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Author of this essay:

Yin Cai Shakya
(October 3, 2010)

Black Iron
by Yin Cai Shakya

Sooner or later a man comes to a point where watching Ben Roethlisberger, unable to find an open wide receiver, goes tear-assing across the line of scrimmage in an impromptu running play, is no more satisfying than shoveling two feet of hardened snow off his driveway.

The game clock winds down and yet in that strange uneven way the last two minutes can seem longer than the whole first half. So much is compressed into those last few minutes that the commercials can drive us to the kind of distraction that lets us notice the paunch upon which we are resting our bottle of Dos Equis.

It was bound to happen. There we were, on Sunday afternoon, wearing the jersey of our favorite team, the one with another man's name written across the back of it, and it occurs to us that the athlete with whom we have so casually identified is executing an amazing play because he is not sitting on his ass drinking beer and watching somebody else who is in great physical shape and is therefor able to do those amazing things. That is when we ask ourselves, "Just what the hell am I doing?"

When I became involved with Zen Buddhism I did so because I was tired of not doing anything and not going anywhere. "Mahayana" means Great Vehicle and I jumped aboard like a stow-away on a steamer heading for God-only-knows-where, and off I went. And I saw clearly the enlarged belly that was held up by legs that looked like two pipe-cleaners. I had become Middle Aged and this was normal, I told myself.

But that didn't fly. I wasn't happy, and I didn't have the energy or the wherewithal to act happy and do happy things. I had been content for so long merely to watch other people do things that my health had began to deteriorate slowly.

It didn't occur to me that along my Mahayana Journey I would be taking frequent layovers in the gym.

I cannot recall the impetus for The Voice. It simply spoke to me one day. It said, "You are going to put yourself on a weight-lifting program and get as strong as you possibly can." And that was it.

So I did some research, and eventually I discovered a novice barbell training program put together by strength coach Mark Rippetoe. I altered my diet accordingly, resolved that I would visit the weight room three times per week, and that I would do The Program in earnest. Three months later I found myself 46 pounds heaver than I was when I started, and I was squatting more weight than I ever believed I'd be able to lift, for reps. I was amazed. My belly was shrinking (even though my weight was going up) and my legs had somehow transformed from "pins to pillars" as Pavel Tsatsouline is fond of saying.

Inevitably though, the Ego interfered with The Program.

The voice told me, "You have been weak your entire life, a slave to your own ego" and I knew it wasn't lying to me.

A curious thing happened once I began to get strong. People noticed me; and they also treated me differently. All of a sudden, people knew who I was. I had an identity. I had become "The Big Guy."

A friend of mine asked me, only half jokingly "If I hit you in the chest as hard as I could, do you think it'd even phase you?" My father, whom I'd not seen for months, stood beside me glowing with the kind of pride you see at Pop Warner games when junior scores the game-winning touchdown. You'd see it again later when "his boy" scores a TD at the Orange Bowl. My father had never -not once- been able to beam with that kind of pride until the day I came for dinner and my step-mother gasped, "My god, you're HUGE!"

There was his son, a big, strong, ox of a man, a living testament that his loins were powerful, that his stock was robust. A few of his co-workers saw me and gave me the nickname "Beefy."

The voice that told me to get strong by lifting weights did not intend that I should also strengthen my ego. By doing that I showed that I was still a weakling.

I liken that voice to The Mahayana Tour Guide, in the sense that if you're observing yourself and listening in just the right way, it tells you what you need to hear.

Never, not once before had I ever seen my Ego "create an identity out of physical activity" if that makes any sense. Before I was always someone who accomplished something by mastering it. I could raise gentle and obedient pit bulls. I was a computer programmer. I became a Buddhist, and so on and on. But I did not know the self-discipline of an athlete.

The Mahayana process of self=awareness actually allowed me to watch it happen, in real time, and narrated the whole thing for me. "You have been weak your entire life ... and now you're strong. Now you're the Mighty 'Beefy,' and look how you revel in the attention they heap on you for it. Amazing isn't it?"

Old remembered pain was eradicated. Suddenly it was as if every single time I was picked last for basketball in junior high school and every time I was made fun of for my athletic incompetence in high school had been wiped clean from my life's blackboard. And it felt good. I got competitive. I wanted more.

The Mahayana Tour Guide narrated the whole thing for me. "Your Ego now thinks that it is big and strong enough to squat the 315 pounds you see on the rack before you. Your ego has identified with the task. And this, Yin Cai, is wrong.

"Did you create the bones that give you support? Did you create the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones? And for that matter, did you create the muscles?"

I gave the only logical answer I could think of, "No."

"Furthermore..." It continued, "are you the bones, tendons, muscles, nurtiments and energy from the food previously consumed, and so on?

Again I gave the only logical answer I could come up with. "Well, yes, basically I am, I mean, I'm made up of all that stuff."

And It said to me "You have a very small-minded, myopic view of things."

And to be honest, maybe all the training had taken the fight out of me. It had been several weeks of constantly adding weight to the bar every session, and I was getting exhausted. I simply could not argue with The Mahayana Tour Guide. I knew what It was pointing to. I knew the point that It was making. "I am created, and re-created, over and over again as all of these systems, the bones, the sinews, the muscles, the food, the mind, the fire truck across the street and everything else, for that matter.

"That's right, Y.C." It said to me "Moreover, you don't even know why you're lifting weights. Oh sure, you could say that it was because I told you that you have to become as strong as possible, but do you realize that I could have just as easily said 'you have to get as good at needlepoint as you possibly can'?

"Whenever you do something, or observe something, you are an illusion doing and observing, a byproduct of all this activity. You enjoyed the new you that was getting strong. You pitied that part of your life in which you were the weak victim. Now you're not weak anymore. Now you feel capable, but it doesn't change the fact that right now there's a 17 year-old girl in China who is warming up with your one rep max."

And then It started laughing.

And I laughed right along with It.

Weight-lifting is an enjoyable activity to engage in. My blood-pressure is lower than ever, my belly is disappearing, I have more energy than I ever have had. My body is the strongest it has ever been which makes me, over-all, more useful. And that's great. These are all good things and it is good to engage in any activity with such goals in mind. After all, if we are able-bodied then we can be more useful to the Lord Amitabha Buddha in His service. This is fine.

It is also a good thing to abandon the world of spectators and set off on our own, with our Mahayana Tour Guide, to do something ourselves. This is what we do, as Zen Buddhists. And as a Zen Buddhist, I know that I must recognize that whatever weight I am capable of lifting, it is an accomplishment that is no greater or lesser than another believer's needlepoint, Indian Cooking, dog agility training, or anything else. The problem arises when we lack balance, when we take what was too little and turn it into too much. If we don't get enough water, we succumb to dehydration. If we get too much water, we drown. In a very real sense, my efforts had taken me from having too much shame to having too much pride.

I used to look at the photograph of Ven. Master Hsu Yun in his garden as he worked with his hoe to prepare the ground. Gardening had always seemed to me to be backbreaking work, and I never enjoyed it much. But now I understand, completely, why he did it. He was reminding himself to be humble. He was telling himself there in the monastery's fields that although he had attained his spiritual goals, he was not superior to any novice in the Order. I get it. It was a demonstration of the very same things that weight-lifting is teaching me. And I am grateful that not only have I been blessed with the clarity of vision to see myself for the fraud I became, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to watch it happen, as a passive observer.

But what to do now? I'm still stowed safely away aboard the Great Vehicle, the weight-lifting continues and I'm still learning lessons on the difference between "to do" and "to be." I am not my muscles or lack of them. I am learning to dedicate my efforts to serving the Dharma and not to being somebody's "huge" son or a guy who can take a punch. The Voice tells me, "Continue doing the weight lifting. Let it help you to continue being the best Dharma worker you can be. And, above all, continue trying to Know Thyself. In all things ask, 'What am I really trying to accomplish?' And no matter whether you succeed or fail, there will be neither pride nor shame if your motive is to serve and not to shine. Give the best you've got to your task. Be strong enough to ask yourself the tough questions, and the right answers will come to you."

And if you've chosen weight lifting, not only will you lose your ego, but when you watch Ben Roethlisberger use his strong legs to force himself across the line of scrimmage, you'll appreciate it so very much more.

Humming Bird