Hi friends and family:
I have been writing this letter gradually all through March. I imagine that I will send it out when I return to San Francisco in April. Thank you for reading.
Most evenings here, after the after-dinner break, we meditate for an hour-and-a-half. We sit two forty-minute periods of seated zazen, punctuated by ten minutes of kinhin (walking meditation) in the zendo (or, alternatively, a ten-minute pee break, usually taken not in the zendo).
One of my favorite aesthetic experiences of my time here is watching the line of monks calmly filing up to the zendo before the first evening period starts. Different heights and shapes of monks, with our simple black robes trailing around ankles, illuminated by the warm lantern light in the clear night air, with the creek calmly and steadily burbling in the background. Especially when it is Friday or Saturday night back home, I am often moved that this is what we are doing with our evening tonight, we all have a date to come sit together and support each other in deepening and untangling.
Monks that are on the meal-ceremony serving crew are excused from the first period of evening zazen, however. This is because they eat their dinner in the study hall after the normal zendo dinner ends and the rest of the monks have gone on break. So, after I served dinner one night in early March, during the first period of evening zazen, while most of assembly was in the mediation hall and the temple grounds were mostly deserted, I sat in the little temple phone booth making calls. As the starting time for the second evening period approached, however, I finished up my final conversation, and put the dirty and scuffed white phone back in its dirty and scuffed white cradle. I stepped out of the booth, softly closed the glass-paneled dark wooden door, and slowly strolled up some steps made out of big rounded stones. I then walked down a car-width gravel-and-dirt road that sits in the shadow of a hillside of gradated flower terraces that take three human-height steps up to the low-slung but still ponderous bulk of the Japanese-style zendo. Before climbing the wood steps up to the zendo shoe rack, I visited the wood-framed bathroom that sits under one of the hall’s corners.
I bowed to the flowers and various arcane religious relics in the shoulder-height entrance altar, and turned to my left to enter. As I did, I came upon a big, fat, audacious-looking raccoon. It had apparently knocked over the wicker garbage basket, scattered half its contents out on the floor, and started searching through them. It seemed impatient to be deal with me quickly, and to get back to its work. I kept thinking the phrase “little bear, little bear, little bear “, because someone here had recently told me that raccoons are actually biologically little bears. Without thinking much else, I took one step towards the animal, turned to my left and opened a wooden door, stepped up eight inches, and entered the first stall.
Once inside and with the door closed, I wondered if some human had left some food scraps in that garbage basket, despite the posted request to not do so. I also wondered if the raccoon would leave if I stepped towards it and tried to frighten it, or if I would end up walking down to the sink near the kitchen to wash my hands so as to not get too close to its little-bear claws. Soon, I finished, opened the door, and stepped towards the raccoon. It made my life easy by turning and scampering off, bushy ringed tail following its fat basket-ball-shaped but surprisingly agile body. From a crevice between two walls, however, it sat and carefully watched me, eyes gleaming green in the lantern light. After I had finished washing my hands, however, the li’l black-masked watcher had disappeared.
I heard a funny story at work circle the next day that either that particular little bear or one of its friends actually pushed open the zendo doors that period and sauntered on in, “hey, let’s party, all you oh-so-serious Buddhist fucks.” The monk who saw the animal apparently got up and silently shooed it out without anyone else noticing.
I wanted to write about that, despite the fact that raccoon encounters are normal and mostly unremarkable here. I feel certain, for example, that the raccoon was really there and was not “makyo”, a Japanese word which means vivid and often archetypical hallucinations that come up during spiritual openings. The demons I encountered during the night in February and wrote about in my last letter, however, were, I think, typical makyo.
After that dream and its resolution, I only needed about five hours a night for about two weeks. I’d wake up a while before the 3:50 am wakeup bell, full of energy, and still be alert all day. Sometimes, more ghosts or demons would visit me in my room at night, and I would be amused and say, “Awwwright, come and get me, motherfuckers.”
But that all eventually faded, and I went back to being a normal mortal, which meant being sleepy because six-and-a-half hours sleep each night was not enough. During the month between the ending of the mid-February nine-day sesshin (meditation intensive) and the start of the end-of-March seven-day sesshin, I watched as my concentration and focus of mind got diffused. I started talking more, my mind sped up, and I started thinking a lot about what I would do when I got home. By mid-March, I skipped evening service and dinner a bunch, which earned me a warning note from the ino (director of zendo discipline). This diffusion was relative to my February sesshin mind, of course, because I still think that I was focused, clear, and on-purpose compared to my normal-life city mind.
And then there were the other monks. After seven years of hanging around the SF Zen Center off-and-on, I have come to expect that I will probably see most folks that I practice with again somewhere. I noticed, however, that, as March wore on, I was pulling away from the peeps here. There were some people here who I planned to keep in contact with, and I continued being open with those folks. For the many of the rest of the monks, however, the relationships have been a lot of work during these months, and I stopped trying as hard. I wonder if these relationships have been difficult because, for me, before I came here, it had been years since I last had to deal so much with people I have not chosen to. Perhaps being here with strangers has forced me up against the sides of myself that are difficult to get along with. Or perhaps it says something more about the social skills of some people who are drawn to monastic practice. I don’t know. Anyway, I also noticed a slight schism growing between people like me, who are planning to leave in April, and those planning to stay on to work during the Summer, when the monastery becomes a six-month resort that generates a majority of the revenue that underwrites all three campuses of the SF Zen Center.
A few years ago, a friend of mine (David Osborne) stopped meditating during the lunch-break at his internet architecture consulting job, because he said that that sitting down to meditate after a morning of work was like “running full speed into a wall”. I had some concern that, with my diffusion, I might hit that last sesshin in the same fashion.
This seven-day sesshin, March 25 to March 31, was not like hitting a wall. It was, in contrast, mostly mundane and just plain normal. At the beginning, I was craving for some big breakthrough, a trippy intensity and mystical-ness like my demon dream, but soon enough that craving wore off. I did spend some time however wondering why sesshin was not mind-blowing. Was it because, after seven or eight hundred hours of meditation in the last three months, I was “already there”, relatively speaking (like the story about the time Ram Dass’ guru gulped down seven hits of acid, and then nothing happened – he was so open that the drug couldn’t open him any more than he already was)? Was it because I am about to leave, and during this sesshin my mind was more getting ready for the strive-and-survive world of the city than during the earlier two sesshins? Was it because I drank very little caffeine, so I wasn’t riding the highs (and lows) that more chemical stimulation brings? In the end, of course … who cares.
One thing I noticed, as I always do, was that good ol’ Buddhist quality of “impermanence”. Every day of sesshin was different and changing, every sitting period was different and changing, and every moment was different and changing. I was tired, then unusually calm, then anxious, then stable, and then peaceful; I was gripped by raging thoughts, then my mind was placid and clear; meditation was smooth and easy, and then it was overwhelmingly difficult; my body felt tight and crooked and wracked with pain, and then my flesh, bones, and ligaments was open and stable and flowing with subtle currents of energy and power; one moment I felt like a meditation high grand-master ready for abbot-ship somewhere, and then a little while later I felt like a worse meditator than the worst beginner, and a fake for teaching it. It was – each moment a different thought, each moment a different body sensation, each moment a different breath. During her lectures, the Abbess asked us to open and sit still for all the various stuff that came up. She told us that we were big enough for all of it to come and go inside of.
Seven days is a long-ass time when sitting and watching a wall all day, no talking, no reading, no doing. Time slows waaaaay down. Each time I check, it’s still the same day as it was the last twenty-five or fifty times I checked (I read once that a key to pain-free meditation is to release all notions of date and time, an instruction that I endorse but don’t always do). In some ways, I think that an aim of Buddhist practice is to have everything be fresh and new, but the actual experience of that during retreat can sometimes be that each day is like day one of a new job – nothing is familiar or routine, constant moving through resistance and generating effort and work, and the regular confusion of coming across something unfamiliar.
I had a lot of intense physical pain. I went running twice in the weeks before the intensive, and then I sat in some weird back-tweaking positions while typing on my friend Catherine’s laptop on the floor of my cabin in the couple days before sesshin started. Both of those contributed to me starting the intensive with muscles relatively tight and with my alignment fucked-up, which continued to differing extents the week. I think that I learned a lot about my sitting posture though – about my ankle ligaments, about the role of my quadriceps and hamstrings, about rotating the femur heads in the hip sockets to prevent irritation towards the end of sitting periods, about lengthening up through the middle of the back. I worked a lot during the sesshin on the front of rotating my hands down in my mudra, which I did because it had the beneficial effect of rolling my shoulders back and down, opening my chest, and extending my back straighter. I had a mundane talk with the abbess in practice discussion about many such physical issues, which was helpful.
During the sesshin I had a hard time, as I have all March, with allergies that left my throat congested. This buildup occasionally led to some difficulty breathing, and also some noisy swallowing of saliva in the zendo that had me feeling self-conscious. And, as it’s supposed to, the long days of sitting and letting go of thinking stripped away my normal, rational, decision-making adult mind. This left me with a regressive experience of my raw animal-child mind, which was sometimes full of feelings of anxiety, confusion, and vulnerability. Of course, the benefit here is that, unlike when I was an actual child, during the sesshin I was able to create a spacious meta-container around those feelings and have some stability.
Every day after lecture, we would leave the zendo to do walking meditation outside for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was wonderful to be out in the warm breezes, the plants swaying on the steep rocky hillsides high above our striding procession of silent black-robed people. During these walks, I set my intention on deeply feeling four things : (1) every minute sensation in the soles of my feet as the touched and lifted off the ground, (2) the rotation of my ankles with each step, (3) the rise and fall of respiration in my belly, and (4) the swish in/swish out touch of the breath in my nostrils. As we went along, I was shadowed by reminders of the meditation-hall torture that awaited me at the end of the walk when we sat down again – little aches, little flare-ups of inflammation, and twinges of tightness in my legs and back. As long as we walked along in the shade of the trees, however, all that pain was just more rich sensation, nothing to worry about.
During forty minute after-meal breaks, I would sometimes take ten or twenty minute naps on my bed before my alarm woke me to do yoga before the “come to the zendo now” bell rang. And, as usual, I sometimes fell asleep in the meditation hall (although I did much less zendo-napping than three months ago, I am more used to the 3:50 am wakeup). Any way, both types of sleep were filled with strange and vivid dreams. The strangest of all was coming to, coming into realization that I was “Adam Ian Coutts”, that it was late March 2003, that I was in a Buddhist monastery during sesshin, and that, yet again, the task to do was be aware of the present moment.
I love meditation, and I loved this sesshin. The day after it ended, I felt extraordinarily peaceful, clear, and calm. I listened deeply to people, and had insights about myself, people around me, and life in general.
During sesshin, I had a practice discussion with Leslie James, the acting director. Leslie has been a teacher here during all three of my visits, and is the person I trust the most and feel the most comfortable around here. She is also Kendra’s best friend’s mom and Kendra’s “second mom”. She is about fifty, five feet tall, with long gray-white hair often tied back in a bun, and kind, elfin eyes. She has lived and practiced Buddhism here for decades, and is an inspiration to me – she has the most open feminine loving heart of anyone I know as well as I know her. When I go to talk to her about my practice and my life I feel like I an amazingly large, wide-open big sky to fly around in. This time, I talked to her about many of my ideas and concerns about what I am doing here and about things back in the city. As she often does with me, she just listened a lot, and also talked about how we have ideas about things are but they are usually just that, our ideas, and how we ultimately just can’t know.
The Sixth Ancestor Hui Neng came across two monks arguing about a banner flapping in the wind. One said, “The banner is what is moving”. The other said, “It is the wind which is moving”. They went back and forth without coming to an agreement. Master Hui Neng said, “It’s neither the banner nor the wind which is moving. It is your mind which is moving.” and walked away.
“Imputation” is a word that is used a lot around Zen center, the idea being that we know the world around us through our perceptions and interpretations of it. In fact, there was a philosophical great of ancient Buddhism, Vashubanzu, who said something like that the only way that we can encounter the spiritual luminosity of the internal and external world is to be more and more aware of the thick layer of opinion, belief, and selective awareness that our process of perception of phenomena is constantly filtered through.
Anyway, in my city life, I am usually somewhat aware of the process of imputation. Here in the monastery, however, with the practice asking me to be aware of it, I see it all the time. I read the paper, and I perceive a world of stress and war, and then I go hiking and I perceive a pastoral world of peace – and I know that it’s the same Planet Earth, it just shows up for me as a perceiver differently depending on what I am personally seeing and thinking. The fellow student who wrote letters while she was sick (that I wrote about in my second letter) went from showing up for me as the worst person in the world, to being a friend I was happy to see, to being irritating to me again. A different student went from being one of my best friends here for two months, to someone I wasn’t talking to and felt tense around for a week, to my best friend here who I was always pleased to see again. They were the same people, but the signal that showed up on my radar screen was completely different based on the shape of the receiving dish (my mind). Sometimes I would have hunches or opinions or predictions about things going on in San Francisco or elsewhere in the world, and would then hear from friends that something completely different was actually happening. And I have noticed that the buildings, hills, plants, people, and schedule here in this valley sometimes seem like a heaven I am lucky enough to visit, and other times like a hell I am trapped in. It is two vastly different experiences based on what is going on for me that moment with all of my imputations.
We say, ‘Right here is my friend, over there is the mountain, and way up there is the moon.’ But your friend is not only your friend, the mountain is not only the mountain, and the moon is not only the moon. If we think, ‘I am here and the mountain is over there,’ that is a dualistic way of observing things. To go to San Francisco, we have to cross over the Tassajara mountains. That is our usual understanding. But that is not the Buddhist way of observing things. We find the mountain or our friend or San Francisco within ourselves. Right here. That is big mind within which everything exists.
— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center, 1970
So I have been here for three months, working hard, being on time, being generally focused, facing my pain and difficulty squarely on and off the cushion, and loosening unconscious mental solidity. And so now, I am comparatively clear, present, energized, committed, disciplined, grounded, addiction-free, open, hard-working, sensitive, and attentive. How does this translate into coming back to the city? My friend Wanda wrote me and said, “i think the most interesting thing to me will be how you come back … I often wonder about such encompassing experiences and how to bring them back to the environment you were in – real life, as it were.” The authorities here recently cracked down on personal use of monastery computers, and, as I talked the director Charley into letting me use the computers to continue to work on my “when-I-get-home-to-do” list, I expressed the idea that my time here seems of minimal value if the work that I’ve done here does not positively impact how I live when I return.
So, the question has arisen for me : how can I balance being here fully, and yet start thinking in terms of life after this experience? What’s the best thing to do while I am here – be as present right here right now with these exact people, activities, buildings, and hills, follow all the rules of renunciation, and spend my “free time” studying or hiking? Or, acting from the clarity I feel here, start getting on the phone and on the computer and making solid and healthy plans for when I return? Seeing how I have sometimes had intense and deep clarity experiences (meditation, personal growth courses, drug trips (sorry Mom and Dad)) and then have not always acted on the direction such clarity has given, I chose some of the latter planning as well as the former being. And, obviously, I have also chosen to take the time to work on letters like this one, which tie me to and hopefully benefit my everyday life (because, ideally, my friends and family will see me more in terms of this practice and hold me to it, because these letters share myself with the people of my life, and also ideally bring some of the benefit of this practice to people). But the process of writing a letter like this has involved thinking of and writing down a sizable number of notes during the daily silent (no-writing) times, an activity which has perhaps held me back from going deeper into non-verbal mindfulness than I could have. So, it looks like it has been a trade off – something that benefits my larger commitments in life but noticeably retards my training here.
I will be back soon, regardless. And I have spent three months where what I have done besides the basics of life (sleeping, eating, hygiene, etc) has pretty much only been meditating, engaging in physical labor and exercise, and studying, listening to, and chanting Buddhist teachings. I have had encountered no music or new people, and have had little free time, hanging out, relaxing, chatting, physical affection, or flirting. Now, I have four straight nights of parties and big dinner get-togethers planned for me, starting a couple nights after I return. My mom has suggested going to CostCo to buy supplies for my birthday party, which is of course a sweet and helpful offer. I may decline it, however, because the other times I have left this monastery after three months, during my first week back I found *all of life* to be like I normally find CostCo to be – too many things, too many splashy colors, too many extra features, too much commerce, too many choices to make, too many tranced-out unconscious people jostling me and yelling to each other from right next to my ear. I do not want to imagine multiplying the two effects together – CostCo right after leaving the monastery.
A few years back, when I was working in drug-and-alcohol-treatment-effectiveness research, I managed the data for one big study that compared residential and day treatment. The two recovery programs were exactly the same, except that in one program, the patients didn’t leave the treatment center during the entire six months, and in the other they left at night to go home to sleep in their own beds and then come back early the next morning. What we found is that the day treatment program had a much steeper initial relapse rate, because those patients, from day one of treatment onwards, were walking by their old bars and dealers as they made their way home each night, and were also seeing and talking to their old drinking/using friends daily. A year or two after treatment started, however, the success rate for both programs was about equal. This was because the residential folks had a really steep relapse rate right after the six months point, when they were released and then encountered the outside word for the first time since getting sober and suddenly faced all their old temptations all at once. At that time, their sobriety rates plummeted right on down to the day-treatment level in a hurry. The implications for being intentional when I come home and face old temptations all at once are present for me.
My time here has been a boost towards living a bigger and deeper life, but I also feel pulled to remember kaizan, the Japanese word for “constant self-improvement”, when I get home. Daily meditation seems in order for the next week (and probably is also in order for every day of the rest of all of my samsaric rebirths). The abbess said to us, “When you leave here, you will find that you can’t just forget Tassajara, but you can’t take it with you either.” I take that to mean – the lessons and challenges of Zen practice will still be true for me when I get home, I can’t just forget about them, or keep them in my past, but also being here won’t have done me that much good unless I keep on working on my practice in the present moment.
“How time files when it’s got nowhere to go,
Up to the skies, and that only goes to show –
I’ve waited here for you a long, long time
I think you’d better go home
It’s a long way home, long way home.
So now you’ve studied the changes, through all the strangeness;
have you lost your way? Have you got no more to say?
Find the stars in your own dark night.
I think you’d better go home,
It’s a long way home, long way home”
On the study front, I finished reading or have half-read a pile of books about Buddhist meditation that have all been more-or-less BFD, blah-dee-blah, not a waste up time but basically otherwise a big “so what”. “Calming the Mind” by Gen Lamrimpa, “Meditating With The Breath” by Buddhadasa Bikkhu, “Diamond Mind” by Rob Nairn, “Who Is My Self?” by Ayya Khema, and “Insight Meditation” by Joseph Goldstien all fit into this category.
I’ve also been reading a book that I thought was so-so in some parts but pretty great in others, called “The Middle Length Meditation Instructions Of Mipham Rinpoche” by Thrangu Rinpoche. “Rinpoche” is a Tibetan title of religious status that means something like “Reverend”, “Father”, “Rabbi”, etc. Before I knew that, when I first started exploring Buddhism fifteen years ago, I used to think to myself, “Man, this Rinpoche guy sure has written a truckload of books, and sure does seem to be everywhere all at once.”
In terms of spiritual teachings that I have found mind-blowing, hard-hitting, and valuable (instead of mediocre), I have been going with some old standbys : I am re-reading the cosmically ass-kicking book “I Am That” by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I have been way enjoying listening to audio by my number-one Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young, and the grand super-nova has been a book and some audio by David Deida.
Questioner : What can you say about sin and virtue?
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj : One who moves with the Earth will necessarily experience days and nights. One who always stays with the Sun will know no darkness. My world is not your world. As I see it, you are all on a stage performing. There is no reality about your comings and goings. As you problems are so unreal!
Questioner : So we may be sleep-walkers, or subject to nightmares. Is there nothing that you can do?
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj : I am doing. I am entering your dreamlike state to tell you, “Stop hurting yourself and others, stop suffering, wake up.”
Questioner : Then why don’t we wake up?
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj : You will. The unfolding of the Absolute shall not be thwarted. It may take some time. When you begin to question your dream, however, awakening will be not far away.
I have read that, in China around 800 or 1000 AD, there were five main houses or schools of Zen. Two of them eventually established themselves in Japan by about 1300. The Chinese Linchi house became Rinzai Zen in Japan, and the Chinese Cao Dong (cow dung?) house became Soto Zen. Rinzai soon established itself with the Shogun’s samarai cadres, and eventually became “The Zen of the Generals”. Affiliated with this school is the study of kendo (wooden sword play) and other martial arts, and “joriki”, the projection of spiritual charisma and power from the lower belly.
San Francisco Zen Center is derived from the other lineage, Soto, “The Zen of the Farmers”. Long-term students here do not study karate – we do study traditional Soto Zen arts such as sewing, cooking, gardening, tea ceremony, flower arranging, and poetry (and also, to present things totally, the traditional skill of carpentry, and some Americanized skills such as organizational management and accounting, and building maintenance). Sometimes I think that something more in the middle between swordplay and flower arranging might be a better match with me, but I am basically fine with the curriculum here. I do note however that many people study tea ceremony here, and I hear people say things like “the tea ceremony *is* zen”. Alternatively, the t.c. seems like model railroading to me, a nice little distraction that has not much to do with real life. I suppose that the tea ceremony more “zen” then say stamp collecting is, in that it does demand presence and awareness, but it also involves a ritualized massive ingestion of an intoxicating stimulant in the form caffeine, which is fine as far as it goes but does not seem so “zen” to me.
Anyway, Cao Dong/Soto Zen was brought from China to Japan in the thirteenth century by a Japanese monk named Eihei Dogen. This person is apparently considered by many people to be the greatest philosopher and the greatest prose writer in Japanese history, and by some people to be one of the top five or ten luminaries in Buddhist history. Like Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni (the Buddha himself), Dogen was born into the very highest ranks of political power (the Buddha was the son of an Indian king, Dogen was the son of a Japanese Emperor’s first minister). Both men still found however that they could not escape essential questions of meaning and suffering. The answers that Dogen came to, lectured on, and that his students transcribed and collected have been revered as the heart of the Soto lineage. Sometimes, for example, I hear people say “Well, Dogen said ?” as means of settling arguments about Buddhist matters.
My understanding is that Dogen’s most famous teaching was the Genjo Koan. The famous excerpt from this essay is, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” I find this inspiring – what I take it to mean is, if you want to study Buddhism, pay very close attention to yourself. If you do, you’ll find that “yourself” is a flow of phenomena with no solid and reified “person” at the heart of it. And when one arrives at that state, all things are miraculous and enlightening.
Many people here have extensively read a lot more of Dogen’s teachings besides just the Genjo Koan. This practice period, I finally started reading some. And every once in a while, these writings seem to be what people say they are, brilliant, deep, trippy, profound. But, smart as I may be, much of Dogen’s writing is word-salad to me. For example, if any of you can tell me what this following section means, please do:
The golden body of eight feet or sixteen feet is time-existence. Because it is time-existence, there are the ornaments and lights of time-existence. So we must study the twelve hours confronting us. It is time-existence that draws out the body with three heads and eight arms. Because it is time-existence, it interpenetrates with the present twelve hours. Though we have not yet measured the span of twelve hours, we call it twelve hours Such being the truth, we must learn that there are many appearances and grasses throughout the earth and that each grass and each appearance are not apart from the entire earth. Holding this view is the point of departure for training. When we reach this sphere of our journey’s end, there is one grass and one appearance. We sometimes meet the appearance and sometimes not; sometimes we meet the grass and sometimes not. In this way training and enlightenment vary. Because it is only time-existence of this sort, time-existence is all time-existence, and each grass and each appearance are time-existence. In each moment there are all existences and all worlds. Try to think – are any existences or worlds separated from time-existence?
“That’s all right, that’s all right, that’s all right.
Sometimes you feel trouble, sometimes you feel down.
Well, let this music relax your mind. Let this music relax your mind.
Stand up and be counted, can’t get a witness.
Sometimes you need somebody, even if you have somebody to love.
An’ sometimes you ain’t got nobody, and you want somebody to love. All right.
Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, you just want to see His face.
Don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus, you just want to see His face.
Just want to see His face. Just want to see His face.
Just want to see His face. Just want to see His face. All right.”
You can’t get any more fundamental in talking about Buddhist teachings than the Four Noble Truths. I didn’t understand or related much to them for many years, they seemed grouchy and abstract. But these days, they seem tangible and relevant, and I am starting to feel like I am starting to have a handle on ’em. As I understand the Four Noble Truths, they can be stated something like :
I. We’re all not as satisfied by life as we usually pretend to be. There is a subtle level of anxiety and/or depression there to differing extents for just about everyone. At the very least, it is impossible to be human without encountering all sorts of physical and emotional pain at times, and most folks suffer when they feel pain.
II. This dissatisfaction and suffering arises from mental impurities.
III. It is possible to scrub these impurities clean and thus find real, lasting satisfaction, even in the face of the continuing arrival of pain.
IV. The path in that direction consists of eight spiritual cultivations, that can be summarized as : acting morally, concentrating the mind, and ridding yourself of spiritual illusions.
In the last few years, I have been trying to sit with and deepen my relationship with all four of the Noble Truths. The one that has made the most impact on me, however, has been the second. I have heard that the second Noble Truth can be put as saying that human suffering is a result of three psychological factors called “kleshas”, a word which can be translated as “spiritual poisons”, “afflictive emotions”, or “mental impurities”. The ancient Indians called the three kleshas “raga”, “dvesha”, and “moha”, which is often translated as “greed, hatred, and delusion” but which I think is more elegantly translated as “attachment, aversion, and unconsciousness.”
I have most specifically been practicing trying to be aware of the three kleshas when they arise. I have been doing this both as a stand-alone exercise (just noting to myself when I notice the factors arise, individually and in combination) and by including noting their arising into my other meditations (for example saying “raga” to myself when clear, pure attachment arises while I am watching body sensations). It seems like being aware of kleshas, like the social meditation that I described in my past letter, requires a lot of concentration and awareness – it’s a meditation that I can only do after I have been doing something else, like concentrating my mind on my breath, first. I also imagine that there probably is a traditional Buddhist meditation that involves doing something like watching the kleshas – it feels to me like being aware of these three impurities is about as close to the heart of Buddhism as I know how to get.
Raga can be translated as attachment, addiction, craving, neediness, hunger, an itchiness to possess or do, wanting, or greed. One of my teachers (Shinzen Young) says that raga is an unskillful and un-equanamous relationship with pleasure, but that it is not the pleasure itself – he says that, if a person can enjoy pleasure without any craving and frustration when it is unavailable and without trying to make it happen when it’s not appropriate for it to, then that is not raga. Anyway, some of the times that I have noticed raga is arising in me:
* Strong itchy desire to tell someone the joke that just occurred to me, even though it’s quiet time and I’m trying to keep quiet
* Continuing to eat from my bag of dried mango because I like the taste, despite the fact that I decided several times already that this food was giving me a sugar high trip that I didn’t want to have
* Imagining or remembering some future or past event or conversation that will be/was a great victory for me, that I imagine will/did impress everyone
* Craving my meditation to give me a wonderful liberated mystical state, some cooled out way-Zen state where I’m smooth, in control, impressive, and free from self-consciousness
* Looking at or thinking about a person and have a pleasant, fulfilling, warm interaction with them
* Wanting to go to the computer and work on this letter when the schedule says that it is time to do something else like work, meditate, or sleep
* Sexual desire that has a burning, feeling to it
* Being bored, low-energy, or otherwise unhappy, and wanting something exciting, distracting, entertaining, interesting, or stimulating
* Doing what’s most pleasant (instead of what is most important)
* Itching, un-centered craving to have the abbess notice my raised hand and call on me during question time after lecture
* Wanting to hold on to some possession that I don’t really need and probably will never actually get around to using but I can’t bear to just give away or throw away
* Getting caught by a newspaper headline as I walk by
* Fidgetiness, can’t sit still
* The “oh no” feeling when I hear that I won’t be able to make a sandwich for myself in the kitchen during sesshin, or when I hear about the ending of anything else that I am enjoying
* Being really into my opinions, beliefs, views, and theories in a way that builds walls with other people
* Looking over my list of things to buy when I get back to the city, and getting all pumped up
* Insomnia with my mind racing
Dvesha can be translated as aversion, not dealing, closing up, rejecting, numbing out, tightening up, avoiding, defensiveness, anorexia, fear and anger, or hatred. Shinzen Young says that dvesha is an unskillful and un-equanamous relationship with pain, being unwilling to just internally experience unpleasant experiences at the times they can’t be avoided. Some of the times that I have noticed dvesha is arising in me:
* A physical pain that I feel like I can’t stand any longer (when it’s actually not doing any permanent harm to me) – a feeling like I’m going to jump out of my skin – especially towards the end of a meditation period
* Having a strong bodily emotion (anger, sadness, even happiness) come up around people who I don’t trust, so I stuff the feeling away and try to not feel it
* Lots of heavy shovel-lifting, making seed-box soil out of wet sand and decomposing leaves, tired muscles, and it all seems too difficult, I just want to drop my shovel and walk away
* Someone bugging me, and wishing harm to them so that they will stop being how they are
* Wanting to pull away from a complicated and painful social situation or friendship, just end it completely so as to be safe and not have to face the difficulty anymore
* Avoiding what is most important to me (because it is difficult, complex, requires work)
* At night, being worried about getting enough sleep and being tired the next day, so being crabby, unkind, and not present with people if they try to talk with me
* An awkward moment around someone who is not a friend and who I don’t trust, I spiritually/emotionally hold my breath until I am away from them
* Imagining something awful happening in my life, and tightening up – a dread that something is really bad is going to happen – like after banging my head hard on the side of the swimming pool (oh no, maybe I will have an aneurysm) or reading about European opposition to the Iraq war (oh no, as an American I’ll never feel free to travel in Europe again) or feeling a fear that the Bush administration or terrorists are going to do something to make my life horrible in the future, so I better do something to fight them now
* Tightening my shoulders up around ears and clenching in my stomach when I feel cold
* Staying in a shower for longer than I intended because I don’t want to feel the rush of cold air when I turn off the water
* Showing up late for some work that I said I’d do because, in the moment when it is time to show up, I don’t want to do it
* Being in denial about a problem
Finally, moha can be translated as unconsciousness, unawareness, being tranced out, not being present, lack of mindfulness, being overly subjective, ignorance, or delusion. Most classically, it is seen as consisting of the illusion we have of being a separate and permanent self. Also, Buddhist philosophy says that moha is the tree trunk out of which the branches of raga and dvesha grow. Some times that I have noticed feeling moha:
* *All* of my moments of raga or dvesha
* When I am confused
* Mind feeling fractured, pulled this way and that, spaced out
* Come back to what I am doing after going off on some heady train of thought
* Doing walking meditation and noticing that I have completely lost track of the number of steps I’ve taken
* Suddenly slam my dishes together with a loud sound during orikyoki (the meal ceremony) and realizing that I am have not been paying attention at all to what I am doing
* Obsessing on plans or memories rather than “being here now”
* Mistaking an image of other people for who they really are
* Not really listening to people or paying attention to what’s happening
* Unconsciously assuming that things will always be as they’ve always been so far, and that they won’t change
* Not really seeing the true consequences of the choices I make
* Feeling like an entity completely separate from my environment
Like many meditations, being aware of and watching the rising and falling of the three kleshas has been a powerful and enlivening exercise for me. It is powerful to see how much of my life is ruled by compulsive grabbing, compulsive pushing away, and compulsive spacing out. It is even more amazing to catch glimpses of a liberated and mindful state of mind free from those forces – a state of mind where I make genuine conscious choices.
“A moment’s absence – a dead person”
— Yantou Quanhuo, ninth century
[If you are a parent or sister of mine, or a parent of Kendra’s, you may want to skip this section]
Another thing that I studied when I working in drug-and-alcohol-treatment-effectiveness research were the moments when people relapse back into addictions from which they are trying to stay sober. Research shows that relapse often happens not just when people are in deep pits of despair, shame, and pain, but also often when they are flying at the heights of success, joy, breakthrough, and happiness. It seems that part of this relapse scenario is that people often think that they can handle their addictions when they are doing well and feeling strong. Another big part of it is that many people just don’t like to feel any raw strong emotion, even positive ones, and would rather pave over unprocessed feelings with addictive rushes.
I have watched my own resistance to feeling pleasure and joy while I have been here, my own driven avoidance of it. I have long been aware that raga and moha are challenges around my experience of pleasure, and have worked on being more deeply aware and not grabbing. But I have not been aware until the last month how much dvesha is a challenge for me in feeling pleasure as well, actually allowing myself to feel the pleasure without resistance, stuffing it down, and avoiding feeling it.
I have been intentionally making an effort to allow myself to feel joy and pleasure around other people, despite how vulnerable it feels. For example, a few days ago, for example, one of the other monks was sitting next to me during the meal ceremony. My whole time here I have found her long red hair to be remarkably beautiful, and, as I looked to my side, I noticed her newly-painted cherry-red toenails as she cat-like stretched her feet out in front of her before bringing her legs into sitting position. I watched a mighty wave arousal wash through me (I am extra-sensitive to feminine stimuli here at the monastery, on account of all the meditating and also the uniformly simple modest attire on the women), and then I watched violently myself stuff the feeling down – the subliminal voices said things like, “I barely know her!”, “I barely know her boyfriend!”, “I don’t want people to think of me as an intrigue-stirring troublemaker!”, “I’m trying to re-cultivate a single-minded loyalty to Kendra while I’m here!”, and “the meal ceremony is a time to be (and look) focused, still, and Buddha-like!!!” !!!!!!
What became obvious to me was that the actually more Buddha-like activity might have been to just let the feeling of arousal naturally wash through me without resistance, and enjoy it. My understanding is that Buddhism teaches me that how I express my feelings on the outside is completely different issue than what happens on the inside, and I also doubt that Buddhism would teach me to encourage and cultivate feelings of sexual arousal for strangers. But, I do think that the general mantra of teaching is “no resistance”, internally fully feel enjoy pleasure when it comes along. It reminds me of what an old friend (Jim Corey) once said – he said something like that there is a fine and patient art to sitting still with all the tension that comes up between people, aggressive and sexual, without feeling a compulsive and anxious drive to talk it out, work it out, or otherwise resolve it quickly.
I have no parents
I make the heavens and earth my parents
I have no home
I make clear awareness my home
I have no life and no death
I make the rising and falling tides of breathing my life and death
I have no divine power
I make honesty my divine power
I have no friends
I make my clear mind my friend
I have no enemies
I make carelessness my enemy
I have no armor
I make benevolence my armor
I have no castle
I make immovable mind my castle
I have no sword
I make absence of fixed concept of self my sword.
— unknown Japanese samurai, fourteenth century
So our nation is at war. Most of us here don’t seem to know much about what is happening, given that our only access to information from the outside world has been a few minutes looking at the newspaper every few days. During the few days before the first bombs shock-ed and awe-ed, and during the few days afterwards, Kendra’s best friend Jamie led groups of monks in an after-dinner 108 recitations of a pretty, melodic Chinese song-prayer. The chant asked for the help of the Boddhisattva of compassion Kwan Yin in generating peace.
We heard that news that the war had started just as we were about to start an evening class on the topic of the cycle of karmic becoming. The abbess first asked us to respect for the fact that the sangha (community) is not all of one mind about political issues. I deeply appreciated this conscientiousness, given that my views are probably less left-wing than most of the other monks around me, many of whom looked to me to be visibly angry. Linda-Ruth then went on to say something to the effect that all of us have plenty of the three kleshas, and that every last human on the planet would naturally do good in the world if we were scrubbed free of our kleshas. Thus, “the enemy” is inside each one of us, it’s not some group of people to go fight against somewhere else. She taught that a Buddhist response to political events can be fierce and strong but becomes defiled if anger or ill-will lies in its heart. She said something that I heard as keeping in mind that humans have spilled the blood of other humans for tens of thousands of years, including at the time of the Buddha. I deeply appreciated and respected her balance, wisdom, and peace in a time of such emotionality and challenge.
After her words and some discussion, we went up to the zendo in our normal clothes (which is what we wear to lecture) and sat twenty minutes of meditation. It was strange to see the sangha in the zendo un-robed. But the whole evening was strange. It feels to me like there is a lot of heavy, reactive fear in America these days, after the 2000 un-election with it’s supreme court wrangling, 9/11, anthrax, and now two wars. I see a fear all over the world that somebody is scheming up evil intent and needs to be vigorously attacked first. It is pleasant to be in a place that cultivates a centered, stable, and open mindset in the face of a world full of things swirling up in the air, spinning faster and faster.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I am learning how to sew a garden bed. The first step is to take off the thick layer of last fall’s dead tree leaves, which were put on the soil intentionally so that weeds wouldn’t have access to the sunlight they need to grow. Then we turn and mix the newly uncovered soil down to a depth of one foot, and then add in a sizable amount of compost, and turn it again. Sometimes we also add potash sulfate, and usually we add blood and/or bone meal (ground-up slaughterhouse remnants – how’s that for a conscientious Buddhist monastery). After that, we level the bed, create a nice rounded angle on the sides, and stake down drip irrigation hoses. After all that, we use our fingers to pop little holes in the soil (usually about half an inch deep) in neat rows, carefully put one or two seeds in each hole, and smooth the dirt back over. The final step is to water the bed three times a day for a few days.
On the garden crew is an Italian monk named Licia (LEE-chah). I would describe her as tough and hard-working but friendly and down-to-Earth. The little English she speaks is much more than she spoke when she first came here, and she has a difficult time understanding much of what we say here. Despite the language barrier, she came here to Tassajara for the intense Zen study. For that reason, I call her “La Monica Brava” (The Brave Nun). She called me out the other day, and suggested to me what her tough-ass teacher taught her – to give myself over totally to physical work. She said, when shovelling, just shovel, and just shovel totally with all your heart, and your energy will replenish itself as fast as you give it out. This is similar to things that my dad has been saying to me for years about having enthusiasm in working, and that Kendra has been saying to me about work not being a punishment.
Anyway, Licia has been out of the zendo and away from the gardens and locked in her room for about ten days, laid low by acute hemorrhoids. The few times she has been out and about, she has walked slowly and stiffly. The punch line is that the rest of us on the crew got sick of noticing that her extended absence from the crew had become a pain in the ass.
“Everyone worries so much about themselves, but there’s nothing happening that means anything at all”
— Robyn Hitchcock, “Beatle Denims”
* I gave a twenty-minute “way seeking-mind talk” on March fourth. This was a talk to the rest of the students about the history of my Buddhist practice. Talks like these are usually only given by first-time students, but I volunteered to give one because I hadn’t been here in three years before arriving, which turns out to be a significant gap in terms of knowing other folks living in this community now. I felt really good about my talk, that it made good connections with many of the other students, and I got lots of laughs. Also, one thing that was unexpectedly powerful for me to talk about was how I used to self-mutilate in high school – how, when I was overwhelmed with anger towards the people around me and unable to express it, I would cut and abraid my arms and wrists, bright red blood trickling down white skin draining all the pain and anger out of me.
* At various times when I have been in deep states, during this visit and my past visits, the coolest most bad-ass (original) rock and techno songs emerge in my head. In 2000, after I left, I tried to capture one song that had arisen fully-formed out of the stormy sea of my unconscious, and subsequently remained compellingly lodged in my consciousness for weeks. The song was roaring and powerhouse, with mystical lyrics, repetitive fuzzed-out guitar, and a hard-hitting melodic bassline. I spent my first week of freedom locked in a room in my parent’s house in San Diego, surrounded by my computer, a pile of musical instruments, and a snakepit of cables and wires. It was a frustrating experience – I enjoyed the final product, and thought it had its moments of hitting it just right, but, all-in-all, the final version that I heard in the speakers was nowhere near as intense and pleasing as the song that I had been hearing in my mind. Since then, I have decided that my composition career is at near bottom of the pile of priorities. I have also resigned myself to merely pondering how awesome it would be I could instantly have a finished recording of all the kick-ass music that emerges into my mind while I am here, rather than making plans to try to record the music.
* I mostly avoid caffeine in my city life. So, when I first got here, I drank only a few sips of Diet Coke in the morning, and it was enough to provide a lift for hours. The longer I’m here, however, predictably, the more I have needed to drink to get the lift – now I’m up to over half a can a day. I maintain a rigor of only drinking it only on days when I wake up at 3:50 am and woke up at 3:50 the day before, which turns out to be about half of the days. Also, I open the cans of Coke at least half-a-day before I intend to drink, so that the coke is flat if I’m in a hurry to get out the door, in the dark of the pre-dawn morning, getting my robes tied and blowing out the lamps, and chug.
* A surprisingly large number of monks have had painful and distracting poison oak experiences in the last month. Even though I spend a fair amount of time outside, my attentive efforts to stay out of undergrowth has been effective.
* In early March, when I was at my most flexible, I began to experiment more seriously than ever with sitting half-lotus with my right leg up. I found that it was actually bearable (for five or ten minutes at a time). I am now hopeful for achieving padmasana (full lotus pose) some day.
* Sometimes I long for having this exact three-month monastic experience, but swapping fifty of my Rhythm Society and Community friends in as an exchange for the bulk of the monks here. Actually, my dream scenario would be combining an environment structured with the sincerity, rigor, depth, and penetration of this experience with the verbal, social, humor, and physical affection skills of my city friends. Buddhism teaches me to let that fantasy float away, and to settle in and deal with and love the real people who I am here with. But the daydream does arise at times when I feel a barrier or alienation with some of the monks.
* I think that is not that controversial for me to say that I have an intelligent and active mind. I have often thought while I have been down here, however, that perhaps I am drawn to meditation because it is a natural and relatively simple way for me to find balance in the face that could easily be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder.
Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn would teach his students, “When you eat, just eat. When you read the newspaper, just read the newspaper. Don’t do anything other than simply what you are doing.” One morning, a student saw him reading the newspaper while he was eating. The student then asked the teacher if this action did not contradict his dharma. Seung Sahn sat silently for a moment, and said “When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper.” He then went back to what he was doing.
For those of you who are reading this and don’t already know, I gots to break it down and testify : Kendra spent a bunch of years of her early childhood living in this Tassajara monastery with her mother. She also spent Summer months here working and Zen-ing during other years before she turned eighteen. She was also a monk here during a couple years of adulthood, in fact we first met here in 1999 when we were on the same serving crew. She has had many wonderful, illuminating, and deep experiences during her time here, she just hasn’t (to the best of my knowledge) written about hers as much about them as I have mine.
She wanted to be down here for these ninety days, studying Zen here with her number one Buddhist teacher (the abbess Linda-Ruth Cutts), and kickin’ it with me and her two closest girlfriends. But, instead, she remained in the city with her work and school commitments. She also took over from me head tenant responsibilities (paying bills, collecting rent, shopping, dealing with the legal shenanigans of an inflamed asshole of an ex-subtenant) for our six-person household. She has also been doing things for me like sending out these emails and mailing contraband pepperoni to me. In sum: much respect to girlfriend-san. For all these reasons and many more, my love for her sometimes is bigger than my body and heart can hold, and it pulls me open and pulls me open and pulls me open.
I am gratified by all the reports that these essay/letters have been opening or helpful to people, and reports that people feel closer to me having read them. Also wonderful have been the compliments on my writing. In fact, just hearing from people that they have read these letters all the way through with interest has been rewarding, honoring, and pleasant for me. Thanks, friends.
I will see many of you soon.
[(1) songwriter Leonard Cohen spent a couple decades as a Zen priest at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in LA County.
(2) From what I have heard, his teacher, Josaku Sasaki Roshi, is about as tough as a person can be, is about as alive and vital as a person can be, and is about as short as a person can be. And at age 97, he still gets up at 2:45 am each day to spiritually rough-house with his student’s delusions all day every day.
(3) Consuming alcohol and meat violate basic Buddhists precepts.]
ROSHI, by Leonard Cohen
Roshi poured me a glass of Courvoisier. We were in a cabin on Mt. Baldy, summer of 1977. We were listening to the crickets.
— Kone, Roshi said, you should write a cricket poem.
— I’ve already written a cricket poem. It was in this cabin two years ago.
Roshi fried some sliced pork in sunflower oil, and boiled a three-minute noodle soup. We finished one bottle of Courvoisier and opened another.
— Yah, Kone, you should write a cricket poem.
— That is a very Japanse idea, Roshi.
We listened to the crickets a while longer. Then we closed the light so we could open the door and get the breeze without the flies coming in.
— Yah, cricket.
— Roshi, give me your idea of a cricket poem.
— Ha ha. Okay:
dark night (said Roshi)
cricket sound break out
cricket girlfriend listening.
— That’s pretty good, Roshi.
dark night (Roshi began again)
walking on the path
suddenly break out cricket sound
where is my lover?
— I don’t like that one.
cricket! cricket! (Roshi cried)
you are my lover
now I am walking path by alone
but I am not lonely with you.
— I’m afraid not, Roshi. The first one was good.
Then the crickets stopped for a while, and Roshi poured the Courvoisier into our glasses. It was a peaceful night.
— Yah, Kone, said Roshi very softly. You should write more sad.