Zencarcerated: True Life Stories Behind the Cracked Beam

First I must confess that “Zencarcerated” is plagiarism. It’s a theft from the Zen Monastery where I resided daily, often in silence keeping a tough and barren schedule under a mysterious star filled sky so close to heaven that my first night I was warned not to look up, “Once you start looking up you won’t be able to stop. Many people have fallen, run into things and been hurt.”

I thought it was dramatic until I was there under that sky after a day long meditation eating and working in total silence. The pull of the stars so profound under the blackness of the sky I felt them lifting me up from the lonely uninhabited mountain we sat on top of in our Zendo and dorms. They magnetized me until I tripped on an uneven rock and fell on the red, clay soil and scraped up my knees and palms.

Let the magic begin.

The cracked beam is almost always present at otherwise impeccable Zen centers and monasteries. It signals a total break. You must be broken to enter and open to what will happen. You must be willing to make a true inquiry into that space where you end and light may enter and filter through you. Nothing worth having is flawless. Nothing is indeed without a crack if you are willing to see it.

It took me more than a month to notice it. I was busy learning how to live in deep silence while losing my head. I took up trail running through snow and mud to outrun my thoughts and bring stillness to my soul which churned every darkness within me that now came forward through the silence. I was like a rushing muddy river inside. Running became a bandage to match my insides but sitting was the actual cure.

When you are brave enough and ready you must sit quietly, not moving, and face the demons and dragons that haunt you. You acknowledge; unflinching as they rise around you but you do not speak with them nor interact. You become an observer of these demon and dragon thoughts without fearing them.  They are false and you begin to see that. It’s a marathon of endurance, a marathon of sitting through body aches and mind games.

Ego is a bitch. It wants to attach to something, anything will do, actually. It will tell you that even though you are all dressed in black scrubbing floors you are still special. Your square of tile is the cleanest, you finished first–you are the most humble. It will say anything to preserve your mental picture of yourself as separate in the dead center of the universe.


It lives in your thoughts and coaches you toward quitting. But I would not quit. I wanted this.

For weeks I watched others be picked for special jobs, banging drums, timing meditations, lighting candles, greeting meditators with silent bows. But I didn’t get picked. At first I was bothered, “Why not me?” Then as Zen set in I began to see myself as lucky. “One less thing” I thought, “I am fine not being special. In fact it feels good.”

Then it happened. I got the assignment. Play the Han.

The Han is a giant metal slab that is struck at precise intervals for several minutes announcing to the monastery that it is time to come to meditation. There is a very exact and complicated order of striking the Han in certain places at fractions of seconds within each minute. I panicked. The first time I blew it.

I was off by nearly 20 seconds.

Disaster. I entered the Zendo and the timers did not bow to each other and take their seats. They had to wait.

I reviewed my error. Every time I made it– which was three more times.

Then one day, insight. The light made it through a crack.

I realized, you cannot play the Han if you are thinking ahead or behind. You must keep your full attention on the fractions of seconds when it is to be struck and while striking you must only be thinking about the stroke, not the one before or after. Anything short of full present moment awareness and you will get lost.

Fast forward two years and I am on a hiking trail. Lost. The sun going behind the mountain- I had no idea where I was. I panicked. I started making loops, time was running out, cold setting in. I thought about how I’d spend the night and try in the morning under better light. I sat on a rock to calm down. I breathed and closed my eyes. I was back on the Zafu calming myself. I picked up a small rock and hit it with a stick. The rhythm of the Han came back. One strike. Wait, another strike.

I felt an ease return. I stood up and headed up the hill with the stream behind me. Finally I picked up a path and then a stranger who guided me in closer and eventually a ride back to my car.

After a long, hot shower I lay in bed looking at the mini Han by my bedside. I tapped it with a finger. Here. Now. Strike. Stop. Wait. Now.

The wider the crack, the better the understanding of now, the less of what we think we know, the greater the chance for light to filter through.

Last night I left my daughter’s house. It was just past midnight under an ordinary Oregon sky filled with stars. My head tipped up staring, I tripped on a rock.

Let the magic continue.





4 thoughts on “Zencarcerated: True Life Stories Behind the Cracked Beam

  1. I was really struck by your sentence of “You must be broken to enter and open to what will happen”. I’d like to call this crack ‘the magic zen crack’, or ‘a crack in the consciousness’. I often like to zen modify the the old saying ‘you have to crack a few eggs to create an omelet” to ‘you have to crack the old ego to create zen consciousness’. And one of the main functions or roles of the zen master, or in fact any spiritual master for that matter is to do the cracking. Now when one embarks on the zen path or in fact any sort of spiritual path, ego cracking will be done. It will be done either by the zen master, or the Universe, or if you wish to call it spirit. When the zen master does the cracking it is usually in a safe and structured environment. When spirit or the universe does the cracking it will bring into the individual’s life painful situations and relationships that do ego cracking. As one becomes more aware, they will begin to see and often laugh when they recognize that a painful situation is really but a disguise of the hand of spirit cracking their ego. The ego of course is the creator of all our illusions of self, and this illusion takes up space and walls that could otherwise be filled with either nothingness and/or spiritual reality. Or a corollary being, best to listen to the whispers of the universe before they become shouts or your ego could be hit with the cosmic 2 X 4.


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