I was living in Byron Bay. My first place was a share with my best friend (from Sydney) and her new husband (a monk from Queensland) and their new baby (my dearly loved godson). We hung out for a few years and then the house got sold. They found a cool spot pretty quickly but it was a smaller place (as in no room for me), so I had to find a share elsewhere. It came as a surprise and I had to scramble. I found a place in Lilli Pilli. The bedroom was tiny but I got full use of the garage and made it my den, workspace, think space, man cave. The woman I was sharing with was a published, celebrated writer and a member of Mensa (IQ around 140). It was her place and her rules but we got along just fine. Two quirky people, each into their own thing, their own worlds, making light contact on the reality plane every once in a while. There was mutual respect and appreciation with the tiniest hint of attraction. But we both knew the consequences of letting that grow, so we kept the space between us steady. I mean, she was in Mensa, she could work that much out. Sleeping with a flatmate. Er, no. She was too big a personality, too grand and refined a mind, too much someone who is the master of her own universe, I believed, to entertain the notion of a intimate union. It would have been gloriously wonderful. Until the first disagreement. You know? One of those kinds of chemistries. So, after a year or so, I moved out. Again, the place got sold. I enjoyed the time there, made the best of an unusual arrangement and dynamic and I think she did, too. If we had been ten years younger (we were early forties) or perhaps had gotten really drunk one night, things may likely have been different. And not better. So leaving with respect and a mild affection for each other was the optimum result. But I wasn't sure where to go next.
My friend, the monk, told me there was a small room - a bit like a cabin - attached to the main residence. It had jsut enough space for my bed and my desk. It was vacant at the time and was offered to me as a temporary solution. It was part of a Buddhist temple and Zen Do (pronounced 'doe'). The head monk, from Japan, lived in the main house. There was also a room in there for a monk in training/his assistant and a meditation hall that was used by the monks twice a day as well as occasional visiting practitioners.
I fit in easily. I grew up in Japan and speak Japanese and, more importantly, know how the Japanese behave. It's all about respect, politeness, deferment, consideration. And from my experience, this is true on every level in Japanese life. Their society is highly evolved and their social behaviour is elegant and refined. Much of my connection with the head monk was on this unspoken level. It's a way of being that is deeply ingrained in the Japanese and it makes for fluid interaction. Of course, on top of that, the master was a man of highly evolved consciousness. I was very much aware that I was in the presence of a special person. What was so special? Nothing out of the ordinary. But after time and observation it became clear that his very ordinariness, his humility, his love for humour and levity, his dedication to his practice... all these added up to a being who had successfully transcended most of the trappings, the entanglements of 'normal' life and was someone to truly admire and learn from.
I met and spent time with many of the monks. Some would stay for a few days, others weeks, a few for months. I got to know them all. All very different, different backgrounds, different stories, ways of being, reasons for practicing Zen. I got on well with almost all of them, became close with a few.
Because I remained an outsider - I was the only one there not in training or already ordained - I was able to benefit from their teachings, their learnings and their struggles without being fully immersed or attached. This also allowed them to enjoy my company in a fresh way; I was just a long haired, mellow, artist dude hanging out there for an unspecified time (and reason).
I have always enjoyed this role. Being part of something but at the same time, not. Being just on the outside of the circle. A free agent.
Yes, it does mean that the final commitment is not there - which, in many cases - means that full integration, absolute engagement is not possible, which is sometimes risky and potentially unfulfilling - but it's a position I am comfortable with. In some funky, personal way, I find it fits. I like to go 98% there, then stop. It can be excruciating, infuriating (for others), frustrating, limiting. But at the same time, it can be highly rewarding. And in this case, my time at the Zen Do, it was.
I did sit sometimes, I did consider becoming a monk, I did study and learn some of the ways. But, I knew, it wasn't my path. And beautifully, wonderfully, so did the master and most of the other monks. And still, they allowed me to live with them, eat with them, come and go as I pleased. It was truly a position of honour.
Eventually, after three years, quite out of the blue, I was offered a chance to travel to the US to create and perform a comedic monologue in a festival in New York. My flight over was covered and a months accommodation. It was an invitation to change tack, a new path to follow. I decided to move over there, do the performance, then go and live in LA and follow one of my dreams and work as a screenwriter. It seemed right.
For the last two years while living at the Zen Do, I had my own comedy radio show at the local station. It involved twenty hours of writing per week for each show. Then, practice with a band of voice actors and ten or more original skits performed live each week. I was into developing and presenting comedic scenes and characters. My time at the Zen Do had given me peace and a place to focus on one of my passions. This gave me the confidence to accept the new challenge of America and to pack up (what little I had) and head West, er, Northeast.
So, what did I learn there? What gems can I share, nuggets of wisdom that were garnered from living in such a special place as a lucky guest?
I learnt about simplicity, respect, humility, patience and focus. I learnt from watching, listening and thinking. Many of the monks, no, all of the monks, were flawed characters. But what set them apart was their dedication and devotion to something greater than themselves. A kind of reverence for life itself. Manifested in a practice of stillness and acceptance.
Of course, you never 'get there'. Nobody was anything other than a humble being, struggling and suffering in their own way, with their own destiny. But, at times, there was great reward to be found in scuttling around the peripheries of nothingness. There was a quiet, delightful salvation within sight on a few occasions while sitting silently with these most admirable practitioners, these dignified, humble and humbling beings.