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.



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