Friday, May 27, 2011

1-Day Sitting Schedule: Annotated Version

4:35 Wake-up Bell ends - Someone in the guest house had already made coffee, for which I am very grateful

4:50 1st Bell - Yes, 4:50AM, head to the zendo immediately, try to find the right door, in the dark

5:00 SITTING - In the dark, watching the zendo get lighter slowly

5:40 Walking - So very slowly, one step at a time

5:50 SITTING - more light coming in, more awake after the walk

6:30 Morning Service - we're chanting what now? on which page?

7:00 Soji (temple cleaning) - stayed behind for breakfast instruction

7:20 BREAKFAST - went okay, missed the wash cycle

8:15 Rest - no meditating after you eat

9:00 1st Bell- back to it

9:10 SITTING - getting the hang of this

9:50 Set up for Talk - turns out you're not supposed to stack the seat-thingys

10:00 DHARMA TALK - "you may be wondering, what did I sign up for?" well, now that you mention it…

11:10 Walking - fast, on a loop through the zendo and out alongside the pond, saw a blue heron in the yard being harassed by a red-winged blackbird

11:20 SITTING - did I just see that?

12:00 Noon Service - still needed help with the chant book

12:15 LUNCH - achievement unlocked: clean your bowl

1:10 Rest - almost an hour, but no talking, reading or writing

2:00 1st Bell - back in the box

2:10 SITTING- support cushions, how do they work?

2:40 Walking - sweet relief

2:50 SITTING - support cushions really working

3:20 TEA - and COOKIE! OMFB a cookie

3:45 Rest - legs really need a stretch, nice to be outside

4:00 1st Bell - OK almost there

4:10 SITTING - support cushions helping

4:35 Walking - so very slowly

4:45 SITTING - who let the monkey in here?

5:10 Walking - only one session left, almost there

5:20 SITTING - can't really feel legs anymore

5:50 Evening Service - actually found the chants by myself

6:00 DINNER (in dining room) - thanks, but i really need to get in my car and put on some loud music now

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zen and the Brain: MIT and Harvard neuroscientists investigate the benefits of meditation

Yet another MBSR brain scanning study came back with good results, it was a small group (the scans are expensive) but they saw the expected results:

The subjects trained in meditation also reported that they felt less stress than the non-meditators. “Their objective condition might not have changed, but they’re not as reactive to their situation,” Kerr says. “They’re more able to handle stress.”

I got back into meditation via an MBSR course at work, it was a great re-introduction and motivated me to start up a daily meditation practice, but I found it a little too secularized and lacking in long term support systems. Meditation practice can be difficult, and having a supporting community and an experienced teacher are very helpful for long term practice.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

独参 Dokusan

Dokusan (独参) is a formal meeting with a Zen teacher, typically a priest who has received Dharma Transmission from their own master. The point of dokusan for the student is to get instruction on how to move forward with their practice, how to keep progressing towards, well, nothing.

I scheduled a meeting after my first one-day sit, because I had some questions about my experience and wanted to know what steps to take next. That meeting was at 6:30 in the morning at Green Gulch—apparently you have to get up early to catch a zen master—so I booked a room overnight, got up at 4:30 for the first siting period in the zendo, left at the first walking break and wandered around in the misty foggy morning for a few minutes before the appointed time.

What goes on in a dokusan meeting is private, variable to the student's needs, and for an outside observer probably not that interesting. What is interesting are the forms for a teacher interview, which vary from temple to temple, even in Japan. I did some reading ahead of time and found the following in D. T. Suzuki's, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism:

…seeing the master does not take place openly; the monk is required to go individually to the master's room, where the interview takes place in a most formal and solemn manner. When the monk is about to cross the threshold, he makes three bows, each time prostrating himself on the floor; he now enters the room keeping his hands palm to palm in front of his chest, and when he comes near the master he kneels down and makes still another prostration.

This ceremony over, no further worldly considerations are entertained; if necessary from the Zen point of view, even blows may be exchanged.

D. T. Suzuki was principally concerned with Rinzai Zen, which differs in it's forms from Soto Zen as practiced at the Zen Center. Fortunately there is an excellent description of the forms for dokusan as imparted by Shunryu Suzuki in Crooked Cucumber:

[Suzuki Roshi] gave dokusan in the congregation's office at the bottom of the stair. When it was Betty's turn for dokusan, she sat zazen in the hall until she heard Suzuki's handbell ringing to announce that it was her turn. She fluffed her cusion, bowed, and slowly walked into the office. There Suzuki sat on a zafu facing an empty zafu a few feet in front of him. Behind him was a little altar that had been set up for the dokusan, with a candle that provided most of the light in the room. Following the procedure Suzuki had taught them, Betty bowed upon entering the room and did three full bows [prostrations] before Suzuki.

Similar, but there are some differences, the number of bows, the use of the bell, when to gassho, etc.. Of course, all that reading left me somewhat over-prepared. The forms for my teacher meeting were abbreviated versions, I was ready to prostrate myself but only bell ringing and gassho bows were required.

However, the fundimental form of teacher and student meeting face to face is unchanged. The heart of the process is the same and the forms are only there to create the right atmosphere. The forms of Zen are empty of meaning but critical to set the stage and prepare the mind, they exist to create a situation where you are bound to make mistakes, where you are forced over and over to retreat to your beginners mind.

Like the precepts, forms are made to be broken, they represent a goal which is impossible to attain but which we can always aspire to. To quote Suzuki Roshi:

"Every thing you do is right, nothing you do is wrong, yet you must still make ceaseless effort.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Awkward, Confused, Overcome

If I had to pick three words for how it felt to do a full day meditation retreat for the first time, those are the three.

I'm a big fan of Socially Awkward Penguin, for me it's some of the most relatablehumor out there. So when you come back from there, imagine someone who thinks of themselves as a little awkward to start with in situation with strict formal rules and traditions, all infused with deep significance, from a culture that is not your own. I felt like I was constantly making errors, because I was, every little thing has a right way and a wrong way: which side of the cushion to be on, which mudra, facing which direction relative to the assembly or your cushion. The inside of the zendo is a highly scripted performance, and you can't spectate, excepting by reading accounts, so participating for the first time is bound to be awkward.

The three chanting services provided the most confusing part of the day, some ofthe content is phonetically transcribed japanese, some is english, some may be phonetic pali, i'm not sure. There's an announcer who reads the titles before you chant them but if you don't know that and you look clueless enough the teachers assistant turns the pages for you the first couple of times. I figured it out by the last service. A lot of the smaller verses, especially at meal time, don't get announced so if you're a regular, memorization is key for those.

Breakfast and lunch in the zendo turned out to be a treat, I was focused on the forms and followed along pretty well for breakfast, but missed the wash water and had not perfectly clean dishes for lunch. The kit includes a little spatula for 'licking' the bowl in a dignified manner, to make sure you get everything out of the meal. The wash water is you beverage for that meal, drink about a third as part of the ceremony, drain about a third into the buckets, and save the last portion to drink after. I dumped all my water after drinking a small portion and didn't have enough for the toast after wards. The food was really excellent, simple hearty, portions just right for a light day of sitting and walking.

At the end of the day I left before dinner, feeling a little overcome at the scale of the thing. After years of on and off solo mediation this is a bit like running a marathon both in terns of the physical demands of sitting for more than 12 hours and the demands on concentration and focus. Thankfully, there are slow and fast walking breaks built into the program, which help to ease the physical strain of sitting. I tried to stay in the zendo as much as possible and follow along, there was a lot of helpful correction along the way as well as good examples sitting all around you, especially during the meals you can sort of follow along for the most part.

What goes on in the zendo is a highly choreographed experience, with the goal being to break you completely out of your everyday mind and absorb it into contemplation of the present moment. The forms force you out of habit and daily convention and into strictly stereotyped roles, it removes a few of the 10,000 things that come up in our minds moment to moment so that we can see more clearly into the murky water of the self. For me, as a beginner, it was Monkey Mind all day long, swinging from the rafters of the zendo while I sat still as a stone.
So after all that, what could have possibly been worth the physical pain, the anxiety, the otherworldliness of it all? Not sure I have an answer to that but I'm seriously considering the upcoming 3 Day Sesshin at City Center next month.

Yoga Pants

I honestly never though it would come to this. Dressing up in a duck mask and a blue robe for Buddha's Birthday was one thing, but by actually purchasing yoga pants, i've clearly crossed a line.

While I'm a little surprised at my purchase, for sitting zazen you need something that's not flashy, covers the legs, doesn't constrict and will be comfortable for the entire day. Yoga pants with a pair of compression shorts fit the bill and are easily obtained at the local sporting goods shoppe.

Traditional monks robes, or koromo, are rather expensive, take time to acquire and somewhat difficult to wear, though they are very well suited to sitting. Doing ōryōki for the first time should be sufficiently challenging, no need to further complicate things.

Contemplating a full day of contemplation

I signed up for a full day meditation retreat at Green Gulch Farm, I'll be staying overnight in consideration of the schedule starting at 4:35 AM. There are nine periods of sitting meditation with some walking, service, dharma talks and eating in between. Each sitting period is at least 40 minutes, which makes for a pretty full day of staring at a wall.

In preparation I've been reading specific sections from D.T. Suzuki'sAn Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which includes a detailed description of the most anxiety inducing part of the day: BREAKFAST. It's right there in the schedule, in ALL CAPS. For good reason, breakfast in the zendo is no idle affair. First, you'll need the special bowls:

The bowls which each brings are made of wood or paper and are well lacquered, the are usually four of five in number and fit into on another like a nest.

There's an entire hand gesture protocol for getting more rice once you've finished your first helping, apparently you need to be able to negotiate this in order to get a reasonable meal in the zendo:

When another bowl of rice is wanted, the monk holds out his folded hands, the waiter notices it and sits with the rice receptacle before the hungry one; the latter take up his bowl, lightly passes his hand around the bottom to wipe off whatever dirt may have attached itself and be likely to soil the hand of the waiter.

Once you've gone through this process three of four times, it's time to do the dishes. No getting up and going to the kitchen from the zendo though, you'll be washing up right where you are:

…the waiters bring hot water; each monk fills his larges bowl with it and in it all the other bowls are neatly washed and wiped with the tiny napkin which is carried by him. Then a wooden pail goes around to receive the slop

I'll apparently need a tiny napkin, really should be keeping a list. This description completely explains the hesitation in the voice of the guy taking my reservation "it's your first time? You should really consider the tray, it's much simpler…"

Zen and Neuroscience

I attened the Zen and Neuroscience workshop at San Francisco Zen Center , April 23, 2011. The topic has always interested me and Philippe is an active researcher in the field as well as a Buddhist practitioner with a wealth of knowledge to share. it was also an opportunity to meet the Abbot, Ryushin Paul Haller and to experience my first full-day event.

There were some technical difficulties with the recording and setup but you can listen to all of last year's version of the talk. Besides the lecture we did a number of mindfulness exercises and a few listening and compassion exercises, working with a group that seemed to mostly consist of psychiatric practitioners as well as a few odd interested parties like myself.

My  take away is similar to Shudo's: neuroscience is just catching up with 2500 years of inquiry into the workings of our minds by Buddhists monks and scholars. Throughout the day I kept coming back to the first passage ot the Dhammapada:

DHP 1: What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of the mind.

It's exciting to see how rapidly the understanding of our minds is growing, and to have the efficacy of meditation validated by this rigorous inquiry. I was left with a clear impression of the benefits of Zazen both for expanding our awareness and support of physical health. I'll be doing a one-day sit as soon as I have a chance.

Buddha's Birthday: Green Gulch Farm Edition

I posted previously about Buddha’s Birthday celebration at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center. It was my first time seeing the pageantry and hearing the story of Buddha’s birth, my first time chanting the heart sutra, all together a good introduction for the celebration at Green Gulch Farm.

Green Gulch Farm is a very different place than the City Center, it's just over the hill from Mill Valley on CA 1, tucked into a valley above Muir Beach. It's wonderfully accessible from San Francisco and really feels like you are in a different world. Just walking onto the property always makes me feel more relaxed and in the moment.

Every sunday they have a public program, including Zazen, a Dharma Talk and tea, similar to the Saturday program at the City Center. On the first Sunday of the month there is a children's program, which i have been taking Lilly, my 6 year old daughter to for the past four months. The last few months they have been making duck masks and practicing for the duck dance in the Buddha's Birthday celebration which was this past Sunday, May 1st.

Quite by accident I got involved in the Pageant this year and signed up as the duck manager—you have to be careful who you offer to help carry art supplies back to their car, they might be looking for 'volunteers'—and got to experience the celebration from the other side, as compared to my experience as a spectator at City Center a few weeks before.

Rehearsal on Saturday was a lot of work, but it was also a great opportunity to meet some long time members of the community and enjoy Green Gulch on a beautiful sunny day. Being duck wrangler was a lot of fun, the kids where a real treat to hang out with and seeing a dozen of them looking up at you from behind little duck masks before you go on stage, well, it's hard to beat that.

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Buddha's Birthday: City Center Edition

Every culture more than a few degrees north or south of the equator has a spring festival. If you grew up in, say, a christian household that means Easter, with it's odd mix of old European pagan fertility symbols (the bunny, eggs and maypole) and the crucifixion story from the bible.

For Japanese Buddhists, and adherents to that tradition here in America, Buddha's Birthday, is celebrated on or around April or May 8th. Traditional activities include the decoration of a small temple which houses a baby buddha statue, which is then bathed in sweet tea. The heart sutra is chanted the story of buddha's birth is read aloud.

I got to do all this for the first time, at San Francisco Zen Center, on April 9th, 2011. I'm a member there and a follower of the Ino's Blog, who posts regularly on life as a resident and meditation hall manager. I've really enjoyed having a view in on the day to day life of a resident, and though it would be interesting to chronicle my involvement. So here we are.

Zen Beginner

Where to start: right where we are, in this moment right now.

It's easy enough to write that down but harder, much harder, to live in this moment.

This is what I hope to learn, how to be in the moment with myself and the world. How to let go of my delusions and see clearly, how to step away from my habits and into a spontaneous life.

In short, this is the story of one student's path through Zen.