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Hollywood Zen

20 Apr
master-seung-sahn1Back in the mid-90s, I was in my mid-twenties and living in Hollywood. For the most part, I had no idea why I was there or what I was going to do. All I knew was that my mother had just passed away and most of my friends from Emerson College were working in one capacity or another in the film business. So I made the decision to drive my seafoam green Mazda from Austin to L.A. to find out what to do next.

I ended up living two blocks from Melrose Avenue in a very quaint “Melrose Place” type efficiency apartment. I did some PR, read screenplays and took temp assignments at various studios. It was fun, but somewhat silly at times and definitely at odds with my aspirations to be a serious spiritual student and creative. I was always very unclear about my creative path, but crystal clear about the need to find meaning and purpose in my life.

Then one day I did something very simple. I picked up the phone, dialed 411 and asked the operator for the number for Dharma. And you know what? She gave it to me. She gave me the number for the Dharma Zen Center which happened to be a few blocks away from me. Now, if you know anything at all about Los Angeles, having a convenient drive anywhere is a miracle in and of itself.

So the next evening, I went there to sit. I was not prepared for the enthusiastic and complicated Korean chanting, but I fell in love with it almost instantly. This began a very intense and joyful chapter of my life. It was also a strange and wonderful backdrop to working in a city that sort of chewed up and spit people like me out. The irony of my peaceful evenings juxtaposed against my super-stressful days of being “the assistant” or “temp” or “reader” was certainly not lost on me. In fact, I felt like this place provided a perfect balance to what I was trying to accomplish in the material world.

I was then introduced to the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. To me, his pictures made him look like a kindly grandfather, a very happy Buddha. He was not intimidating at all, but radiant and joyful. I had the opportunity to mediate, sit and eat with Dae Soen Sa Nim and I consider myself extremely privileged to have been among such a enlightened and pure soul, however brief.

But what impressed me most about the Dharma Zen Center was the people I met and practiced with and the intense loving care that everyone put into deeply connecting to their true nature. It was refreshing.

The inner journey can seem very scary at times, and confusing. But within the walls of Dharma Zen Center, there was friendship, reality and safety. I enjoyed being a layperson among monks and nuns and I actually lived in the center for a few months sharing house duties like cooking and cleaning the altar. By the time I left I knew every chant by heart, and many of the customs of this very rich tradition. I thought I would learn a lot, but I suppose what really happened was that I remembered a lot.

I found out that my body was strong (108 prostrations every morning at 4:30 a..m. sure helps); that my mind was strong (I could sit for two hours and look at the floor without freaking out); my spirit was strong (I could sense a deep connection with people and sounds and the natural world which I had never experienced before); and my heart was strong (I knew love was the center of it all and that the way of compassion was a deep truth I had been longing to understand).

Here are some books by and about Master Seung Sahn, the champion of “I don’t know.” What a beautiful thing to let go of needing to know it all and moving in the direction of being.

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha

Only Don’t Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn

And there is a wonderful documentary about Dae Soen Sa Nim called Wake Up! On the Road with a Zen Master. Here’s a clip:

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