I am feeling happy these days with my life as a resident at the San Francisco Zen Center City Center. I have lived there for over a year now, and I feel settled in, and in a good groove.
As I explained before, living in an urban monastery has involved has been getting up at four fifty am during weekdays to meditate, chant, and clean for a couple hours, before heading off my drug-and-alcohol treatment research job. We wake also up at six am on Saturdays for scheduled Zen events until noon, but have no scheduled events on Sunday. Also, to be honest, I usually sleep in and skip the schedule between one and three mornings our of the week, leaving a note on my door to let the Ino (director of the meditation hall) know that I need some sleep.
Sleeping in and missing scheduled meditation like that was not allowed when I was at Green Gulch, another campus of the San Francisco Zen Center that is more all-encompassing and monastic than City Center is. I have been told that missing events is also not tolerated at Tassajara, which is the most rigorous monastery of the three. However, I think that the senior priests here at City Center understand that people have jobs, social lives, cultural events, and other things going on in their city-dwelling lives, and that two-thirds of a Zen monastery life is more Buddhist than nothing.
Living in a communal monastery in the middle of a city means that I mostly don’t have to shop, cook, or (except for two meals a week) do dishes. Unfortunately, meals are served at three fixed times each day, and I am at job during week-day lunch times, and am often not back for dinner time either. So, I often do have to get food for myself – lunches from a grocery store to take for work, a burrito (or leftovers) for when I miss dinner. When I am able to attend, however, the monastery meals are usually good California hippie food: vegetarian, mostly organic, and full of fresh vegetables.
[Dish rack in City Center Kitchen]
Besides doing dishes, there are a few other communal monastery jobs that I am assigned – setting up tea and cookies on Saturday mornings for the visitors who come by for the big weekend Zen lecture, bathroom cleaning, locking up the building one night a month, cleaning altars and cutting candles on Friday nights, and more. My work assignments are usually not a big deal, however, I have grown used to them. Well, every once in a while they chafe, when I feel myself in a hurry to get out the door and go somewhere external.
As a City Center resident, I am expected to regularly attend Zen classes, and they have been great. I have been taking only classes taught by Ryushin Paul Haller, who is my “practice leader”. This means that I meet with him episodically and talk about how meditation and other aspects of Buddhist practice are going.
When I first moved in, I took a class that Paul taught about “the flow of awareness”. We discussed being conscious of what goes through our minds, both what we are perceiving and what interpretations we are giving to our experience. After that, I took a tough class he co-led with a priest aligned with the more militant, action-orientated wing of Zen (Rinzai Zen). That second class was about generating energy from the belly – energy to yell loudly, staying rooted when someone tried to push us over, to use in martial arts exercises, and other such situations. Then I attended a class on the difference between effortless, “enlightened” non-karmic action done with the awareness that the universe is interconnected, one the one hand, and karmic action done willfully, individually, with a goal in mind, in a compulsive, striving manner, on the other. And I just finished a fourth class, which examined and discussed the Heart Sutra, one of the oldest Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. It dealt which dealt with such Buddhist topics as the five skandhas, the twelvefold chain of dependent causation, the relationship between the relative and the absolute, how nothing exists independently, and how we can be aware of all of this through mindfulness and settling into inhabiting our experience.
As a City Center resident, I am also expected to attend the lectures on weekday nights and on Saturday mornings. I skip out on ones that look strongly unappealing, so I almost always really dig the ones that I do attend. We for example had an interesting presentation a week ago by a Zen priest named Brian Victoria who lives in Australia who has apparently written a book called “Zen At War“. He talked to us about Zen collusion and integration into Japanese militarism during the Imperial era, the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was freaky but somehow liberating, like those “perfect” Zen guys over in Japan are just as human as we are over here.
I am aware of several of my friends who have told me recently that they don’t much like Buddhism or meditation. I am finding that I dig both more and more – especially meditation. Looking back, I can see that I dug meditation years ago, and did it all the time. Then, for a couple years, I believed a friend who explained how meditating made people weak and passive, and I stopped. Now, though, I’m way into it again. I am finding that all of the meditating I have been doing helps me to be the person that I want to be, to achieve my highest goals, and to not do addictive things that I regret later.
As much as I have been loving the meditation, classes, and lectures that are involved with living here, I can do without the lots of the chanting. I also feel resistance to what seem to be to be unspoken religious-y rules of self-negation that sometimes seems to be the norm in the community. This seems to correlate with my observation that many wounded, emotionally cold people show up to the center, looking for some sort of spiritual solace. I find that many of them are kinda hard to deal with, and I find myself wishing I saw less of.
Generally, though, I have enjoyed being part of the community here, it’s gotten to be comfortable and supportive for me. There is a wide mix of regulars that hang out around City Center: some of whom live in the building and many who don’t, some younger but more older, some uptight and some more loose and fun, mostly white people (those that aren’t are mostly Latin or East Asian), and lots of them from Jewish family or religiously Catholic backgrounds.
[Ceremonial instruments in the hallway next to the City Center meditation hall]