Featured in Vol.4 Issue 1 | The Spring 2015 Edition
Photo by Ryan Upp, Feature Photographer of the Issue

Building a Temple of the Heart

by Perle Besserman

When my husband and I first met as residents in a Honolulu Zen center, we were each holding fast to some very fixed notions about who we were and what we were searching for. In addition to carrying a lot of emotional baggage from the past, our relationship was complicated by the fact that we were both married to other people. While still in college, I had married a young medical student. We’d thought of ourselves, in the parlance of the sixties, as “spiritual seekers,” but we were both really naively striving for personal advancement. To us, getting enlightened was like getting another academic degree. As for spiritual partnership, we didn’t have a clue. He was looking for the path to immortality and I was searching for my true identity. In our well-intentioned ignorance, we wandered across the world—sometimes together but more often apart—looking for a master who would “enlighten” us. Finding myself at a dead end after years of spiritual searching, I had left my husband in New York and come to Hawaii to practice Zen. Manfred, an Austrian, had moved out of his parents’ home and begun working in Vienna when he was only sixteen. Determined to fully prove his independence, he’d married three years later. Haunted by lifelong questions about death, he immersed himself in studying philosophy and religion. Reading a book on Zen on his way to work one day changed his life entirely. Sensing that the practice outlined in the book held the answers to his lifelong questions, he got off the train, found the address of a Zen center in the telephone directory, and became a member. Six years later, giving up his nine-to-five job as a banker, he left his faltering marriage to practice Zen in the United States. Culturally, Manfred and I were worlds apart. He was European and intended to return home after his trial year of separation from his wife. His soft-spoken, scholarly manner endeared him to everyone in the community. I was a typically driven New Yorker, totally out of place in the laid-back atmosphere of the islands. In addition, he’d been born Catholic and raised atheist, while I came from an orthodox Jewish family. What we did share was an autocratic upbringing by rigidly patriarchal fathers, “saintly” mothers, and six previous years of severe Japanese Zen training. Although we immediately became good friends, the last thing on our minds was falling in love.

Having volunteered to join the crew that was building a new Zen temple for our community, I found myself on a mountainside one day, crouching next to Manfred with machete in hand, cutting my way through a dense tropical forest. Neither of us had any building experience, and the heat and the mosquitoes almost unbearable, we were tempted to drop our machetes and take off. But, being known around the center as the “Dynamic Duo” had given us a reputation to uphold, so, after exchanging an “I’d-rather-die-than-quit” look, we continued slashing away. This went on for weeks, until one day we got the idea that the job might be easier if we turned it into a form of meditation. We decided to work without talking unless it was necessary, and to concentrate on our breathing as we focused our attention, moment-by-moment, on our activities. The difference between meditating at the Zen center and building a temple together was that here, on the mountainside, instead of sitting individually on our cushions, we’d be working and “meditating in tandem.” Inspired by a simile from our favorite Zen poet, Ikkyu, we started by counting our exhalations and visualizing ourselves as “two limbs of a single tree,” that is, functionally separate but joined at the trunk. Our experiment had an immediate, and positive, impact on our work and our meditation practice; but it also brought about an unexpected change in our relationship. Practicing as partners had not only doubled the intensity and power of attention we’d achieved by meditating as individuals, it had also turned us into a romantic couple.

It took six months to clear the path through that jungle; and it was a year before we could actually break ground. Building on a mountainside in a rainforest, directly in the path of mudslides, added further complications even after we did break ground. And it took another six months before we could pour the foundation. It seemed that every step forward was followed by two steps back. No sooner would we frame the first building, than the humidity would warp some important beam or other, and we’d have to take the whole frame down and start all over again. It was frustrating. But so was sitting in meditation alone on your cushions at the Zen center. You’d no sooner settle into a “groove,” get really concentrated, than your stomach would start growling. You were hungry. You were starving. You fantasized about what the cook was making for dinner. You wanted to steal a look at your watch, see how long it was until dinner. You couldn’t move. But being hungry had somehow interfered with your comfortable seat, and now your ankle was hurting. All your best, concentrated efforts had flown out the window. Start again, counting the breaths: One…two…three…

Working with Manfred on that construction site proved no less spiritual—or difficult—than sitting in meditation. Moreover, building the temple provided the tools and the hands-on experience we would need to get through the complex emotional tangle of divorce, relocation and remarriage that awaited us in the months that followed. Even more important, it gave us the blueprint for initiating our future spiritual partnership as “everyday” married people who were no longer living the romantic life of residents at a Zen center. Buying a condo and setting up house together, we learned soon enough that “two limbs of a single tree” often faced opposite directions. For example, we’d take the painstaking step of clearing away a temperamental “weed” in our relationship–say, negotiating a compromise in a heated debate over where to put a piece of furniture–and, overnight, a new temperamental “weed” would pop up in its path. We’d be ready to start “breaking ground,” hoping to reach new levels of intimacy, only to find ourselves talking past each other. Again, we could just as well have dropped our tools and called it quits. But we didn’t, because we both knew that what we were building together wasn’t just an ordinary “house,” but a “temple.” Not just an ordinary relationship, but a spiritual partnership.

Our experience taught us that the best tools for building a spiritual partnership are “generic.” This means that anyone, anywhere, can use them. They’ve got to be flexible enough to fit lefties as well as righties, big people and small; and they’ve got to be light, easy to handle, and strong at the same time. Forged in the crucible of Zen practice and molded into everyday “micro-meditations,” these tools are available to anyone wishing to share in the mystery of “Being” together.

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