It has been over a month since the events contained in this letter-essay, and I notice that I have not yet written about them. I also notice that I felt more motivated to spend a lot of time writing about my Buddhist adventures while I was at Tassajara than I do now. This may be because, when I am at Tassajara, letters like this feel like my main connection with friends. In the past few months, however, I have had no shortage of seeing folks in person (not to mention connecting through phone / email / facebook).
But I write these letter essays for many purposes, not just as a real-time communication, so … gonna sit down now and take the time to write about my adventure at the Bodhi Manda monastery in New Mexico.
So, to start with the basic logistics of my life since my last letter-essay:
I departed from the simplicity and austerity of Tassajara on April fourth. Two days later, things exploded into a huge fortieth birthday party, a hundred friends and lots of fun, at Erik Schultz’ house in Oakland. After waking up in my leather pants to the sun shining in on Erik’s living room couch, I spent a chaotic week of jumping around staying with various friends in Oakland and San Francisco – writing emails, running errands, sorting through my boxes of clothes, washing clothes, chatting with friends. Combined with my Christmas/New Year’s break, I slept in like twelve different homes over twenty-five days around the Bay. That much transience was ungrounding and messy, but also fun, adventurous, and intimate – it was an honor to see the unguarded life of my friends as they went about their daily domestic lives (especially my friends with kids).
On April twelfth, I left the Bay Area, and drove down to Vegas, where I stayed a couple days with John Litchenberg, Adrienne and Danielle Hoffman. Mostly I hung out with them in their big air conditioned home, doing a lot of email. I then drove South out of Vegas, across the Hoover Dam, for ninety minutes, and then East thirteen hours along Highway Forty across northern Arizona. That night was a weird one, holed up in a Motel 6 in North Albequerque, nervous about what was in store for me at this unknown monastery the next day, and listening to domestic violence across the hall, followed by a police response.
[Highway I-40 Through Arizona]
The next day, I finally arrived at the Bodhi Manda Rinzai Zen monastery in rural North West New Mexico. After a couple days of getting acclimated there, I began a three-week Zen intensive, which consisted of two seven-day sesshins (all-day meditation intensives) sandwiched around a week of physical labor.
I then took a four-day break in mid-town Albequerque, mostly doing computer stuff, but also going out into town a bit. I stayed with Joe Galewsky, a professor at University of New Mexico and an SF Zen Center friend from many years ago. I followed that by driving up to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to do a five-day meditation intensive at a small Soto Zen retreat center there. I then drove back to Bodhi Manda, and worked for a week, before taking another journey back up to Colorado, this time all the way up to Fort Collins. I went with a beautiful monk girl I had gotten involved with, so that she could get some work done on her tattoos. She left for a job in Houston on June first, and I stayed at Bodhi Manda. I had an interesting final week there, working in the kitchen, and sitting in on lectures during an academic Buddhist conference/lecture series.
On June seventh, I left New Mexico, driving to Vegas for another visit, this time actually hitting the strip for some brief cavorting. A couple days later, I drove to San Diego, where I picked up my main computer from my parents house, and had a great time hanging out a bit with my sister, and my rock star friend Erik Hoversten. I drove the twelve hours up to Willits for a super-fun weekend campout, and then drove five hours East along Highway 20 through small-town California to Nevada City. So, I’m back in NoCal for now (current status, and future plans, are at the bottom of this email).
Tassajara was getting hot when I left there, then Oakland had some hot days, and Vegas, outdoors during the day, was of course hotter than the sun. Accordingly, I expected that New Mexico in late April would be, well, hot – you know, desert and all. But, as I raced along through Arizona towards the state border, I found myself in a blinding snow storm, from Flagstaff until an hour after entering “The Land of Enchantment”. I even drove for a while through the snow mostly by following truck lights in front of me, since that was about all that I could see through the blizzard. I suppose that the safest thing would have been to have pulled off the freeway and stayed put, but I imagined getting cold really quickly in my parked car. Also, I was expecting that, if I kept going, I would soon get to past the storm. That actually didn’t happen, though, until I lost some elevation, almost into Albuquerque.
My first day at the Bodhi Manda Monastery was also freezing and snow-storm-y, a thick six or eight inches of snow. And Hosen (the abbess of Bohi Manda) told me that the night before she had been driving a few hours behind me along Highway Forty, traveling East from Los Angeles into New Mexico. She told me that the officials closed the freeway by the time she got into the blizzard zone, and that she had, indeed, spent the night shivering, curled up in her car.
This strange snow-y episode was just one of the times that “The Deities of the New Mexico State Border” greeted me with precipitation. A month later, I was terrified as I drove South into the state from Colorado through a wide open prairie, as immense lightening bolts suddenly lit up the ink-black sky and exploded in the hills around me with a KABOOM. I have never heard of someone dying from lightening frying their car, and I felt reasonably sure there was some physics reason why it doesn’t happen (rubber tires don’t conduct electricity, maybe?), but there them lightening bolts were crazy Act-of-God sized, and I was racing around in a couple tons of metal standing out from the flat field. And then. when I drove back into New Mexico for the third and last time a few weeks later, my friend and I encountered another whipping rainstorm.
Most unusual of all … besides these three episodes, I can only think of one or two other episodes during my months in New Mexico where even a slight drizzle fell on my head. In fact, I enjoyed pleasant warm air and gentle breezes during most of my time at there. Well, the air was sometimes a little dry and pollinated for my coastal temperaments (with the attendant nose bleeding, and allergenic coughing). But, with lip balm on the membranes of my nose, and anti-histimine medications in my bloodstream, I found New Mexico weather to be charming.
“Charming” is a good word for much of my general experience of the state. I found myself falling in love with this part of the world, with its wide open roads, desert hills and mesas, scrub and valiant pines. I didn’t venture leave the monastery to check out anything for my first month after arriving, however.
The Bodhi Manda monastery sits, with a bar on one side and a Catholic convent on the other, along the rural highway that runs though the villiage of Jemez Springs. Jemez is a little conglamoration of art galleries, bed and breakfasts, organic food cafes, and homes large and small. It sits nestled alongside a small river, which cuts through a steep canyon of striped orange rock and determined trees. It’s far from any other sizable municipality – Albequerque is an hour’s drive through the open desert to the South, and Los Almos is a twisty hour’s drive through a forest to the North East. The population of Jemez was a funny mix of educated professionals on the one hand, and, on the other, the cowboys and Indians that were more common to the little pueblos of the area.
[The road out of Jemez]
[The canyon walls around the monastery]
The monastery is a complex of maybe seven large buildings, most of them dating back to the mid-twentieth century, back when the compound apparently served as a chill-out for misbehaving Catholic priests. The solidly constructed, venerable edifices are surrounded by a beautiful treasure trove of gardens, statues, bird feeders, ponds, creeks, and trees. When I was not hustling around being busy, it felt wonderful and peaceful to be on the grounds.
I had only been there a couple days, when I began to feel, “oh yeah … this again … Buddhist America”. The mismatched donated/collected furniture and linens, the breathtakingly beautiful statues, the white people awkwardly pretending to be at ease as they stand silently and compliantly at attention, the old buildings from a long-gone-by monotheistic era mixed with a gleaming new Asian-style buildings, the sincerity and generosity … “yup, this feels familiar”, I thought to myself.
Much of the Zen practice in particular was also somewhat familiar to me from my years at the San Francisco Zen Center. I was able, for example, to snap right away into a general sense of Zen alertness and obedience. I was also familiar with a bunch of the liturgy, and could also chant it in Japanese by memory, without using the reference booklet (for example, the “Dai Hi Shin Dharani” chant). And I was able to catch on rapidly even to things that weren’t exactly the same, like the form for serving the formal (oriyoki) meals.
[Zen hand mudra]
And yet, as familiar as the practice at Bodhi Manda sometimes was, it also sometimes seemed like a science fiction bizzaro world where everything was slightly, spookily off. The hand mudra there was left hand placed over right (rather than the right hand placed over left, as is done in some other lineages, and as I have been doing for the past twenty years). Full prostration bows at Bodhi Manda were with the hands facing down (rather than facing up, as I had grown used to). We meditated facing out, towards the room (rather than facing in, towards the wall). Even the chants that I was familiar with had a different cadence (for example starting much slower before building up, and sometimes anglicizing the Japanese phonemes slightly differently).
[Chanting in the Bodhi Manda Sutra Hall]
All in all, however, it was freeing for me to realize, yet again, that the essence of Buddhism as a path of liberation is one thing, and the particularities of a particular center, teacher, organization, lineage, or nation/culture are different things. Forms and rituals are different from place to place, but they are just a container to hold the heart of the practice. Gaining this spacious and freeing perspective on a still deeper level was alone worth the price of admission, it made checking out Bodhi Manda worthwhile for me.
My first three weeks at Bodhi Manda were a practice intensive, and they were … well, intense. I think that the general idea in Rinzai Zen (even more than Soto Zen) is to create a high pressure environment to force the practitioner towards having a cathartic pop. In the service of that goal, the pressure can build.
In fact, I would say that the style of Buddhism at Bodhi Manda during our three-week practice intensive was deliberately intense, martial, masculine, abrupt, graceless, and unsentimental. We had only eight minutes to get our robes on, stretch, and handle biological business between the 2:55 am wake-up bell and the time we needed to be in our places for early-morning tea. That is the earliest wake-up time I’ve yet encountered at a Buddhist center, and also the least amount of morning “get-ready” time.
The first and third week of the intensive were sesshins, which meant meditation all day – sitting there intensely, period after period. As always, I found the all-day meditation to be challenging and occasionally painful, but mostly liberating, clarifying, deep, and true. To my Buddhist sensibilities, however, the form for taking sitting posture at Bodhi Manda was almost barbaric, needlessly tempting joint injuries – we were expected to just sit right down at the beginning of each sitting period and immediately take our position, and hop right up at the end, and not move a muscle in the time in between. The sitting periods were shorter than what I am used to from other meditation retreats (just twenty-five minutes, rather than forty minutes or an hour), but I am also used to having a minute or so to find the best posture for myself, and to move if I really truly feel like I needed to, so as to be kind to my ligaments.
[The Bodhi Manda Zendo]
If we did move during sitting periods, or, for that matter, make any deviancy from the proper form during the day, a senior priest would yell out immediate corrections (“EYES DOWN!”, “DON’T MOVE!”, “HANDS IN ISSHU!”). I have played the “good li’l Buddhist monk” for enough years that I often found such public rebukes to be kind of cute and charming. But I could also see how such admonishments could be rankling or intimidating to some people with less experience.
[The kyosaku, aka “the encouragement stick”]
I myself was however intimidated by the threat of the kyosaku, the stick that is traditionally used in traditional Zen temples to hit the shoulder acupuncture points of meditators who are napping, so as to snap them awake. I have seen plenty of kyosakus sitting ceremonially on shelves before, but I’ve hardly ever seen them actually used, and I had certainly never been hit by one before. But at Bodhi Manda they used ’em daily, and they used ’em on me daily. One of the senior priests also seemed to have decided that I (and my soft, earring-wearing, process-y, California vibe) needed a good beating, whether I was actually sleeping or not. This perceived power dynamic of this annoyed me some – but, mostly, I found the “encouragement stick” to be nowhere near as unpleasant as I feared it might be. It was like, “This shit again? OK, tough guy … let’s get it over with.”
The chanting was intense too; it was all in Japanese, and faster than I was used to. I found chanting new texts in Japanese to be challenging – especially the chapter twenty-five of the Lotus Sutra (twelve pages of it) that this lineage of Zen seems to have decided to be the centerpiece of their daily liturgy. I was pleased, however, that we chanted the “Maka Hannya Haramita Shin Gyo” (the Japanese version of The Heart Sutra, perhaps the most concise and central Mahayana Buddhist scripture) six to eight times a day – now, finally, after all that repetition, I can chant the damn thing from memory (after fifteen years of needing to use a chant book).
The week between the two sesshins was a work week. I was assigned to work on a project of laying new, modern plastic water pipes between the buildings, replacing the corroding copper pipes from the mid-twentieth century. So, I did some honest work : trenching, moving rocks, laying pipe, and back-filling.
During that work week, thankfully, we would drag our tired asses to bed by nine or so. During the sesshins, however, we would sometimes not get to bed until ten thirty or eleven. It was a challenge for me some of those nights to be spacious and chill with my anger, as a few people’s interviews with the Roshi (master) dragged on and on, while the rest of us were more than ready to be done with our exhausting day of Zen.
All three weeks of the intensive, we had almost no personal time (compared with other Buddhist centers I’ve been to, much less compared with civilian life). And, from what I could gather, the kitchen staff was working even more crazy hours. They were doing hard physical work, maybe fourteen hours a day, for twenty-one days straight. Whenever they sat down on a cushion, say for meditation, lecture, or chanting, they seemed to doze off almost immediately, and sometimes topple over.
One final element of the Bodhi Manda pressure-cooker was the apparent “no processing” expectation. At the various campuses of the SF Zen Center, people will often sit and chat about their personal Buddhist practice, or about Buddhist practice in general; this is encouraged by the teachers, and I often find it be valuable and enjoyable. In contrast, one day while trenching, I was chatting with an overweight young guy, who had dropped by to the center to get a taste of real Buddhist practice after years of listening to audio and reading books. He was finding the actual sitting practice to be so challenging and confronting that he was developing a panic sensation whenever he even got close to the Zendo door. I was explaining to him some basic paradigms of meditation, for example making space for, and being kind with, whatever comes up for him while on the cushion. The conversation seemed to me to be helping, to be calming the guy down.
The grouchy senior priest who had been hitting me with the kyosaku then swooped in, pulled me off the work gang, and literally took me to the woodshed. He practically frothed as he spat out, “WE. DO. NOT. TALK. ABOUT. THINGS. LIKE. THAT. HERE.”, and told me that “words conceal the truth”. I got the feeling that he expected a discussion or rebuttal out of me. He seemed to relax and smile, however, when I simply told him that I “got it”.
Perhaps the most intense element of life at Bodhi Manda was doing “San Zen” several times a day. San Zen is an interview with a Zen master where the student is expected to demonstrate their spiritual realization. I quickly found these encounters to be the heart of my time at Bodhi Manda – even more than seated meditation.
The Zen Master in question at Bodhi Manda was Koyzan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. This guy is the real deal, an old-school archetypical ZEN MASTER; some call him the last of a dying breed. He was born in Japan in 1907, ordained as a monk in 1920, was recognized for kensho (initial awakening) in 1926, was recognized as a full Roshi in 1948, and started teaching in America in 1962.
Saski Roshi is the first person who I have met in my life who I recognize as obviously genuinely liberated/enlightened. It really seemed like, for him, the world of [form/things/appearances] and the world of [God/Absolute/Buddha nature/Source/Emptiness] are unified, one and the same, and he really is freely and unimpededly able to traverse the entire territory between the two without getting caught anywhere. His one and only interest in life seemed to be to express that liberation, and help us to experience it for ourselves. It was a relief for me to come to the conclusion that the heart of the practice at Bodhi Manda actually is about true liberation, about experiencing reality as waves emanating from Emptiness – rather than the more worldly goals (stress reduction, community living, mental health, social change) that some other Buddhist centers sometimes seem to have.
One is not supposed to talk about the content of a San Zen interview, but I can tell you what they felt like for me, which was a mixture of :
* Partially like a job interview/first date, where I am nervously trying to put my best foot forward
* Partially like the release and freedom that comes from working with a therapist who gets me immediately and deeply
* Partially like the frustration of reading an ancient text that I know must be deep and meaningful but is so culturally distant that I have no idea what it’s saying
* Partially like open-hearted cuddling, massaging, having sex with, or connecting with a person, where all there is is love, no thinking or barrier
* Partially like being stunned or delighted as I watch a virtuoso artist or athlete perform
* Partially like talking to someone who seems annoyed by what you are saying, and you have no idea why
* Partially like a melty, trippy, illuminating good psychedelic trip
* Partially like doing something you don’t know how to do but you are giving your best effort to, and that requires both skill and relaxation simultaneously (like certain sports, or acting, or whatever)
Roshi rings a little bell when he’s seen enough, and the interview is over. He usually rang me out relatively quickly, like after about ninety seconds (although I did have at least a couple interviews with him closer to ten minutes long). I could never tell if he usually rang me out quickly because he thought I was doing fine, or if it was more because he felt like I needed more clarity before he had anything more to tell me. He did seem to have taken notice of me – for example, Abbess Hosen told me that Roshi even asked her, in the middle of a work-period afternoon, to suddenly spontaneously gather all the monks together so that he could deliver a lecture especially for “the boy from San Francisco”. We all gathered around on cushions and chairs in the conference room, only to find that Roshi’s 102-year-old energy was at an ebb, and we were to get back to our tasks. So, I never found out if the talk was gonna be a stern rebuke for my shoddy practice, or special words of wisdom for me as a star pupil.
Regardless, I felt like my one-on-one time with Roshi was an amazing privilege; I almost cried a bunch of times while in there. Being in his presence, having his attention on me, was almost too much – I felt it rip and pull me open, tearing my shell apart until I was a bigger and more alive person than I had known myself to be walking into the room. I didn’t always feel like I liked, enjoyed, or understood Roshi, but I developed a pervasive feeling of pure spiritual love for and from him. I was sometimes charmed by how adorable he could be. And I might have been off put by how critical and dismissive he could be had I not felt such love behind it.
One final thing about my time with him that might have been freaky had I not felt it done with such compassion were episodes where I felt like he was reading my mind. An example was the day where I had been feeling nostalgia for the Bay Area, and missing having a stable home. The feeling had passed by the time I went into the interview room, where I felt myself feeling peaceful, clear, and simply present there with him. He did his usual rambling Zen-talk thing, eyes traveling all around the room, before he suddenly locked eyes with me, piercing, and growled, “YOUR HOME. AND YOU. ARE NEVER. APART.”, before continuing on with his mystical incomprehensibles.
I was knocked on my ass, startled, blown open by this. I experienced other similar episodes of apparent mind reading from him, as did a number of my friends. In the end, I came to my conclusion that Roshi is similar to what some people say about cats : “They can read your mind, you know. They don’t really care, mind you, but, you know, they can.”
I found that having interviews two-to-four times with Roshi limited hard-core spacing out, getting lost in reverie, when I went back to the meditation hall. Knowing that I would be presenting my practice to him had me want to focus myself, to be as present and open as possible. And I also found that I got “shakti opening” from my visits with him – that is to say, afterwards I felt life-force liberated, it had me feel energized, awakened, empowered, and alert. I think that, without my San Zen interviews with Roshi, I would have been drowsy (for example during the five days straight where I only slept about four hours a night).
The Roshi conducted the San Zen interviews himself in broken, thickly-accented English. For teisho (public lectures), however, he would speak for a while in Japanese, and a translator would follow with English. I was guessing that a lot was lost in the transition; Roshi understood English well enough that he sternly rebuked a couple of his translators for their perceived failings to capture the subtleties of his Dharma. And his teaching was deep and subtle enough that I think any effort to capture, summarize, reproduce, or translate it simply is bound to miss the mark.
Maybe because of that, I did not find Roshi’s lectures to be as compelling, transformational, or emotionally moving as I found the individual interviews with him to be – in fact, I often found them heady and repetitive. But, usually, if I sat still and really paid attention to what the translator was saying, it was pretty mind blowing.
Roshi’s big teaching is about the interplay of expansion and contraction, about how “plus and minus balance out to zero”. I take this to mean something analogous to how quantum physics says that everything that looks like solid matter is more properly understood as waves of energy arising out of and disappearing back into the void at an incredibly rapid rate. In traditional Buddhism, it is said that the manifest world consists of “dharmas arising and dharmas departing” – that is to say, all things we experience (body sensations, visual images, sounds, thoughts) consists of waves of energy that rise and fall, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. I find that there is a certain freedom, spaciousness, and flow that occurs when we experience life in this manner.
I think that Roshi was also saying that the penetrative/expansive/”yang” is one aspect of reality, that the receptive/contractive/”yin” is another, and that both together are required to create a balanced, “spiritual” whole (this also is a main point I will make in the book that I have been working on).
Roshi repeatedly touched on other threads in his teachings as well. One is how, for a spiritually mature person, our attention merges with phenomena observed; there is no separation created between the supposed perceiver and the supposedly perceived. He talked about how past, present, and future are, in an ultimate sense, not separate, how past and future are happening right now – that dividing existence into time is something that our human minds subjectively do. He talked about spiritual realization as being like being lovers with life, creating that sort of sense of intimacy and sexual union with the true nature of existance.
Sometimes, in the middle of the rapid-fire Japanese of his lectures, he would slowly growl (in English) “noooooo diiiiiiiimensiiiiiooooonnnnnn”. He seems to have really enjoyed talking about “no dimension”. The idea that he was getting at comes, I think, from a basic Buddhist teaching of the “two truths”. This teaching that there is a conventional world of “things” existing in time and space, and that we usually consider this to be the world that we live in and that is real enough for our every-day purposes. But there is also the ultimate nature of reality, which is that it lacks any sort of dimensionality or, for that matter, any attributes at all.
I am not sure if all of that explanation does justice to Roshi’s profound, strange, and deep teachings. Listening to his lectures did have me feel gratitude to Shinzen Young, who is one of my two main Buddhist teachers, and also the guy who got me into Buddhism twenty years ago. Shinzen has been Roshi’s student for decades (and is, reportedly, Roshi’s “favorite translator”). Shinzen has worked many of Roshi’s teaching themes into his own Dharma teaching, but explains the concepts in a way that is easier for me to understand. So, I feel, my exposure to Shinzen helped me to get some of what Roshi was talking about on a deeper level, and actually appreciate it, rather than just sit there confused.
So, yeah, Roshi was intense, the whole place was intense. I got used to it over time, though. I guess that the California Vipassana Center, Green Gulch, and Tassasjara also all seemed crazy intense when I first got there, but then seemed more chill after I had been there for a bit. And there were things about Bodhi Manda that seemed surprisingly slack to me, also. This was especially so after the three week intensive ended, and the pressure loosened up quite a bit.
While there, I would sometimes stay up late, past bedtime, to do email. After six months of the isolation of Tassajara, it seemed funny for me that they had broadband there, in a retreat temple. And I sometimes felt out of integrity or addictive with my use of it, or got shit about overdoing it from the priests. But I also thought to myself, some people put aside their lives for a week (or three) to be at that monastery – but, for me, the homeless monk, being there was my life. And I had been away from internet/email or handling things online for most of six months before I got there. I had no home or solid plans set up for when I left, which meant that I had a lot of logistical details to get straightened out. I felt anxiety at the idea of just letting go of emailing so that I could “dig the trench one mindedly” – so, I didn’t.
Also, on the “worldly pleasure” tip, Bodhi Manda is apparently known for its natural geothermic mineral hot pools. Many late nights, outsiders would sneak in to the pools – locals, or even people who made the journey up from Albuquerque just to take the plunge. And the Buddhists on campus seemed to love going for a soak during the day, as the schedule allowed. I myself found the slimy, algae-ish pond scum floating on the water’s surface to be off-putting, and mostly only jumped in when required to by sesshin schedule. The only two times I went for a soak by my own volition were to connect with a female; both of these episodes were, ironically, basically the start of a little relationship.
[Bodhi Manda hot pools]
The two women I connected with while at Bodhi Manda, one a monk-ess and the other a PhD student in Buddhist Philosophy, were both beautiful and intelligent, and I enjoyed my time spent with them. But it was funny for me to transition from Tassajara, with all of its restrictive, punitive regulations around hooking up (like, you really will get kicked out and banned if they catch you having a fling), to a place where Hosen noticed my dalliances, and mostly responded by smiling in tolerant amusement.
It was even weirder to be served beer, wine, and sake by the temple at a number of our celebratory meals. Drinking alcohol of course violates a literal reading of the Buddhist precept to “not intoxicate body and mind”, and I had never even seen alcohol in a Buddhist temple before, much less been served it. Weirdest of all was when I told Hosen that I had a Dharma commitment to my SF Zen Center teacher Paul Haller not to get drunk, so I was happy to stop at one glass of sake. She then replied that I should accept her offer of a second glass because I “evidently do not understand the true meaning of ‘intoxication'” (I think that her point, which I somewhat agree with, is that intoxication is a question of spiritual delusions, not of the biochemical adulturants in the mind … but, I mean, still).
Hosen used to be married to another senior priest in the organization, Seiju, who now runs the Albqueurque Zen Center. The couple apparently produced twin sons, who are now twenty-two years old. Those boys evidently spent part of their years growing up at Bodhi Manda, and they came back to visit several times during the time that I was there – for example, one of them held a three-day college-graduation party on the grounds at one point. The twins would sometimes help out in the kitchen or with moving furniture, but it was also funny how sometimes they and their friends would be so out of step with the monastic schedule – sleeping until the afternoon, wandering around slurry drunk, full-volume practicing with their hip-hop crew at midnight. I usually found all of this to be amusingly subversive of what I am used to in Buddhist monasteries.
As people who grew up in Buddhist monasteries tend to be, there was something charismatic about the twins – intense, authentic, powerful, alive. The thing that bothered me, however, is how they would immediately approach, manhandle, and sexually question any woman under forty that they encountered on the monastery grounds. Part of this behavior bugging me was surely competitive or jealousy, since the boys, growing up with Zen master parents, were no-mind-edly fearless and immediate in their macking. But I also noticed that their actions didn’t always seem to be enjoyed or fully consensual by the women. And I know that checking out a spiritual center can be a time of vulnerability for a person, and I feel that being open-mindedly willing to give something new and unfamiliar a try, should not imply a consent to being pawed up by the priests’ sons. It’s the same reason I have set rules for myself about flirting with ladies who come to take my meditation class and who I don’t know already.
[Big-hearted intense Kai, one of the twins, flanked by hard-working monk Jim (on left) and smart dude Shodo (on right)]
[Pizza, ready to be baked for one of the temple celebration meals]
Bodhi Manda is part of a network of Zen Centers that all align themselves under Sasaki Roshi. This network includes two big centers in LA (Mount Baldy, in the San Gabriel mountains North-East town, and Rinzi-Ji, near USC), as well as smaller centers all around the world. The whole network forms something of a social community (which is similar to, say, the SFZC). It was interesting for me to participate with this new community, to join with them intensively and fully for a time, knowing from the start that I had no intention of fully giving myself to them long term.
In general, I found some of the older community members to be grouchy or emotionally closed, and, there were times during sesshin when I don’t like hardly anyone there. But, then the sesshins ended, and I chatted with folks, and pretty much liked something about all of them. In general, I found the Bodhia Manda folks to be more welcoming, friendly, open, and emotionally forthright than what I had grown used to. They seemed to have a great sense of community / sangha / family – perhaps this is one of the many blessings of having a teachers who is actually fully enlightened. And, perhaps it was their more permissive attitude about sins of the flesh, but I found them to be generally less anemic, stunted, and anti-life than some of the people I have encountered in Zen America.
[Kitchen work at Bodhi Manda]
I found it civilized that the people who wielded the kyasaku (encouragement stick) were mostly men, and the people in charge of setting up the dining room were mostly women. It’s not like I think that this gendered labor-bifurcation should always automatically be the case, and I did notice that there were some cross-gender-norm/stereotype job assignments. But, basically, thankfully, the work seemed to be simply assigned to the people who would truly be best at it. I found this to be a welcome, simple, and sane “let people be what they are” attitude. I would contrast it with the San Francisco Zen Center, where it seems to me that they will sometimes intentionally assign a femme woman to use a chain saw and manly man to plant a flower bed, intentionally to (to speak polemically about it) promote a gender Maoism with a goal to remake society on some imagined utopian egalitarian lines.
I remember reading once that, in healthy families, children develop strong bonds with each other, and, in unhealthy ones, they are sometimes pitted against each other, and their main intimacy is “hierarchical” (i.e. with the parents). Well, it was interesting for me, as someone who has been a member of various horizontally-strong sanghas (Buddhist communities), to see how much of the interpersonal connection of the long-term community members at Bodhi Manda was hierarchical (i.e. centered around Roshi). I mean, I too found Roshi pretty special and compelling, and, to be fair, yes people did seem to have friendships with each other. But he did seem to be kinda a fixation for some folks. The slight cultishness reminded me of Adi Da people (and, with all due respect to my Da-ster friends, that is not a compliment).
I will say that, as much as Hosen the abbess’ life revolved around Roshi, it was my impression that she had taken on many of her teacher’s best attributes : spiritual clarity, absolute dedication, immediate presence, and a habit of open-hearted teasing people about where they are clinging. I developed a sense of affection, respect, and trust for Hosen while at her temple.
And, also, many of the people who I met at Bodhi Manda who were under forty-five years old, and who were not long-term students, were deeply wonderful for me – people I loved relating with, people would like to maintain contact with, such sharp, fun, articulate, together folks. Make-everyone-feel-at-ease psychic-yogi-musclehead Ed L, bad ass monk Bindu, wikkid funny psychiatrist Andrew K, open-warm-hearted smart-ass Andrew S, kind-hearted and deep Dionys M, interesting good-listener Jeremy M, enthusiastic and sincere Timothy L, doctrinally sharp Shodo L, angel-faced Molly P, super-sharp sweetheart Jen D, mysterious beautiful Emily B, and deep brave warm-hearted Laura G …. these people were each treasures for me.
[Superstar Ed helping the monastery with his NYC-union-dude electrician skillz]
[Me and Ed in our sitting robes]
[With an uncharacteristically un-gorgeous-looking Molly]
[With sweet and smart Laura]
[Warm-hearted divinity student Dionys]
[Cool dude Andrew plays beautiful cello improvisations for Roshi at a party at a sangha member’s house]
[The Sangha for the Buddhist academic conference, first week of June]
Two months after I arrived, I drove West out of New Mexico. At the Arizona border, there was a huge billboard that showed the back of a beat up ol’ pick up with NM plates, and the billboard said “Hurry Back – We’ll leave the door open for you – New Mexico”. I burst into tears. I did not expect, two months ago, that I would develop that much of a heart feeling for the place and the people.
One thing that I am learning about this li’l journey into consciousness that I have been on is that there is no single silver bullet. What I mean by that is, I was secretly hoping that doing a whole lot of intensive meditation and spiritual work (like I have been doing) would make my ADHD issues go away and allow me to focus with ease, that it would evaporate my addictions, and that it would leave me effortlessly charismatic, harmonizing with everyone easily, everyone liking me and wanting to be around me all the time.
And, yeah, to be honest, I have found some progress in all of those areas – especially for brief periods of time, right after some intense practice – success, fun, insights, and love sometimes seem to have come notably more easily than normal. This journey has indeed pulled me more open, larger, more powerful and alive, than I knew myself to be (and would probably be leaving me even more open, even bigger, if I hadn’t gotten scared, resisted, and sabotaged the process as I have at times).
It’s looking like my older sister Elisabeth may pass away within the year. I feel, of course, sad about this. I was listening to some music tonight, and realized that it was artists that she turned me on to, all those years ago. And I found myself pondering the ways that, when I was younger, I may not have opened myself totally to receive the love and goodness that she was trying to give me. It made me want to be as open as possible going forward, to let the goodness of life in as much as possible, while I have the chance.
And letting that flow of goodness happen more effortlessly is one of my goals of this journey. In general, however, I find that, even post one-year-straight-in-Buddhist-monasteries, life is still life, and being human still requires the same degree of intention and effort as ever. As one of my Zen teachers said : “When things are going badly, it’s time to practice. When things are going well, it’s time to practice. When things are going normally, it’s time to practice.”
I am finding that, no matter the spiritual work I do, I don’t think that I am going to transcend being a human, with all the mess that entails. So, I guess it’s just as question of, as always, being big enough to hold it all – creating a consciousness spacious enough to relax and hold the reality of how it is to be me, moment by moment, through the pleasant, and the otherwise.
[Visiting the shrines in the Sutra Hall at Bodhi Manda]
So, on to the present moment : since I got back to NoCal, I have been renting a room in Nevada City for a couple months from my former housemate Anitra (and her husband Freedom, and their soooooooo cute li’l ten-month-old girl Antara). It’s been wonderful to reconnect with Anitra – she is so easy for me to be myself around – and I’ve been enjoying getting to know her family. Nevy City is a three hours drive north-east of the Bay Area, up in the Seirra foothills; and, I’ve realized each weekend since I’ve been here, that’s a long drive.
After a year of monastery-ing it, it’s been lovely to have a room all of my own for a bit, a little place to camp out and just do my own thing. My goal being here has been to work on some projects – updates on my meditation class, make some DJ mixes, make progress the book I’ve been writing for ten years. I’ve done some good work, which has felt great – but also spending big chunks of time on internet addictions (facebook, politics sites, baseball statistics, porn …). Drinking caffeine for the first time in a year seems to help me focus and be productive (although the crash-down, as always, can be a bear).
I vacate Nevada City on August 9th, to take a five-day workshop in San Francisco. After that, I plan to do some airplaning around – a few days to visit friends in Albuquerque, a week to visit friends in New York City, a few days to visit my li’l sister Amanda in Rhode Island, and a cousin’s wedding in rural Massachusetts. If my sister Lis is able to see me, I then plan to go to Switzerland to see her, and then follow that with some explorations of Eastern Europe. It’s not convenient for me to take the time and money to go to Europe right now, but, if Lis will see me, it’s gotta happen, it’s the number one priority. Not to be melodramatic about it, but I am imagining that she will be gone soon, and that this may be “saying goodbye”. :.(
On returning, I am imagining that I will spend much of the Fall in one of two Theravada monasteries here in California : Abayagiri near Ukiah, or Watt Metta in San Diego. I need to take figure out what their admissions requirements are, and maybe visit both of them for a bit and see what I think before making a long-term commitment. And I imagine that I will go to Asia in 2010. Plans are not set in stone yet.
So, that’s the scoop. Thank you for your interest in my adventures. I wish happiness and freedom to everyone reading this.