Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Unheralded Zen Master

William Samuel (1924-1996)
Perhaps one of the most unheralded American 'Zen masters' was the late William Samuel - a 'Zen master' whose life was a temple, who glimpsed enlightenment fighting with the Chinese Nationalists in World War II, who found enlightenment on an embattled hilltop in the Korean War, and a 'Zen master' who sat 'Zaizen' for the remainder of his life in the hill country of Alabama.

Samuel's largely unheralded teachings, although he wrote two inspiring and informative books on the matter, are emblematic somehow of an enlightened man of the 20th century who found peace in war, and surrendered to the Godhead in the midst of battle. The following passage from his essay, "A Soldier's Story" is at once enchanting and inspiring. Here is a man that "glimpsed" and then "grasped" the Absolute amid the Hell's of the last century's worst conflicts.
"Let me write a Glimpse or two from those days," he writes. "First, harking back to China, Mr. Shieh and I, with five American teammates, were being pursued by a Japanese combat patrol. We were "retrograding," bringing up the rear of our little patrol, trying to get back to the safety of friendly lines. We were close to being captured. In those days, neither the Japanese nor Chinese "gave quarter." That is we took no prisoners. I knew that if I were taken by the pursuing Japanese, it meant certain death. On the other hand, Mr. Shieh might successfully pass himself off as a Chinese peasant. Oh, I cannot write this story! At this minute it is enough to remember Mr. Shieh seeing and pointing out the beauty of those purple blooms on the distant mountain we had yet to climb. I marveled at a man who could see beauty under such oppressive circumstances. I marvel more that he helped me learn to do it"
From the peace of his post-war home in rural Alabama, Samuel taught a distinctly American brand of non-duality; a brand of non-duality informed by his immerision into an ancient Eastern culture during the worst of times and situations of modern conflict. Samuel's unique experiences paint an intriguing picture of what must have been both "the best of times and the worst of times," to steal a line from Dickens.

Here, in a recollection of his post-World War II travels set out in his most personal and eclectic book, "The Child Within Us Lives," Samuel invokes the wonder of a young Western exposed at once to the contradictory worlds of an ancient and too-modern China, between ancient teachings and modern cynicism and disbelief:

           In Kwangse the group sat talking.
          "With all my travel and study I've never heard of the equation," the soldier groused.
          "I haven't either," said the minister. Neither had Lee nor Mary.
          Han said, "One who doen't live the Divine Equation simply doesn't know it. To know it without living it is to be dead. To know it is to live it. personally, I do not see how one can know he knows it without living it, but I don't know everything."
          "But friend Han," shouted the soldier, "you just told us that the real Identity of each of us is Omniscience itself! How can one be that and still now know everything?"
          Han said, "God knows everything, but I don't. I am merely the knowing of God, so I certainly don't know everything."
          "That doesn't make a damn bit of sense," the soldier said. "I call that circular reasoning," he added, leaving the room.   

 * * * * * * * * * * * * *    
The "Equation," of course is the fundamental truth of all the world's great wisdom traditions: 'All is One.' And Han, Samuel writes, "is not God and does not claim to be. . . . Han is as close as one comes to his real Identity before consciously being that One."

As such, Han is an inspiration for us all.

Samuel's work is elliptic, hinting at the Absolute and then drawing back in order to draw the spiritual aspirant in. Perhaps his most direct statement of the Absolute and our spiritual quest here is in his introduction to his other great work, "A Guide to Awareness and Tranquility." In it, he writes:
"The world is not as it appears to the busy, troubled mortal. A beautiful and magnificent harmony is spread over the entire face of the land; perfection permeates everything. This perfect Harmony is readily discernible and immediately available to anyone willing to acknowledge its presence and pay the small price demanded of it.

What is the price? Surrender of the personality! Only the personality, the prideful, intellectual ego, denies the totality of Reality and the presence of a perfect experience.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
"The world is not as it appears . . . ."

          I pause with Han and rest.
Breathing in, I become the fragrance of the purple blossoms on the side of the mountain we are climbing.

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