[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in late mid-February 2009, 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]
Tomorrow we begin a nine day sesshin (meditation intensive), so I am sitting down here in my cozy little dorm room, with the afternoon sun warm outside my window, to finish this letter, before the wall of silence falls.
Sooooo… what to say … reading over my last letter : jeez, what a trip. I think that when I started compiling notes to write it, I was in a place of crystalline purity, clarity, infinity, depth, vast open space – a feeling of freedom and expansiveness that had been building over the previous two months. It was like, This is IT. And, that sensation kind of freaked me out, I think that I got a spiritual vertigo, and jumped back down off of that mountain peak, back into more familiar, constricted ways of being. And, that’s more how I was feeling as I finished writing it. So, I think that letter was like all this immense cosmic inspiration and vision, imperfectly expressed through a constricted voice. It then took me until the end of my two week holiday furlough into the outside world to get my feet back on the ground, and get resettled into myself and my spiritual journey back to clarity.
I am not sure what to say about how the two months has been since I got back here from my holiday break – I’ve been so busy, mostly just doing my thing each day, day by day. My work assignment during this three month retreat is called the doan ryo, and it takes much of my attention, energy, time, and commitment.
The main part of “being a doan” involves rotating every five days through different tasks:
* “Doan”, which means ringing various bells at specific times and in specific patterns during the three daily services, and during other times (like, playing a bell a certain number of times to signify when the meditation sitting periods begin and end).
* “Tenken”, which means getting to the meditation hall early to play the percussion instruments that calls people to meditation periods and/or service. The tenken plays instruments to end some meditation periods in a complicated way, and plays a heartbeat-like wooden drum with fishes carved on it during some of the chants. And, the tenken also takes attendance during sitting periods, and checks in on people who are absent without having left a note on the “tenken pad”.
* “Kokyo”, which means announcing chants and doing the dedications of merit during service and meals in loud special “Zen” voice. The kokyo also starts and ends morning study, and takes attendance there.
* “Soku”, which means supervising the food serving crew during the three daily meal ceremonies.
* And then one off day.
I am also the “audio/music” guy, which means training the first-time students in playing the ceremonial instruments, doing technical trouble shooting on the audio equipment, and managing the digital recording of lectures, classes, and talks.
There are other tasks to “being a doan”, some of which are daily, some that don’t happen that often, some that are time consuming, some that are done quick, some that are difficult, some that are fun, some of which happen during regularly scheduled events, and some of which we are asked to do on times when the rest of the community is on break.
The practice of being a doan means, always saying yes (as in, “will you show up early to help move the sitting cushions onto the floor for the ceremony tonight?” and thinking, “I was looking forward to reading this break”, but saying : “yes” ). It’s been a good training in sticking with my commitments, and in raising energetic enthusiasm.
So, I have less free time than I had in the Fall, when I was working here in the kitchen. In fact, if you take into account break-time activities that are not really optional (like laundry, showering, and exercise), then I have about a third of the time for things like reading, chatting with friends, napping, and writing letters like this one. I find that it’s good, though, to be spending so much more time on the cushion in the meditation hall, to be entrusted with responsibilities for making the daily schedule go smoothly, and to generally be in a tighter, more firm practice container than I was in the fall – as much as the demands of being a doan are exhausting at times, it is, ultimately, the training experience that I came here for, and I like the precision that it has brought to me.
It seems like there are infinite regressive levels of details and refinements to, say, ringing the bells during service, or doing the chant announcements/dedications of merit during service. Plus, it all happens in public, so what we do happens in front of all the rest of the monks (some of whom have been studying these forms for many years). Several times a day, we receive criticism and corrections as to our performance from the ino (head of the meditation hall, our supervisor), from the rest of our crew, and from any senior priests who have something to say to us. Every once in a while, I am not in the mood for all the feedback, but, usually, it’s all been a great training, and it has helped me to re-dedicate myself to doing a great job again and again.
In general, this experience has helped me to develop a great balance, in terms of, on the one hand, continuously noticing the billions of little and big mistakes that I make in the job, and constantly striving to improve, while also, on the other hand, relaxing, realizing the complexity of all these bells drums and charts are just a silly little game people made up, feeling that it’s all perfect however it goes, and letting go of “mistakes” – just turning my attention to whatever happens next. There is a saying around here, “that’s extra”, as in : just notice your mistakes and correct them, you don’t have to get emotional about or stuck on them, “that’s extra”. As I said, the training is good, it’s what I came for – Zen doesn’t have as much overt mindfulness techniques as some schools of Buddhism, and these ceremonial jobs are a great way of doing a mindfulness check-in in a roundabout way – noticing where my head is at by noticing how my ceremonial bells go. The theory is (and I have seen this borne out by my own experience) that if one janks up the bells, you were prolly spacing out; it your bells were smooth, clear, and rung at the perfect time, you were prolly paying attention.
I spend a lot of time with my crew, and it’s rather intimate (with us giving each other feedback several times a day, and working on training each other for hours each day). I notice that I don’t always let myself get so close to people as this, and it hasn’t always been easy, but I have come to appreciate, value, and usually enjoy this opportunity to work so closely with these five diverse people. In particular, I have been having a great time working with Mako Voelkel, the ino. She is someone who I’ve known for twelve years, is the former girl friend of my former housemate Barnaby Thieme, and was one of the five priests who saved Tassajara from wildfires last Summer. I respect her and enjoy the process of working with her – she is firm and clear, regularly giving us instructions and “corrections”, but somehow her feedback always feels clean and easy to hear, and I feel her big warm heart even when she is being at her most directive.
A few other things about being doan :
* It’s the first time in my three years at Zen Center where I’ve had this much power and prestige : giving people instructions, making decisions and giving input on how things go, being the pivotal point around which some of the ceremonies turn. It’s interesting to notice how that feels.
* I like taking more responsibility for practice. I especially like ringing the bells to begin and end the meditations – helping create a container for people to relax and dissolve inside of. Of course, ringing bells to create a time period for other people to meditate inside of is something that I have done regularly in the seven years since I started teaching …
* Sometimes all the complex, exacting religious-y aspects of the job bug me; they seem like “silabbata-paramasa samyojana” (attachment to religious rules and rituals), something the Buddha repeatedly warned against. But, usually, it feels fine, I’m into it. I don’t get as excited about the religious ritual as some people seem to, but I do like how it cultivates mindfulness and a sense of the sacred.
The other day we had a great talk from the teacher Leslie James, a talk that left me feeling open and inspired.
She quoted one of the ancient Chinese Zen scriptures we chant here regularly, which says in it “Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire”. She said that other people, ourselves, and all of life is like that – it doesn’t work to turn our back on it, but it doesn’t work to grab at it or try to get in there and try to mess with it. She suggested that we instead just carefully be aware of life/ourselves/others. She suggested that we not try to end our delusions, but just carefully notice the suffering they create.
She talked about how much is communicated non-verbally between people, and how much is communicated by our deepest being even contrary to the words that come out of our mouth. She then suggested that we give people the gift of the space to be themselves without demanding that they be different, even if it’s difficult. She suggested that we cultivate a sense of being truly willing to deeply feel how it be around other people, with all the various sensations that can come up – taking the brakes off and letting ourselves have the full experience of how it feels to be around other humans.
She talked about the gift of us getting triggered by other people. She said that that is a good thing, because then we get to watch ourselves getting tangled up, and that is good because untangling happens most when we deeply investigate and bring awareness to our internal tangles as they happen. She said, if you’re triggered by, offended by, or uncomfortable with someone else, look and see what that says about your sense of self, and where you feel vulnerable.
I often feel settled, warm, and open after I hear lectures by Leslie.
Sometimes, over the years, as I have talked about my experiences with meditation, monasteries, and Buddhism, friends of mine from normal life have told me things like that they have
* learned about non-attachment from casual dating and/or polyamory [and I have heard that sometimes people even learn a little something about non-attachment even in monogamous relationships 🙂 ]
* learned about Oneness, God, love, seeing through the self, or the way the whole thing works from psychedelic drugs
* gotten chi flowing in a spiritual way from dancing
* learned about the way in which we create self and others, and the ways in which we can dissolve that, and the shape of the space between the two people, from interpersonal processing
* aroused spiritual energy, vigor, commitment from working at a job
And when I’ve heard that from people, one the inside, I’ve often thought to myself, well, it’s not quite the same – it may seem like the same thing as what you learn in a monastery, but, formal Buddhist practice is pretty hard core, but what you learn out there is actually kind of an impure or watered down form of it. But I was thinking to myself lately that, at this stage in my formal Buddhist training, it is starting to seem like maybe it is the same thing. I think that there are many different ways to learn these lessons, many, as people say here, “dharma gates” through which we can find the Truth. I’ve been thinking, in fact, about how maybe there are some spiritual lessons that we learn best out in daily life.
We’ve had some unseasonably warm times here, like with highs around seventy for ten days straight. Other times, it’s been more cool, or cold. Recently, it’s also been raining a lot – sometimes with intense storms, but more like drizzle off and on all day for a few days in a row.
For a while, the hot water pipes in my housing dorm were dripping into the study hall below, and so the heat was turned off. During those weeks, it was chilly to come home, and get out of my robes. At night, after last period of sitting, I do my final activities, and would climb into my sleeping bag, and pull the neck closed, as soon as I could.
But, now, the pipes are back on, and my home is back to being a sauna. Which is nice, because I get to the comparatively cold meditation hall at four am each morning, I am warm inside, from the core, for the first hour, instead of chilly. Also, I washed my big thick cotton meditation robe the other day after lunch (a little before one pm), hung it in my room to dry, and it was ready to wear by evening service. I was surprised and pleased.
A few other short things before it’s time to burn a disk and put it in the out mail box for Mike Werthiem (who is currently posting things like this for me) and put on my robe for evening service :
* My body feels somewhat wasted lately, especially pain in my left sacrum/siatic area and numbness in left hip and leg. It’s hard to believe I’m about to sit four sesshins (Zen meditation intensives) in the next three months. We’ll see how it all goes. I intend to be doing a lot of yoga forward bends, to let my sacrum extend and relax. I’ve also noticed that the pain tends to mellow out when I worry about it less and don’t react to it (which means that I am relaxing my muscles). And, I plan to get my back cracked when I get back to civilization …
* I’ve been reading a book, “The Pearl Beyond Price” by A.H. Almaas, and loving it. We read some excerpts from it in the “TCLT” course leader/personal coach training class that I took with Guy Sengstock last year. I have been reading the whole thing here, and feeling all lit up. So far, it seems to be about bridging the gap between the impersonality of pure spirituality, and the normal, everyday, personal experience of being human. It’s funny how so many books out there are so incredibly bad, and then some books can be so incredibly good.
* It’s looking like, from mid-April to the end of May, I will do a six-week Zen intensive at a Center in New Mexico. If that’s what I end up doing, it will be the first time in eighteen years that I will be more than three weeks in a row out of Northern California. I am weighing various options for what to do when that retreat ends, in June. I spoze that I will make a desicion when it is time to do so.
I am wishing you happiness.
Paz, amor, y amistad,