After almost 30 years, it was time to go back.
I had visited the Cambridge Zen Center once in the 1980s, back when meditation was considered an odd thing to do. Back before Oprah and Kobe Bryant and corporate CEOs were doing it. I had read the few Zen books that were available in bookstores—The Three Pillars of Zen; Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
I had just arrived in Cambridge and was eager to meet an in-the-flesh Buddhist who would teach me how to meditate. When I heard there was a Zen center nearby, I made plans to visit. My teacher, I imagined, would be an elderly Japanese monk with a shaved head. He would exude both wisdom and humor.
One humid summer evening, I arrived at the Zen Center for the beginner’s class. The Center was in a normal house with a normal doorbell. Upon entering, I was instructed to leave my shoes in the front hall and quietly wait in a nearby room where a few others were already waiting. Soon a young man, about my age, beckoned us into another room.
He instructed us to sit around him in a circle on the floor. His hair was thick and brown and greasy. He was wearing a gray robe, so whatever there was to join, he had already joined it. He told us some basic things about Zen and Buddhism, things I already knew. It was hot and the Zen Guy was sweating. I was bored and found it hard to sit still on the floor.
Then the Zen Guy placed a bell in the middle of the circle. He paused for a moment, then asked, “What is that?”
There was an awkward silence. No one said a word. Then someone said, “A bell.”
“That’s one idea,” said the Zen Guy in a tone that clearly indicated that wasn’t the correct answer. Our awkward silence resumed.
I knew the answer the stupid Zen Guy was looking for. Anyone who’d read any Zen book would. I didn’t want to provide him with the cliché he was looking for. The silence continued. A small smirk formed on Zen Guy’s lips. Another member of our group suggested, “It’s an object constructed of metal designed to emit sound.”
“That certainly isn’t wrong,” said Zen Guy, trying to act the role of the wise teacher.
I had a sudden urge to slap him. I’d had enough. I picked up the bell and rang it.
“Yes!” said Zen Guy, giving me a conspiratorial smile.
I didn’t smile back. I’m not sure what he said after that. I spent the rest of the class hating him and hating myself for having offered the easy answer. Hating, and also trying to come up with a better response. Something spontaneous and honest. I wished I’d hurled the bell through the closed window. Smashed it and walked out, leaving the shattered glass, the stupid Zen Guy, and my fellow students, who now would never become my fellow students.
There was still time to hurl it, but the moment had passed. When the class ended, I got my shoes and left.
Several years later, I learned to meditate at a nearby Insight Meditation center. The teacher was a middle-aged, balding guy with a Brooklyn accent. He was smart and funny and didn’t wear a robe, though he had once been a Buddhist monk. I liked listening to him, but I didn’t like the part of class where we actually meditated. The practice didn’t stick. Not then. I’d take it up and drop it several times before it finally did.
I’m not sure why, after all these years, I had an urge to return to the Zen Center. But there I was, and there it still was, on another humid summer night.
I climbed the steps just behind a young woman, who it turned out, had also come for the beginner’s class. She rang the bell, and after a very long time, a woman with short silver hair—a woman even older than me—answered the door looking annoyed, as if answering the door were someone else’s duty. She motioned for us to take off our shoes and ushered us into the waiting room, which looked just like I remembered. Two young people were already sitting on the couches and two more came in. The others were all in their 20s or early 30s. I could have been everyone’s mother.
There were a number of people in the hallway, some wearing thin gray robes over their clothes. Some people seemed to live there and some seemed to be visiting. Finally, a robed guy in his 40s entered the room and welcomed us. He had brown hair, was soft-spoken, and seemed kind. After a short welcome, he led us through a maze of stairs and hallways to a small air-conditioned room where cushions were arranged on the floor.
We went around the room briefly introducing ourselves. Most of the others were new to town. Some already had a meditation practice. The teacher talked a bit about the Center and what was offered. He gave brief instructions on how to meditate, then we sat together for five minutes. The window AC unit was loud. Outside, the sky was darkening, either from nightfall or an impending storm.
Before coming, I’d thought again about the bell and the stupid Zen Guy years ago and how judgmental I’d been, how reflexively dismissive. I wondered what I’d do if the same scenario played out again—if a bell was placed in a circle and some robed person asked, “What is that?”
At the end of our five minutes, the teacher slowly clapped his hands. We had a few minutes left for Q&A before the evening talk, which we were all invited to attend.
I asked about learning how to bow, something I’d been wondering about for a while, a practice meant to encourage humility. The teacher started to explain, then said, “Let me just show you.”
Unselfconsciously, he stood up and went through the steps of how to do a prostration in the Zen tradition—moving from standing with hands together in prayer position to kneeling with forehead on the ground and arms slightly lifted, palms facing upwards. He told me the times there was daily bowing at the Center. I thanked him. In my voice I could hear my own intention to come back.
Time was up. The talk was starting in the big hall. Outside, the sky had let loose and rain was coming down hard. Not weather to go out in. We all stayed for the talk. Afterwards, I got my shoes and left.