Josh Schrei lived the first ten years of his life at the Rochester Zen Center, where his parents were full-time staff members. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, he spent nearly two years traveling through Asia, and upon his return to America in 1990, Schrei began writing and doing theatrical performance work. In the past three years he has toured his one-man performance piece, Kathmandu, throughout the Southwest and California, winning rave reviews in which critics compare him to both Robin Williams and Spalding Gray. Schrei describes Kathmandu as his attempt to answer Albert Einstein’s question: “Is the universe friendly?” An ongoing student of Tibetan Buddhism, Schrei gives a portion of the proceeds from all his theater shows to Tibetan rights organizations.
My childhood is full of the smell of Japanese incense. It permeates all my hidden memories and fills the crevices in my brain. The particular type of incense burned most often at the Rochester Zen Center came in a small rectangular green box with red Japanese characters on it, and the sticks were slender and brown and wrapped in bundles with transparent, fragile paper. On temple nights when all the buddha statues were brought out and dusted and a shrine was made for each, there would be these enormous sticks of incense, almost as tall as I was, burning for hours.
On temple nights, at least one hundred people were at the Zen Center sitting straight-backed and chanting deeply and loudly, doing full-length prostrations on the wooden floors, walking from statue to statue lighting incense and beating a huge wooden drum shaped like a fish. I remember sometimes wondering what everyone was doing and why they were all so intense about it.
Other kids would show up on temple night, kids of parents who weren’t on the full-time staff of the Zen Center. I liked to show them that I knew more of the Japanese chants than they did because they only came to the Zen Center once in a while. I was the only child of full-time staff members, so I was there all the time.
I didn’t quite know how to behave on temple nights. I felt like I understood the seriousness of the occasion, so I didn’t feel entirely comfortable running around with the other kids. I would usually balance the evening out with some running around and some serious meditation, telling myself that being seven years old and all, it wasn’t yet necessary to devote all my time to meditating. But the adults would be very impressed with me when I meditated, and I liked that.
Breakfast at the Zen Center was very strict, and there were certain chants that you had to chant and then the entire meal was eaten in silence. At some official meeting or other it was decided that I was too much of a distraction so I had to eat breakfast away from the adults. There were plenty of magic markers in the basement where I would spend my time drawing Buddhas or pictures of Superman or Batman, so it didn’t really bother me that much to eat there. Still it didn’t feel very good to be called a distraction, or to be forced to eat away from everyone else. But they had a lot of serious spiritual work to do, and it wouldn’t help their rigorous quest for enlightenment to have children or other distractions running around all over the place.
When the Buddha had a son, he named him Rahula, which means “bond” or “fetter.” I often wondered if it wasn’t some strange neurosis on the part of the Buddha that he wasn’t able to see his own child as anything but a bond to the world—a fetter, a chain. At one point when my mother was spending a lot of time in meditation retreats at the Zen Center, she asked the teacher if she should be spending more time with me. The teacher said that she was far too attached to me and it was good to be detached; she should therefore spend more time away from me.
Everywhere in the Zen Center were images of the Buddha. Around every corner an image of Buddha waited, staring inward with lids half-closed. I would run down the wooden halls, weaving my way in and around the meditating elders, playing and laughing, but everywhere I turned I would see those half-closed eyes, that expression of serenity and peace. Look, I’m just trying to be a kid, okay? Kanon, stern compassion goddess; Jizo, protector of children; Shakyamuni Buddha—I was surrounded by gods and protectors who spoke to me constantly in their maddening samadhi. Their eternal bliss haunted me. They became my role models. Gods! It was hard just being a kid with all these stone images constantly reminding me of what human beings could be if they tried hard enough. The great wooden block outside the zendo bore the inscription “Don’t waste a moment.”
Now I know why I dressed up as a superhero so much when I was a little kid—because I had to be like the Buddha! At the age of seven I had to be a god because only divinities got any respect around the Rochester Zen Center.
Someone had told me a story once of how Roshi’s master had suddenly attacked him in the halls of his monastery in Japan and wrestled him to the ground. For some reason I always associated that story with the library (I think that’s where I was told the story) so every time I went to the library I had the strange feeling that some crazy old Zen monk was going to jump out at me from behind a bookshelf.
I remember the zendo was very dark and wooden, and the floors were immaculately polished and had a dull shine to them even in the dark. In the middle of the day, when no one was in the zendo, I would run as fast as I could down the main aisle with socks on my feet and slide totally out of control all the way to the back wall. The central aisle of the zendo was lined with level platforms for meditating. A row of meditation cushions, plumped and ready for use, ran along each platform, and each meditation cushion faced a blank wall. I would sometimes wonder how a human being could sit still for hours and hours doing nothing but staring at one of these featureless walls.
They would all sit on the dark brown meditation cushions in their dark brown robes and stare at the walls, and if they moved they would get hit square on the shoulders with the kiasaku, a flattened oak stick. This would remind them to sit still and return their attention to the blank wall in front of them. Once, on my fourth birthday, I got a little kiasaku from one of my parents’ friends, but I didn’t really know who I was supposed to hit with it. It said, “Be kind to everyone” on one side in black calligraphy, so I guess I wasn’t supposed to hit anyone with it.
In the evenings I would sit alone in a small room on the third floor of the Zen Center while the adults had their evening meditation. I would be pretty bored, ’cause there wasn’t a TV, so I would usually draw or make up imaginary football teams. When everyone at the evening sitting started chanting, I would know that the sitting was about to be over and my parents were about to come up and get me, and I counted the minutes, counted every breath. I sat up there so many times that soon I had memorized all the chants. When the muffled thud of the big fish drum began, sometimes I would chant along with everyone from my little room, not knowing in the slightest what I was saying but liking the rhythm of the words.
I knew the breakfast chants also. I knew the chants on temple night and I knew the chants at Vesak. I knew every line, so at the tender age of seven or eight I was walking around mumbling,“form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. . . . so in emptiness no form, no feeling, thought or choice; nor is there consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. . . .”
My mother would read me koans as if they were bedtime stories. My babysitter would read me the story of the thousand and one Buddhas. I would read Buddhist Jataka comics as frequently as Superman or Batman comics. Along with my mother and all the other kids and their mothers, I would sit in the basement listening to dharma talks and teishos over a small beige speaker. I would ask my mother what it meant to be a buddha. I would ask my mother what it meant to be a bodhisattva. I would ask my mother if I should close my eyes when I meditated or if I should leave them open. I had a huge poster of the Buddha facing me as I slept, opposite the one of Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The stories I heard most often were Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s various incarnations on earth. They are wonderful stories, full of talking animals and golden kings and evil counterparts who always get their just deserts. Sometimes Michael Henry would tell the stories, along with his physical, mimetic interpretations of them. We all would laugh when he would become the greedy monkey or the kind rabbit or the benevolent bodhisattva. Every story was filled with good old fashioned Buddhist morals, like you should be a kind. compassionate, giving human being who always thinks of others and never of yourself, and you should be more than happy to spend three hundred lifetimes sweeping the temple walkway.
When I look back at my childhood, one thing I am very grateful for is the presence of myth in my life. The stories created for me a world of divinity in which animals could talk, people were courageous and pure, and everything made sense. I never had to question the presence of magic in the world, or the presence of compassion or clarity or awareness. The stories also created for me a dynamic world, a world that was always heading toward something greater, a place where goodness was presented as the inherent nature of humanity.
My favorite times at the Zen Center were festivals, and the grandest of all the festivals was Vesak, the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday when Rafe Martin, in white beard and blue robe, would become the sleeping sage and tell us Jataka stories. Then, the whole sangha (there were hundreds of people at Vesak) sang a rousing chorus of: “Who is Buddha, who is Buddha, wherever I go, wherever I go? Buddha is a raindrop, Buddha is the sea, Buddha is everything and Buddha is me. . . . ” We would then all go outside and everyone would get a helium balloon and with a shout we would all let them go at once. The sky would be filled with balloons, and I would watch them until they dwindled into specks in the sky, but sometimes I would find one a few days later, deflated and forlorn in a park or in a backyard, and it would somehow remind me that I was mortal, though I don’t know why.
After the balloons were released, the parade began. It was a great event because the entire sangha marched down the street, with a huge white six-tusked elephant at the head of the throng, which was actually a giant plaster puppet with two people inside of it. I would always try to figure out who they were by looking at their legs, but I never could. I think it might have been some guys from the woodshop, or maybe it was different people every year.
I particularly liked Vesak because there were always gallons of ice cream, and everyone would be happy and smiling, even Roshi, and I wanted Vesak to last 364 days out of the year, with one day when everyone dressed in brown robes and got all serious instead of the other way around.
Every few months, the Zen Center would conduct a seven-day meditation retreat, called a sesshin. Often my parents would participate, and as they were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world, I would go stay at the house of some friend of the family during that time. I actually liked moving around like that (even though I would miss my mom a lot) because I would get to talk baseball and football with a whole new set of people and live in a new house and be the center of attention.
Once I actually did get to communicate with my mom when she was in sesshin. We had a playoff game in Little League, and I wanted her to be there but she couldn’t leave in the middle of sesshin. So I got to write her a note to tell her the outcome of the game—we, the Royals, had beaten the Orioles 26–1 and were the champions of the Little League, and we all got trophies.
Sometimes during sesshin I would walk by the Zen Center with my host family and know that my mom was in there somewhere. It was especially eerie if I walked by when everyone was in the meditation hall, because people would be doing particularly intense koan work or something, and these incredibly loud groans and shouts of “Mu!” would be emanating from the hall as if it was some bizarre spiritual slaughterhouse.
The morning after sesshin was always cool because everyone would come out dazed, unshaven and unkempt, with hoarse voices, and there would be a totally informal breakfast that started at 9:00 instead of 7:30. I got to eat with everyone else for a change, and it was always bagels and cream cheese and fruit salad instead of the same old porridge. Occasionally they would play the Rolling Stones or the Beatles over the speakers, and it was like a breath of fresh air.
The people who were just getting out of sesshin looked like vagabonds, or warriors who had the air of having paid their dues. They’d been to battle and struggled and toiled for seven days, and now they were like newborn babies greeting the sun. I felt a sense of awe looking up at those spiritual crusaders; I felt a desire to be like them.
When I was fourteen years old, I took the bodhisattva vow, which basically stated that from that day forward I was formally devoted to helping all sentient beings through the use of compassionate action and loving kindness. This idea has been so deeply ingrained in me, however, that sometimes I feel like the only times I’m ever happy are when I’m helping others. In a way, I establish my own identity through helping others. I don’t feel like a whole complete person unless I’m doing good.
Basically I grew up thinking that the world was a big, ugly, scary place that needed to be transcended but that luckily I had landed in with the privileged few who knew how. Looking back, it would have been nice if someone had introduced the idea that the world can be a lot more than suffering. But that was something I had to discover for myself much later on.
Another message I absorbed at the Zen Center was that any worldly aspirations I might have were meaningless because the only worthwhile goal was spiritual attainment. I was also taught that it is bad to want things for myself because that meant I was being egotistical (a grave sin), and that I should only think of how to satisfy others. It is very difficult for those of us who grew up with the idea of selflessness to recognize when our own boundaries have been stepped on, or when we are justifiably dissatisfied.
“The wise do not strive after goals. . . .” That’s straight out of the daily chants book at the Rochester Zen Center. I was told from day one that I should have no goals—and now you want me go to college? Hey, wait a minute—I thought desires were bad, and now you’re asking me what I want to do with my life?
You can hear the contradictions. It can be very difficult for a child who has grown up Zen to become integrated into society and want to achieve something. I think it is important to instill in children a sense that they can create, that they can have dreams as high and unreachable as the stars and then one day realize them.
All of that said, the teachings of Buddhism have been incredibly valuable in helping me develop awareness and clarity in my life. But it was only after I had created for myself a very strong sense of who I was in the world that I felt I could really utilize the teachings to their fullest.
Growing up, I was not encouraged to have a viewpoint. Now, I have many views on many things. In some ways, I am a very opinionated person. In another way, I am always reexamining my views and questioning my own inner patterns, motivations and actions. I recognize impermanence and emptiness, and those concepts form a large part of my outlook on life. I also recognize the necessity to create a life of meaning for myself here on earth. Most of the meaning I find is through some creative process—writing, music, or acting. The goal is self-examination, a process that is completely Buddhist. The core is empty and continuously unfolding.
That is why theater is so exciting to me. Through theater, I can assume an entire reality in one instant—posture, attitudes, years of experience, a complete universe in which I am fully absorbed. The next instant the universe has vanished and I am completely immersed in a wholly different world—different posture, different attitudes, different history. That ability to shed and assume viewpoints is to me what emptiness practice is all about. I am not attached to any of the views; I can’t be, or it’s bad acting. The viewpoints, the attitudes, the postures, arise and then fall. The characters arise and then fall—this is the essence of Zen.