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:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/windsordi/4814394292/sizes/m/in/photostream/ 

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.