairs on the back of my neck. Turns out I had forgotten to give the densu the flight details in the first place, an oversight that had set off the whole Great Hissy Fit chain reaction that day.
Per meeting protocol we circled up, bowed, and took turns voicing the various petty and passive-aggressive concerns that arise when a group of people with anger issues decides to engage in a practice that deprives them of sleep, comfort, personal space, protein, Internet access, and even their hair. I nodded with great interest and jotted these concerns in my head-monk notebook, where they languish unaddressed to this day. Meanwhile, Evil Monk would soon have the floor. I would get a chance to rebut him because the head monk speaks last, and believe me, I had every word—every last syllable—planned. You can only take so much shit for so long! I trembled inside, my sphincter clenched about as tight as the hydraulics in those machines that forge artificial diamonds.
Finally, it was the man-ape’s turn to speak. I turned and bowed to him, and for the first time that day I looked him dead in the eyes—half expecting to see two hollow black holes brimming with the souls of dead children. And wouldn’t you know it, he was smiling. He laughed lightly and bowed that mammoth wrecking ball atop his shoulders, indicating that he had nothing to say.
In that moment the hate seed fell out of me, dead like a stone—petrified in its own uselessness like an insect fossilized in amber. He put his great meaty hand on my back on the way out of the room. That’s all it took for me to break down sobbing in my cabin about 20 minutes later, alone but warmhearted. Desperate, gushing, cleansing sobs. It was the kind of moment that buys you another five years of patience with, and passion for, monastic life.
It’s one of those breakthroughs of the heart.
I used to imagine that spiritual work was undertaken alone in a cave somewhere with prayer beads and a leather-bound religious tome, the holy one enwrapped in a mist of grace, mystique, and body odor. Nowadays, that sounds to me more like a vacation from spiritual work. Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice.
Through each other we discover that if we have the heart—the willingness, the strength, the courage—we have the capacity to plant the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, seeds of a laid-back humor, a sense of letting go. But your heart must be quicker than your mind. Trust me, that organ between your ears is always spoiling for a fight. Its job is to divide and conquer. But the real fight is taking place inside you, within the “dharma organ,” the heart, where the challenge is to unify and to understand, where the seeds of love and compassion are struggling to lay roots, to gain ground.
Lend this struggle an ear. Just pause for three seconds.
One banana . . . two banana . . . three banana . . . Pause and listen. Pause and breathe. Pause and gather your scattered, wild energies, your shattered soul . . . before you fling that seed of hate into the wind.
Mark my words, times are tough and the ground is fertile. That seed will grow.
Excerpted from Zen Confidential by Shozan Jack Haubner. Shambhala Publications, 2013. Reprinted with permission.