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A Zen Student's Perspective on Spiritual Practice with Cheri Huber

This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist, by Sara Jenkins (Fair Winds Press, 2001), by Sara Jenkins, is largely about working with Cheri Huber. These excerpts describe the student's first retreat experience and a reflection on the Zen path after practicing for ten years -- the latter being, in essence, a love letter to Cheri.

In the Sauna

What we seek lies in our moment-to-moment experience; where to look is always here, now.

We all met in the meditation hall after supper to hear how the retreat would be structured. Cheri, wearing a long black skirt and black kimono top, walked to the front of the room, removed the cushion and mat from the platform, placed them on the floor, bowed, and sat down facing us. Then she outlined the schedule for sitting and walking meditation and the two work periods during the day. . . and described the procedure for personal guidance interviews, which would be held in the sauna. You would sign up for a fifteen-minute slot, and a few minutes ahead of time you would go to the sauna. Outside would be a chair and a small gong. At the time of your appointment, you would strike the gong, and when you heard an answering bell from inside, the person ahead of you would come out, and you would go in.

Silence would be observed throughout the retreat, Cheri said. She gave no instruction in meditation, and she did not mention Buddhism.

We sat very still. The sounds outside-the stream, the wind-filled my awareness. After a while, Cheri slid her right hand back into the kimono sleeve, where it rummaged in the deep corner and emerged with a Kleenex. I watched with rapt attention as she dabbed at her nose. Then she spoke, very softly.

"Our practice is quite simple, really. It's to pay attention. Not to do anything. Not to get anything. Not to learn anything. Not to change anything. But to pay attention, because everything you are seeking is present in each and every moment. If you're busy trying to change, you're missing it. Don't worry about trying to do life differently. Just see how it is."

A woman in the front of the room said that she didn't see how you could avoid trying to do things. How would you function?

Cheri stuffed the Kleenex into the opposite sleeve of her kimono. "If you are content to be with exactly what is, each moment, functioning is not a problem. You'll function as the need arises. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart talks about having nothing, wanting nothing, needing nothing. To be completely at one with what is means there's nothing left over to have any difficulties. That's what this practice is about."

There was a long silence. Then Cheri spoke again.

"If I had one wish for everybody, it would be that you get really interested in how all this works. It's much more enjoyable if you remember that this is an opportunity to figure out the universe. You have this person, yourself, available for scrutiny. It's as if you put yourself under a microscope in order to find out everything there is to know about how a person operates, and then you know how everything operates. It's also better if you remember that this is a path of compassion, this is a process designed to end suffering. If we can find the compassion to simply sit still with this person," she pointed to herself, "as she or he is-not having an idea that I can improve this person or fix this person or enlighten this person, just that I'm going to sit down and be with this person-it's much easier.

"There's nowhere to go on this path. There's nothing to accomplish. The moment you move into your heart of compassion, you are there. And you don't have to be a perfect person to do that. You can simply be present to whatever you are, moment by moment by moment. You don't have to understand, you don't have to be bright or clever, you don't have to know a single thing about Buddhism. Whatever happens, embrace it in compassion, and let go of everything else."


. . . When my turn came, Cheri suggested that we go inside the sauna because it was getting too warm for her in the sun. We climbed in, arranged ourselves on the two black cushions, and sat. Some moments passed in silence, long, still moments, in which I noticed that, to my amazement, there was really nothing wrong.

Finally, Cheri whispered, "How can I be of assistance?" No question came to mind. Since I did not feel free to remain silent, or to say, "I don't know," I said I was confused about what I was doing in sitting meditation.

"Well," said Cheri, "let's look at it this way. That which you are seeking is that which causes you to seek. So your heart says 'Sit,' and when you sit, then you are following your heart, you are being at one with that which is guiding and directing your life."

I wondered what that meant; it sounded suspiciously theistic. She went on to say something even more surprising.

"It's not necessary to be absolutely present for extended periods in your meditation for it to have an effect. We're not measuring this in time and space. There is a way of grasping your willingness to be present that does not involve standards and competition and judging yourself and that sort of thing. It's like being in the presence of someone you really admire and respect and care a great deal for. You just don't tend to nod off, you don't daydream and make shopping lists, because you really want to be there. It's that attitude with which we can learn to sit."

"I'm a long way from that," I said. I confessed that I had begun to dread sitting, using work as an excuse to avoid it when I could.

"And how does that make you feel?" she asked.

I described the anxiety I experienced anticipating meditation, the frustration I felt sitting on the cushion thinking about what a failure I was, and the shame that sickened me when I manufactured excuses to avoid going to the meditation hall.

"Suffering. Do you see that? Do you see how it works?" Cheri asked. "You know, almost everybody I talk to about spiritual growth has one deep, underlying concern, and that is everything they're going to have to give up. It almost never occurs to anybody that all they're going to give up is suffering." The best I could do with that idea was to quit sitting altogether. I knew it fell short of true acceptance, but at least it was not perpetuating the agony.


Spiritual growth can take place in some pretty roundabout ways. In this instance, I suspect that temporarily giving up on meditation-or, rather, giving up stewing about it (I had yet to discover that I could stop stewing without stopping sitting)-helped me quit perpetuating agonies in general. It felt so good just to be going about my life, without dragging around that pernicious sense of Something Wrong. . . . .

[Cheri] agreed that I was probably enjoying the results of letting up on myself about meditation, and she suggested that I notice how good it felt to let go of suffering. In the long run, though, she thought it likely that I would suffer again. I was like someone who had moved from a poor neighborhood to a nice part of town, she said, and was enjoying my bright new life. But I had left behind a houseful of crying, hungry children-unacceptable aspects of myself-to whom, sooner or later, I would have to return. I was the only one who could take care of them, and it was there, and there alone, that I would learn compassion.


(This excerpt is from This Side of Nirvana, by Sara Jenkins. For information about the book and how to order, please visit the Zen Center's site

Copyright 2003-2011 Cheri Huber