Over the last little bit, several people have asked me how I found my way to Zen. I’m pretty sure that I gave similar and yet different accounts each time. So I’m going to attempt to write a more or less definitive version of how I started starting at walls and contemplating my navel lint.
For those of you that don’t know, spiritual practice runs in my blood…sort of. My grandmother, my mother’s mother for those keeping track, has always been a free spirit and followed her own path whether that is potting, sculpting, clowning, or the theater. A member of the Unitarian Universalist church for many years, the grand dame of the Arnold clan can be a little out in the ether from time to time. Nels had four kids and of those four, two straight up converted to other religions and one of those even legally changed his name. One of my uncles, GuruMeher Singh Khalsa, born Chad Arnold, has been a yogi and member of the American Sikh community since the mid-seventy’s. I’ll get to my other uncle here in a moment since he deserves an entire paragraph. My aunt Alison is a horticulturist by trade and training and also a part of the Sacred Fire community and practices plant spirit medicine. The easiest way to sum that last sentence up is a spiritual path with deep Native American and indigenous roots. My mom, believe it or not, is the “normal” one in the bunch. I say this because instead of pursuing some lofty path, she finished college, got married, and had a child. She is a wonderful woman and I can honestly say I am the man I am today because of her amazing guidance…and because she didn’t murder me during those rough teenage years.
So contrast all this open spirituality, compassion, and love with my father’s family. My grandparents, who went by the very uncreative but accurate names of Grandmamma and Granddaddy, were “strict” Southern Baptists. I’m not entirely sure what strict means in this case, maybe just that they were Southern Baptists and made sure to get a second helping of fire and brimstone when it was being handed out. My father and his two brothers were more or less forced to attend my grandparents’ church until they were old enough to rebel and because of this my father has spent most of his adult life railing against organized religion. Not in some kind of picketing churches kind of way, just that you won’t catch him in church unless it’s a funeral and if you ask him his opinion make sure you’ve got time and ear plugs. My grandparents basically hated each other right up until they died. That may be a little unfairly harsh. They may not have hated each other. They may have in fact loved each other very much, but the outward appearance was that they wouldn’t save the other from even the most minor of dangers. If that’s love, I don’t want it. Needless to say emotional vocabulary and deep discussions were not a major part of my father’s childhood.
Ok enough rambling, let’s get back to Zen or more specifically, my path to it. I briefly mentioned my other uncle earlier. His name is Geoffrey Shugen Arnold. Shugen being his dharma name given to him by his Zen teacher John Daido Loori Roshi. For the record, Roshi is an honorific given to senior teachers and abbots that literally means old priest. You’ll also hear the term sensei thrown out a lot. Sensei when directly translated means born before. In Japan, it’s used for anyone in a skilled profession like a teacher or doctor. In Zen and the martial arts, it usually means teacher. I am quite proud to say that you can actually google my uncle’s name and get a Wikipedia article as well as some of his writings and other works… google me and all you get is the band. Shugen is the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York as well as the head of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism. Having practiced Zen fulltime for over three decades, he has written a few books, countless articles, worked with people who are incarcerated and also keeps in touch with an affiliate group in New Zealand. All that’s to say, he’s kind of a big deal in American Zen. Being his nephew has led to some rather interesting encounters in the Zen world, like when I was attending a retreat at Zen Mountain and his students gathered around me one evening to ask all kinds of questions.
With Shugen in my life, I’ve always been kind of aware of Zen and Buddhism. I say kind of because as a kid I was aware that my uncle didn’t have a normal job like mom or dad, but I had no idea what he really did. I also knew that he had no hair…and neither did my aunt…who happens to be Asian. As I’m sure you’re aware, kids can grow up with absolutely anything seeming normal. It’s only in later childhood or as adults that we start to notice that something about our family wasn’t quite the same as everyone else.
Fast forward a few decades and we find our illustrious hero, me, at the University of Georgia. In case you weren’t aware, I have a degree in business. I know, the most important degree for a life coach, but coaching came later. I was also studying Shaolin Kung Fu with a guy named Dave Thompson. At the time, I was really enjoying Kung Fu and school wasn’t bad, but I also wasn’t super happy with my life. See since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit of a rebel. An outsider if you will. Partially it was my penchant for heavy metal and punk rock. The other part of it is that I wasn’t happy with myself. I was always looking at what other people had and wishing I was them instead of me. It’s that whole, if only I had blank, think that you’ve heard me talk about before. Add in a dose of depression and you’ve got a recipe for someone who seems to have a lot going for them, but is still rather miserable. So at some point, I decided that being unhappy all the time just wasn’t how I wanted to live. I knew that meditation could improve concentration and focus, as well as helping with difficult emotions and since I knew Zen Buddhism dealt with meditation, I decided why not. Had I not been exposed to Zen from Uncle Geoff, would I still have gravitated that way? Hard to say. I do know that that is what happened and I’m really not interested in playing that what if game.
Luckily for me, there was and still is a Zen group associated with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in Athens. It’s not a large group, but it’s a good group none the less. I sat with them for a while and even was initiated as a card carrying Zen Buddhist, I have the card if you want to see it sometime. When I moved back to Atlanta, I started sitting at ASZC and studying with Taiun Michael Elliston who is the abbot.
One thing you should know, when Elliston Sensei gave me my Dharma name, Kansho, he really hit the nail on the head. Kansho means hot and cold in Japanese and frankly, most of my life has been finding something I’m interested in and getting really involved (hot), but then later losing interest or getting bored and moving on (cold). Long story short, I basically took a multi-year break from Zen until the last few years. Once again, I found myself in a place where I wasn’t super happy with life, the universe, and everything and just like before, I turned to Zen for help. I was telling a teacher the other day that the good part about me is that when I get in a pickle, I sit more. There are certainly worse ways of self-medicating.
More or less, that brings us to the present day. My practice, this version of it anyway, is alive and strong. I sit every day for at least a few minutes and will be starting to teach meditation classes soon. When I returned to ASZC, I found that most of the people I had known before were gone amid rumors of a falling out with Sensei. For me, after much fighting with myself, I realized that the connection that I value so highly in my coaching practice and in my personal life, wasn’t there with Elliston, so I’ve chosen to study on my own for a while until I find a teacher that I’m more connected with. Maybe it’s like the old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” Until then, I’ll just keep putting butt to cushion and contemplating my navel.