[Tassajara monastery has no internet and I had no computer there in 1999. I completed writing this letter by hand and then sent the pages through the US postal service to my housemate and friend Rich, who typed it in, and emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
I wrote my last letter when I had been here about nine days; I am writing this one after twenty-three. The main change has been that I feel more settled about and committed to being here than I did then.
When I first got here, my life in the City seemed real and fun, life in this monastery seemed cold, dead, and rule-bound, and it seemed like staying here more than a couple weeks would be running away from myself and life. Now, three weeks later, things sometimes still look that way. Mostly, however, the last few months of my normal city life seem dishonest, fearful, compulsive, lazy, lost, and occasionally desperate. Here, conversely, much of the time I seem to be feeling a sanity, an appropriateness, a wholeness, a sense of just doing what I am doing, and, most of all, a dignity that I hadn’t felt regularly in a while. Sometimes, I feel energy radiating out of me and circulating within me.
One change in my attitude about being here has been a change in how I feel about the other people. I gave my “Way Seeking Mind Talk” (a fifteen-minute history of my life focusing on how I came to practice Buddhism and how I got here) to everyone here, it was charming and funny and honest, and I instantly seemed to have become more of a real person to people here, to matter more to them. I also seem to have developed, to some extent, a social role here as, big surprise, a smart-ass brat.
For most of the day here, however, social interactions are minimized and controlled, and so I am not talking to anyone in any way. I initially found this lack of interaction to be oppressive, but now I feel that it supports me in going deeper inside. I have come to believe what I have been told by experienced Zen practitioners, which is that ultimately my reason for being here is to develop my relationship with myself more than with others, and also to develop my relationship with the people and things around me on a level deeper than words and personalities.
I am feeling excited about Buddhist meditation. To sit on a cushion, hours on end, noticing who I am, being what I am, letting it happen, thinking the thoughts that I’m thinking and feeling the sensations that I’m feeling, noticing all of it but not trying to change any of it — I can’t describe how wonderful it has been to “settle the self on the self,” as they say around here. I know that many of you who are receiving this email and who have little experience with Buddhism are working towards being aware of how your minds function and not being automatically thrown by whatever pops into them; this is exactly the tip that Buddhism kicks it on. At home, I have a stack of photocopied articles and book chapters that talk about the mechanics of Buddhist meditation. I would be pleased to send copies to anyone who asks me for them.
The Zen Master General of events here, the former Abbot Tenshin Reb Anderson, has been helpful to me. He has been giving lectures on such subjects as the importance of practicing love for oneself and others, realizing the interconnectedness of all being, being upright in the present moment without tripping into the future or back into the past, and peeling our mind’s “imputations” off of our perceptions of the phenomena that enter our consciousness.
Also, when news from the City seemed to be making me upset and a little obsessed, in a personal interview he gave me the suggestion not to wonder what people up back in normal life are up to, to not visualize it, to not make plans for when this retreat ends in April, and, especially, to not suddenly bolt out of here one day with the intention of going do something else. He suggested to me that, whatever I am doing, I can feel my grief, longing, and emptiness in my body, moment by moment, without thinking about. It was a helpful Dharma (teaching).
As peaceful, right, and solid as I feel about being here, however, I see almost no chance of becoming one of the Zen maniacs who come here initially for just a few months and then end up making a whole life out of it. As much as I am being “just here” while I am here, I still view what I am doing as being connected to having friends, a career, and, generally “a life” in back in San Francisco.
Also, it is often still difficult and unpleasant to be here. I watch myself longing for such simple normal-life things as a takeout burrito, a hug from a friend, sending an email, use of an automated washing machine, or a heated toilet stall. It seems to be a Buddhist truth that when I long for something that is missing, and I am aware that I am longing, then the desire is just an energy coursing through me and it feels fine. When I long and lose the awareness around what my mind is doing, then I feel a lack to things as they are, and I tend to suffer …
In general, however, it’s all fine with me – the unheated freezing cold, the hard work, the physical pain while sitting in meditation for long hours, the spiritual challenge, the relatively low standards of hygiene, and the religiosity which sometimes could mean more to me than it does – it is all genuinely fine with me. It’s only when high levels of sleepiness and the predictable problems of community living (such as a kitchen manager and her style of supervision) get worked into the mix that I find myself to be upset and unsatisfied.
A few notes:
* I am reading a book that I recommend to all beings. It’s called “The Zen of Recovery“, by a gent named Mel Ash who is both a Zen Priest, and a longtime A.A. member. His book explains both traditions and the interface between them, but, really, it is more about deciding to really live life rather than deaden oneself to it. It’s fresh – recommended.
* I don’t wear my earrings here, at the request of the former abbot. He mentioned a traditional Zen regulation of not wearing any jewelry in the meditation hall, and I am just finding it simpler to never wear the earrings, in the meditation hall or otherwise. It feels simple and solid.
* My hair is comparatively big right now. I am trying to see how long I can grow it. With its natural curliness, it’s kind of a big puff right now. I imagine that it will get bigger before things all shake out.
* On our “days off” (we have half a day off, usually every fifth day), I have been running up a mountain here for about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s a super-intense workout.
* Tomorrow, we being five days of all-day meditation. I imagine that this time will include boredom and sleepiness, knee and back pain, and some degree of direct insight into the condition of being (and other such spiritual breakthroughs).
* For those of you who have contacted me and expressed your support for what I am doing here, thank you very much. Receiving expressions of support from people over the hills actually does seem to unmistakably correlate with me feeling good. I will say, I’m glad that it is so apparently clear to y’all why I’m here. It’s not always so clear to me …
I have been having difficulty finding the time to finish this letter and send it.
The sesshin (all-day meditation) was rock-out kick-ass. I don’t know what words to use to describe it, but feeling powerful, peaceful, open, and high, appreciating things inside and outside of me, is a start.
Now, it’s the thirtieth day since I got here. I’m one-third done.
You can write me at: Adam Coutts Zen Mountain Center 3917 Tassajara Road Carmel Valley, CA 93924
(However if anyone ends a letter to me with the salutation “with a Gassho,” I am never speaking to them again.)