[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in early November 2008, 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]
I wrote most of my first letter of this adventure soon after I got here, a couple weeks before mailing it off. And, in the month after that, doing the same thing day after day, I did not feel much motivation to write more. But, in the last couple weeks, I have felt a return of some inspiration.
I just finished a nine-day break from working in the kitchen. We monks who are assigned to the kitchen sat a seven-day sesshin (all-day meditation intensive), with a “personal day” tacked on at the beginning and end. Various Zen people, some of ’em coming in from the outside world, did the kitchen work during those days.
There is no one overarching thing I can say about the sesshin, except that I encountered a lot of blankness – sitting there and just being unable to feel or contact much of anything. As I teach in my meditation class, however, feeling blankness while meditating is actually a good thing; blankness coming up is an opportunity to make intentional repeated effort to reach beyond the nothing, and, in doing so, to burn through to the other side, where reality feels real again. And, if you encounter blankness in your mind during meditation, it was probably already down in there somewhere, making your life more dull; so, if you can bring it to the surface of awareness and work it out and off, then your life from then on will be all the more richer and more vivid.
I like that perspective. Much of the content of my class is things like that that I want to remind myself of.
“For self-knowledge, you need the earnest application in daily life of whatever little you understand of the path. There is no such thing as compromise in the path of liberation. So, if you want to sin, sin wholeheartedly and openly. Sins too have their lessons to teach the earnest sinner, as virtues have their lesions to teach the earnest saint. Nothing can block you so effectively as compromise, for it shows a lack of earnestness, and, without earnestness, nothing can be done.”
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That”
There is a book about absolute honesty – always saying exactly what you think and feel – that many of my personal-growth-y friends were all into in the mid-nineties : “Radical Honesty”, by Brad Blanton. I am amused to notice that they even have a copy of it here at the Tassajara library. I like the book fine, and am glad that I have read it, but the practice of always blurting out everything to everyone seems a little extreme to me.
Anyway, a friend of mine once did therapy in person with Dr. Blanton, and she told me that he once said to her something like, “Meditation within a person is like true honesty between people – it’s letting things be just exactly what they are, no more and no less – and there is a certain simple freedom, and unhooking of tension, that comes from that.” I *love* that quote – that’s it, right there. And, as a corollary, I would say that I feel that meditation has so much to do with intimacy, honesty, and authenticity with yourself, that it is so much about perceiving, knowing, and accepting who you really deeply truly are on the inside, that I would imagine that Buddhist centers like the one I am at would be places where intimacy, honesty, and authenticity would spring forth naturally between people – if not “radical honesty”, then at least “heightened honesty”.
And yes I find that at Buddhist centers that some relationships between people seem to show an deep and authentic connection. But I have found that that is not always the case. Sometimes, relationships between people at Buddhist centers are not that different from a workplace – from an office building a floor full of cubicles – in that there are people who are just really different than you, and the main communication between the two of you is just saying Hi.
You know how they have those little inspirational aphorisms on the sides of tea boxes? One afternoon, I noticed that one of those little boxes here said on the flap, “‘I do not like that man – I must get to know him better.’ — Abraham Lincoln”. And I thought to myself, yeah, that’s how it seems to work for me – I sometimes have to take the time and patience to get to know a person if I want to see their depth, their gifts, their beauty. Most of the people here, if I take the time to sit down and create connection, I find, yeah, there is a human heart in there beneath their exterior, and, yeah, they are here at the monastery with a sincere, earnest desire to grow, an aspiration that I can relate to. Most people here, I find, I can usually create a space of heightened honesty and, sometimes, a space of profound and almost exquisite authenticity – if I am willing to put a lot of patience in with them.
For people I have not connected with yet, though, the folks who feel like strangers, I don’t feel so clear why it is that they are here. Sometimes, I check em out, out of the corner of my eye, and I wonder: why *are* they here, doing this weird thing? How does it feel for them to be here? What do they do when they are sitting on the cushion in the meditation hall, and what do they talk during the interviews with the teachers? Is them helping them to be here – are they transforming for the positive – is it doing them deep, real good? If so, in what way?
I’ve noticed that all of the various campuses of the SF Zen Center are full of really different types of people. And, like any big institutional communal living situation, the SFZC has a lot of basic rules for managing all these different people. Add to that that this is a Japanese religion, and, well, as I’ve written about in past years – there are a lot of rules here. There is a booklet here just for the major rules (“don’t lie down in public”, “enter the meditation hall with only clean feet”, “no running within temple grounds”), and there are also exponentially more unwritten rules.
And, I’m not gonna say that it’s good, but, if I’m honest with myself, I will admit that I sometimes break little rules just because I think that they’re dumb, or shouldn’t apply to me. A prime example of that is that there is this a little red dial over the desk behind the meditation hall that says “please don’t touch” that I like to lightly drag my finger over as I walk by. Another example is me writing this letter right now, after lights-out time.
A couple days during the sesshin, during the brief afternoon work period, I was assigned to be fukiten (kitchen crew head). And, two senior priests were working as part of my crew – the tanto (head of monastery practice, unofficially the second in command) and the work leader (another senior staff position). I found myself a little shocked at how obedient and compliant they were with me, how they would check in with me about every little thing, these two people who are usually giving the rest of us all sorts of commands and directives. I was impressed.
It got me thinking in a new way about the nature of the rules here – maybe they really are what the priests tell us they are, something to lose our constructed sense of self by following. The idea is, sometimes you give directions, sometimes you take directions, and fulfill both roles fully and honorably.
It kinda reminds me of an old-school Buddhist teaching that I have been thinking about in the last couple years, and that I find pleasant to consider : the Anguttara Nikaya (the “Eight Worldly Winds”). The idea is that eight winds come in four pairs : (1) success and failure, (2) praise and blame, (3) high status/acclaim and low status/humiliation, and (4) pleasure and pain. The teaching is to not get too caught up about of any of them, in that all of us will find themselves experiencing plenty of each of the eight in our lives. We will find ourselves successful and failing, being praised and being criticized, having high status and having low status, in pleasure and pain, and the suggestion is to keep walking our path and giving our best whatever the results of our efforts, no matter which of the eight winds are blowing at any given moment. I like that teaching a lot – when I remember it.
“If I can get out of the way, if I can be pure enough, if I can be selfless enough, and if I can be generous, loving, and caring enough to abandon my own preconceived notions of what I think I am – and become truly who in fact I am, which is really a child of God – then the music can really use me. And therein lies my fulfillment. That’s when the real music starts to happen.”
— John McLaughlin, jazz and rock guitarist
As I’ve written before, Tassajara monastery is a spiritual-themed getaway spot during the Summer, and it is my understanding that the “guest season” here hauls in between one and two million dollars each year. It is also my understanding that all that income is the main financial support for the wide-ranging SF Zen Center empire. So, it’s maybe no surprise that Zen Center bit the bullet, and paid $150K for a Monterey construction company to build protection for the monastery from possible winter rain flooding and mudsliding.
Accordingly, for most of October, we had a big yellow bulldozer driving around, as well as one of things that looks like a bulldozer but has a huge scorpion-tail scoop on the back, both of em carrying big rocks from here to there, to build huge stone retaining walls in the places where our geologist consultant identified mudslide threats. I’d be sitting meditation in the Zendo, or working in the kitchen, and hear (and feel) the deep rumble of big diesel-powered treads rolling by, like tanks moving forward in “Saving Private Ryan” or whatever. We also had work crews walking around putting smaller rocks in the walls between the bigger ones, and piling sandbags in the places where our hydrologist said the creeks might jump its banks.
When I first visited here ten years ago, it took me a while to get used to the ritual of the communal shower. Eventually, though, it came to seem natural that, during the longest break of the day (between the end of the afternoon work period and the start of evening service), the Japanese-woodwork bathhouse would be full of naked, lanky, pale-white skinned, shaved-head monks, avoiding eye contact as we showered in introspective silence. Being a kitchen monk, however, during this visit, I have been showering a few hours later, after we finish washing the dinner pots – often by myself, the dark high-ceilinged bathhouse spookily lit by the flickering illumination of a single kerosene lamp, creepy shadows reflected in the big glass sliding doors out to the outdoor deck.
During the three weeks that the construction work was being done, however, the post-dinner bath house was a different kind of scene – there was a whole fiesta going on. Five or six lit lamps created a carnival of dancing light, dirty boots splayed all over the slate-tiled floor, the space full of these construction guys, their stout squat bodies the color of dark red clay, the older mustachioed hombres in loose bathing suits and the younger spiky-hair-gell-ed hombres in their Speedos, chatting and laughing in a Spanish that was too fast for me to understand much of what they were saying. It was kind of awkward, them doing their loud thing, and me doing the Zen student thing (naked, lanky, pale-white skinned, shaved-head monk, avoiding eye contact as I showered in introspective silence). But it also made me laugh, the absurdity of it.
Sandbags, everywhere …
New mudslide protection wall at bottom of culvert
New creek-overflow protection walls
Monk on wall
“What you are now is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will be the result of what you are now. The consequences of a clouded mind will follow you like the cart follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. No one can do more good for you than your own purified mind– no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness.”
— The Buddha
The “eightfold path” is one of the most central teachings in Buddhism. The basic idea is, if you want to be a happy person (and a not-miserable person), then you have to be intentional about growing psychologically and spiritually. And the way to do that is to :
1. “right action” – to not be violent, steal, be sexually exploitive, or be an alcoholic/addict, but to act with respect for aliveness
2. “right speech” – to not lie, gossip, or speak abusively, but speak intentionally, truthfully, and with an open heart
3. “right livelihood” – to do something an occupation or job that is honest and life-affirming
4. “right effort” – to give energy, exertion, and engagement to walking your path of liberation
5. “right concentration” – to compose the mind in a way that releases distraction
6. “right mindfulness” – to have a mind that is conscious and aware in an open and precise way
7. “right thoughts” – to have your alignment and resolve in life come from your heart and soul’s truest depths
8. “right understanding “- to understand the way that reality works deeply and truthfully
When he gives lectures on the eightfold path, my Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal says that maybe being physically active and healthy was taken for granted in India at the time of the Buddha, but that if the Buddha were alive today he would probably teach a “nine-fold path”- he would add “right exercise” to his list. Gil says that he thinks that staying physically healthy is a vital component to any modern American’s path of liberation.
Many years ago, I read an article about how the former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was getting way into hatha yoga. The article quoted him as saying something like, “I’m learning that there are actually three types of physical health – muscular strength and tone, cardio conditioning and endurance, and flexibility. When I was a young athlete, only strength and endurance were emphasized to me, but, now, I am learning about the vital importance of flexibility too.”
I found that to be a fascinating thought. One reason is, it has a direct analogy to mental health – I think that it helps to think of the health of our psyche as not just a single factor (“I’m doing great” or “I’m not doing so well”), but several different factors, and you can simultaneously be doing great in some of them and not so well in others.
I also love that quote because, in the years since I’ve read that article, I’ve thought about my physical health not just in terms of, “am I fit or not”, but in terms of how am I doing on each of the three different factors that he named. So, I will say : I’m not sure how my cardio/endurance is right now – I’m not running six miles straight uphill on my off days like when I did here ten years ago, and I’m not riding my bike all over the city like I have been the past couple years. And I am not sure about my muscular strength, either, although I am dismayed to notice that I seem to have lost between five and ten pounds of muscle living in Zen centers the past five months (I am not sure whether that’s from eating only vegetarian-ly, or from just eating fewer calories in general). But I notice that working hard in the kitchen for hours straight does feel like I’m conditioned, and has me looking toned, and, thankfully, I don’t feel sluggish or like I need to work out. It’s one of the blessings of being a kitchen monk, I think. In January, when I am out of the kitchen, I will probably need to figure out a way to mountain bike, swim, or do something to work out that won’t make my joints and ligaments tight and painful in the meditation hall (like running seems to).
I can say this with certainty though : doing yoga every morning between the time the wake up bell goes by and the time I put on my robes has been making me a lot more flexible, creating less pain and more ease on the meditation cushion. It also enlivens my mind and body for a while – during the 4:20 to 5:20 am meditation period, I usually feel bright and awake, but then I get drowsy during the 5:30 to 6:10 am period, after the yoga’s vitality-creating effects wear off. Yet again, I am noticing something that I have noticed so many times in the past twenty years : the yoga – it is The Good.
For a while, though, I was having sharp painful cramping in my butt flesh and numbness down my thighs while I meditated, and those symptoms also started appearing during the times when I was out of the meditation hall. It even hurt to lie down to sleep at night. I wasn’t sure what was causing it, but it was getting worse, and it was starting to bum me out.
There is a woman here, a self-described “tough dyke” and recovering drug addict. I am fascinated with how hyper-competent she seems to be at such a wide range of skills; she seems to be immediately good at all the various work tasks that she is assigned to do here, and I think that she has the most pleasant chanting voice of anyone here. She told me that she is a tenured professor of literature at UCSC, but is also a yoga-teacher in training, and, to my eyes, a pretty Grade A plus one. Anyway, she told me that my symptoms pointed to classic sciatica, and she gave me some yoga poses to counteract it (all of which involved lengthening the spine, and uncompressing the spinal disks around the sacrum). And – shake n bake, baby – doing the poses a few times a day during sesshin cleared the pain right up.
Guess what – I got a FEVER – and the only prescription is MORE YOGA.
“In the monastery, you learn to understand how the feelings of love and hate, success and failure, praise and criticism all function. You learn to find that space that holds it, that knows it, that can be with it, and be still within all that occurs.”
— Ajahn Amaro
Since I last wrote, working in the kitchen has been usually smooth, and sometimes hell. One thing is, it could be that this kitchen monk-ness is the most steadily working job of my life … if I take a single thirty seconds to lean against a counter or have a chat with someone, I am likely to get a comment about it. Unlike computer programming, there are definitely no hour long breaks to check email or the internet.
All of us kitchen monks are all jammed up against each other all day, physically and emotionally. I don’t usually allow people to get this close to me. And I think that this experience is helping me to be more comfortable with people, including their difficult sides. I think that two of the best teachings that I am getting in the kitchen are : (1) to just not give a fuck if someone is angry, rude, slamming things around – to be willing to talk about it if needed, but, mostly, just let it be their business, and to continue be happy if that is how I am feeling, and (2) to realize that in many situations where someone seems to be critical of me, I actually don’t need to explain myself, I can just say, “OK, got it”.
The “fukiten” (kitchen crew chief – my boss) : is he a difficult problem, or is he a problematic difficulty? Sometimes, in fact, most of the time, things are great with him – we joke together, even hug together, and knock out a ton of work together (food cooked, dishes done). But he has apparently been kicked out of Tassajara twice before for his temper, and he sometimes yells at me (and other kitchen monks), in the kitchen or at crew meeting. It sometimes leaves me feeling emotional, but with a slightly “whatevs, dude”-y aftertaste. Anyway, one thing that I have been doing is to stand close to him, make steady eye contact, and to calmly say what I really think, feel, and want. When I do, I let any emotion and energy that comes up with that just wash through me. It feels good to do that.
Also bringing a smile to my face has been a kitchen monk who goes by his priest ordination name, “Koji”. He bugged me when I first met him, sitting side-by-side on the ride down from San Francisco when I got down here two months ago. He’s self-described “short and overweight”, and he seems to be kind of a Japanese fetishist – he does his chanting at service in a overwrought Japanese accent, he wears tabi sandles, and sometimes dresses up in Japanese monks’ work outfits (“samu-a”), complete with a towel with Japanese characters on it wrapped around his head. But the more I get to know Koji, the more I enjoy him – he seems to have this refreshing freedom, saying things other people might think but wouldn’t say. Especially, he keeps making me totally lose my shit laughing. A few of his greatest hits:
The idea in the kitchen is that it’s our meditation hall, and so we usually work in silence, except for “functional talk.” Anyway, one day I am standing there with some tongs in my hand. He comes up, stands there for a second, sings “let me see those tongs, all night looong, tongs-ta-tongs-tongs-tongs”, and turns on his heel, and walks away.
The tenzo (kitchen head) was saying how the food we had all spread out for personal-day bag lunch was overwhelmingly orange and red; carrot sticks, red-bell-pepper-cream-cheese pate, and the like. I said that it makes up for our meditation hall (where just about everything is black, white and wood colored). The fukiten said, yeah we can leave the orange and red to the Tibetans. Koji started doing really loud Tibetan throat chanting and then suddenly stopped, looked at all of us, and said,”yeah, but, thing of it is, the Tibetans, their shit actually *works* – I mean, look at em, they’re, like, actually *smiling* n shit.” (that was a diss on Zen)
Koji and I are on the way to the fridge, putting food away. I go to pet one of the new kittens, and she runs away. I say, “Why are they so skittish like that all the time?” Koji says, “Ya know, when no one else is around, I actually sometimes put an Adam mask over my face, and walk up and give em a li’l kick.” Koji doesn’t shower that much, so I reply, “Cool. Well, sometimes I lather up with your nasty stank, and kick em too.” He looks serious for just a second and says, “ummm … yeah. Well, that joke’s on you, bro.”
At one point, in the courtyard outside the kitchen, Koji said to his girlfriend Michaela, a cute little anarchist moppet covered with tattoos, “Since I’m baking the cake for tomorrow, and gotta be in and out the kitchen to check on it, my schedule’s gonna be irregular today.” She said, “Like … what is it?” He said, “It’s so irregular, words haven’t even been invented yet to describe it, it’s *that* irregular.” She said, “OK … where will you be at four thirty?” He said, “See, I don’t even understand these ‘fwa theer dee’ words of yours. That’s how irregularly I’m rollin’.”
One day, I asked Koji, “You know why I am always asking you questions [about kitchen shit, when there are other more senior people I could be asking]?” He replied, “Cuz I’m the only one whose response doesn’t make you wanna DIE?” (making fun of all the anger and gratutious dominating behavior in the kitchen). It was the perfect answer.
Also, in the kitchen, sometimes the fukiten will unexpectedly ring a mindfulness bell, and, when he does, the idea is that you put down what you are holding or doing, and just be aware (of your breath, your body sensations, your momentum of action, etc) until the sound of the bell fades out in your ears. Some people will also do some stretches – touch their toes, or do yoga asanas. One time, after the bell was rung, at that somber holy moment, Koji, off in a corner by himself, stood still and looked “mindful” for a bit, then started reaching up and doing some stretching, eventually started running in place, and then was punching the air, like he was a boxing champ entering the ring. According to science, it was the funniest thing that anyone ever has ever done ever. I could not stop laughing all afternoon.
Each retreat, at about the middle point, we have one “party” night – a skit night. At the one we had two weeks ago, Michaela played mandolin and sang the R.E.M. song “You Are The Everything”, and I accompanied her on guitar (with a solo during the bridge that startled myself in how blazin it was). The afternoon before the party, as she and I practiced our chord changes, she told me that Koji used to play bass in a hardcore punk band, and work as a garbage man. So, there you have it. Like I said, this place has a wide variety of folks.
America’s Most Beloved Funnyman, The Koj (he’s not really that short – he was bent over, pretending to be a … well, I’m not really sure what he was pretending to be)
“It is a mistake to think that our spiritual practice cannot be practiced for lack of time. The real cause of our avoidance is our agitation of mind.”
— Swami Brahmananda
One day when I was sixteen, for no clear reason that I can remember now, I decided that I more wanted to experience “religion”. So, I started taking my ass on down to the church a few blocks away, and, within one short year, got myself baptized and confirmed as a Presbyterian. Looking back on it two decades later, it seems like kind ofa funny thing to have done.
In Zen Buddhism, what might be the analogy for being “confirmed” is variously called “jukai”, “lay ordination”, or “taking the precepts”. It’s not the biggest of deals, it’s something many people do six months after first starting Zen practice.
The way you prepare for the jukai ceremony is to first get permission from a senior teacher, and then have some discussion sessions, and some book study. But the most time-consuming preparation for jukai is sewing something called a rakasu, which is a small ornate finely-stitched cloth item. It looks kinda like a bib – and that may be one more of those tricky Zen mindfulness tools – in that, if you are spaced out while you are eating, you might spill food all over your rakasu (which would definitely be a bad thing).
My friend Tim, from North Carolina, rokkin his rakasu, as he takes a break in the smoking area along the creek
Anyway, it takes maybe fifty hours to sew a rakasu. I started in on mine soon after I got permission to sew one, which was ten years ago, and was soon about half way done. But I ain’t done shit towards finishing sewing it since then – I just sorta lost interest. Soto Zen Buddhism feels to me like it is a fraction of my path of psychospiritual growth; it feels funny to make so public a declaration of being a member of this particular family. So, I guess that I felt like doing jukai here would be something that I would be doing just because it meant something to other people, kinda like how some people get married just to make their parents happy. The tattoo of Avalokiteshvara (the Boddhisattva of compassion) that I got engraved into my left shoulder in 1999 felt to me like a more intimate and sincere way of showing my commitment to the Buddhist path.
In the past year, however, for a whole bunch of reasons, it’s become clear in various ways that it’s time to finish this jukai thing. So, yeah, I have been sewing on my rakasu like a madman – using windows of time here and there to sew the strips of fabric together with little pinpoint stitches.
The teacher I started sewing with in 1999 was Ryoshin Paul Haller, who is the co-abbot of Zen Center, and also the leader of the retreat I’m on here. Paul was probably my number one Buddhist teacher ten years ago. But, as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass says, picking a spiritual teacher is kinda like falling in love – you can’t really control it, or explain how it works – it’s just kinda something you feel or don’t. And, like falling in love, sometimes you get back together with an old love years later and it’s great, and sometimes it’s just not quite the same. And, in this case, I don’t feel about Paul the same way that I did back then – these days, he sometimes feels like more of a good friend or a “big brother” than a teacher or a “father”. I notice that part of that may be more of a masculine clarity and edge that I want from a teacher figure (like, for example, Ken Wilber, David Deida, or Guy Sengstock have). Part of me also wants more of a feeling that a teacher really sees me, gets me, understands me (like I feel with Guy S, or Gil Fronsdal).
In a month, at the jukai ceremony, Paul will tell me the Japanese Dharma name that he has picked for me, and calligraphy it on the back of my rakasu. For a while, I was feeling nervous that he would pick a name that wouldn’t really feel right to me – it made me feel weird about him. During one of our practice discussions, I even picked a fight with him that ended with him cursing up a storm, spittle flying. It felt bad to end the interview that way, but it also made me laugh – I can be such a pain in the ass, but I think that you can only know how to skillfully walk right on the line by being willing to go over it some times. Anyway, it was clear to me later that I did so to test the strength of my relationship with Paul, how much he truly sees me. It was maybe kinda like how some people get into fights just before they get married, as they start to wonder if the other person is really truly completely perfect for them. It turns out that I am more emotionally invested in this stupid lay ordination thing than I thought! Anyway, since that meeting, I’ve gotten my own masculine on, and committed myself to just seeing the jukai process through with Paul, and just getting the shit over with, no matter how I feel about it.
There is still much that I respect, enjoy, and love about Paul as a teacher. And I also remember how alive my relationship with him felt a decade ago and how much it meant to me – how great I felt during the classes, lectures, and practice discussions I had with him. Ten years ago, I took this amazing class with him where he invited a Rinzai Zen priest to co-teach with him; we learned about yelling energetically from the pit of our bellies until everyone in the room said yes they felt our full life force power, and about unleashing our raw life force power while practicing kendo (traditional Japanese swordplay) with wooden swords.
As I said, that co-teacher guy was from the Rinzai school of Zen. As I’ve written about before, Rinzai and Soto are the two main schools in the history of Japanese Zen Buddhism. In medieval Japan, Rinzai was the Zen of the samurai and the shoguns; Soto was the Zen of the farmers. Rinzai Zen has been associated with the “Zen of Archery”, the “Zen of Kendo”, and the “Zen of Karate”; Soto has been associated with the “Zen of the Tea Ceremony”, the “Zen of Flower Arranging”, and the “Zen of Haiku Poetry”. In the age of Japanese imperial conquest (from around 1870 until Hiroshima/Nagasaki in 1945), Rinzai temples taught Imperial Army officers how to have no emotions as they killed foreigners and died in battle; the Soto school provided what few clerical pacifists objected to all the wars Japan was starting.
Rinzai teachings about enlightenment are that you should strive with great brow-sweating, mind-melting efforts towards kensho and satori (dramatic spiritual breakthroughs); Soto, on the other hand, teaches that enlightenment is here every moment, so you should relax and try to let go of trying to gain anything (“no gaining idea”). In Rinzai Zen, walking meditation is marching around at just short of running speed; in Soto, you barely move with each step. In Rinzai Zen, if you so much as lift a finger during a meditation period, a priest from across the meditation hall will pierce the silence by yelling a sharp rebuke for you for moving; in Soto, if your body starts to hurt too much, of course you are free to change your sitting position, Sweetheart. In a Rinzai temple, if you fall asleep during meditation, a monitor who walks around with a wooden stick, held like a sword, will wake you up with hard whacks on your shoulders; if you fall asleep during Soto meditation, all that happens is that you take a nap. I think you get the idea.
Most American Zen is Soto Zen (or says that it? a mix between the two, but act like Soto Zen). Koji and Michaela however spent a couple of months at one of the few truly Rinzai-y Zen temples in America, Bodhimanda in New Mexico, with Leonard Cohen’s tough li’l Zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. Koji didn’t like it there, and does a hilariously nasty imitation of Sasaki Roshi, but when he describes the boot-camp-like atmosphere there, I find myself feeling excited, and drawn to spend some time there. I am going to look into it.
Meanwhile, the SF Zen Center is mos def Soto Zen. I was thinking the other day as to what skills I have learned during my three years living at the various campuses of the SF Zen Center : how to grow flowers, how to serve food graciously, how to keep a pantry well-organized, how to do detailed needlework, how to make an altar look pretty, how to do a perfect hospital corner in making a bed, how to wash clothes by hand, how to arrange flowers in a vase, how to blend a soup, how to make a perfect salad, how to bake cookies, and, no shit, how to hop up on a meditation dais without anyone looking up the skirt of my robe. It’s like they?e training me to be a perfect fifties housewife. Ah well. At least I got to take that one class with the Rinzai guy while I’ve been here, and I’ve learned how to rip firewood with a chainsaw, and how to play a taiko drum REALLY FUCKING LOUD….
“You have enclosed yourself in time and space, squeezed yourself into the span of a lifetime and the volume of a body and thus created the innumerable conflicts of life and death, pleasure and plain, hope and fear. Your feeling yourself to be a separate person is due to the illusion of space and time; you imagine yourself to be at a certain point occupying a certain volume. In reality, time and space exist in you, you do not exist in them. They are modes of perception. The mind creates time and space and takes its own creations for reality. All is here and now, but we usually don’t see it. Truly, all that has ever existed anywhere is in me and by me. There is nothing else.”
— Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I Am That”
It’s funny, reading two genuinely mystical, cosmic-consciousness kind of books (Ken Wilber “The Simple Feeling of Being” and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj “I Am That”) and meditating so much … I have been having some genuinely transpersonal experiences. It’s something that difficult to put into words, but it’s like, I’m doing something, and I’m aware of my emotions, desires, and actions, and they just seem to be how a hairless monkey has emotions, desires, and actions, but really have not so much to do with the pure consciousness that is aware of it all happening. It feels like a constraining barrier dropping away, and a wider vista coming into view, a new experience of being non-located infinity having the experience of a location – in this case, the specific location of being a human being. Again – it’s difficult to put in words.
It reminds me of late 2005 and early 2006, when, for a few months, I am not sure why, but I would be going about my life, maybe walking through the hallway between my cubicle and the bathroom for example, and I would suddenly feel my sense of identity expand out to include the wall, the floor, out out out for miles. I felt it all one big interconnected unified happening, and who I was was not this one individual person walking through a hallway, but the whole thing happening – not just one finger of a glove, but the hand inside of all the fingers of the glove (assuming, you know, that a glove and a hand could have millions of fingers). I remember that those experiences back then would frighten me, make my heart beat too fast, until I learned to relax into them. These days, the experiences of not-self I suppose are pleasant, but it’s more like they are kind of just … I don’t know … big. Like, spacious. Or maybe free is a better word.
“I call on everyone to find their passion and pursue it. To discover what it is you’ve been put on the planet to do, and to do it. Do not let fear of what others will think of you stop you from taking action. Do not let the disappointment of failure keep you from giving your passion everything you’ve got. I believe that each and every person can make a powerful difference in the lives of others, and that we each make the greatest impact for positive change in the world when we are living our purpose and passion fully. It may not show up in a big, flashy way. It may be that your purpose and passion is simply being a more compassionate, loving person. Do it. It may be that your purpose and passion is to organize community. Do it. It may be that your purpose and passion is to create art that inspires others. Do it. Whatever it is, it matters and contributes to a change that is so needed in the world right now.”
— Ian Rhett
I feel like I’ve already been gone for a while – in my past visits here, after two months, I was getting ready to come home and get on with my SF life. I am excited about the upcoming two-week holiday break, in five weeks, visiting the SF Bay and to San Diego. The Bay Area / outside world doesn’t seem so real to me right now, however. I am sure all sorts of stuff is happening on the scene that I would know about if I was there – I’ve heard little wisps of news of pregnancy, illness, new love starting, old love ending, working, parties, making money and spending money. And I’ve been told that there was some sort of election?
My mom told me Michael Crichton died recently – she knew him in person many years ago, when he dated someone in her college dorm. As for me, I just enjoyed the six or seven books that I read by him. I remember this fascinating passage in “Jurassic Park”, where the chaos theory character guy was saying how, in many of life’s phenomena, the shape of the macro reflects the shape of the micro – like how in geology they have found that the shape of parts of any mountain will often resemble the shape of the whole mountain. It’s apparently also a big part of how holograms and fractals work.
The thing that really got me was when the guy said that a person’s entire life, all of its decades, often has a similar look and feel to how a typical day looks for that person. For example, if a person often doesn’t finish what they start on a typical day, then they are probably not finishing the big projects in their life either. If a person works until ten pm each night, they probably will work most of the years up until they die. And that got me thinking – in my normal life, I have sometimes put things off because they are complicated and difficult, and I have done other things that are more simple and easy – like, I have procrastinated doing what I actually came into my office to do, change the RAM in my computer, by replying to emails for a couple hours.
And, now that I am here in the monastery, it seems clear that the years of my life sometimes do indeed look like the parts of a single day – specifically, my friends who were pushing me to leave San Francisco and start my trip two years ago were probably right. I did some fine things with my time in the past two years, and met or got to know better some great people; it wasn’t exactly wasted time. But, yeah, it was kind of being in a holding pattern. I think I put off this trip because it is going to be three years of being unsettled, of not having roots. While I am here, I sometimes find myself thinking about and longing for the next time that I am settled again – when I have my place in this world – when I get up in the morning and know what the next steps are for me to take that day on my life’s work/purpose/path, when I feel the warmth of a woman/relationship that is “my monkey”, when I have my phone number and email to check, when I am spending time with my friends/community, when I am in a home that is my home.
In the meantime, I am excited for some of the adventures that I will be on after this one. There is a saying some personal growth people use – “you need to throw your hat over the fence” – it means, if you do that, then you are committing yourself to climbing over the fence to retrieve your hat, however difficult that might be. And, they say that, as Napoleon’s Le Grande Arme advanced, the officers would burn any bridge they crossed, so that retreat would be impossible, and forward motion the only option. I guess I’ve thrown my hat over the fence, and burned my bridges, and … here I am.
“Do not ask me where I am going. As I travel this limitless world, every step I take is my home.”
— Eihei Dogen Zenji