[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 Mom, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
Hi friends and family:
I hope that you enjoy this letter and are generally happy. I am mailing this out on Valentine’s Day. I wish love and a feeling of belonging to everyone who reads this. The date around which y’all may be actually reading it, the nineteenth, will be the mid-point of my current visit here at this monastery.
In the air here on the first week of February was a cold snap, the coldest days since I got here. I had more resistance to getting out of my hi-tech extra-warm sleeping bag and putting my feet on the freezing cold wooden floor slats of my unheated cabin at 3:50 each morning. After I finally did, I would spend twenty minutes stretching and getting dressed, three-and-a-half-hours in the heated-but-still-chilly meditation hall (two hours meditating, forty minutes chanting and bowing in service, forty minutes in the breakfast ceremony), and over an hour reading in the warm air of the study area (the summer guest dining hall).
Then at nine am it was time for temple cleaning, five hours after we woke up. My daily assignment was always to water some recent plantings and trans-plantings, and so I would stroll from the study area down to the garden where a dark green plastic watering pail awaited. I would pass over a wooden bridge still covered in a thin sheen of frost flakes, past a dog’s water bowl filled with ice-cold water and long sharply pointed shards of ice, and make my way through the garden gate. Where the bright rays of the morning sun poked down into the narrow valley and through the trees above and hit the raised garden beds, thick plumes of steam rose into the air. In the shade, however, flakes of frost and little driplets of ice covered the plant leaves and woodchips.
But it’s not like I’m trapped in the Antarctic Wilderness, or even in Boston. Thankfully, by afternoon, when I would be outdoors to swim or work for long, the weather was bright and warm. And the past few of days have also been rainy and overcast, which has brought with it some much warmer mornings. And the days keep getting lighter earlier and staying bright later …
I have been working on a number of practices besides the ones I listed in my last letter. I have been working on keeping my head level with the ground and spine straight when walking, standing, sitting in a chair, and other times. I intend to do that practice in my civilian life, but I notice that I actually remember to do it much more often when I am here. I have been doing kayanupassana (“the action of clear perception of body sensations”) sometimes when lying in bed, while falling asleep or occasionally when I have been unable to fall asleep. This practice seems to work best when lying on my back (i.e. with a straight spine) rather than on my side. It also sometimes seems unwise – sometimes it seems like it would be better to keep my sleep and meditation lives as distinct and separate as possible, each with their own distinct place, and not get them confused. At other times this bed-sensation-watching seems to be calming and clarifying and a good idea. And when I have been watching body sensations since I got here this year, either in bed, on the meditation cushion, or while working, I have been concentrating more than ever on actually feeling the body sensations. This means that I have been merging my awareness with the actual feeling in the body like water into a sponge, more than keeping track of the sensations with mental words like “forehead”, “left knee”, etc. which has always been a big part of my kayanupassana practice.
I have been making a point to sit in the meditation hall in half-lotus (indian-style, left foot on right thigh, right foot under left thigh) as much as possible, including during the meal ceremonies, which is new for me. This posture often hurts more but feels more stable and meditative than the alternatives (sitting on a little meditation bench or in seiza (horse-and-rider style on a meditation cushion)). I have also been constantly experimenting with different sitting postures, trying to find something stable and non-injuring – I have tried different heights of benches, softer zafus (sitting cushions) than the one I own and brought and usually sit on, and have even tried just kneeling on the zabuton (three-foot-square supporting cushion) for a forty minute period, with no cushion or support. I regret that I think that my twenty-two-year-old right knee injury will prevent me from sitting full lotus (indian-style, both feet on the opposite thighs) in this life until and unless I ever get surgery on it.
Another practice that I have been doing is learning words and phrases in Buddhist languages. This has been mostly the ancient Indian of Pali and Sanskrit, but also some Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese. The Indian languages are the easiest – they are of the Indo-European family and sometimes have a syntax that I can comprehend. Japanese is almost impossible for me to remember, especially given the massive number of phonemes. Tibetan is somewhere in between.
I have also been practicing two micro-practices at the beginning and ending of sitting. At the start of each period, after I sit down, I take five deep breaths and set my intention for the period. Usually, I don’t need to think about my intention, it comes to immediately – “I dedicate this period to generating mental stability”, “to opening the grasping hand of thought”, “to staying awake for longer than five minutes”. And, at the end, when the bell dings, before I unfold my legs, I say to myself, “May all beings be happy”, and send that intention out to the boundless universe.
Sewing is an important practice is Soto Zen. When I was here three years ago, I started sewing a rokasu, which is a finely-stitched and ornate bib-like garment that symbolically represents the Buddha’s robe and more tangibly symbolizes commitment to the Soto Zen lineage. I got about half-way done back then. I am not working on it this time, however, and am not attending the sewing class that meets here about once every five days during the hours between breakfast and lunch. I suppose that it is because I value sitting more than sewing (not going to sewing class gives me five hours of meditating on those days, rather than three-and-a-half). It could perhaps also be because I do not feel fully committed to this lineage right now. I have a desire to explore other forms of Buddhism and other sanghas in the next few years.
Linda-Ruth Cutts, the abbess and practice leader here, has an unusually strong commitment to the forms of Soto Zen, so we have all been studying and practicing those quite a bit. A week ago we had an extended lecture on how to tuck our robe’s sleeves (left side first) and folds before and after climbing onto our meditation cushion for a sitting period. A couple days later we had an hour-and-a-half review class on the proper form of the oryoki meal ceremony, for example how to fold our bowl wiping-and-drying cloths first in half, then in half again, and then in thirds, all in a specific way and spatial orientation and using specific fingers, when taking them out of the kit.
This sort of stuff is close to my least favorite part of being here, and I probably would do away with a lot of it if I could, but I am less resistant to it than I was when here before. I think that perhaps it has to do with my role teaching my meditation course. I identify with, comprehend, and take responsibility for Buddhist practice more than I did when I was here before, so I can accept some of the more excruciating and demanding details of this lineage. I also think that, having been here twice before, I arrived more knowing the full extent what I was getting into than before. All in all, I have been breaking fewer rules and forms this time, even the ones that seem minor or stupid to me.
As with the last two times that I was here, after six weeks, I am relatively happy, peaceful, solid, and at home being here. I find that I’m clearing out old karma – unconsciousness, unhappiness, addictiveness, and stuck, rutted ways of thinking and being that I have created for myself, much of it in the last year or two. I sometimes wonder however about the things that were getting me down and sometimes feeling hopeless in my city life in 2002. I think that I was getting addictive as way of avoiding worries about having enough money, career/money making abilities, and, by the end of the year, having the love of the people around me. As of today, I feel fine and settled about the last concern. And a Christmas gift from my last remaining grandparent helped me to feel settled about the first. But after a conversation with my dad about ten days ago, I find that I am still incomplete and uncertain about career issues.
I love teaching my meditation course, and feel solid about its contribution to people in it and about it as a direction for my life. But even if I taught a bunch of sections of it at once and each section was fully filled with eight students it would not generate nearly enough income for me to live on, and it probably would not keep me busy enough. So, an office job seems to be required. I haven’t worked much in the last four years, and unemployment still seems to be sky high in the Bay Area, so there first off there is the issue of finding work at all. Then there is the issue about what to do, to try to do what I did for five years, database programming for psychology research, or something new. And then there are also my usual concerns about finding a job that entails as many as possible from the list of (1) work that interests me, (2) a reasonable commute, (3) pays well, (4) opportunity for eventual advancement, (5) not high pressure/stay late all the time, (6) the ability at times for me to listen to my Buddhist and other personal-growth audio while at work, and (7) a supervisor who is somewhat hip to my humor and general “vibe”.
For better or worse, there is not anything at all that I can do about my “career” while I am here however, not even one little thing. I do suppose however that being here can and will help in terms of being willing to face difficult and unpleasant circumstances, to work hard, to jump in and do whatever is next, to take things one little bit at a time rather than thinking about doing them all at once, and to open up and deal with unfamiliar people and circumstances, all of which could be helpful in a job search and in starting a new job. In general, right now I feel a grounded willingness to do all the work that a job search and a new job require when the time comes.
As the first paragraph of my letters from demonstrate, several times each day I am aware of how long I have been here and how many days I have left to go. There are many times each and every day that I am impatient to get back to the city and get on with things, and when I want my time here to go fast and be over as quickly as possible, when I feel ready to jump in and start that job search. Those times tend to happen when I think about things in the city that draw me back – when I talk to or think about Kendra, when she tells me about attending parties where lots of my friends are, when I think about teaching my meditation class, when I want to eat unhealthy normal people food (like a hamburger), or when I think about some of the things I want money/an income to be able to buy, and want to get on with earning an income. Those let’s-hurry-up-and-get-this-over-with times also occur when I am faced with a hardship about being here that I don’t want to deal with : when the wakeup bell rouses me at 3:50 am one more day, when my knees are killing me for the fourth meditation period in a row, when I am in the middle of a long ceremonies (especially the “full moon ceremony”), and when I am doing washing by hand and find that all that work is only getting them only a fraction as clean as a machine would.
There are however many times that I am happy with being here, feel settled here, and see my time here as precious and want it to stretch out as long as possible. These times tend to happen when I am happy with being here : when I am having a pleasant and deep conversation, book reading, or sitting period and feel relaxed and peaceful, when I notice how stable and clear my concentration is in talking with people or reading, or when I look at my body in the mirror in the bathhouse and see the results of the healthy food, clean air, and lots of exercise. They also happen when I think about how much this place supports sitting meditation and making one’s work a meditation, both of which are important to me. I also tend to feel a rootedness here when I think of things that repulse me about returning to the city : when I think about all difficulties inherent in doing a job search or read in paper about Bay Area unemployment levels, when Kendra told me about a gunpoint robbery half-a-block from our house recently or when I hear a police siren over the phone when talking with her, or when I think of the vortex of addiction I was in last fall, when my daily meditation sitting was one of the things that kept me sane. I also value my time here when I consider how valuable this practice here is, and how it is possible that I may not do another three-month meditation retreat for the next say thirty years. I have tended to have more feelings of being glad to be here and in no hurry to leave the longer I am here.
In fact, there are times when I doubt that leaving here and coming back to civilian life and getting an office job is not what I want to do. Sometimes, I (1) feel strongly about the cleansing value of the practice and way of life here, (2) consider that my two Zen Center teachers (former abbot Tenshin Reb Anderson and newly coronated current abbot Ryushin Paul Haller) will be leading the ninety-day practice periods starting in September 2003 and January 2004, and (3) ponder how being here and studying with those two could be the most helpful thing for me in continuing my ongoing work on my book manuscript and on my meditation course, which feel like the most important goals in my life right now and are what I love doing with my life (more than working in an office, at least). At those times, I have a desire to return here in September, and stay for a year (working the summer resort season in 2004 as payment for the two practice periods). One challenge about such a plan is convincing Kendra to drop city life and come down here with me for that year. Another challenge is whether I would still face the same job search but in September 2004 rather than April 2003.
It may appear that I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I will be doing when I leave here, but I actually have not. The above ruminations are not really what I think about much, they are just something that I think about that may be relatively interesting to other people. Actually, when I “watch my mind”, I notice that most of my thoughts while here are of the nature of “I think I’ll check the temperature in the greenhouse after this period to see if it the heat fan needs unplugging yet”, “I wonder if that other person and me are far enough apart that I don’t have to give a greeting bow to them or whether I should go ahead and bow”, “Man this soup is good”, and “Is that the sound of the Tenken getting up [the person who gets up to light the altar candle, which would be the first step in ending certain sitting periods]? I don’t think that I can accept and be with the pain of holding this position one more minute.” Actually, few of my thoughts are that clearly formed and grammatically correct, but you get the idea. There was a song that I used to listen to in high school that ended by repeating, “let it stay forever now”. I think that that means, let me remember that it is always right now.
I finally finished reading the book “Zen at War”, again about the interrelation of Japanese institutional Zen and Japanese militarism in the first half of the century. It was thought provoking and interesting and showed me a different side of familiar things. I thought that it was not well-written or well-organized however. Also, toward the end there was a section that seemed to me to be the author examining all of the central teachings of Buddhism and seeing if they supported or contradicted moving towards socialism, and he seemed suggesting that we should do away any that don’t support such change. This seems to me like an odd position for a Buddhist priest to take.
I am almost finished reading two books that are basically both transcriptions of talks given by Buddhist teachers on the subject of watching-the-breath meditation. One is called “Calming the Mind”, by a Tibetan teacher named Gen Lamrimpa, and the other is called “Meditating With The Breath”, by Thai meditation teacher Buddhadasa Bikkhu (who apparently also wrote a book advocating “Dharmic Socialism”). Both books are interesting and helpful but not really anything unusual. I also started a book called “The Diamond Way” by an American Tibetan-lineage teacher named Rob Nairn, which is also a Tibetan take on meditation. It’s also okay.
I stopped reading the book “Opening the Hand of Thought”, by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, about three-quarters of the way through. This book is well thought of in this lineage, and I think that many people here have read it. I believe that it is a favorite of Blanche Hartman, who just stepped down after ten years of being Abbess – and like her teaching, I found the book to be solid, very “Soto Zen Buddhist”, and a li’l unoriginal. I wonder if it seems strange to other people to quit a book three-quarters through. It doesn’t to me ; I quit books part-way through at home regularly, and I do so even more when I am here. Any free time is so precious here, and there is not much time to read (especially when I take so much free time to write way long-ass letters to friends and family), and I want my reading to be supportive of the rest of my time.
Anyway, I have realized that there is only so much talk of “the true Self is always doing the absolute function, and never stops doing so, extending through the ten directions and the three times to all beings” and similar philosophical Buddhist-speak (which the second half of the Uchiyama book was full of) that I can handle before it all starts to sound like word salad to me. I suppose that that is why I sometimes prefer religious books that talk about actual practice instructions over ones that are full of assertions of deep universal truths – I can relate to the former type of books more. It may be why Buddhism draws me more than Christianity. I think that Jesus Christ and Buddha were both way cool and all, but Buddhism gives me lots of practices to do to move myself in that direction, at least many more practices than just comparing myself to their example and feeling shitty about the shortfall.
I ran for about thirty minutes uphill twice when I first got here, and then walked down (on two of our personal days). After not running much in the last couple years, my hill running abilities are apparently not at the peak form that they were when I was here four years ago. Back then, I could run straight up to the ridge (about eighty minutes of running, straight uphill) without stopping or even getting winded until half-way through. This time, I was tired and winded and slow from the first moment I started up.
Running twice also seemed to tighten up my knees and hips. So, given how painful that first sesshin was for me, I have sworn running off, at least for now. It seems, however, that movement is needed, that the amount of time we spend on manual labor does not really balance out the hours that we spend sitting pretty much absolutely still. Linda-Ruth even suggested that exercise is a semi-required part of the practice here. So, like the last time I was here, I have been swimming about every other day, for twenty to forty minutes. It feels good. But, since age fourteen I have probably gone running a couple thousand times, and swimming about fifty, so swimming instead of running also feels strange.
The nine day sesshin (meditation intensive) starts tomorrow morning, but unfortunately it will be starting without me. I will be working in the kitchen for the first three days, as part of a rotation so that the kitchen monks can sit this one. It seems that three days in the kitchen, coupled with an hour a day working in the garden on the other six days, will make the whole event a lot less intense than I had envisioned it. And now I find that, although I had been frightened of physical pain during such an intense sit-all-day-for-nine-days event, I had been looking forward to the spiritually purifying aspects of such an extended and tightly-compressed container. I am disappointed that it may not be that for me. And it also chaps my hide some that I am paying to be working in the kitchen, and many people who are paid to be here (because they have lived at one of the various Zen Center campuses for more than a certain number of months) will be paid to sit (and will not work in the kitchen during any of the sesshins).
That is true, but I also recognize that the situation is more complex than that – for one thing, as Kendra pointed out to me, working in the kitchen during all or part of a sesshin is just something one eventually does when one comes here to study. I also appreciate the fact that a bunch of the senior people here will also be working in the kitchen. So I am genuinely altogether OK with my three-day assignment, and even looking forward to it, maybe I will learn something about cooking. This sesshin work assignment is not the only issue of fairness that has been bugging me, however. I grew to have strong negative feelings towards a first-time student here who was sick and dropped out of the daily schedule for about five days. During that time, I noticed that she (1) seemed to put big stacks of letters to family and friends in the “out mail” box, (2) had extended and rollicking conversations with other sick students in public places, and (3) was talking on the phone to her boyfriend one night as I worked on my last letter to friends like this, and was still going strong talking (and sneezing and coughing all over the phone) to him as I tore myself away from writing when the han (ceremonial instrument) started going to signal us to stop our short brake and come to evening sitting. I believe that her actions were all in violation of the guideline here, which is that when I person is sick they should just be sick and rest, and not use the time as a break or social time. I eventually stopped having such strong negative feelings towards her, however, when I realized that what she did was not inherently bad in-and-of-itself (she probably also had fun conversations and wrote letters before I ever met her, and that fact doesn’t bother me at all). I realized that I just didn’t like it because I saw her do it at a time when I was lonely and really wanted to take a break to connect with other people, and was struggling to maintain all the demands of the schedule (i.e. spend most of my day sitting and working in silence).
Fairness is a big issue anywhere in life, and might be so even more here. We hear a lot about “letting go of self-clinging”, “merge and harmonize with the community”, and “letting of I, me, mine”, so I think that people here all let go of self-directedness, to differing extents. And we trust that the institution and its practices have a sanity to them that will reward such surrender. Also, this place, even more so than regular life, is a lot about rules and regulations, and many of them involve seniority. When such rules are explicitly or implicitly stated, people develop expectations. Plus, of course, community living is always challenging, especially when one doesn’t have a say in choosing or picking the other people. So it seems to me that my two upsets are of the kind that most of the people sometimes have around here.
New subject: I have spent about fifteen hours the past four days been digging dirt away from the roots at the base of different oak trees. A tree doctor is visiting here during sesshin to try to ascertain why two oaks have broken from their roots and toppled recently.
Here is one of my favorite Buddhist stories. It is from the Brahmanasamyutta (“Conversations With Hindu Priests”) in the Samyutta Nikaya (“The Connected Discourses of the Buddha”). Thinking of this story helped me in December to make some degree of peace with some difficult circumstances with a subtenant, and also with a random street-violence incident. Thinking of it also helps me here with some of the difficulties of community living :
On one occasion the Blessed One [the Buddha] was dwelling at Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. The brahmin [Hindu priest] Akkosa Braravaja, Braravaja the Abusive, heard: “It is said that the brahmin of the Braravaja clan has gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the ascetic Gotama [i.e. he heard an untrue rumor than he had renounced his Hinduism and had become a Buddhist monk].” Angry and displeased, he approached the Blessed One and abused and reviled him with rude, harsh words.
When he finished speaking, the Blessed One said to him: “What do you think, brahmin? Do your friends and colleagues, kinsmen and relatives, as well as guests come to visit you?”
“Sometimes they come to visit, Master Gotama.”
“Do you then offer them some food or a meal or a snack?”
“Sometimes I do, Master Gotama”
“But if they do not accept it from you, then to whom does the food belong?”
“If they do not accept the food from me, then the food still belongs to me.”
“So too, brahmin, I – who does not abuse others, who does not scold others, who does not rail against others – refuse to accept from you the abuse and scolding and tirade you let loose at me. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin! Brahmin, one who abuses his own abuser, who scolds the one who scolds him, who rails against the one who rails at him – he is said to partake of the meal, to enter upon an exchange. But we do not partake of your meal; we do not enter upon an exchange. It still belongs to you, brahmin! It still belongs to you, brahmin!”
When this was said, the Brahmin Akkosa Braravaja said to the Blessed One: “Magnificent, Master Gotama! I go for refuge to Master Gotama, and to the Dharma, and to the Monk’s Sangha. May I receive the going forth under Master Gotama, may I receive the full ordination?”
The brahmin of the Braravaja clan received the going forth under the Blessed One, he received the full ordination. And soon, not long after his full ordination, dwelling alone, the Venerable Braravaja became one of the enlightened ones.