Valerie Forstman is the Guiding Teacher at Mountain Cloud in Santa Fe. Previously she had been a professional orchestral flutist. “Finding Zen,” she tells me, “came out of my life of music.”
She was living in Dallas and preparing for an audition, which, she says, “is rather like Olympic training. For three months, I did all the things that I knew to do to prepare. Yet as the time came nearer, I found myself waking up in the night visited by past failures. Disappointments. During the day, I was practicing and training in order to play a certain way at a future time. It was all oriented to that. In the process, what you might call the present moment became increasingly elusive. It felt like the space where the present would be was opening up like a chasm between the past and the future, and I was losing my love for playing. The week before the audition, a friend said, ‘Hey! How are you?’ I said, ‘Well, something needs to change.’ I told him briefly about this sense of a gap in time and of having lost the joy of playing. He said, ‘I’ve got just the thing. Come and sit.’”
He brought her to Ruben Habito’s Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas.
“The audition was on that Saturday. The next Monday I was at the Zen Center for the orientation talk, and the next Wednesday for the second orientation talk. I had done spiritual practices; had had some taste of that experience, but somehow it felt like coming home. In the beginning, I would sit for three twenty-five-minute rounds facing the wall, five minutes of kinhin – walking meditation – in between. Sometimes, turning around at the end felt almost dizzying. In three periods of sitting, there might be just a handful of moments of real stillness; otherwise, it was what we call monkey-mind. Then, chanting, bowing. Going out to the car and driving home, the street signs were more clear and distinct, and the light on the pavement was somehow more luminous. There was something happening. I didn’t even try to say, ‘Oh, this is clarifying,’ or ‘This is bringing the world to life,’ or ‘Something’s falling away.’ I didn’t have any of that language. I just knew the need to be doing this.”
That October, she attended her first sesshin. “When I arrived and saw the schedule, I thought, ‘Whoa! I can’t do that,’ but there was no turning back. It was just wonderful, potentiating naiveté. It can be so helpful not to have a clue what you’re getting into.” The venue had, as she puts it, “no particular symbols. Just a small altar with a photograph of Yamada Koun Roshi, Ruben’s teacher, and Yasutani Roshi, Yamada Koun’s teacher, and a candle, a flower. In kinhin, we walk by this altar and might glance at it. Otherwise, it was a concrete block room that had been turned into a zendo.”
On the third day of the sesshin she had an unexpected experience. “I grew up in a progressive Protestant environment. My father was a theologian, but I had not been in a church for a long time. And I’m sitting zazen and suddenly . . .” – she laughs softly as if a little reluctant to proceed – “. . . there appears a figure before me. It’s white. The sense was that this is Christ. And I heard the words, ‘This is my body.’” She pauses, then resumes speaking more slowly. “For a few moments, I was riveted, utterly transfixed. Then came the thought, ‘That’s blasphemy. This is my body?’ And, of course, it all went away. I came back to breathing, following the breath. Soon the bell rang and the clackers, and we began walking kinhin. And as I passed by that altar, my eye happened to fall on the photograph, the image, of Yamada Koun Roshi, this person I knew was my teacher’s teacher, a person obviously loved by Ruben, but for me, an inscrutable Japanese face. Right? In that moment of walking by, of the eye just chancing to glance at the face, suddenly that face was flooded with an outpouring of compassion, and I knew why. Not discursively, ‘Oh, I can explain this to you.’ It was just compassion – boundless – just pouring out, as I was walking back to the seat. Fairly soon I was tapped for dokusan. Fortunately, there were four people waiting ahead of me and one person in the dokusan room. So I sat down, sitting with the koan Mu. Just sitting there, not reflecting, but with tears coming down. By the time I got to the seat right before the door, my lap was wet. The bell rang, I went in, and Ruben said, ‘What’s happening?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ Then, somehow, this experience came, and I simply told him, ‘Well, I was sitting, and this appeared and . . .’ He began to ask checking questions, guiding questions. And suddenly they were just answered. It just came. Just so.
“That was just a beginning. But what a relief! For each one it’s so different, but there are clear characteristics that are common. This sense of walking and no one walking, or of creation coming up here and here, here, here! Totally new. Nothing at all and yet this! In some sense, it feels like a baby being born, and the protective film on the eyes falling away, things coming into view. Just getting used to that amount of light. In the beginning, it’s blinding. Gradually you focus, and you see this world as it is, this world in which we can practice.”
She didn’t get the position for which she had been auditioning. “I ended up as runner-up. Had that not happened, it’s likely life would have still been full of Zen, but it was a glorious failure. I’m really grateful.”
The Story of Zen: 410-13, 425, 435