This lecture is reprinted from the May 2002 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
This evening while I was preparing soup just before zazen, a huge man appeared in the doorway. He said, "My name is Bernard.” He asked if he could stay. I told him it was a little early and would he please sit down. He did. When I asked him to come into the zendo, he seemed to not hear me but sat looking straight ahead. I could see that he was on something. He said he couldn’t see to well, so I led him up the stairs to the zendo. I proceeded to show him how to sit.
Bernard must be at least 6'4" tall and he must weigh close to 300 pounds – all solid muscle. His hands were huge and had the quality of baby elephant legs. When he sat down the whole floor sank a little. I seated him on two zafus and four pillows. His knees stuck up nevertheless. He did everything I told him to and said, "Yes, sir,” to everything. I could see that it was painful for him and that he was very tied up both physically and emotionally. As soon as he was established in his posture he began to cry and whimper. It quickly turned into deep sobbing.
The feeling in the zendo became tense but very still except for Bernard’s sobbing. Nobody knew what he was going to do next. Fortunately I was feeling very calm and somehow knew exactly how to handle him. I knew that he trusted me completely. I forgot to mention that while downstairs, I asked him how he came to know of this place. He said he was driving down the street and the next thing he knew, here he was. This gave us both a confidence in the destiny of the situation.
I took my seat and began zazen. All during zazen, Bernard was swaying from side-to-side. Then, after about ten minutes, or maybe a little longer, he began rocking back and forth. Pretty soon his rocking became more exaggerated and I was afraid he was going to fall backwards. I silently concentrated on saying, "Don’t fall, Bernard. Don’t Fall.” Then the inevitable happened. Bernard fell over backwards with a crash that shook the house. The strange thing was that he was still in zazen posture, just like a little Buddha statue that you might tip over on its back. I walked over to him and said, "Bernard.” His eyes were still looking straight ahead at the ceiling. "Bernard,” I said. "Do you want to continue?”
"Yes," he said.
"Climb back on your cushion then.”
Bernard climbed back onto the cushions.
Someone came to me and whispered, "Do you think that man should sit in his state? Aren’t there times when a person shouldn’t sit?”
"He should sit," I said.
When zazen was over, we had service. I told Bernard to get up and showed him how to hold his hands in gassho. He just stood there in gassho throughout the service. Then I led him downstairs.
I asked him to stay and eat which he did. He was still in a somewhat spaced-out state but much more aware than when he came in. He finally, after some silence, asked if he could tell me the story of his life. There were four of us eating and the soup that I had originally made for two was stretched. Bernard told of his life as a child in the south. How he had been football material but joined the army instead. He said that his life had just been taking one bad turn after another ever since he could remember. He was most upset because his wife had left him. She told him he was not a man. Since then he had been trying to find himself. He said that tonight he realized he was just Bernard. He didn’t have to be anyone else. Just Bernard. He said it had always been Bernard and white folks. But now he said we were all plain people and that made him feel like Bernard. He left and said he would come back.
Last revised April 28, 2002. [an error occurred while processing this directive][an error occurred while processing this directive]