Photo by Ryan Schram

The year was 1987. I was 22 and had just escaped from my first Buddhist retreat.

May all beings be safe.

I chanted as I drove my ’71 Ford Falcon away from the compound down a dark desert road.

May all beings be free from suffering.

I had bought the Falcon for 350 bucks from a guy in North Hollywood wearing a white sweat suit and turban.

May all beings be healthy.

I knew nothing about cars, having grown up with a father who ironed creases in his jeans and never even showed me even how to change a doorknob.

May all beings be at peace.

But even I knew something was off about the Falcon. For one, the engine was too small – more like a go-cart motor. “Yeah, it’s not the original engine,” the man had told me. “That’s why I’m only asking 350.”

May all beings be safe.

Safe from buying pieces of shit cars.

Safe because they’re too stupid to know any better.

At the retreat, my 13 fellow participants and I were awakened before dawn by a banging gong. We rose in the chill of the high desert blackness and marched in a single file line to the meditation hall. There we found our cushions and settled in for the morning session, which was comprised of four 35-minute meditations, starting with a sitting meditation. Just as I was convinced my lower extremities would never work again, it was time for a walking meditation, at which point I couldn’t believe the joy of a few simple steps. I rose slowly and stumbled out onto the warm rocks and sand, hands in mudra, eyes cast down. Red-tailed hawks circled above, as we, the zombie sangha, circled below.

For lunch I peeled an orange in an awareness exercise that lasted over an hour, and I, too, exclaimed I had never fully tasted the sweetness of an orange before.

I learned that the desert is very dry and that moisture is hard to come by. I learned about grey water and conservation and how to wash a sink full of dishes with no more than a thimble full of liquid. I learned how lonely one can be surrounded by others, and that no matter where you go, there you are. I felt I understood the mind of one of the 20th Century’s greatest Buddhas, Marlon Brando – I remembered once reading that Brando could sit all day watching a line of ants cross a kitchen floor. Of course!

The retreat teacher had said that delusions of grandeur would try and take hold.

On our first night he warned: “You will all think yourself kings and queens one moment, and rapists and murderers the next. You will spin from elation to despair in the blink of an eye. You will be amazed at the worlds you create and the stories you weave.”

Sitting on my cushion, I tried counting my breaths and then counting my counting, but forgotten memories padlocked deep in boyhood boxes floated to the surface of my mind and bobbed like stinking, bloated fish. I rolled each memory over, poking at its jellied eyes. I wanted a switch to turn myself off. I wondered how the hell I ended up in a Buddhist retreat in the middle of the desert in the first place. Then I remembered. I had come to free myself. To know my source. To kick self-loathing and doubt to the curb. I wanted the brass ring, the Holy Grail, the supreme burrito in the sky. I sought The Big E – Enlightenment.

At night I shared a musty prospector’s cabin with three other seekers. After meditating all day, the thin boundary of myself had evaporated, so the wheezing and nose whistling of my sleeping cabin-mates seemed to penetrate every pore of my body. I tossed and turned on the rickety bunk. I wrapped my head in blankets and stuffed my ears with wads of toilet paper to block out the noise. I yelled out, as if talking in my sleep, “Shut the fuck up!” A ball of rage churned in my belly as the sounds continued. I wondered: How fast could I kill three people? Under a minute? What blunt object could I use? The heel of my boot? A loose cabin board? What was happening? Where was my metta? My loving kindness? I had come to the desert to develop equanimity, and all I could think of was slaughtering a few snoring strangers. “Shut the fuck up!”

May all beings be safe.

May all beings be happy.

May all beings please shut the fuck up.

I wanted a switch to turn myself off. I took a breath and watched the show inside my lids. Fireworks exploded and turned into letters. The letters danced and fell into place. L-E-A-V-E. Leave. Leave. I could go. I wasn’t chained to the bunk. No one had taken my keys. All I had to do was get up, walk to my car, and drive away. I lowered myself off the bunk and slipped into my boots. I clutched my keys, wincing as the loose floorboards groaned under my weight.

My car was parked in front of the teacher’s cabin. The teacher who spoke with an affected British accent. The teacher who just happened to have the hottest Buddhist girlfriend on the planet. Why did he get a private cabin? I imagined them naked, slowly peeling each other’s oranges. In Dokusan earlier that day – Dokusan is your private interview with the teacher to discuss your practice – the teacher simply stared at me…for a very, very, long time. I thought: Should I look away? Was this a test? He’s not blinking. It’s a trick. Finally I blurted out, “I’m not sure this Buddhist shit is good for me.”

He tilted his head and stared even harder. “I mean I’m an actor, and maybe having an empty mind – whatever that is, because I still don’t get how one even does that, or what it feels like, or why anyone would really even want that in the first place – I’m thinking maybe having an empty mind isn’t the best thing for me. And plus my back hurts, and my balls ache, and I’ve found a lump in my neck the size of a golf ball that I’m pretty sure is cancerous. And on top of it all, I can’t stop thinking about you and your incredibly hot girlfriend fucking, which I know is sick. And you know what else? I was the first one done peeling my orange. And when no one was looking I actually put the rind back around it like a fucking puzzle and pretended to peel it for another 45 minutes! That’s sick. That’s a sick thing to do. Right?”

What is?”

“To pretend I’m peeling an orange when I’m actually not peeling an orange. That’s messed up, right?”

“Do you play the sax?” he said.

“The sax? You mean like the saxophone?”


“No,” I said, and then changed my mind because I thought maybe he was using a Zen koan to shake me out of my ordinary awareness. “Yes. Yes, I do play the sax.”

“Well, which is it? Yes or no?”

“For real? Like in real life?”

“Yes. Like in real life.”

“No,” I sighed. “I don’t play the sax. I only said I did because I thought the question was a Zen koan.”

He adjusted his robe and brought his foot into half lotus. “I had a student who played the sax. He was very good. Even made a living at it. But he wasn’t happy.” He paused for a minute. “He doesn’t play the sax anymore.” Another pause. “And he’s very happy now. Very.” He rang a small bell by his knee signalling that the interview was over. “Remember, there are more important things in life than drinking beer and shooting pool with your friends.” Shit, the dude was reading my mind. I got up off my Zafu meditation pillow and backed out of the room.

Quietly, I closed the cabin door. The moon, otherworldly bright, illuminated the desert valley like an old Hollywood movie shooting day for night. Starting the car might wake someone, so I shifted it into neutral and released the brake. The dry earth crunched and popped as the car rolled away from the cabins. I glanced in the rear-view mirror. A curtain fluttered. A black-throated sparrow landed on a branch. The car stopped in a soft patch of sand. I turned the key and the Falcon sputtered to life. “Grinding Halt” by the Cure blasted over the car’s speakers, shattering the silence.

 “Only don’t know.” That was Zen master Seung Sahn’s main teaching. He was the first Korean Zen master to live in the West. The story goes that after his awakening he went into the mountains and began a hundred day retreat, eating only pine needles and chanting the Great Dharani Sutra – a Mahayana Buddhism scripture considered to be the oldest printed text in the world – pausing only to sleep. When he came down from the mountain, he met Zen master Kobong, reputed to be the most brilliant Zen master in Korea. Seung Sahn said to Kobong, “How should I practice Zen?”

Kobong said, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?”

Seung Sahn remained silent.

Kobong spoke again. “The pine tree in the front garden. What does this mean?”

Seung Sahn understood, but he didn’t know how to answer. “I don’t know.”         

Kobong said, “Only keep this don’t know mind. That is true Zen. Only don’t know.

I followed the fire road toward the flickering lights in the distance. On the horizon the jagged San Jacinto Mountains stood silhouetted in black, a pale blue dawn breaking across their peaks. Reaching a paved road, I saw a sign: 10 Freeway–Los Angeles. I took the ramp, patted the dash, and pushed my boot to the floor. The Falcon bucked and coughed, its neon orange needle struggling to break 30. I put on the flashers, hugged the shoulder and took the Cabazon exit, coming to rest under a life-sized tyrannosaurus rex. I got out and stretched. I walked behind a massive dinosaur leg and took a piss. A few yards away, the Wagon Wheel Diner’s lights flashed: HOT FOOD. I went inside and slid into a booth, still wearing my zebra strip meditation pants and purple tie-dyed bandanna. Truckers and locals eyed me with suspicion.

“Coffee, honey?” said the waitress.

“Yes, please.”

“Know what you want?”

“Um. How about… I’m starving. All I’ve eaten in two days is an orange. Um, give… give me… the biscuits and gravy.”

“Be back with your coffee, sweetie.”

I eventually moved back to New York, and in many ways became the actor I thought I might become. A few years later I heard that the teacher with the hot Buddhist girlfriend transitioned to become a woman.

Only don’t know.

Looking back, I realise a great secret had been whispered in the desert to that young man wearing the zebra parachute pants. And I’ve come to realise…the secret has no meaning. Meaning, that it’s not a secret at all.

No light

May all beings be safe.

No speak

May all beings be at ease.

No people

May all beings be happy.

No cars

May all beings be awake.

No people

May all beings be free.



Grinding halt

Everything is coming to a grinding halt Everything is coming to a grinding halt

James Macdonald

About James Macdonald

BIO-James's latest poetry was published in Finishing Line Press Anthology. His short story "It Is Certain" was recently published in Blood and Bourbon, and his essay “Driven” will appear in Caustic Frolic this winter. James is an actor with over a hundred appearances in Film and TV. He also works in the field of transformative justice, teaching writing workshops to the incarcerated and the recently paroled in Los Angeles.

BIO-James's latest poetry was published in Finishing Line Press Anthology. His short story "It Is Certain" was recently published in Blood and Bourbon, and his essay “Driven” will appear in Caustic Frolic this winter. James is an actor with over a hundred appearances in Film and TV. He also works in the field of transformative justice, teaching writing workshops to the incarcerated and the recently paroled in Los Angeles.

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