[Tassajara monastery has no internet. I finished writing this letter in late March 2000, then I then sent it on a disk through the US postal service to my friend Rich, who emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
This is my first attempt at trying something new. The temple director Leslie James gave me permission to type this letter up on one of the two computers here which are used for inventories and for composing official correspondences. Also, the treasurer Linda Taggart graciously gave me an old disk with which to send a letter on. So, in contrast with carefully writing everything out by hand, I am writing these words onto a keyboard – with a steep, rocky mountain rising in the big window behind the monitor. It is familiar to me to be sitting at a computer and writing a letter, but it feels strange to be doing it here at Tassajara.
Last time I wrote was right before the nine day sesshin (meditation intensive), which happened on February fifteenth through twenty fourth. That sesshin was a profound experience for me – I feel that I am already so open and focused around here meditating sixteen hours a day takes that clarity and big open space to new heights … or depths … or widths – whatever, it’s an experience. During this last intensive, I noticed that I was holding on and fighting the experience, and my mind got diffused in many little and big ways – for example, going back to my room during breaks and writing things that I wanted to remember down, one of the many things during sesshin that they ask us not to do, so as to maintain focus. Nonetheless, sitting ten long meditation periods a day for nine days straight, “holding on” and “being diffused” is relative. I was got pretty damn focused.
During this intensive, I grew to feel more comfortable with the Buddhist concept of “emptiness”. Emptiness (“shunyata” in Sanskrit) is a word that comes up a lot in certain schools of Buddhism, some of them teaching that emptiness is the ultimate nature of reality. It has been a difficult word for me to be comfortable with so far – as one Buddhist psychotherapist said, many Americans hear “emptiness” and think of boredom, depression, and deprivation instead of being free of compulsions, free of fixed meanings, and nothing anywhere existing on its own.
One morning during that sesshin, however, as I came into the kitchen to join my serving crew after a couple hours of intense meditation, I had a somewhat mystical experience, and “emptiness” seemed like the best word to describe it. That morning, it seemed like I saw my ideas and interpretations as ideas and interpretations, the rest of the world as the rest of the world, and the nature of all of it as empty – a dream happening in a spacious, undriven void, a flow of energy with no independent things in it and no ultimate tangibility.
The words that I used in that last paragraph to describe that experience drew from a lecture that my teacher Reb gave last year and that I have been mulling over since then. He taught about the philosophy of Vashubandhu, who lived during the fourth century and was the main guy from the Yogachara sect of ancient Indian Buddhism. The idea here is that there are three “realities”: the first is the subjective imagination that divides things up into separate things and makes imputations regarding value. The second is the universe all arising and happening at once in an interrelated way, one uninterrupted event, everything outside and inside all of us. The third is the absolute empty void that is not a thing or even an attribute, where nothing happens. The idea is that the last spiritual reality is only experienced when the first reality is seen clearly and is not mistaken for the second. I am not sure if that few sentences-long explanation does justice to the ideas, but, they have been seeming profound to me lately.
Despite having had such a positive experience, after the sesshin, I felt deflated – I felt a loss of enthusiasm, focus, and faith. I think that I wanted a break. Around here, however, no break possible for more than a few hours, which is perhaps good for spiritual deepening but I am not sure. Around that time, I also read an article in the popular Buddhist magazine Tricycle about a book that written by Zen Master Hakuun Yasutani around the time of the start of World War Two. Yasutani was later teacher of many of the most prominent roshis who brought Zen to America (Maezumi, Aitken, Kapleau), and he seems to have said, using language similar to that used by all the Zen Buddhist priests and teachers I am familiar with, that the essence of Buddhism and Zen (and spirituality in general) was to serve the Japanese Emperor absolutely, to bring the world under Japanese rule, to kill Americans and British (“evil spirits”), and to wipe away “demonic” and “delusional” ideas of democracy. This was disturbing to me, and to my sense of trust in Zen and in Buddhistm. A short time after reading that, I wrote the following about my loss of enthusiasm:
Zen is ostensibly a religion that goes beyond religion. The cover story is that Zen’s structures, methods, and philosophies ostensibly envelop, transcend, and deconstruct all structures, methods, and philosophies. I feel right now stuck in religion, however. It’s an unpleasant experience that I can recall feeling in the past but that thankfully I have not felt in a while. I am feeling agitated and unnerved when I hear “teachings” or instructions that seem superstitious or self-destructive. I feel many of the classic discontented feeling that modern liberal Western people seem to have with our own Western religions.
Just like many people don’t really believe that Jesus literally walked on water, I do not believe that the Buddha stood up moments after his birth and exclaimed that he alone was “the world honored one”. I do not believe that he had various other supernatural powers. I do believe what some Buddhist teachings say, that the Buddha was a human being and never claimed to be anything else, despite his apparent profound clarity and spiritual attainment. I think that the rest was added on later.
I do not believe in the whole Buddhist cosmology of heaven realms and extravagant metaphysical beings. I believe that the realms and beings that Buddhists talk about represent energies inside the human mind.
I do not believe that we generate some sort of “merit” through our chanting or ceremonies, that there is some logbook of good deeds that the universe keeps or “the four heavenly kings” or whoever keep and that Buddhist services ranks high on. I think that these practices’ strong point is that they may help us encounter something bigger than ourselves or develop reverence.
I do not believe that the hundreds of thick books that claim to contain the Buddha’s words are all literal transcriptions that should be accepted as authoritative. My understanding is that people didn’t even start writing down what was remembered of Buddha’s words until hundreds of years after he died (sort of like Jesus), and that for centuries after that, Buddhists were writing their take on things and putting them in the mouth of the Buddha as a literary device to gain credibility. I think that all the scriptures I have encountered have value and I engage them with interest, but for me they don’t have the unquestioned authority of directly coming from the one and only person who has ever been enlightened.
I do not believe that Jesus had a spiritual luminosity that all people could not somehow become (with a huge amount of work). Similarly, when I bow to a Buddha image, I am not bowing exclusively to Shakyamuni Gautama (“the Buddha”) as the only being who has ever been fully enlightened in this world-cycle. I bow to him, to all the teachers and practitioners who have brought his tradition forward to the present day (and changed it, and maybe sometimes improved it), and to the ultimate perfection (“Buddha Nature”) of all things.
Sojun Mel Wietsman, the former abbot of the SF Zen Center, said that hierarchy is an illusion at Zen Center, and I do not believe that for a second. I perceive that some people here have a lot more authority here, and most less. This eems natural to me – although saying that it doesn’t exist doesn’t seem natural at all.
I also do not believe that the hierarchy at Zen Center is strictly a reflection of how spiritually attained people are, as is sometimes claimed. Some who have authority and status here astound me with their spiritual clarity. I can think of folks who seem to me to be among the most confused people here and whose high position here mostly seems to be due to merely having been here for a long time.
I do not believe that perfect attendance to the schedule here for years is all that one needs to do to be enlightened, as we have been told. Following the strict monastic schedule seems like a profound practice with much to recommend it, but not all the people who have been around here for many years following the schedule fit my understanding of what a person making strong progress towards spiritual release looks like.
I do not believe that the proper role for a spiritual student is to always accept and obey everything a teacher says. I also do not believe that everything that a teacher does is somehow really a subtle and skillful teaching, no matter how off it may appear. I instead believe that the best orientation I can think of as a spiritual student is to accept what I hear that seems to make sense, to ask with an open mind and be patient about what doesn’t make sense, and – if something seems clearly off to me – to mark it down as either a reflection of the teacher’s imperfect humanity or as something that I am just not ready to understand.
Some of the formal, complicated, and ritual stuff here seems Japanese, not Buddhist. In other words, I think that Japan is a highly ritualized, highly formal culture, and Japanese Zen Buddhism reflects this formality – and because of this, certain ornate traditional practices in Japanese-lineage Zen monasteries like this one seem to be training us to be more like traditional formal Japanese people, and this is not necessary, or even helpful, towards the actual core Buddhist goal of spiritual development and liberation. Examples of this include perfectly merging with the group with no trace of individual preference, the idea of actualization through perfect performance of elaborate ceremony. Most of the time I don’t think this and/or it doesn’t bother me, but sometimes I do.
Also: ten years ago I read an article in the San Jose Mercury News that observed that wherever Buddhism has gone, it has merged with native religions to form a synthesized lineage of worship that is partially something new and is ultimately more native than what arrived. This was true in Tibet when Buddhism merged with their Bon religion, in Java and Bali when Buddhism merged with pre-existing Shiva cults, in China with Confucianism and especially Taoism, and in Japan with Shintoism. In America, the article asserted, Buddhism has become grafted onto psychotherapy, especially of the humanistic type, and left-wing politics, especially feminism. I see this latter merging often, for example, an assumption of a left-wing political stance in many of the discussions in the dining room during our off times, and I am uncomfortable with it. Sometimes, as a joke, I want to ask the Buddhists here to join me this summer for a veal dinner, an estate tax-relief letter writing campaign, and a trip to a gun show.
My discomfort is especially strong around feminism. The other day, we were taught that testosterone is part of the biggest block to enlightenment. Recently I have heard homilies to the Boddhisattvic virtues of Mary Daly (who just got kicked out of Boston University after two decades of not allowing men in her class) and Gloria Steinem, who alternatively seem like plain ol’ normal people with opinions to me, not especially Buddha-like. Also, the person here with perhaps the second highest rank (the Tanto) describes herself as a former “shrill” and “strident” feminist whose first thought in many situations is still “Power to women!”. Finally, the only real changes that have been made to the traditional Japanese service liturgy have been, one, to translate much of it into English and, two, to add female-reflecting elements. I feel uncomfortable with this vibe – especially since so much of this practice involves surrender, trust, and believing what one is told, even if one doesn’t agree, and I don’t consider myself feminist in many definitions of the word.
One purpose in writing the letter/emails to people is to be in communication, but another purpose come out of the assumption that being here and doing this intense Zen Buddhist practice is something extraordinary, valuable, and different, that it would be helpful to share with people. But as of right now, I don’t feel that, it seems like just another thing. I feel like my being here is more about becoming a good Buddhist than it is becoming a Buddha.
I was feeling dispirited, unenthused, and full of doubts when I originally wrote that. I am feeling differently now; I recognize the sentiment, but my feelings have changed. I suppose that having thoughts like those challenges me, and has me reground myself as to why I am here, what am I doing, and why do I find Buddhist practice valuable.
I heard a Tibetan Lama talking on the radio last year say that all Buddhist teaching can be summarized in one sentence: “Everything is connected; everything changes; pay attention” (I think that’s cheating and is more like three sentences, but, anyway). When I think about feeling as full of doubt as I was and feeling differently now, I feel pleased to note that I have indeed been paying attention, that I’ve noticed how my state of mind changed, and I am seeing some ways in which the two ways of seeing what’s going on may be connected and are connected to other events.
Reb, the teacher here, has been giving teachings about a central teaching of Buddhism, the lack of an inherently existing self. The aim has been for us, the monks, to look within ourselves and find a view that we hold of ourselves that exists independently and self-sufficiently, a self that is capable of either having been created or being destroyed. It seems to be one of those subtle Buddhist philosophical things – to say that we (people) either exist or don’t exist are both considered inaccurate. I suppose the simile that I have heard many times, a wave isn’t a thing separate from the ocean but it is simultaneously also kind of its own thing. At first these teachings annoyed me, for one thing they seemed too philosophical, but after listening to them for over a month now, I’ve come to find them valuable and relevant.
Just like when I was here last year, I am more and more realizing that Buddhism appears to have endless numbers of teachings and practices to learn, endless history and schools and historical figures to be familiar with, endless opportunities to practice, endless territory to unfold into. This is mostly pleasant for me to consider, it’s not like an overwhelmed feeling, although it is a little humbling.
A month into being here last year, I, for the most part, stopped going to evening service and dinner. Instead, I took a break from the end of work (4:15 pm) until the start of evening sitting (7:30 pm), and used the time to shower, read, write letters, or sleep (last year, I also talked with my friend Betsy a lot during dinner – she had a back injury and ate dinner in her cabin). I took on this behavior as a conscious choice, to use the time to do other things that I felt were important and did not seem to have time for, and continued to feel committed to showing up for the rest of the scheduled events. Also, I did make a habit of going to the dinner at specific times: during sesshin (all-day meditation), when I have been a food server, and every once in a while otherwise. I was recently confronted over my lack of dinner attendance by Reb, however. He told that he saw me as perfect whatever decision I made, but that if I continued to skip dinner, it could affect decisions about accepting me to future practice periods. In the two weeks since then, I have been going to dinner, and I find that I appreciate his straightforwardness.
Especially while being in my cabin while other people were at dinner, I have read a lot. As is always true, I’ve also started a bunch of books and then decided that I didn’t want to read them and so stopped. A while ago, a book I finished was “Thoughts Without A Thinker”, the synthesis of psychotherapy and Buddhism, which I really liked. I have re-read a history of Buddhism that I read as an university textbook ten years ago. I thought that it was boring back then but found it riveting now – huge monasteries with tens of thousands of monks, Muslim invaders burning temples and executing monks, charismatic free-thinkers starting their own offshoot sects, an ever changing evolution. I have been reading the spiritual best-seller “A Path With Heart” by Jack Kornfield, some chapters of which I found deep and some a little pastel-colored annoying. In conjunction with sewing my rakusu, in preparation for the jukai (lay ordination) ceremony, I read two books on the Buddhist moral precepts: “Good Life” by Cheri Huber, and “For A Future To Be Possible” by Thich Nhat Hanh. I liked both of them more than I thought I would.
I like to read books that give simple nuts-and-bolts instructions for “how to do spiritual things”, for example how to meditate. In this vein, I also read a book called “How to Meditate”, which was simple but which I also liked a lot, I liked how straightforward and direct it was. It was written by an American-born Tibetan nun who wrote the book when she was about thirty. Especially hard-hitting was a chapter she wrote on a traditional Tibetan meditation on death, where one sits and contemplates, over the course of nine separate meditation sessions, the ideas that (1) everyone has to die, (2) your lifespan is decreasing constantly, (3) the amount of time spent during your life to develop your mind is very small, (4) human life-expectancy is uncertain, (5) there are many causes of death, (6) the human body is fragile, (7) your possessions and enjoyments cannot help you as you die, (8) other people cannot help you as you die, and (9) your body cannot help you as you die. This chapter further talked about how thinking about death in this way helps one to appreciate and make use of life. I found this chapter especially to be absorbing and valuable.
Living with Kendra has been intense and deep, as living with another person’s humanness seems to be, especially here in the monastery. Intense stuff seems to happen between us, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so much, but there is often not time to talk about it – there’s some event that is scheduled right away. All in all, I feel that these last three months have subtly, slowly, and powerfully brought us together, although there have been times when I’ve wondered if they have been subtly, slowing, and powerfully pulling us apart, or both together and apart simultaneously, or maybe neither. IT’S A MYSTERY.
Speaking of Kendra and speaking of deep: I feel that being here in relationship has smoothed out my experience of being here in the monastery, as opposed to being here alone last year. I have felt fewer lows, perhaps because I have someone to talk to and connect with, and to share pleasant human interaction with. But I have also felt fewer mystical highs, perhaps because I have been talking or otherwise communicating and generally generating from my social personality instead of continuing the meditation after the final event of the night and during other silent times. I still feel like I have been experiencing deep samadhi (concentration) states at times, having insights and experiencing transformation. It may be related that my dreams have been intense and vivid and I seem to be remembering them more often than I usually do. Also, creative ideas seem to emerge at various times, a number ideas of song compositions during the nine-day sesshin, and forty pages of notes for a book manuscript last week, they just started one day and then stopped five days later.
The bathrooms next to the meditation hall (zendo) here have been off limits since the second week of practice period, because of an overflowing septic tank. This has meant longer trips to the old bathhouse bathrooms or the courtyard ones when the need has arisen between events in the zendo – which has meant hurrying to get back before the next sitting period starts. Hustle up to plop down and sit still for forty minutes!
It is pleasant how warm the air has been, and how clear the skies. On days off, when I have run up the road in to Carmel Valley (I’ve been running half-way to the top, or, once, all the way) it has gotten to be really hot by early afternoon, and Bert Dyer (who I’ve been running with) and I have started leaving earlier in the day. On days in which I swim, however, I have enjoyed that the air has been warm before and after getting in the pool (rather than shivering, like I was two months ago).
We had a skit night here at the last night of February, which was the only time since I got here that I’ve still been awake past ten pm. I did a comedy routine, ten minutes of funny stories from my various SF Zen center residences. For example, I pointed out that here at Tassajara, there is a wet/dry shop vacuum cleaner and a larger number of hair clippers – but, for all of them, we have literally apparently lost all our attachments. Everyone laughed a lot at each joke, it was pleasant. At the end of my skit, I told a story from three years ago where I was in practice discussion with my teach Ryoshin Paul Haller. I advanced the question as to whether we were maybe wasting our time in the mediation hall each morning, what good was it doing us, maybe Nietzsche was right when he said that strong, dominant people thrive and wins while the weak, unable to compete person turn to religion and morality as solace, and that maybe the thing to do was to go out there and really live. He looked and me and didn’t reply. I felt uncomfortable. Time passed, and he still didn’t respond. I felt more uncomfortable. Finally, he asked me, “This chain of thoughts, did it start while you were breathing in or while you were breathing out?”
The night ended with a Grateful Dead medley singalong, many people knew the words (including people I wouldn’t have expected), which was strange for me. Back in my days in an alternative high school, there were the Deadheads and there were the black-clothes wearers, and we had something of a rivalry, and I was unmistakably on the goth/punk side of the divide.
Buddhism seems to teach that most of us think that we are making choices based on free will, but that much or most (and, in some pessimistic schools, all) of what are minds consist of are what we’ve encountered before coming up again. The more I settle down here and become aware of my mind, for example, I am more aware of the songs that are going through my head each moment than usual – and, occasional creative ideas aside, they are all songs I’ve heard before, a aural memory of a past listening event re-arising. Perhaps part of it is that I can’t just respond to an urge to hear a song by actually listening to it on a stereo like I do at home – the urge and the song in my head just come and go and that’s it, and that’s what I am aware of, not any actual present-time listening. In any event, I find a unexplained sadness come over me at times here, I am not sure why. Maybe it is a sadness because my mind if so clear right now and I can see how often, for so much of the rest of my life back in civilization, it isn’t clear. I find that slow sad songs often come into my head at that time (“Tenderhook” by the eighties Scottish funk-pop band Orange Juice, “Let Down” by Radiohead, and “Shine a Light” by Spiritualized). Also among the top hits going through my head have been “Generals and Majors” by XTC, “American Girl” by Tom Petty, and “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night” by Kiss, none of which are slow and none of which are sad.
We have a final sesshin, a seven day starting in three days (the twenty-fifth). I turn thirty-one on the thirty-first, the last day of the sesshin. I will then be here four more days, until the morning of April Four. My aim is then to spend five days in the city unpacking and repacking and taking a communication skills workshop, and then drive to San Diego, to my parent’s house, and be there for ten days. Kendra and I have plane tickets to fly to Mexico on April twenty-firsr, returning three weeks later. Our itinerary begins with Xalapa, a city I went to two years ago, and where two of Kendra’s best friends are studying. After a week there we plan to go to the Yucatan for a week and then Belize for a week. I will check my email a bunch of times before I go, so any responses containing input about travel to those destinations (places to go, things to do, etc) is welcome.
I have some concern about travelling in Mexico so soon after being here. When I left here last year, I felt so open and sensitive, as if just waking up from a nap or after having done one of my friend’s Jerry and Guy’s intense holotropic breathwork workshops. I was amazed at how sensitive I was to other people’s energy – I don’t usually notice how angry, lonely, deadened, giddy people on the street and supermarket are, how much intense stuff is going on around me – I think that I am usually more focused on where I am going and doing the next thing. I am imagining that, being in that open, sensitive state, being in some of the bus stations and other parts of Mexican cities that are so intense will require intentionality. Also, last year when I left, I remember that I was so focused, productive, and able to make rapid progress on projects that I had earlier been resisting because of their unpleasantness, that I now feel drawn to work on creative projects (music and writing) when I leave here and am in that focused state, rather than going to travel. However, I will do some of that stuff before I go, and I do want to do this trip before I have a job, and then get a job, and start earning money again. My aim is to get a job doing C++ (or C, or Java) programming for audio technologies, either software or web applications in San Francisco or North Peninsula. Please email with any suggestions or leads in this direction. Back on the wheel ….
There is a priest ordination at Green Gulch on Saturday April 8th, Reb will be ordaining Bert Dyer, Helen Appell, and Roberta Werdinger, and I plan to be there for it. Please contact me if you plan to attend or know someone who does, and would like to carpool. Kelly and Eden, I hope to see you that day at the Gulch.
Also: Kendra is moving to San Francisco and is looking for a room in a house. Rent under $500 per month is ideal, location in the East half of the city is considerably better than the West, and living with pleasant people is preferable to axe-murderers. Please email me or call my voicemail with any suggestions or leads.
“At the very deepest place that I can look – which is not to be confused with the truth on the matter – I cannot see a place in Buddhism for social activism. Because that has to be based on the assumption that there is something wrong, that something *needs* to be done. As an individual, I may be particularly moved by the plight of the orphans in Uganda, and I may choose to spend my like working with them, but that is vastly different from something *needing* to be done about a problem. Here, centered in the moment, there are no problems.”
— Cheri Huber
“To generate an experience of death’s inevitability, first bring to mind people from the past: famous rulers and writers, musicians, philosophers, saints, criminals, and ordinary people. These people were once alive – they worked, thought and wrote; they loved and fought enjoyed life and suffered. And finally they died. Is there anyone who ever lived who did not have to die … Life is short. Death can happen at any time, and to die without having undertaken the only work that has any lasting benefit, either to ourselves or to others, would be highly regrettable. The present life and all its experiences are fleeting; clinging to anything in this world is like chasing a rainbow. If we keep this in mind constantly we will not waste time on insignificant pursuits but spend it wisely, avoiding what is negative and the cause of unhappiness, and cultivating what is positive and the cause of happiness”
— Kathleen McDonald