[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my mother, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
I am finishing this and sending it out on the twenty fourth day out of my ninety here, a couple days past one quarter done. Yes, I am often aware of every day passing while I am here. At times since I have arrived here it has seemed like the days have crawled by (especially when during sesshin (meditation intensive), missing my friends back in the normal world, or when I have otherwise been lacking ease). Other times, though, I have been amazed at how fast another day has flown by.
Even though I have done two other ninety-day retreats here, the last one was three years ago. So, when I first arrived this time, I was surprised how many details (both Zen forms and also specifics of Tassajara life) that I had forgotten. Most of these I picked up again quickly, thankfully. My first few days seemed to last forever, however, I think in large part because I was transitioning to a different environment (from little structure to a whole lot of structure), and because I had so much new information to process and neural maps to create and re-create.
The life here is divided into what we call “weeks”, which consist of a few (usually four) days of normal schedule, followed by a single day where we have much of the day to do our own business. The first five-day week of a practice period here is, in a way, easier than subsequent weeks – the schedule allows for an extra hour of sleep each morning, and we ate lunch buffet-style (with talking allowed) in the dining room rather than our usual lunch, which is in the ornate bowing-and-chanting oriyoki-style in the meditation hall.
But the first week is also more difficult, because we only meditate two periods a day. I find that my days here, like those in normal life, are more stable and clear the more I sit in meditation. We also work hard most of that first week. I was assigned to transport and stack firewood, to use a chop saw to turn old boards into more firewood, to clean the hot-tub plunge, and, of course, this being a monastery, to chop vegetables and rake a bunch of leaves. I also spent some work hours trying to help the treasurer to get his sick computer back to health. I enjoyed that last task – being able to do something I am good at, helping someone I am working on having a better relationship with.
After the first week, I was assigned to a regular work crew. I had asked to be assigned to the shop crew, because I would like to learn more of the simple repair, carpentry, plumbing, and other skills that I could probably pick up there. But, instead, I was assigned to the garden crew, because the directors told me that that they wanted a “strong back” to work with the three women, two of them older, also assigned. All three of the women seem plenty strong to me, and I do not see growing plants having a big role in my future. But, it seems like the general practice in the Buddhist world is to accept assignments and try to fulfill them impeccably unless you have really good and explainable reason to defer, so … doing my best in garden while I am here it is. So far, I have pruned plants, used a pickup truck to haul compost, worked compost into soil, weeded plant beds, watered seedling, and staked-and-roped out bed boundaries. It has been threatened that I will be assigned to pick out some flower seeds, order them, and then grow the li’l critters myself, but hopefully it will not come to anything bizarre like that.
I think that I came here for two main purposes. One is to meditate a lot, to read books and go to lectures, and generally soak in the Buddhist vibe for three months so as to continue to better myself as the teacher of my meditation course. The other is because I was concerned that I had become slack, lazy, and addictive in my life in the last half-year, and I wanted to use the challenge and austerity of coming here to re-focus myself, to get my edge back. As my mom put it, I was “checking [myself] into rehab”. I have however been surprised at how unlazy I feel here – I have been shocked at how strongly I have risen to all of the many challenges and demands of life here, and, really, it did not take much of a transition. It makes me think that perhaps I have been less lazy in my life in the city than I think I have been. Maybe what has been missing has not been effort or willingness on my part but instead clear and meaningful goals and structures in which to focus that effort.
On the subject of work and effort – I have been thinking a lot about the point and intention of work practice here. The traditional monastic schedule that we follow includes just about nothing extraneous or extra, and we also work hours a day. So, I figure, there has to be an intention to it. Part of it, of course, is that there is a lot of actual work to be done. I also think that we work so as to developing ourselves in Buddhist ways. For example, monasteries throughout time and nation seem to love to have heady white-collar types, people like me, to do simple manual labor, especially difficult work, especially if it is raining, cold, or hot. Why? I think that it is to encourage the development of “viriya paramita” (Sanskrit for “the perfection of the practice of vigor and enthusiastic effort”), “kshanti paramita” (Sanskrit for “the perfection of the practice of forbearance, patience, and being willing to sit with unwanted circumstances”), “pranidhana paramita” (“the practice of the perfection of determination, resolution, and sticking with goals”) by making an effort in work even when we do not want to. I also think that it is about the development of “dhyana paramita” (“the p. of the p. of concentration and focus of the mind”) by continuously bringing our attention back to a simple task when it starts to wander and to be aware of the posture of our bodies while working (which are difficult practices to do while doing accounting or programming or talking on the phone, but are easier to do when raking or chopping vegetables). It may also be about developing “sacca paramita” (“the p. of the p. of truthfulness and trustworthiness”) by doing all the work one is assigned, thoroughly, whether someone more senior is watching or not.
I have read that, as Zen took hold in ancient China, its practitioners made waves with other Buddhist schools by having all monks engage in manual labor (rather than hiring laborers to do it, or having just junior monks work, as the other lineages did). Zen is also the school of not explaining anything clearly. So nobody here explains any of the above about the paramitas or anything like that – they just send you on your way to work, and it seems that people figure some of the Buddhist practice significance out slowly on their own.
Zen also doesn’t explain a lot of other things. I have heard many stories (Kendra’s father David tells a funny one) about people showing up at the SF Zen Center for the first time, and getting an hour-long orientation on when to bow and how to sit during meditation periods, but being left baffled with what to actually do with their minds and their attention. That, the Zen priests will sometimes say, is up you to figure out. And, for much of the stuff like that, I am still figuring it out.
For example, we often do this traditional practice called “soji”, which is to do twenty-minutes of cleaning (sweeping up big piles of dust, toilet scrubbing, raking) in the morning, while we are still in our robes. I used to hate this, and sometimes be angry during it. Why would we do such dirty work in our sitting robes, the robes we only wash about once a month, and wear most of the day here, and do our best to keep clean? I would constantly wonder why Zen Center didn’t just fold the twenty minutes into the work period later in the day, for which we change into our grungy work clothes.
A couple weeks ago, however, I had an insight, and perhaps now understand why the venerable tradition of soji exists. Perhaps the whole point is that we are doing dirty work in our robes, which we do not want to get dirty – doing so promotes (for me, at least) incredible attentiveness to what I am doing and to the positioning of my body (not to drag the hem in the dirt when squatting, for example).
Also perhaps similar is why, when we receive steaming hot water to clean our eating bowls with during the oriyoki ceremony, the first thing that we do is to clean our first bowl not on top of our eating cloth but instead held in the air over our left thigh, where any water spillage would mean instant scalding burning on our leg. This form used to bug me, but I now see it as something that kind of forces one to wake the fuck up … in a, ummm, good way.
Anyway, on my ninth day here, I left the valley and Kendra picked me up to go up to the city for a day for a rent board hearing. The actual hearing was a combative, frustrating, and difficult experience, but, for the trip as a whole, it was nice to see Kendra, to go to a restaurant, and to read my email. After nine days here at Tassajara filled with lots of meditating, I felt calmer and more centered than usual while driving and being in the city. I watched my attention subtly getting caught in girlwatching on the street or in anger during the hearing, and then just as subtly pulled it back to watching my breath or using a mantra. Then I indulged a habitual way-of-being, and stayed up all night working on my computer, drank a prodigious amount of caffeine to be able to stay awake enough to drive back here, and then, once I got back, spent a couple days feeling clumsy, tired, grumpy, and in a general fog as I re-acclimated.
Those two days were a concentrated dose of the social feeling that I have been having here, which was pretty similar to how I felt when I first came here, four years ago. I felt out of sorts, alienated, unhappy, lonely, ashamed, shy, and misunderstood. I consider SF Zen Center to be one of my communities, but almost all of my Zen Center friends are not here at Tassajara this Winter, and most of the people who are currently here were strangers when I arrived (as I was to them). The four or five people that I did know best before arriving were all Kendra’s friends. I thought that maybe if the head teacher/leader for this practice period was Tenshin Reb Anderson, the guy that I had studied with both times I was here before, I might know more people – I am friends with many of his loyal students.
I started to feel better about connecting with people starting about ten days ago, after we finished our first sesshin. I suddenly felt a lot more connected and comfortable with people, accepted, like I have a place here. I don’t know if I changed, if all that meditating opened and relaxed me, or if people around me changed, if all the meditating opened and relaxed them, or if maybe they accepted me more after having all sat together.
The teacher here for this three month retreat is Jiko Linda-Ruth Cutts. She is one of the most senior students of one of the Buddhists who I respect the most (Tenshin Reb Anderson), and I have always respected her commitment to Zen (twenty-eight years as a priest), and people who I respect have expressed their respect for her. I had a difficult experience involving her seven years ago, however, and have had negative feelings towards her since. I therefore felt nervous in signing up to have dokusan (individual practice discussion) with her, but I did so anyway, because it was mandatory. I was pleasantly surprised with how valuable and pleasant I found the experience of talking with her to be. I have also have been finding her lectures (we are studying “karma”, how it is that our actions and choices determine us as much as we determine them) to be helpful, and have appreciated her grace, sincerity, and leadership. As I said, she is a devoted student of Reb’s, and I can see some of him in her dedicated and scholarly style, but I also think that she is gentler and laid-back than he is, which I have come to appreciate.
As I said, we had our first sesshin a couple week back. It was four days long, and all of the long periods of sitting were acutely physically painful for me.
All in the phenomenal universe is impermanent. It is all a never-ending flux of changing forms and patterns, interconnected and fundamentally with no abiding essence apart from the relationship of parts to the entire action of the whole. Except for my right knee injury – that’s alone in permanent and unchanging, with its own eternal essence. It just may be that my right knee injury is Aristotle’s “Prime Mover”, the one unchanging, eternal, unmovable substance from which everything else in the universe springs forth. Bow down before the mighty Partially Torn Patella Tendon.
We have two more sesshins on the way – a nine-day starting February fifteenth, and a seven-day starting March twenty-seventh. I came down here most excited about sitting sesshins, but I am now apprehensive about both of the remaining ones, given how painful the first was. Also : it looks like I will spend my thirty-fourth birthday, just like my thirtieth and thirty-first, in the meditation hall here, sitting all day.
Having taught my meditation course twice now has helped me with being down here. I think that studying and preparing to teach has helped me to understand and accept some of the aspects of practice that I mentioned above. It has also helped me to better know what sorts of meditation techniques to use at what time, and to dedicate myself to them on a deeper level. Of course, at the height of sesshin, after sitting facing a wall all day for a few days in a row, with the raw psycho-spiritual mind-fuck meltdown that such a pressure cooker creates, it’s hard to remember anything – but I can see that my course has helped me even there.
I also think that sometimes I create an expectation for myself that my efforts here should look a certain impressive way, because I charge money to teach meditation. That aside, I am making an effort to have my time here be useful in terms of my skills as a teacher, memorizing lists and terms, and choosing books to read that pertain to the subject matter of my class. I sometimes have visions of being down here in a few years, maybe during the summer season when Tassajara is a resort, and teaching my meditation class to some of the other monks here (where I would be actually *saying* some of those things that don’t get otherwise explained 🙂 ).
In terms of my meditation practice, in the time that I have been here, I have done a lot of noting and being aware body sensations (jumping my awareness around to whatever body sensation is most intense, Mahasi Sayadaw-style, not progressing the awareness through the body parts in order, Goenka/Burmese-style). I have done that practice both during the scheduled sitting periods, and also while walking around or working. I have also been working a lot with watching and being aware of thoughts and mind-objects – “clear internal talk”, “subtle internal talk”, “clear internal image – static”, “clear internal image – changing”, “clear internal image – fading”, “subtle internal image”, and “no thoughts”. I feel pretty calm after doing that mind/thoughts meditation, but then again I only do it when I feel calm enough to begin with. I have not much been counting breaths to ten and then starting again from one, which before this has been a basic practice of mine for years.
I have tried two new techniques since arriving here, having learned both of them on audio tapes by Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young. One is to note “expansion” (examples would include a large, expansive feeling on the body or a new thought rising) and “contraction” (examples would include a feeling of shyness or an internal picture fading away). I only did that technique a few times and then stopped, because it seemed too similar to a technique that I have been doing for years, which is to take note “pleasant”, “unpleasant”, and “neutral” sensations.
The other new technique that I have been doing has been hand noting, which is different than anything that I have ever done before and which I am finding wild and fun. I do this when I am chanting, or otherwise have my vocal facilities engaged. I press with my left thumb if I feel any sensation in my left hand, arm, or shoulder, left pointer finger if I feel any sensation in my left foot or leg, left middle finger – sensation in the head and scalp, left ring finger – sensation in neck, left pinkie – talking or music in my head, right thumb and pointer – same as the left but for right side instead, right middle finger – sensation in the body of the torso, right ring finger – sensation between the waist and legs, and right pinkie – any mental images or visions. I am finding this hand noting to be valuable, and have had visions of doing it while sitting in a boring meeting at some time in the future (no, I am not talking about the Rhythm Society).
I have finally been sitting down and been reading a book that I have had for a while, “Zen at War” by Brian Victoria. It is very interesting, in light of current events, to read Japanese Buddhists from the first half of the century justifying their nation’s war-making activities. They claimed that war in self-defense can be justified, and that war can be actually be a compassionate tool to help move humanity in a direction where everyone will be so spiritually evolved that no wars will ever happen anymore, both of which I find I agree with. But they also made these whack-ass claims about how it was people’s spiritual duty to follow the emperor and the state without question, and these ridiculous claims about how their wars were for the betterment of those they were conquering (which makes me think yet again about all the claims we now here about how we are unselfishly invading just to bring democracy and freedom from dictatorship to the poor Iraqis). And the most important lesson that I think that I am taking from this book is how distorted it can be to mix Buddhism up with politics – either the militaristic, nationalistic way that the Japanese did ninety years ago, or the more left-wing way that gets done in modern America,
A few final notes:
* Each time I come here, I am struck by how one can’t just emotionally hold one’s breath for ninety days and just wait for the intensity to be over. It gets you eventually and repeatedly.
* Yet again, I think that the clean air, active lifestyle, and healthy food here is doing me a lot of good.
* It has been unseasonably warm and dry here. That has made it pleasant for me to be a monk so far, but it may not be so good for the ecosystem as a whole.
* I am thinking that sooner or later I may have to engage Zen Master Dogen Zenji, the guy who founded this lineage in Japan. He is such a big deal around here, and is one of them most important figures in many people here’s lives, and yet, so far, he means basically nothing to me. Sooner or later, I am feeling, I will have to read some of his writings.
* If you read this before or on February fourth, you are invited to wish Kendra a happy twenty-fifth birthday on that day.
* Please give thanks for your washing machines. Washing clothes by hand is a lot of work.
* Letters are most welcome.