ROBERT SHIDO HOWARD


I received an invitation to attend a sesshin in August 1971, at the Daughters of Wisdom Catholic Convent in Litchfield, Connecticut. I was a Vedantan Hindu at the time and I did not know what Zen was.

When I saw Soen Roshi there, I bowed and asked him if I could take the dust off his feet-a Vedantan sign of respect. He said, "You are crazy!" and hustled off. This was the beginning of my transformation into awareness.

***

In August 1973, I was back for sesshin at the Daughters of Wisdom, struggling to collect my mind while my wife was in divorce court giving me my freedom.

In the zendo, six feet behind me, was a huge spherical gong, about four feet in diameter. Soen Roshi struck the gong. I – my personality – was suddenly transmuted to a state of nothingness – sometimes called the void – with no thinking, no pondering, no emotions, no pleasure, no pain, beyond infinite space, beyond infinite consciousness. Some entity that I will call 'Witness' replaced my personality or ego.

The Witness is pure 'Beingness', 'Is-ness'. The Witness observed my ego trying to reassert itself. Beingness in void changed into Infinite Consciousness – the state wherein we are not separate from the group or any human being. The Witness observed that there is no property other than compassion. Being in void alternated with being incompassionate equanimity. My ego reasserted and recognized that equanimity and compassion were new experiences that I wished would become part of my personality.

As a result of this experience, I lost interest in many things, and ever after I tried to teach the practice of compassion. I only succeeded in teaching compassion to one person, my daughter Kwan Yin, named after the symbol of compassion. Another outcome was that my personality now included the Witness as a foundation. The Witness perceived that almost all preoccupations people have are mental constructs without any substance; they are inventions of the mind.

I still had my karma to live out. I still had my personality disorders to correct. So my life was virtually unchanged except that when I heard Soen Roshi's words, I knew what he was talking about.



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