Recently I led a retreat at the Empty Gate Zen Center in Berkeley California. Among the retreatants was an older Chinese man whom I had never met before. From his dress I could tell that he was quite wealthy. Although he was quite uncomfortable sitting and bowing, he practiced with sincerity and intensity for three days. During a chat after the retreat he told me that he was from Indonesia and here in the States for just a short time visiting his son, who attended the University of California.
Suddenly, concern and sadness filled him with emotion. He told me something very shocking: just a couple of weeks ago he was quite wealthy — his family had been living in Jakarta for several generations but now, because of the recent turmoil in Indonesia he had little left. Ethnic Chinese had been targeted in the riots there, and his business was destroyed. Even his wife could not leave the country because her passport was kept in a bank which had been looted. When he saw the poster for our retreat he walked in off the street and sat down; he said it was the only thing he could do!
This man’s story reminded me of something. Every winter in the mountains of Korea our school holds a ninety-day retreat at Shin Won Sah Temple. Within the temple complex there is one building dedicated to a protective god recognized in the ancient religion of Korea. The building was originally built in the early Yi Dynasty, late fourteenth century, as a place where the queen could pray for the protection of the nation. During retreats many of us would go up to this building to do midnight practicing. As with many traditional Korean temple buildings, the gate at the entrance is supported by two columns. Painted on these columns are Chinese sayings intended to inspire and encourage the practitioner. On the left-hand post it says, “Three days looking into the self, thousand year treasure.” On the right it says, “One hundred year life, chasing after power and things, turns to dust in one day.”
This is our life. No matter what we get — even if it’s the result of a hundred-year struggle — can go away in less that a day. But the benefit we get from practicing gives us a lasting reward, a look at our true self and clear direction in our life. What a deal! The man from Jakarta was indeed fortunate — there was nothing else for him to do.