For Kaua`i Community College Associate Professor of Music Greg Shepherd, the process of writing his new book “A Straight Road with 99 Curves,” about his road to, away from then back to Zen, was itself something like Zen’s unsolvable riddles called koans, designed to help one become enlightened.
“ ‘A Straight Road with 99 Curves’ is a good title for my story because the road I’ve been on has been straight. The 99 curves were of my own making,” says Shepherd, who has lived on Kaua`i since 1988 and is head of KCC’s music department. “I was going around and around in circles for a long time. Zen brought me back to itself. The road for me all along was Zen.”
Zen, the Japanese form of the Sanskrit word for meditation, is an eastern philosophy with the purpose of gaining an insight into one’s essential nature. While not a religion per se, it is practiced by people of many faiths, including large numbers of Catholic priests and nuns.
Shepherd’s journey to and through Zen began when he was a long distance runner in high school and first tried meditation. “I found it really helped to center me and to marshal my energies into a single mindedness when I ran,” he says.
As his older brother, Paul, introduced him to philosophical books including Eastern classics, he found something appealing that he had not experienced in his Catholic upbringing. One thought form, however, “lit a fire” under him and that was Zen.
“There’s a certain individuality in Zen which appealed to me as in the book, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.’ That was me. I was really a loner. I didn’t like team sports. I liked solitude.”
When Shepherd received a fellowship to study music in Japan at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, he was also hoping to learn more about Zen. But the Japanese manifestation of the philosophy wasn’t anything like expected.
“I went over there all starry-eyed and expecting still water with music playing in the background,” he says. “But the teachings were very regimented and authoritarian. I’m kind of a rebellious person by nature so that wasn’t what I wanted.”
Studying composers who used Zen and Buddhist influences in their music, Shepherd eventually broke with Zen entirely, moved back to Hawai`i, began practicing at a Buddhist temple on O`ahu and even returned for awhile to Catholicism.
During the 10-year journey of writing his book – which began during his “out phase” with Zen, he gradually found himself drawn back into the practice for all the peace of mind it was intended
“As I wrote more and more, I realized in order to get back into the feeling of why I practiced Zen for so long, I decided I had to start meditating again,” he says. He found a new teacher in Honolulu with whom he enjoyed working on Zen koans, his road curving back around to Zen as his spiritual and emotional practice. “I’m much more mature now and more willing to not let regimentation get to me as much as it did.”
With Zen and meditation, you can achieve a feeling of oneness with the Universe, Shepherd says, but it doesn’t take away your humanness, but rather enhances it, giving it a new dimension.
Maintaining one’s peace of mind discovered through Zen can still be a balancing act, even for those who have practiced it for a long time, Shepherd says. The challenge is to integrate that feeling into one’s daily life, “even though someone is cutting me off in traffic. But the opposite is sitting in a cave all day particularly divorced from the day-to-day reality of life.
“Even the most advanced, enlightened teacher in the world is still human. That’s who we are,” Shepherd says. This is a blessing because “we learn best when we’re thwarted. That’s what really sparks us to do things.”
Ultimately, the story of everyone’s life is a straight road with 99 curves. “The practice of Zen helps you get back on that road,” Shepherd says, “no matter what your religion or beliefs are.”