Because “30 years of meditation” sounds too intimidating, I will share my own spiritual journey that lead me to zen and shikantaza in the end. It was full of its own pitfalls and far less awe inspiring than you may imagine.
It really is a spiritual supermarket out there, isn’t it? In preparation of a future episode I was really overwhelmed by all the possibilities you have now when you’re about to integrate meditation in your life.
That was way more difficult when I started on this journey. I decided to talk about that, because you may want to know more about me. And because my journey was not inspiring or target-oriented at all. That may prove useful to you, if you’re searching yourself right now.
In my defense I have to say, even if everything I’ll tell sounds confusing: Every step sounded perfectly plausible to me at that time.
My parents were not religious or spiritual in any way. They were born at the beginning of the Second World War, their childhood was characterised by poverty and hunger. Everything that smelled like tradition was very problematic and everything that smelled modern and new was right fpr them. The Sixties were a very optimistic time in Germany, I think this lasted until 1974. I have vivid memories of watching the moon landing in the middle of the night with them. They woke me up because they thought these moments are incredible important. And I still believe they were.
My first contact with religion was my grandfather. He was a soldier in the war and captured by the Red Army in 1945. He lived in the Gulag camps for three years. That’s were he found God. But he was not a missionary at all.
All he did that impressed me as a kid was going to church every given Sunday, no matter where he was and being very nice to me.
I decided to visit confirmation lessons in the Methodist Church, because Grandpa – by some very strange coincidences – was a Methodist. I think there were about six hundred of them in all of Bavaria at that point in time.
I thrived in that congregation, soaked in all the information I could get and spent every weekend in the church – the whole weekend, not only the service!
But, being only 15 years old, I already had one big problem with my faith: Praying.
Why should I talk to God? Isn’t he all-knowing? He knows every word I will say, even before I utter it. He knew probably more about my intentions than I did, because I had no idea what my plans and wishes and goals were.
Words just made no sense at all. Words were so irritating and distracting and felt always wrong!
Then, one day, while painting a very wild, abstract picture with my fingers, down on the floor of my room – I had my first spiritual experience. I completely lost track of myself and of what I was doing and a feeling of deep joy grew inside of me. Up to the point when I said to myself: I am so happy? Then it was gone – instantly.
Only the picture was there. I had no memory of painting it. I found no words to explain this, but being a confirmand, I called it my ‘meeting with God’.
Turns out that’s a very un-methodist thing to experience. Our preacher did not think that I had a ‘meeting with God’ at all. He was more concerned with the status of my mental health. Though I think John Wesley himself, the founder of the Methodist church, would have had more understanding.
In the Seventies all Protestant churches in Germany were rather intellectual. And I was, too. The prophets in the Bible had this terrifying touch of madness – I was sure they would have landed in a closed psychiatric ward back then. And today probably too.
Because of some annoying, but non-spiritual problems with the congregation under a new leadership I searched for a different path on my own.
I did not dare to leave the Christian tradition.
One of the authors I found that described more or less what had happened to me when I had my meeting with God was Theresa of Avila.
There is one very famous poem of her that moved me very deeply.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience gains all things.
If you have God you will want for nothing.
God alone suffices.
That had to be the right direction! There was only one little problem – there was no denying that Saint Theresa was … I don’t dare to say it … catholic!
She is even a catholic saint!
I had learned that the veneration of saints was one of the greater heresies of the Catholic church – in the same league as papacy itself, so I was confused.
There were even more authors in the Christian tradition that spoke to me! Meister Eckhard, John of the Cross, St. Basil the Great, Thomas Merton or Gerhard Tersteegen, my first Protestant mystic.
Give no ear to reason’s questions;
Let the blind man hold
That the sun is but a fable
Men believed of old.
At the breast the babe will grow;
Whence the milk he need not know.
Even some of my favourite non-spiritual authors seemed to have strong roots in Christian mysticism. Hermann Hesse for example or Fjodor Dostojewski – I read everything they wrote ravenously hungry.
But all this reading and searching did not help me to achieve any mental state similar to this one ‘meeting with God’ I had. In fact, my journey lead further away, the more I learned about mysticism in theory – it had developed into an intellectual journey, not one of practice.
Believe me: “Recently I read texts of this medieval female saint that moved me” – was not the kind of small talk that was popular in the Eighties.
School ended 1984 and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was absolutely sure that I did not want to inherit the company of my father. Becoming a businessman was not something I had in mind. It had to be something that’s more like the opposite of businessman. The opposite of my father.
Which was great ignorance on my side and I am sure a great disappointment for my father – but my parents did not disagree with my plans of visiting an art school to become an illustrator. Which, in a strange turn of events made a businessman out of me in the end. A bad one, to be honest.
In art school I had a girlfriend that was almost ten years older than me. She did not only know about Theresa of Avila or the other Christian mystics, she even had experience with meditation. Zen meditation, but with a Christian flavour.
There was this Christian monk named Hugo Enomya-Lasalle. He has been a jesuit priest in Japan where he studied Zen under Harada Daiun Sogaku who was a student of Hakuun Yasutani Rōshi who had founded a new school of Zen called ‘Sanbo Kyodan’.
This was a combination of Soto and Rinzai techniques and part of a movement of Buddhist modernism. In Sanbo Kyoda, which was renamed Sanbo Zen in 2014, there was no fear of contact with Christianity and it became a strong influence on Christian meditation in Europe.
In the United States Philip Kapleau, who co-wrote “The Three Pillars of Zen” may be the most famous Zen teacher of that lineage.
Pater Lasalle had built a meditation center in Bavaria and this was the start of Mr Wunderlich sitting on the floor and staring at a wall! Which is not completely true, because in Dietfurt we did stare on the floor. But my favourite book of Pater Lasalle still has a very prominent place in my book shelf.
This first retreat was pure torture and I will dive into all details in another episode. But even with decades of experience my heart goes out to all the beginners out there. I feel with you – and I’m a little envious, too.
My next immodestly called ‘meeting with God’, took a rather unexpected form. It did not occur while meditating. It was a near death experience. Again, I’ll tell you more of that accident in another episode.
Fact is, that I lay there on railroad tracks, far off the city and died. Because I got into contact with the power lines there and suffered from severe incinerations.
I knew I was dying and it was fine. It was perfectly fine with me. The images my mind produced were that of me lying back on God’s lap. But at some point a voice said to me: “Enough. Now get up!”
I knew that I would survive. Though things did not look very good and the doctors gave me only a 10% chance of survival.
By the way: I do not believe that this is proof for the existence of a God or specifically a Christian God. I am quite sure that my mind would have found other pictures if I had been a Muslim, a Jew, a Hinduist or a Buddhist. And my near death experience – I was declared clinically dead in the process – is not a proof for live after death either.
I am not on a mission to convince you of anything here.
Right after the hospital I visited retreats again and I began to study theology. Because, back then, in 1986, I was sure that my experience had something to say about the value of a spiritual or religious life.
I wanted to bring the meditation practice I had learned from Catholic monks into my Protestant tradition. My knowledge of religion as an everyday practice had to have a meaning for protestant Christians, too! You see, 33 years ago, I was on a mission!
Well, that chapter in my life lasted only a little more than a year. The professors were not interested in mystical practice at all. Neither were my fellow students. The Pro-Seminar Buddhism I already told you about, was a very superficial treatment of another religion, the main learning goal was to expose Buddhism as a nihilistic concept.
In the meantime my efforts as an illustrator began to earn money. Especially with my new Mac computer and desktop publishing software. Me and a friend of mine earned some money being able to produce layouts faster and fancier as old school printing techniques.
That lead me far away from religion, mysticism and meditation. And I had a good excuse prepared: At least I really had tried my very best, but now, that no one seemed to be interested in what I had to say, I preferred being a businessman!
I’ll spare you further details again, but after ten years I owned a company with eleven employees and gloriously went into bankruptcy, leaving my wife, my children with no income and a very huge pile of debt.
At least I really had tried my very best, but now, that no one seemed to be interested in me being a businessman, I preferred to be spiritual again. I made meditation a daily practice again. I was terribly in need of spiritual guidance, of the certainties I once had experienced, so I sat down and stared at the wall in despair.
We struggled a long time until my now ex-wife saved us and gave me the possibility to work from home as a stay-at-home dad.
I even began to teach Zen meditation at my congregation for about seven years. It took four years of work to prove to my new congregation that I am not planning to infiltrate Lutheran beliefs with Buddhist ideas and that my teachings were not “New Age”, but based on Christian history. Martin Luther’s mystic experiences, which he did document very thorougly, were my strongest arguments.
What had been Sanbo Kyodan had developed in the ten years of my absence from retreats. Pater Lasalle was dead and some of his students had founded their own schools, some of them passing on the dharma in the hundreds!
So I decided to have a look into what had been at the roots of Sanbo.
There was, for instance, Rinzai. This looked like the more practical approach than Soto. And I understood Rinzai as the more modern, goal oriented way of reaching enlightenment. And this enlightenment thing must be like my ‘meeting with God’.
As an illustrator I really liked the Rinzai way of experiencing meditation in calligraphy. But the work with koans proved to be problematic. Words again! I had found a sangha which treated koans like intellectual adventures, which I disliked very much.
I visited retreats in other traditions, too, but I stopped searching when I found shikantaza. Which means literally “just sitting” and is very “Soto” concept, not Rinzai at all.
Many people told me that shikantaza has the reputation of being the most difficult meditation practice. And maybe it is for some.
Me, I think it is the easiest way – at least it is the simplest.
Just sitting, without counting the breath, without concentrating on an object, without any goal, without any struggle to achieve peak experiences, no pushing God of having a new meeting with me – that was a liberation for me!
It sounds very pompous, but somehow shikantaza made me free.
You know, I don’t want to give the impression I am particularly ‘good’ in what I do when I just sit there. But – you know what – I really don’t care!
When I sit there and stare at the wall, I still sometimes think myself: You are not good at this shikantaza thing at all!
But, in the next moment, that thought is gone and I still sit there.
Maybe it’s just another misjudgement or misinterpretation on my part – there were some in my life, as you’ve heard – or maybe I got mild in age: But for the last twenty or so years just sitting, shikantaza, is enough and I have no plans to change that.
Because just sitting means just life. Life itself.