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PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Why Zen?

Zen training -- of which meditation is a key component -- is designed to produce people who can be effective in any situation. Far from the popular notions of tree hugging, Zen is rigorous and challenging.
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People often ask "Why Zen? Is it relevant in today's world?" The answer is yes, very relevant! Zen training -- of which meditation is a key component -- is designed to produce people who can be effective in any situation. Far from the popular notions of bliss, tie-die and tree hugging, Zen is rigorous, direct and extremely challenging.

Zen is not about tips, tools and strategies. Instead, it's a meditative and reflective practice which seeks to cultivate a certain character and quality of being that leads to greater life satisfaction. This only comes from understanding yourself and the true nature of things. My Zen teacher refers to Zen training as that of making a sword. First you have to heat the metal until it is red hot, then you have to pound out the impurities and finally let it cool. Only then will you have an effective sword. That's Zen; an all-out assault on anything which prevents us from expressing everything that we are. For those who expect wind chimes and ripples on a pond, the real experience of Zen can be quite unsettling at first.

When I arrived at the Santa Monica Zen Center in 1998, I was desperately seeking answers. At that point in my professional career I had worked in marketing and business development across a number of industries. Over and over again, I had been confronted by an impenetrable dynamic amongst people -- a win at all costs mentality that prevented businesses and professionals from taking responsibility for something greater than themselves or their inner circle. "It's just business," a popular catch-phrase that I often heard, was used to justify certain actions and the pursuit of profits at the expense of people. I knew something was off but I couldn't put my finger on it.

This experience led me to seek answers. I wanted to know what would prevent good, connected and powerful people from using their resources to improve themselves and their everyday work environment; the argument "they just don't care" didn't satisfy me. I explored several methods for self-development, and none provided me with the answer to the question "WHY?" As in, "Why do I feel the way that I do, and why do people do the things that they do?" Ultimately my seeking led me to Zen Buddhism.

My first encounter with Yoshin Sensei, Abbott of the Santa Monica Zen Center, didn't take long to reveal that he did not fit the typical Zen Master stereotype. He was white, from Virginia, a conservative and 100 percent politically incorrect. Within minutes of speaking with him, he had me questioning the very makeup of who I was. As embarrassing as it was, no one had ever done that. It was exactly what I needed.

I knew from my initial experience with Sensei that Zen Training would provide me with the answer to the question 'Why?" It has, and more. As a former competitive athlete and professional musician who aspired to excellence, I was drawn to the "training" aspect of the practice. I don't care what the typical two-day self-improvement workshops promise; there is no substitute for consistent personal development over time. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

For over a decade, I have -- like thousands of monks throughout the world -- engaged in the pursuit of understanding the nature of myself and all people by maintaining a regular schedule of training and practice. Several days a week I sit Zazen -- which is Zen meditation, conduct service -- Zen liturgy, study directly with my Sensei, give talks and train to lead groups and support other students in their practice. It is all about developing understanding and triggering realization of who we are. Like everything else, there are times that I love what I do and times when I would be happy to call it quits.

When I took my vows to be a priest in 2007, I had a visceral experience the moment that my kesa (outer garment that lies over the right shoulder) was wrapped around me. It was then that I realized that I had become part of a 2,600 year-old lineage that extends back through Japan, China, India and ultimately to the Buddha himself. Talk about powerful and overwhelming all in one.

In spite of the challenges, I became a Zen Priest because of what it requires of me. It is a powerful, ancient structure by which a person can access their full human potential. It's a standard that demands mastery, excellence and integrity. It insists that I make an impact NOW! It represents the possibility of being fully functional and integrated as a human being and leader.

People often ask me about what it is like to be a Zen Priest. Well, it is profound and very normal at the same time. To my family and childhood friends back in Claremont, California, I am just Mark. To my colleagues and peers at work, I am also just Mark - that's the point. Last July, I got married, and now my wife Malene and I are expecting our first child in late April. We also have a really cool dog (Nahla) and enjoy hanging at the house, taking walks, eating good food and making the trek to my mother's home in Sonoma whenever possible.

I have seen a lot of people come and go from the Santa Monica Zen Center. In Zen the expectations are high, as are the hurdles you must navigate on a constant basis - not everyone makes it. Throughout the years good friends have challenged my level of commitment and encouraged me to quit. Through it all one thing has remained a constant. It is the words - Do Not Squander Your life! - that remain present in my mind. These five words are read aloud each night during intensive periods of training. They keep me going, and they are what drive me to support other people in making the most of their life too. This is why I am a Priest.

Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost - Do Not Squander Your Life!