Saturday, November 3, 2012

Final Shuso Note: Perfect In Our Imperfection

It's been almost a week since the shuso ceremony - and the end of the Everyday Zen fall practice period - on Sunday the 28th of October. The image I have, when I think of the ceremony now, is of a brightly colored, flower-bedecked boat full of revelers, gradually receding toward the horizon, the music growing fainter with each day. I have feelings of poignancy, amazement, and gratitude, slowly fading as I take on what's next in my life. I'm in Santa Fe, New Mexico now, about to help a dharma friend lead his first seven-day retreat, sitting at an old wood desk in an adobe house surrounded by pinon pines and junipers, a long way from the California coast and the my dear companions on the path there.

I thought I would try, for those of you who have never seen a shuso ceremony,to describe it, as best I can, though some of what it is won't fit in words. The ceremony is the culmination of a traditional Zen practice period, or ango, a time of intensive practice and training. It is also the culmination of a time of training of the person who has been chosen as shuso, or head student, for the practice period. It is a doorway, an initiation, and an intimate dance between the shuso and the people in the practice period. What is required of the shuso during the ceremony seems, from the outside, to be nearly impossibly difficult. Not only does the ceremony require elaborate choreography, intense concentration and memorization, but the shuso must also :show up" authentically and spontaneously in response to deep and searching questions.

Our ceremony with Everyday Zen was held at the beautiful Marin Headlands, north of the Golden Gate bridge, at the end of a day of meditation. We rent space on an old military base just above the ocean beach. All day long you can hear the waves and birds and foghorns.

The ceremony is exceedingly formal and intricate.It starts with a procession into the hall, led by a person ringing a small, high-toned bell, then the teacher, who is walking with an immense black staff, then the teacher's attendant, then the shuso, carrying an ornate Japanese fan, then the benji (more on the benji later) who carries a smaller staff and a book wrapped in cloth, then a person at the end with a pair of wooden clappers. As they walk, there is an impressive set of sounds: the "ding" of the little bell, a pause, the "clack!" of the clappers, a pause, and then an answering deep "boom" of a drum from within the meditation hall. All punctuated by the sound of the teacher's staff as it hits the ground.

I've sat in the meditation hall as a student for many shuso ceremonies, and hearing the approach of the procession is an awesome experience. You know the shuso is walking toward something frightening and wonderful, and that he or she is in the procession, arriving, arriving....

In the hall, all the people in the practice period are seated in a tight block, their cushions or chairs right up against one another. On the other side of the hall is another block of people: former shusos, all of whom have been invited by the current shuso to the ceremony. In my case, the former shusos were senior people from Everyday Zen and from The San Francisco Zen Center, people I have lived with and practiced with over decades. In addition, other friends came from around the country to witness the ceremony. On either side of the altar is a cushion: on the left of the altar, the teacher's cushion; on the right, the shuso's.

Shuso fan, photo by Wendy Lewis
After the usual Zen bows, everyone sits down and the teacher's attendant carries the book all the way around the blocks of people from the teacher to the shuso, walking very, very slowly, while the Heart Sutra is chanted. When he or she arrives in front of the shuso, they bow together and the shuso takes the book (still holding the fan in one hand: the fan is never put down for the duration of the ceremony). Traditionally, the first koan from the Blue Cliff Record record is read, "Bodhidharma's Vast Emptiness," but in Everyday Zen we read another koan from the Record of the Gateless Gate  (this isn't the translation we use, but is the closest one I could find online):

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”  Nanquan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.” Zhaozhou said, “Shall I try to direct myself toward it?” Nanquan said, “If you try to direct yourself toward it, you will move away from it.” Zhaozhou said, “If I don’t try, how will I know it is the way?” Nanquan said, “The way is not concerned with knowing or not knowing.  Knowing is illusion; not knowing is blank consciousness.  If you truly arrive at the Great Way of no trying, it will be like great emptiness, vast and clear.  How can we speak of it in terms of affirming or negating?”

Zhaozhou immediately realized the profound teaching.

Then the shuso gets up and slowly, slowly walks, carrying the book, the other way all the way around the hall, around the blocks of people, to the teacher (there are a lot of these long slow walks during the ceremony). The teacher and shuso exchange bows, the shuso bows to the people in the hall, and then the teacher hands the shuso a long wooden staff, the teaching staff. Once again, slowly, slowly, the shuso walks with the staff held horizontally in both hands at eye level (trying desperately not to hit anyone in the head) all the way back around the room to the shuso's seat.

The benji, who is a person in the community who has been side-by-side with the shuso through the whole practice period,stands up and reads an original poem to start the question and answer for the ceremony. My friend Anne Connolly read her poem:

a wandering monk returns to these shores
in the gathering fall light
shakes her sleeves — “empty!” — she says,
and then in a neat dharma trick pulls out
mirrors brooms imposters fools
centuries of women ancestors tumbling forth
with curves like you’ve never seen on form and emptiness
and fierce compassion offered for our awakening.

Now let us hear the shuso!

Then I recited some memorized verses, while sitting and holding the staff horizontally: 

This is the dharma staff, five feet long. Once a black snake on Vulture Peak, it became the Udumbara flower. Sometimes it is a dragon, swallowing heaven and earth; sometimes a vajra sword, giving and taking life. This staff is now in my hands. Though just a mosquito biting an iron bull, I cannot give it away. Dragons and elephants, let us call forth the dharma! Give me your questions! (And the shuso turns the staff vertically and pounds it on the floor: bang!)

Then, starting with the benji, each person in the practice period (in our case, about 50 people) asks a dharma question, and the shuso responds. The dharma question is short, but is meant to be a real question, from the person's own life and practice. And the shuso has to respond, with heart and authenticity. At the end of each question, the shuso hits the staff on the floor. It is all very dramatic. After the practice period asks questions, then all the former shusos ask a question. Altogether, about 75 people asked me a question in the ceremony.

This is where I learned the most important thing from the ceremony. Answering these questions is impossible. How could any person know "the answer" to someone's deepest question? How could the shuso show up completely for person after person after person? There's no way anyone can do it. But here's what I learned, the great secret: "I" couldn't do it, not on my own. The only way I could do it was with the help of everyone in the room and in the container of the ritual. In a sense, we all did it, though maybe, if someone was a casual observer, it might appear that "I", Florence, did it. There was this tremendous flow of mutual support and love in the room, and in that field this impossible thing was possible. It was like enacting a miracle, or, as Norman Fischer wrote once, "like a group poem." Everyone making something very beautiful, together.

After the questions, there were more walks around the room, more bows, more handing of objects back and forth, and then congratulatory statements from various people, the former shusos, the teacher, and, in my case, my other teachers: Bruce Fortin, who is my current Zen teacher; Jeff Kitzes, my long-timer therapist and a Zen Master in the Korean Kwan Um Zen school; and James Baraz, one of the founders of Spirit Rock, a vipassana teacher, and my very first teacher when I began practicing in the 80s. Having Bruce, Jeff, and James there was extraordinarily sweet. All three of them are men who lead with their hearts. 

And of course, the teacher of the practice period, my teacher for more than twenty years, Norman Fischer, without whom I would never have found the path of Zen, never ordained, and never had a chance to be shuso. Norman and I have been through so much over these many years: the years he, as a relatively new teacher, came up to lead retreats in the Pacific Northwest; his time as abbot of Zen Center; my divorce and illness; the beginnings of the Everyday Zen sanghas; misunderstandings, working together, mutual support, mutual frustration, my needing to step away from the formal role as his student, his forgiveness of me, my forgiveness of him.... Somehow, the practice period and the ceremony was big enough to hold all of what we have been over so many years, with grace and clarity. 

Near the end of the ceremony, the shuso says these words, after profuse apologies for all the mistakes he or she has made:

"Let us continue to practice together in this lifetime and times to come, perfect in our imperfection. 

Isn't that just it, in all relationships, in life itself? "Perfect in our imperfection"? It's in moments like the end of the shuso ceremony, and in these words, that I remember, vividly, clearly, why I am a student of Zen. Humble, wild, poetic, connected, and full of heart - that's the Zen that called me more than two decades ago, and that still calls me, every morning, to the black cushion and the ongoing mystery of the path.

Anne C., Sue M, Norman Fischer, me, ARobin O., Mary Ann S, just after the ceremony. Photo by Ren Bunce.
Finally, I just have to say to anyone reading this who was part of the Fall 2012 Everyday Zen Practice Period: Thank you for your practice, for your support, for your love, and for walking the path with me. I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life. "May we continue to practice together in this lifetime and times to come!"

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shuso Notes: Cookies, mothers, bodhisattvas, codependents

Once again, these are my musings on what is arising for me right now, as shuso (head student) of the practice period.

Here's a koan for you: What is the difference between a bodhisattva and a codependent?

(Thanks, Bruce Fortin, for this. A great koan from a therapist/Zen teacher!)

This post is my personal exploration and reflection on this wonderful -- and at least to me -- very funny modern koan. I'm not sure why it's so funny, but I keep waiting for the punchline ("A bodhisattva and a codependent walked into a bar...") If someone can come up with a good punchline, please add it to the post comments!

So, the shuso's tasks are many. One is organizing and attending "shuso teas" with members of the practice period. What that means in Everyday Zen is organizing teas in four separate parts of the Bay Area -- San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, East Bay -- and a tea during the sesshin. This is a very sweet and personal part of the practice period. A group gathers at someone's house, sips tea, munches on cookies, and each person has a chance to say something about how the practice period is unfolding in his or her life.

Now, you'd think that finding people to host the teas, coordinating dates, sending out invitations to the practice period participants, receiving RSVP's, sending out directions, and then actually showing up to and facilitating five different teas in a two month period would be enough. But no, Florence has to take it one step further. She has to bake cookies. Homemade, from-scratch cookies.

In my defense, I really wanted to bake cookies for the teas. No one was forcing me, even though I hardly ever bake - I probably haven't baked cookies more than once or twice since I was ten years old and Susan Canon and I made chocolate chip cookies together, singing, "A baby monster cookie for a baby cookie monster," laughing hysterically. I just liked the idea of doing something with my hands and feeding my friends. But I also recognize that this project was every so slightly in the over-achieving realm. This is where we get back to the koan at the top of the post. What, exactly, were my motivations? Bodhisattva? Mother? (After all, mother's bake cookies, right?) Codependent? A little of all three?

Every Monday for the past several years I have joined in a meditation group with a circle of mothers. I've written about this before, in this post for Mother's Day. It has been a tremendous education. Mostly, I've been in awe of what it takes to be a mother: the blood, sweat, and tears of it.

I have identified myself as the "token non-mother" of the group, but invariably someone else will say,"Well, that isn't really true. You're the mother to lots of people!" And I think that's true, to some degree. By not having children myself, my energy is freed up to care for many people, and for the world. On another level it's baloney: I know perfectly well that my life is way easier and way freer than the lives of the mothers I knows. No matter how many people I care for, I generally get to come home (wherever home is at any time), make myself a pot of tea and read a book all night if I want to, without interruptions. They don't have that option.

Anyway, during the practice period I have been looking at my desires in relation to others, whether  motherly, bodhisattva-like, codependent, or something in between. There is a way that the position of the shuso is like being a mother for a whole practice period, and I'm ripe for the task. I see others' suffering - maybe because I know my own so well - and have tremendous desires to ease it, if I can. I have tremendous desires to serve and to nurture (see "cookies," above). I am inspired by others' willingness to wake up to their lives; discouraged when someone seems to making a choice away from waking up, toward the forces of habit and despair. All these desires and inspirations are lovely, in their way, and also tricky. Very, very tricky.

After Bruce brought up the wonderful koan, I had to go look up the definition of codependency in Wikipedia. It's a term that has entered our vocabulary from the recovery community, and I think most people have a vague sense of its meaning. It was helpful for me to look at it more closely. It's interesting to me that one of the first discussions about codependency in Wikipedia is about its similarities to and important differences from healthy mothering. After all, mothers are dedicated to caring for others, to an immense, often self-sacrificing extent. But I think I would say, from what I've gleaned from my reading, that codependents, who are nearly always people who grew up in difficult or alcoholic families, have a compulsive need to be in a caretaker role, are identified with that role, and avoid or displace their own needs for the needs of others.

Some psychologist has even developed a series of questions related to codependency, and I'm afraid I ranked pretty high. So between that, the cookie making, and a few other ways I've been in the practice period, I'm more than a little suspicious that my inner bodhisattva and inner codependent are, shall we say, up to some hanky-panky together.

And all this matters, because the bodhisattva path (the path of awakening, and dedication to helping others to awaken), and the development of bodhicitta (the desire to awaken for the benefit of others) are at the heart of Mahayana Buddhist practice. But wouldn't it be awful if all the time you thought you were training in becoming a bodhisattva, you were actually enacting deep conditioned patterns of codependency? Ack!!!! And it seems that the bodhisattva ideal could be very seductive for people who tend toward codependency, because, like motherhood and codependency, the differences are not as obvious as one might think.

So how can you know? How can I know? Well, these is my working hypotheses, based on observation of yours truly and her behaviors, and bound to be partly wrong, but I share them with you anyway, as a work in progress.

  • If I feel resentment or disappointment toward anyone I think I'm "helping," there's a good chance that I have some vested interest in being "the helper." Not a good sign.
  • But if my heart is wide open, aware, compassionate, and respectful of the other person, not needing them to be a particular way, not needing myself to be a particular way, then the bodhisattva is stepping forward.
  • If I feel any compulsion to be kind, giving, etc, especially beyond my own capacity or willingness, rather than freely responding from warmth and love, I may be enacting some old pattern.
  • Being "good," being well-behaved, or being uncomplaining may not be true bodhisattva activity, even if it looks good. Sometimes bodhisattvas are fierce, like Manjushri, with his sword of wisdom. Sometimes they say "no" or "enough." 
  • If I'm willing to be hurt, willing to cry, willing to be vulnerable, and willing to lose others, that's the bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas definitely cry....some are even born from tears.
  • If I'm willing to respect the suffering of another, and know that it's not my job to fix them, but simply to love them as they are, the bodhisattva is peeking through.

My sense of myself is of a kind of flickering in and out of the bodhisattva and the codependent, from one moment to the next, and my job is to pay attention and notice what it feels like when one is in the ascendant, and when the other is. It feels very important not to judge myself for enacting old patterns, and to understand that "bodhisattva" does not belong to me; it's just the goodness of the universe stepping forward through me.

I think my job is to get out of the way of the bodhisattva and not attach to any idea of who or what I am, and the best way I know to do that is through basic mindfulness, basic awareness, and basic compassion for this mixed-up, imperfect, confused, but sincerely-trying-to-wake-up person, and for all her friends and fellow humans in the same boat: bodhisattvas, mothers, and codependents all together on a stormy sea.

Let's go eat some cookies!

Photo by Lulu Wong, EDZ sesshin cookies, 2012
Here's my cookie recipe, adapted from one on the back of Coach's Oats (available at Costco, I believe). My friend Alison gave me a big bag right before practice period. I think you could use quick-cooking steel-cut or Irish oats as an alternative to Coach's Oats. I did this whole thing with a wooden spoon and they came out just fine.

Oatmeal Coconut Cookies
....with a little bit of chocolate

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp milk
1 cup all purpose flour (I used unbleached)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup Coach's Oats or quick steel-cut oats
1 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup or more of shaved dark chocolate, your choice

Put the chocolate in the freezer overnight for easier shaving. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter and sugars, add egg, vanilla, and milk, and mix just until smooth. In a separate bowl, sift flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and add to wet ingredients. Add oats and coconut, then shave chocolate and add, mix until combined. Drop by large teaspoons on to an ungreased cookie sheet (I used parchment paper) and bake for 12-15 minutes. Makes 3 dozen cookies, or enough for one practice period tea with some left over to give to neighbors and to take on a hike.



Monday, October 15, 2012

Shuso Notes: Zen and Life and Posture

This last week I've been contemplating posture. I notice in myself, as I write the word "posture", a whole cascade of negative associations, and these associations have no doubt contributed to my own slouchy, unimpressive habitual posture. Somewhere in my head is the idea that to sit or stand with a straight back is to be stiff, formal, unfriendly, affected, a Victorian graduate of etiquette school. This despite my more than twenty years of Soto Zen practice, with its deep teachings about the power of posture and uprightness!

In my school of Zen, when its 13th c. founder, Eihei Dogen, was asked what he learned about Zen during his four years in China, he said, "All I have is this: eyes horizontal, nose vertical." There are some Japanese (and maybe some American) Soto Zen teachers who teach meditation solely through posture. To sit in the posture of Buddha, legs crossed, back straight, eyes half-closed, is to fully manifest Buddha. What is happening in your head is inconsequential. I'm not sure I entirely agree with this, but I appreciate its simplicity and faith.

I also very much appreciate the dignity of Zen posture in the meditation hall, but have never been able to quite understand why it might matter in daily life. Thanks to an extraordinary movie, I'm starting to have a new sense of the raw power and beauty of posture, the way posture is an expression of fundamental human strength and resilience -- a long way from Victorian etiquette school, and tremendously encouraging and exciting in my own life.

For those of you who have not been able to see Beasts of the Southern Wild, I say, respectfully, do whatever you can to see it. I have seen it twice, once right before the practice period started, and once last week (here's a link for finding where it's playing: here.) It won best first feature film at the Cannes Film Festival, and it's a masterpiece. The first time I was so overcome by emotion by the end, weeping in my red plush chair in the theater, that I knew I would have to see it again just to catch the finer details. The second time what I saw was what you can see in these stills from the film: the grand, unaffected, proud posture of the five year old girl, Hushpuppy, who is at the center of the film.

Hushpuppy (who looks a lot like an older version of my beautiful niece Ellie) and her father, Wink, live in The Bathtub, an impoverished community hemmed in by levees south of New Orleans. They live in a kind of poverty that is almost unimaginable to most of us, even before a storm destroys what little they have. Her father and a few others refuse to leave before the storm, and so they hang on in a devastated place, a little band of drunks and motherless children. But what they have is in their bodies, in their standing upright in the face of terror and loss. None of the "actors" in the film are professionally trained: they all come from places much like the The Bathtub, so what they show in their posture is not learned: it's who they are.

Ever since I watched Beasts for the second time, I've been feeling differently in my body. Instead of thinking of Victorian ladies in hats when I straighten my back, I think of Hushpuppy and Miss Bathsheba (a wild-haired, straight-talking schoolteacher and herbalist who lives in a floating house filled with plants). I think of their genuine dignity and strength and grace: dignity and strength and grace I would hope to have if my world came apart at the seams, as their's does.

This afternoon I watched a talk by Zentatsu Richard Baker on the 50th anniversary of the founding of San Francisco Zen Center (skip ahead in video to about the thirty minute mark. There is a second video for the second half of the talk). He was one of Suzuki Roshi's earliest western students. He talked about the "mental posture" that he learned from Suzuki Roshi, and he said something that really struck me:

"Practice is not so much a matter of understanding as of incubation."

By that I think part of what he means is that Zen practice is not a matter of just the mind; it is a matter of the whole being steeped in the practice....mind, body, heart, and something even subtler: our attitude, how we move and live in the world. This can't be learned from books; this can only be learned from the long living of it, just as the actress who plays Hushpuppy couldn't be taught her dignity by acting coaches - it comes from her life, the life of her family, the life of her whole community.

From the beginning of the practice period I have been moving more slowly, and noticing with amazement how it changes my sense of everything - myself, the world around me, time, how I feel about others. Now, thanks to Hushpuppy and Miss Bathsheba, I seem to be getting over my prejudices about posture. Perhaps posture is what is needed to genuinely face the sufferings of the world. Maybe that's why the hundreds of thousands of Buddha statues are nearly all of Buddha sitting or standing upright. The Buddha knew all about suffering, and yet there he is, smiling, sitting straight and tall and dignified.

I never met the late Katagiri Roshi, who was one of the JJapanese pioneers who bravely brought Zren to the West, but I know that he too knew about suffering, and he embodied the sweetness and dignity of Zen practice, through and through. I came across this photo of Katagiri, and offer it to you as inspiration, side by side with Hushpuppy Roshi.

May we all find the courage in our bodies to be truly upright, through joy and through tribulation, whatever our life circumstances.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Shuso Notes: The Inner Judge

The nun Soma was a disciple of the Buddha. One day she was deep in meditation beneath a tree in a forest grove. Mara, the Lord of Delusion, approached her, cloaked in invisibility. He whispered in her ear, “Because a woman has a naturally limited consciousness, and the realm of wisdom is hard to reach, no woman has the ability to attain it.”
Soma recognized Mara and rebuked him, saying, “How could a woman’s consciousness be a hindrance when her heart is set on liberation? Am I a woman in these matters, or a man? This question has no power over me. Mara, begone!”

And he was gone.
                                                                                 From the Therigatha

For years now I have been thinking about, studying, and practicing with the modern-day equivalent of Mara, the Lord of Delusion, the one who visits Soma in this ancient Buddhist story. I call him "The Inner Judge" or "The Inner Critic."  Whatever you choose to call he/she/it, its voice is unmistakable. It whispers in your ear, in just the words that most hook you, "Who are you to think you can meditate/sing/write/paint/love/awaken (fill in your blank here ______)?" 

The effect is powerful and immediate, if you buy the story: a sinking of energy, a feeling of hopelessness, a desire to quit whatever you are trying to do, a deep sadness. At its most virulent, it takes the form of self-hatred. 

Even the Buddha was whispered to by Mara, on the night of his enlightenment, "What right do you have to seek enlightenment?" And in response the Buddha called on the earth to be his witness, in the famous earth-touching gesture, and the earth shook and roared in response. Sometimes this gesture is also called the "subduing Mara" gesture.

I became aware of the spiritual consequences of this inner voice through the work of the teacher Byron Brown, and his book, Soul Without Shame. Years ago I attended a one day retreat with Byron Brown at Spirit Rock, and was so convinced that I needed to work with the inner judge that I signed up for a five day retreat with Byron later that year.  I have been using what I learned from him ever since, and sharing with others too, because without an awareness of the inner judge, spiritual unfolding can come to a standstill, shanghaied by self-judgement. 

Spiritual ideas can even be used by the inner judge to make you feel like more of a loser: "What kind of Buddhist are you? A real Buddhist wouldn't get angry. A real Buddhist wouldn't grieve this hard or this long. A real Buddhist wouldn't spend an entire meditation period fantasizing about being enlightened some day...etc. etc." I spent about the first five years of Buddhist practice hounded by these sorts of thoughts, and feeling discouraged in my practice a lot of the time. 

Over the years of being aware of the inner judge and its tricks, I have become much less frequently or thoroughly at its mercy. But every once in a while I get hooked. I'm thinking about this right now because for various reasons the inner judge has been paying me a visit over the last few days. It's not fun to hear Mara's whisper in my ear. Sometimes it's not even a story: just a vague sense of dis-ease, an undefined sense of lack or shame.

So what to do? 

First of all, awareness. Awareness, awareness, awareness. Half the battle is just knowing you're under attack. As I said, the judge doesn't always speak in words...sometimes it's more of a vague drop in energy, a sudden loss of confidence. Sometimes there are words, even a recognizable voice. If I am saying awful things to myself in the voice of my first grade teacher or the meanest kid I knew, then chances are good that the inner judge is in town. 

Now, awareness might not seem like much, but I've found that awareness, all by itself, can take away a lot of the judge's power. As the story at the beginning of this post tells us, "Soma recognized him." Sometimes just the recognition is enough to dissolve the whole thing, open up freedom. There are lots of stories of the Buddha and Mara (you get a sense that by the end of Buddha's life they were old friends), and always there is this element of recognition and naming, and the sudden release: "And Mara was gone." 

But sometimes I recognize the inner judge and it just sneers at me and says something like, "Well, yes, this is the voice of the inner judge, but this time I'm right. You really are failing here. You really are a pitiful idiot." What then?

Byron Brown suggests various approaches if awareness alone doesn't break the spell (and it is a sort of spell), and I think the approach depends on the person and the situation.

One possibility is what one might call the "wrathful" approach, like those compassionately fierce Tibetan deities stamping on delusion in order to bring freedom. This is using strength or aggression: "Stop!" "No!" "I don't believe you!"  After all, the inner judge is an internalized authority figure, and one way to deal with an unjust authority figure is to take back your own power, your own authority. I have to admit that this hasn't been so effective for me. The danger is that the judge will just up the ante, and start yelling back. Then you have a yelling match inside. But this strong approach was what Soma does in the story, and it works well. "This question has no power over me. Mara, begone!"

Another possibility, more my style, is compassion. An inner judge arises out of a false sense of protectiveness, a false authority. But if I saw a child being belittled or discouraged by a parent or teacher, even a well-meaning parent or teacher, I would want to protect that child. I would want to sit down with her and tell her how wonderful she really is, how deserving of love and praise. We are children in the face of the inner judge, and we can treat ourselves with the kindness we would wish for from the adults around us. It is a sad thing when a human being is judged or attacked, whether from the outside or the inside, and compassion is a natural response. Even imagining putting my arms around myself can help.

A third approach is humor. Often the suppositions of an inner judge are, frankly, ridiculous:  "You know, if you go to that party, they will all stare at you, laugh at you, and talk about you behind your back. You should stay home." Or, "Your painting looks like it was done by a third grader. Tear it up immediately," An appropriate response might be, "Oh, come on! It's at least fifth grade level!" Sometimes just identifying the absurd words of the judge can lead to laughter. This has worked fairly well for me too, over the years.

And the inner judge really can dissolve just as fast as Mara does in the story. One minute whispering menacingly, the next minute gone, leaving you sitting quietly in the forest. Just like any other thought, the judge only has the power we invest in it. Once seen through, there's nothing left, not even a puff of black smoke.

As I write this, I feel a prayer rising up in me. "May anyone who is besieged by inner judgments find freedom from them. May all belittling, cruel and limiting thoughts dissolve into the light. And may each of us know and recognize our own unique beauty, our own capacity, and the gifts we bring to the world." 




Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Shuso Notes: The Eight Worldly Winds

"Monks, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions. Which eight? Gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain. These are the eight worldly conditions that spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions."
                                       Lokavipatti Sutta, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight
During the sesshin (silent Zen retreat) that ended a week or so ago, I had some insights into what are sometimes called the "Eight Worldly Conditions", or, my favorite translation, the "Eight Worldly Winds." These are four sets of two words each:

Gain and loss
Status and disgrace
Praise and blame
Pleasure and pain

Everyone wants more of the words on the right; less -- or hopefully none -- of the words on the left. But each set of words go together. Loss and gain are intimately connected; as are status and disgrace; praise and blame; pleasure and pain. Life doesn’t dish up slices of one without the other, but most people, including me, live with the unconscious fantasy that it just might be possible to live a life of all gain, status, praise and pleasure. “With enough money, enough friends, enough good luck....maybe....” 

So these winds, and the desire for the right hand side over the left hand side, spin us around and around, like a puppy accidentally caught in a washing machine: up and down, up and down, round and round and round.

John Good in our Everyday Zen kitchen, photo by Lulu Wong
The first time I saw this list was years ago, posted on the refrigerator in a Zen Center kitchen. They are particularly apropos for a Zen kitchen. In the monastery, just as in ordinary life only more so, meals are among the small pleasures that everyone looks forward to. A really good meal can evoke tremendous expressions of gratitude and praise. But as I explored in my last post, in traditional Zen meals there is little or no choice of food, so feelings can also run high in the other direction. I have seen Zen cooks practically run out of the monastery for preparing the wrong kind of soup too many times in a row, or forcing their own food ideas (“salt is a bad idea”) on the whole community.

During the sesshin I was doing a variant on the traditional shuso job. In the monastery, the shuso and the benji (his or her right-hand woman or man) are responsible for the compost and garbage. This is profoundly wise, I think, on the part of whatever distant Zen ancestor established the tradition. Being shuso is a time of stepping forward into some degree of leadership and visibility, some degree of status (see above!), so what better job to balance things out than taking out the garbage, the stinkier and grosser the better!

Since we don’t have a monastery at Everyday Zen, there isn’t much garbage or compost. But there are plenty of bathrooms, so the shuso cleans bathrooms, an equivalently “low” job. I cleaned the bathrooms at the place where we hold our one day sits, at the beginning of the practice, with my friend Monica, and doing it together was both gross (the bathrooms were really dirty) and fun, in a bizarre kind of way. But Monica was only sitting in the mornings at sesshin, so the bathrooms were all mine.

Every afternoon I would put on work clothes and purple gloves, grab my collection of organic sprays and sponges, and start going from bathroom to bathroom. For the record, at Santa Sabina there are seven bathrooms, some with multiple stalls. They were already quite clean, since the staff cleans them in the morning, but there was usually just enough accumulated grime and other, um, leavings, to justify a little spiffing up in the afternoon. Besides, in Zen practice we don’t care how clean something already is: if the job is to clean an already clean bathroom, well, you clean it. 

And this is where it gets interesting. I got very depressed every afternoon. I was not only doing a “low” job, I felt “low.” Cleaning bathrooms changed my identity, albeit temporarily, to “bathroom cleaner,” and I didn’t feel proud of being “bathroom cleaner.” I walked around feeling, pardon the expression, like a piece of shit myself, like a very small, very unimportant person.

From Leo Prieta, Flickr Creative Commons,

It doesn't take a PhD in sociology to figure out that the way I felt is probably shared by a lot of people who do “low” jobs: house cleaners, maids at hotels, dishwashers, garbage collectors, fast food employees, homeless people begging on the street. It’s not pleasant, and it would take a very strong, very confident personality to not be affected by that job identity – at least it would take a personality stronger than mine! I’m planning to remember that the next time I leave my unwashed sheets in my hotel room and wonder whether to leave a tip.

But then, for the rest of the day each day of the sesshin, I was “shuso”. I was the only person in the room not facing the wall during meditation; I led the morning services; I gave talks; I held teas. And as soon as I took off those purple gloves, I felt like “somebody” again. After my first talk, I had so many nice notes from people that I felt like more than just somebody again: I felt pretty special. Scared me, actually. How do you accept praise and not get stuck to it?  How do you do a “low” job and not get stuck to it? Clearly the praise is not the problem, nor is cleaning bathrooms. The problem is the stickiness.

This reminds me of a Zen story about one of the other set of words: praise and blame, It is almost certainly apocryphal, but it’s still worth hearing:

A beautiful girl in the village was pregnant. Her angry parents demanded to know who was the father. At first resistant to confess, the anxious and embarrassed girl finally pointed to Hakuin, the Zen master whom everyone previously revered for living such a pure life. When the outraged parents confronted Hakuin with their daughter's accusation, he simply replied "Is that so?"

When the child was born, the parents brought it to the Hakuin, who now was viewed as a pariah by the whole village. They demanded that he take care of the child since it was his responsibility. "Is that so?" Hakuin said calmly as he accepted the child.

For many months he took very good care of the child until the daughter could no longer withstand the lie she had told. She confessed that the real father was a young man in the village whom she had tried to protect. The parents immediately went to Hakuin to see if he would return the baby. With profuse apologies they explained what had happened. "Is that so?" Hakuin said as he handed them the child.

Hakuin self-portrait
So Hakuin is an example of not being flung around by the powerful eight winds. Sometimes I think I’m doing pretty well in relation to the eight winds, that I know better than to be caught by praise or blame, status or pleasure....but then something as small as cleaning a bathroom reminds me that I’m just as vulnerable as the next person.

I remember, years ago, hearing something on the radio that really moved me. It was the final speech of a Congressman before stepping down from office after being caught taking large bribes from defense contractors, and other ethical failings. He said, "In my life I have known great joy, great sadness, great achievement. And now I know great shame." I could hear in his voice that he meant it, and he had seen something profound about his life. I might not agree with his politics or his actions, but at that moment I was full of admiration for his honesty, and for his willingness to bear the shame that he carried.

I think it's fair to say that most of us will know, intimately, aspects of all eight of the winds. Rather than trying to sidestep them, or pretend they don't matter, maybe, like this unfortunate Congressman, we should bow down to them. "Yes," we could say, "I know this, too, now. This is part of being alive, part of being human." Each wind is part of our foolish, clownish, tragic humanity, after all. 

Here’s a final story, appropriately scatological and pretty funny, as many good Zen stories are:

A famous Buddhist poet of the Song Dynasty was assigned to an official post on the northern shore of the Yangtze River. Across the river was a Zen temple with a famous teacher. One day the poet, feeling quite advanced in his practice, wrote a poem and sent it across the river to the teacher:

"Bowing with my highest respect
To the highest gods,
Whose fine light illuminates the whole universe,
The eight winds cannot move me,
For I am sitting upright on the golden purple lotus blossom."

After reading the poem, the teacher wrote down one character as his comment and sent it back to the poet. The word was "Fart!" ("Pi" in Chinese, which means "utter nonsense") 

Upon seeing this insult, the poet was furious, and crossed the river to argue with the teacher. When he arrived, he asked, “How can you insult me like this?"

Innocently, as if nothing had happened, the teacher asked, "How have I insulted you?" Without saying another word, the poet showed the word "Fart."

Laughing wholeheartedly, the teacher said, "Oh! Didn't you say that the eight winds cannot move you? How come you are sent across the river with just a fart?" The poor poet was extremely embarrassed.

How have the eight winds moved you -- or not?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shuso Notes: Zen Bowls and Wake-up Bells

I'm just out of a 6-day sesshin, Zen retreat, with Norman Fischer and most of the local participants of the Everyday Zen practice period. There were about 48 of us sitting at the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in a large room from 5:30 am until 9:00 pm every day, steeping ourselves like tea bags in the clear water of silence.

A big part of Zen sesshin is a somewhat arcane meal practice called oryoki. During meals, instead of eating in the usual way, each person has their own set of three bowls, nested inside one another, wrapped up in a particular way in a cloth. The photo above shows one person's bowls all wrapped up after a meal.

Oryoki is an acknowledgement of the ancient Buddhist practice of begging for and receiving food. The Buddha ate from a begging bowl, and even today Theravadan monks have only a bowl and three robes, and they only eat if someone places food in their bowl each morning. The life of a monk is a life of radical dependence on others and trust in interconnection. When Zen monasteries started developing in China, monks grew their own food and cooked for themselves, but they maintained the tradition of the importance of the bowl, and the recognition of humility, gratitude and interdependence that it symbolizes.

Oryoki is truly a trial by fire for new Zen students. Each movement of unwrapping the bowls, of chanting, of eating, has its own choreography, and there's no way to get it entirely right, even after years of practice. For someone new to oryoki, remembering even the most basic sequence from one meal to another is a challenge, especially after hours of meditation and the general spaciness that develops after a few days on retreat. I'm sure there are people who have fantasized about throwing everything across the room with a shout, grabbing a plate and a spoon, dishing out their own food, and going outside to eat in peace.

I know this because one of my jobs for the last few years has been to provide an orientation to oryoki at the beginning of sesshin. I invariably feel like I am torturing people as we go through the innumerable steps, bewildered faces turned toward me, tension in shoulders and trembling fingers. I wish there was some way I could make it easier, but there's no way to skip a step without getting even more hopelessly lost. So I doggedly go on, hoping and praying that with humor and kindness I can ease the anxiety a little.

Then, the very next morning at breakfast, we all dive in to oryoki practice. Much of the daily rhythm and structure of a Zen monastery (and a sesshin is a temporary monastery, even if it is held at a Catholic convent!), is to some degree built around the ritual of giving and receiving that is at the heart of oryoki. It is really not intended to be a sadistic torture device, as much as it might feel that way to someone struggling with it for the first time. Its intention, from start to finish,  is to help bring powerful awareness to our usual mindless relationship to receiving and eating food, the life that makes it possible for us to live.

The Zen kitchen, which is Soto Zen is as much a practice place as the meditation hall, is focused on providing just the right food and the right amounts for those three little bowls. The kitchen is also engaged in a ritual while they're cooking. They bow to an altar in the kitchen before starting, they work in silence, and, if all goes well, the food appears at just the right moment at the beginning of a meal.

In the monastery, oryoki meals are eaten right at one's place in the meditation hall. To begin a meal, one just turns around and picks up the bowls that are right beside the meditation cushion. A team of servers bring in the pots one at a time, bowing in silence to pairs of people, dishing up the food (and there are ritualized signals for "that's enough"), then bowing again. A hall full of sixty people can all be served their food in about 15 minutes this way.

We at Everyday Zen eat at tables in the old convent refrectory, but we still serve one another in silence. Each person serves the person across the table, bowing before and after, using the same signals. We chant verses of gratitude before the meal and after. My favorite line is "May we realize the emptiness of the three wheels, giver, receiver, and gift." Everything is connected: those who grew and cooked the food, those of us who receive it, and the food itself in all its glory. Nothing can be separated out or could exist without the others.

At the end of the meal, still sitting at our places, we serve each other hot water in the largest bowl. Then, with another series of choreographed movements, we clean all three bowls and our utensils, drink most of the leftover water, make an offering of a small amount of water to the spirit world ("This water, which tastes like ambrosia, we offer to the many spirits to satisfy them"), dry everything, and pack it all back up into its neat little package. No waste, no dishes, no mess. It's brilliant.

Now's my chance to sing the praises of oryoki. As an ecologist, everything about oryoki delights me (except for the suffering it causes people who are new to it - I could do without that, but there doesn't seem to be a way out of it). I love that it is the practice of "just enough" in a culture of "never enough". I love that from the beginning to end it acknowledges interconnection, and the the interpenetration of our food and those who bring it to us and our own lives. I love that it requires attention, and even love, for what we normally think of as inanimate and use without appreciation. And once past the initial terror and awkwardness, the movements are beautiful: literally a dance of awareness.

And there is something of a feeling of a "full circle" to oryoki, even to the water offering that is poured on the base of a plant or tree outside the kitchen door. If we lived in the same way as we do oryoki, perhaps things would be a wee bit less dire than they seem to be. Much of monastic life offers similar possibilities.

The multi-religious theologian Raimundo Pannikar, in his gorgeous book on the "monastic archetype,", Blessed Simplicity, suggests that in this era monks may not be people living in monasteries in robes, but are rather people who are "called to a interiority, to a search for the center and for the heart," whatever their life circumstances. I would venture to say that with that search and commitment comes to a growing awareness of interconnection and sacredness, and from that place, naturally unfolds a monastic approach to life: a life of care, of simplicity, and of awareness. Each person who makes this choice helps the world.

And on that note, just a few throughts about ringing the wake-up bell for sesshin. That's one of the many jobs of the shuso during practice period: to go into the dark, cold meditation hall, very early in the morning, do three bows to the Buddha, pick up the bell from behind the altar, then run (run!) with the bell ringing wildly, one full circuit of the meditation hall and then past every door of every person in the sesshin. It's an ear-splitting racket in the midst of so much silence and slowness. It's like a fire alarm or an air-raid siren: "Wake up! Wake up! There's an emergency here! No time to waste!"

I was dreading getting up so early (two alarms set for 4:45 am, and hardly sleeping the first night out of a fear that I would oversleep), but I hadn't expected what it would feel like to ring the bell. Running around the meditation hall felt like a purification of the space, washing out all the stickiness from yesterday's sitting, making it fresh for a new day. And running the bell through the dark hallways, sleepy people jumping out of my way (sorry, everyone), it really did feel like an emergency. Truly, there is no time to waste.

There is a big wooden block that is struck with a mallet to call people to meditation, called a han. Hans generally have calligraphy on them that says something like what ours says: "Birth and Death is serious business, swift as an arrow, soon gone. Wake up, everyone! Don't waste this life."

I have always taken that admonition as a reminder that life is short, and so, don't put off what matters, wake up as much as you can to the nature of things, and to compassion. But now, with everything that is happening in the world, I hold it a little differently: we need every one of us to wake up, NOW, as much as possible, and find a way to live lives of greater acknowledgment of our interdependence ---- with each other, with all the creatures in this world, and with the whole world itself, even the very air we breathe, the ocean currents, the rain, the clouds. There is no time to waste.

And as oryoki teaches, there is also all the time in the world. Each moment is endless, if we're there for it. So, yes, wake up, but wake up to gratitude, to joy, to appreciation for this beautiful world, and the beautiful people all around us. Then we won't have wasted this precious life, so brief, so essential.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Shuso Notes, Week Four: Silence

The practice period sesshin starts tomorrow at the Santa Sabina Retreat Center. Sesshin is a silent Zen retreat. Ours is six days long, and it's the beating heart of the practice period. It's the one time when a good portion of the practice period comes together, making, as we say in Zen, one body.

In a residential Zen practice period, sesshin is just a slight intensifying of the life everyone is already leading, but for us, out in the world, it is a dramatic transition into a different way of being. Cell phones are turned off, books are put down, activity is minimized, and all of us live by a schedule that starts at 5 am and goes on until 9 pm. It is a taste of the monastery.

Our sesshin is held at the Santa Sabina Center, which is an old convent, a place where Dominican nuns who were considering final vows lived and prayed. Now the nuns are gone, but I feel their presence there, in the lovely, flower-strewn, feminine inner garden, so like the courtyard gardens of Italy that I played in as a child, in the small chapel with its wooden choir stalls, in the rectory with its long tables. There is a long association between Catholic monastics and Buddhists: I think there is a similar flavor: an appreciation for silence, for depth, and for sincerity.

Silence. I remember my first silent retreat, held at another Northern California convent. The huge relief of letting the mask of my persona crack and loosen. I cried at the end, when we were all talking again, because I was so sad to feel the mask return -- that desire to be seen in a certain way, that desire to project a certain image. Many people are frightened at the thought of a silent retreat ("ack, I don't want to be alone with my mind!") but almost everyone I know has found that silence is a gift, an immense resting place where the personality can just give it up for a while. And I think there is an unnoticed hunger for silence in our culture, right alongside the fear of it. We are so seldom at rest.

I think also there is sometimes a sense that silence is an inward experience. Oddly, that's not really the case. When the voice ceases, there is suddenly room for the rest of the world: birdsong, wind sound, cars passing by. And not just sound, but all the senses waken and clear: the sight of the stars can bring tears; a cookie served at tea is the most delicious ambrosia. Silence is deeply sensual. It is interesting to think about how love making is often silent. Silence is intimate, as close as skin and breath.

But as I considered how some people in the practice period will be at the sesshin, and some people can't be at the sesshin, I started thinking about silence in a new way. There is overt silence -- the ceasing of speech -- but then there is the silence that is larger than any particular choice around speaking or not speaking, meditation or non-meditation. Silence can be found anywhere. In between my words there is silence. At the end of a breath there is silence. Most of the natural world is silent, most of the time; the tomatoes in the garden are silent, the oak trees in the back yard are silent.

And perhaps (this is something to explore) there is even silence right in the midst of the loudest sounds. Sound depends on and arises from silence, so surely silence is always there. What makes an operatic aria so exquisite? The silence that surrounds the notes. What would life be like if we were listening to the silence as well as the words of our loved ones? If we felt the silence in the middle of the city, buried in the ambulance sirens, permeating the rush of traffic?

I remember once someone talking about being annoyed by the little sounds of her fellow meditators on a retreat, and then realizing that she had set up a dualistic idea - they were "out there", snuffling, breathing too hard, whatever, and she was "in here", wanting silence and not getting it, assaulted and offended. So she started exploring what happened if she heard those sounds as her own sounds, not as something separate. Well - I leave it to your own exploration, what happened next.

So now I think it's time for me to stop talking.

I'd like to leave you with a beautiful video by Brother David, a Benedectine monk who has lived much of his own life in silence, and silence's gift has blossomed in his heart to the deepest appreciation of the world.



Monday, September 10, 2012

Shuso Notes Week Three: One Continuous Mistake

Detail from painting by Kaz Tanahashi

"Our life is much more fluid and instantaneous than our thoughts can capture."
                                                                   Norman Fischer, Seminar, September 5, 2012.

How could it be the beginning of the third week of the practice period already? A dharma friend mentioned that the whole idea of a practice period is arbitrary, even made up: Norman hits a big staff three times, the shuso accepts her responsibility, eighty people decide they are in a "practice period," and poof, it's a practice period! Makes you wonder how much else in life is like that.

So yes, it's made up, but this made up thing has its own kind of astonishing power. I find myself constantly surprised in this experience of being "shuso," "head student, "whatever that is (and I know what it is less than I did before I started). Surprised by my own responses, surprised by what practice period is like from this vantage point, completely not expecting what happens from one day to another.

That reminds me of a quote from Dogen that always makes me laugh : "Enlightenment is not like your conception of it....What you think one way or another before enlightenment is not a help for enlightenment." In other words, give it up! Your ideas about enlightenment, or anything else, whatever they may be, no matter how exalted or intellectually sophisticated - they're just fantasies, concepts, smoke rings. There are better ways to spend a day than spending even a moment thinking about such a thing.

Maybe Dogen's comment could be amended to, "Life is not like your conception of it...What you think one way or another about life is not a help for life!"

Photo by Michael Hofmann
I was in the Luther Burbank gardens in Santa Rosa yesterday, and saw a fountain there, a large bronze basin suspended about ten feet above a pool of water. The water fills the basin and pours over the edge in a smooth, thin sheet, but with the slightest breeze the sheet of water breaks up into momentary, beautiful patterns in mid-air, moving from one form to another, and then falling into the pool, disappearing into it.

Luther Burbank himself bred hundreds - maybe thousands - of new varieties of plants at the turn of the 20th century. Some of them, like the russet potato and hte Santa Rosa plum, are still being harvested. Others have disappeared completely, absorbed back into wherever it is they came from. Burbank himself, once world-famous, was buried in an unmarked grave in the garden, at his request, and a tree was planted above his body. The tree was a landmark in Santa Rosa for decades, but now even the tree is gone.

This weekend I was in a Asian calligraphy workshop with Kaz Tanahashi, who, if we had "living treasures" in the United States, would be one. At 79 he is still translating the most difficult Japanese Buddhist texts, writing books, creating enormous multicolored calligraphy masterpieces on commission for museums all over the world, traveling, working for peace....there's no one quite like Kaz, anywhere, and I consider it a great gift to study with him once a year.

Painting, "Together" by Kaz Tanahashi (from Brush Mind website)

I am exceedingly clumsy, beginning calligrapher, but I love it. It is so pure and so terrifying! Black ink. White ricepaper. Horsehair brush. The brush is poised above the paper, the mind is collected as best as one can, and then - splat! - the brush lands and moves and whatever it is that you had hoped for generally doesn't happen. It is an exercise in chaos. No amount of intention or concentration can completely control those wayward materials. And there is no erasing, no going back, no fixing or fiddling to make it better. The line shows everything, whatever you might want to hide or avoid - fear, nervousness, a moment of inattention -- or even the faint possibility, if you're exceedingly lucky, of a moment of grace, a little hint of what might happen if a person kept doing this for a few decades.

This constant "failure" really threw me in my first couple of workshops, as kind as Kaz is to all of us who are struggling there. But this time I found the process, and my reaction to it,  both funny and enjoyable. There seems to be a inverse relationship between willfulness and the lines on that stark white paper: the greater the willfulness, the shakier the line. I appreciate a place where I can't make it happen through will alone, and where I can't hide. Or maybe I should say, to be more accurate, that I am learning to appreciate such a place.

Being shuso is like that too, and not only that, but there is no way to avoid being a beginner at being shuso. There are no "experienced" shusos. So here I am, stumbling around with my brush dripping black ink, splattering paper here and there, getting ink on my shoes, definitely trying my best but completely unable to hide my rank beginnerhood. That's what makes shusos so endearing to everyone, and also what makes shusos so terrified. A friend who was shuso, years ago, told me that she too was walking in the hills before being shuso, and thought she heard a lion, and thought, "Oh, maybe it will eat me and I won't have to do this!"

Suzuki Roshi's most famous lines are undoubtedly, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." Yeah, yeah, we say, but who wants to be a beginner? It's embarrassing, stressful, awkward, silly. But then he says, "Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner's mind. It is the secret of Zen practice."


So for anyone in the practice period, or anywhere else, who feels like a beginner, please know that Suzuki Roshi would be very pleased. I'm going to try to remember that too, as I tremblingly sit down to give a dharma talk, or trip over my robes on the way to the altar, or say something stupid or foolish or thoughtless to someone. Practice period begins with a shuso jundo, where the shuso walks around the zendo hunched over and waddling like a duck, in a bowing position, past every person in the practice period. That is actually the shuso's way of asking forgiveness and apologizing, in advance, for all the ten thousand mistakes she or he will make.

Thank goodness Zen really appreciates this. "One continuous mistake" is one famous expression. "Fall down nine times and get up ten" is another.

Florence's "Life"
Falling down and getting up together, day after day, week after week, breath after breath. I know that's an idea about life, and ideas about life may not have much to do with actual life, but it feels like a helpful way to think about practice period. I am very grateful that eighty-four people have bravely and foolishly decided to join up together and fall down together. And I know that this community has so much heart that whatever foolishness I express, they will be able to forgive me and love me anyway (I hope.....) That's what it means to be part of a sangha, the precious jewel of spiritual community.

Falling down. Getting up. Letting that black ink show every tremor. Living, as Kaz says, "miracles of each moment"....what else is there to do?



Monday, September 3, 2012

Shuso Notes Week Two: Fog, Restraint, Prayer

The second week of the practice period has just begun, and it feels like this great 80-person-power engine of dharma is starting to hum. All over the Bay Area, all over the country, all over the world, people are sitting in meditation, talking with their practice period buddies, tuning in to the dharma talks, getting ready for silent retreat in two weeks. It's quite a feeling, from this viewpoint: awe-inspiring, encouraging, and humbling.

I went for a short walk last night up in the hills, just as the sun was setting. The fog was streaming across the ridge from the west, the top of the fog bank brilliantly lit by last sunlight; an immense oceanic presence whipped by the wind into gray-white streamers and banners that dissipated as they raced downhill on the eastern side of the ridge.

Suzuki Roshi spoke about fog, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, "Oh, this pace is terrible!" But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.

As I walked in the fog and felt its moisture on my face, I thought of Jaune Evans, a member of the practice period whose father-in-law, a physicist and meteorologist, studied - and collected - fog. Fog stored in Mason jars - what an idea! Trying to write about the practice period is like trying to capture fog in my hands, reaching out for it as it blows by and through me. There's something huge here, but it's ungraspable at the same time, disappearing and re-appearing as I write, only its sweet, cool breath on my cheek.

In the practice periods I attended at Green Gulch and Tassajara in the 90s, we were, literally, cloistered. During practice period at Tassajara no one went in or out of the narrow mountain valley except the "town trip" from Jamesburg once a week. Green Gulch was more porous, but still, the request was to stay in the valley for the whole seven weeks of practice period. Those among us who tended toward claustrophobia chafed at the restrictions, but when your energy cannot go outward, it goes downward, deeper into the ground of your life.

In Everyday Zen practice periods, the walls of the valley are as wide as the whole world. Some people in the practice period will be traveling to Nepal in October. A group of dedicated practitioners are doing the practice period in Germany. But what I find is that the feeling of restraint - of pulling back, albeit temporarily, from some of the outwardness of daily life in order to go deep - is here too.

Restraint is not a word that we admire these days. In our addicted world - addicted to substances, to motion, to consumption, to distraction - restraint implies giving up pleasure. And yet, this is the little secret of restraint: it seems that most addictions, while having elements of pleasure, are inherently unsatisfying. That's why they are addicting - the hope is that the next hit will finally be the one that completely satisfies. Restraint opens up heretofore unimagined possibilities of pleasure - pleasure in being with others, in actually showing up for one's life, in the simple beauties of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting.

This was vividly apparent in a delightful book I read a few years ago, No Impact Man, about one family's experiment in simple living. A crazy writer decided to see if he and his family, living in Manhattan, could spend a year having no impact on the environment, or as little as humanly possible. The book is full of their discoveries of unexpected pleasures: side-effects, if you will, of their earnest attempts at environmentalism. For instance, they lived a while without electricity at night and found, to their astonishment, that they were talking to one another, and spending time with friend (by candlelight) more than they had in years. After the year was over, they continued living with much of their self-inposed "retraint", but not out of guilt – life was actually better than it had been before.

My own experiments in practice-period-induced-restraint takes several forms. I have an intention to slow down during the practice period, and I asked others to remind me if I'm zooming around at my usual pace. To my surprise I'm actually remembering to slow down - now and again - and it's an astonishing practice. I'll be crossing a parking lot on foot at my usual rapid clip and then, suddenly, boom - I remember, slow my pace, and everything changes. I feel my feet on the asphalt, my hands at my sides, my head balanced on my spinal column. Life seems abruptly quieter and more centered, as if I am no longer leaning forward into the next moment, but actually inhabiting the one I'm in. Exquisite.

Other restraints have developed more organically, as I work with the intensity of being shuso and what my body and mind needs to stay balanced in this time. Normally, I'm a little bit addicted - OK, a lot addicted - to the news. And even more reasonable news consumers than I tend to get a little obsessed from September to November every four years or so, for obvious reasons.

But I have found the news quite literally nauseating in the last week (OK, no snide comments about the Republican convention). I find myself driving around with the radio firmly turned off.

From Flickr Creative Commons: 

I've been on "news fasts" before, and always appreciate the way my heart and mind feels - less frightened, for one thing, and more open- but this fast feels essential, as if I couldn't be shuso while filling myself on a diet of fear and dread and anger.

And this brings me to the final thing I've been thinking about this week: prayer.

Norman brought up prayer at the end of seminar on Wednesday, and prayer is not a word one hears a lot in Zen circles. On Thursday I had quite an extraordinary conversation with an old friend. She is a medical receptionist in Seattle, and I have always thought of her as a quiet bodhisattva. She is one of the most consistently, unfailingly kind people I've ever known (ah, if only all doctor's offices had people like her! We'd all be healther and happier). We have known each other for about ten years, and I knew she is a liberal Catholic, but last Thursday she offhandedly mentioned something I had never known about her.

She told me that she spends all day praying for people. Before she even gets out of bed she is praying for people she knows who are sick or suffering. All day long, as she is going about her life, working, shopping ....she is praying. I am sure she has prayed for me many times. Her life is a life of prayer. And suddenly what I had seen and experienced in her over the years made sense. I had often wondered how it was that this ordinary woman in her 70s could be such a source of goodness in the world, to everyone she touches, to everyone she talks to on the phone or greets in the office, to her many family members, to patients and neighbors and friends.  Now I understood.

Regardless of your feelings about divinity or faith, a person who spends all day wishing for the relief of others' suffering is a gift to the world. And I think about the choices my friend has made, day after day, year after year, to bring her mind to prayer, and how it has shaped and turned her into a beautiful person, like heartwood turned on a lathe.  And I also think of how invisible her practice is. In ten years of knowing me she had never mentioned her practice. I don’t think she was hiding it; it is simply so much part of her as to be completely ordinary and unremarkable.

I think this is part of what Suzuki Roshi meant when he talked about walking in the fog. His image is often cited as a beautiful expression of the Soto Zen way, the ordinary, undramatic way. Other Zen people sometimes criticize Soto as being too ordinary, not focused enough on life-changing awakening experiences. But walk in the fog long enough and you’ll be soaked through, and you won’t even know when it happened. My friend is a Soto Catholic, I think, or maybe even a Soto saint. She’s been walking in the fog of prayer so long that it has soaked her, through and through.



P.S. If you'd like to listen to the talks from the practice period, they will be posted online at Everyday Zen Teachings.