Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great Faith and Great Courage

When I did my first one day sit, which seems like forever ago, the talk was something about having Great Faith and Great Something, can't quite remember what. I'm gonna go with Courage:


After having a rough day on Saturday I went up to the farm for the Sunday program and signed up for the Seven Day Sesshin with Reb Anderson. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Taking Refuge in the Sanga

I take refuge in the Buddha

I take refuge in the Dharma

I take refuge in the Sanga

I could write a whole article about the refuges, but here's the important thing: since coming back from Green Gulch for the week I've gotten up every morning and done at least three full prostrations while reciting them, usually nine. Even if I don't have time or won't make time to sit I do the bows every morning before leaving the house, religiously, if you will.

So, in light of my breakdown on Saturday and Shundo's very sweet response I wanted to write something about the critical importance of the Sanga to deepening practice.

Serious meditation practice is difficult, facing the wall you are left to face yourself, and that's hard practice on it's own. Sidhartha achieved enlightenment after sitting under a tree by himself for eight days, this after years of studying with various gurus and attempting different practices. But it's what he did afterwards that makes Buddhism what it is: he created a community of monks and dedicated the rest of his life to transmitting what he discovered and forming the sanga which carries on to this day, now diversified into myriad schools which vary in the details of their methods but all with a singular goal: to free humanity from suffering.

The first two refuges speak to the achievement and the compassion of the Buddha, the attainment of enlightenment and the desire to share it with the world. But the third is maybe the most important. Enlightenment is all well and good but the real challenge of human existence is maintaing that feeling of connectedness in the face of all the suffering that exists in the world and in relating to other people. You can't really learn about who you are without other people around to bump into, to come into conflict with, to challenge your equanimity and composure, to trigger your desires and obsessions, to get under your skin in ways you didn't know someone else could do.

At the same time, the practice is so challenging and at times difficult that it takes a singular person to achieve the goal on their own, which is why having the support of a community around you is critical. I practiced meditation for years on my own and have read all kinds of dharma but without the encouragement of a community that's also engaged n the same practice it's hard to make real progress, especially if you can't remove yourself from the world to sit and contemplate your life.

How is your meditation today?

So, Saturday when I said there was no Zazen for me I wasn't being quite accurate: there wasn't any Zazen until I went and sat in the hall. I had been floating all day at the surface of that ocean of suffering, bobbing about, uncomfortable, maybe a little seasick. As much as it stung in the moment to be asked to go sit outside it was a great gift to be thrown off the raft, to jump into the first noble truth and be immersed in it.

I couldn't do that in the Zendo, my concern for maintaing the form and my own composure wouldn't allow me to really be there with the suffering under the surface, my attachment to the forms had become a fetter and were holding me back from seeing the reality of myself: the insecurity, the loneliness, the feelings of inadequacy, the seemingly endless failures of everyday life, struggling with being a single parent, my obsessive attachments, feelings of rejection, worthlessness, embarrassment and remorse. All that's in there, and ignoring it doesn't make it go away, only facing it and learning to abide with it will bring it to an end, and to do that you need the compassion and kindness of your fellow travelers.

Most descriptions I've seen of the use of the Keisaku involve a sort of disclaimer: it doesn't really hurt and the administration of the stick is really an act of compassion for the meditator who's having trouble centering themselves. Sure it stings, but it releases the shoulder muscles and focuses the attention in a way that is hard to replicate with words. As much as it hurt me in the moment to be asked to leave it was in fact an act of great compassion, I was given permission to go out and really be with myself for a few minutes, a chance to cut through my own defenses and spend some time with feelings that I almost never allow myself to admit to, because it's uncomfortable to sit and face that kind of suffering.

After having a couple of days to think it over, to feel it out, I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn something critically important about myself: that I can sit in the midst of my pain and come out the other side in one piece. It's gifts like these that make the Sanga such a critical component of awakening, they are there to guide you, to support you and to push you forward even when it's not immediately apparent thats what's really going on.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Go Sit in the Hall

"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lesions from God"

- Kurt Vonnegut

So, there I was Thursday at work, killing some time reading the Ino's Blog and I notice that there's a one-day sitting on Saturday. Well, I was planning on going for the early sit and service before the lecture anyway so why not make a day of it? Registration deadline was Wednesday, but I figured it was worth a quick call to the office to see if they had space, and I lucked out.

I Suck at Soji

I had the day off work Friday for a couple of appointments, so I got up at first bell and drove down to City Center for the Full Moon Ceremony. It was my first and I'm going to write up a longer article with some details but I got there just before the ceremony, sat for a few minutes in the Gaitan, which is the hallway leading into the Zendo where you sit if you arrive after the Zendo is closed or if you have to leave a sitting early, so your coming and going won't interrupt the meditation in progress.

After Service there's Soji, temple cleaning, I lucked out and got to help setup the Zendo for the sit the next day. We had to take some straw mats and zabutans from the Ino's Closet (I always wondered what was in there…) and lay out the temporarily middle row of seats for a busy Saturday. But my head wasn't in it and I made a few mistakes: walking out the priest's entrance to the zendo, in only my socks into a 'shoes on' zone to get cushions and when i came back i walked right past the altar without even thinking about it. I've done the altar thing once before when returning a zafu but nobody saw me that time.

Defining Dokusan

Turns out that there's two types of teacher interview at Zen Center; you can have practice discussion with any number of senior sanga members, many of whom have received transmission or you can have a formal Dokusan with an Abbot or Senior Dharma Teacher, who I believe were all Abbots at one time. The forms for getting in and out of the room differ a bit, but they're different between Green Gulch and City Center in the first place: there's a full bow before the Abbot before and after the interview instead of the standing gassho bow for a practice discussion.

As I said in my last article, the contents of Dokusan are private, but I will share that I felt like I totally failed the interview. Paul kept asking one simple question: How is your Zazen today? For the life of me I simply couldn't answer, I was so caught up in various anxieties and memories that there really wasn't any Zazen for me that day, I just sat on the cushion and let my run away while I waited for the next service or work period so that I could get off that damn cushion and go do something.

Sitting and doing nothing wasn't happening, no backwards step, no clear mind, I couldn't even sit still. My legs ached all day long and I was constantly adjusting my position. It was by far the hardest day in the Zendo so far, and it was shorter than several days I've put in the the past.

Last Sit

Sitting was so hard, and I was so fidgety that after the kinhin break and before settling into the last sitting session of the day one of my neighbors leaned over and whispered "excuse me", I don't remember exactly how he phrased it but the message was pretty clear: You're being disruptive, go sit in the Gaitan for this session.

So, I grabbed my cushion and headed out of the Zendo the bell, sat seza on my cushion and just started crying and kept going for basically the entire last sitting period. I felt like I'd failed at being a good student, that I wasn't good at anything, a lot of stuff came out, and a lot of it ended up on my sleeve. It was sort of the exact opposite of my Oryoki Incident from last month, instead of having an ecstatic emotional release I was dropped into the ocean of suffering and had to just tread water until the bell for the last service.

The last service was hard, there were still tears streaming down my face, my nose was congested and a couple of times I felt like falling over or fainting when getting back up from a bow, my voice was rough in the chanting and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go to dinner afterwards or just go home and feel sorry for myself.

I ended up staying for dinner, and had a nice chat with a relative newcomer who had come over from a Rinzai temple, I told her about my experience and she related the form at her pervious temple: they yell "Second Zendo" at you in front of everyone and you have to leave. That's after they've hit you with the Keisaku. I'm really not sure which would have been more painful.

Update: Please read the follow-up if you make it all the way down here.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Friday

Friday: Home for a Day

I started this series nearly six months ago and I'm itching to wrap it up. So here's what I remember most about Friday: Swearing at people in traffic.

Yup, before I even got to the Golden Gate Bridge, I clearly remember having a few choice words for someone who wasn't driving quite fast enough for me. One whole week off the road and it took all of five minutes to get right back into rage mode.


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Friday, July 15, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Thursday

Thursday: Back in the Kitchen

By Thursday the daily rhythm of life on the farm starts to settle in. You get up with the wake up bell, sit for two sessions, have morning service, do soji, break for breakfast, and after breakfast is work meeting. At work meeting the Guest Student Manager goes around the circle and checks in with arrivals and departures, senior staff makes announcements, any exceptions to the daily schedule are announced, and there is some time at the end for general announcements.

A Riot at Work Meeting

One morning (to be honest I'm not sure it was Thursday) there was an outbreak of unrest. Durning the general announcement someone mentioned that the internet hadn't been working the last day or two. There was a murmur of agreement around the circle, a low group chorus of disappointment and anxiety over being cut off from the outside world.

Now, even when the Internet is working at the farm there is very little bandwidth available. More than 100 people share a single link that would be embarrassingly slow just five miles away. There are signs all over about restrictions: no downloading movies, no streaming video, strict bandwidth limits are enforced. It's a precious resource here, just over the hill from the bustling heart of silicon valley a small farm and the community of Muir Beach rely on a single commercial backhaul connection which tops out at ~ 3Mb/s.

The lack of bandwidth is one of the reasons I go to the farm, besides the slow internet it's also just outside of the various cellular networks. A hike to the ridge or beach puts you back on the grid but within the confines of the valley you're in an RF free zone (except for the Wi-Fi mesh network used to distribute the meager uplink). For someone who spends their working days on the edge of info-shock, constantly consuming and synthesizing large amounts of information from across the global internet and regurgitating parts of it onto social networks (and blogs!) and gleaning the best bits for personal or professional development, having a quiet space is important, probably necessary, to long term sanity.

But for the residents, especially the children who didn't really decide to live here, having a link to the outside world is probably just as important if not more, than my refuge. I come here to get out of the world for a minute, to turn down the volume on the information cascade I spend my days immersed in. I may have only really realized it but the silence is a gift, and seeing the other side of that makes it clear how profound our relationship with communication is. And for people who've chosen to remove themselves from the world, but who don't live in Tassajara where electronics are strongly discouraged (there's very little power, it's a harsh environment, and aren't you there to get away from that), the thin thread of connection back to family, friends, other practitioners around the world is a critical lifeline.

So, despite sort of enjoying the blackout I offered to help out, but didn't get called into service. Maybe next time… The internet came back later that day and things got back to normal. In the mean time I continue to keep up with current and former residents on Facebook, they're all over it (even the Tanto ;).


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Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Wednesday

Wednesday: Pond Cleaning

When they got pond cleaning for their work assignment on Wednesday one of the Guest Students was a little apprehensive about going out on a boat so we swapped she went to help out in the kitchen while I went with the rest of the gang down to the pond to pull up some weeds. To accomplish this we used a small aluminum boat, a raft and some rakes that we borrowed from the Farm Crew. I remembered that there was rain gear in my car (where was that yesterday?) and went to grab it even though the weather was much better and it really wasn't necessary.

Pretty quickly we had a bit of an informal competition going between boats, to see who could rake in more weeds. The recommended technique is to put the rake down in the water and swirl it around, like you're trying to pickup a fork full of spaghetti. After comparing our respective loads at lunch time we were all determined to do better in the afternoon and out harvest the other team. As a Guest Practice Retreatant, I wasn't on the hook to go back and work in the afternoon but they would have been one short to crew the boats and the teams would have been split so there really wasn't much choice, it was for the benefit of all beings, except maybe the weeds.

Rake Overboard

My partner and I were in the small boat, besides the rakes we had oars for getting around, the raft used a bamboo punt stick to navigate and hold it's position. Over the course of the afternoon we drifted apart a bit and worked on different parts of the pond, going where the weeding looked most productive. At one point one of our rakes stuck in the mud and was sticking up out of the muck, we had to paddle over to it to get it back into the boat, bit of a close call.

A few minutes later we heard a commotion from across the pond, so we paddled over to discover that the raft crew had lost a rake in deeper water, and it was nowhere to be found. Remember, these are the farms rakes and we were working with a member of the garden crew, so loosing one was a bit of a big deal, the farmers weren't going to let us forget it if we lost one of their rakes. There was a lot of searching, we pulled up all the weeds in the general area and tried to locate the submerged rake, after about ten minutes the raft crew decided to head back so that one of them could change into something more suitable for swimming.

While they were over at the bank my partner in the boat and I continued to search around, and finally I hit it! Leaning over the front of the boat and probing around with my rake I found the submerged one, it's wooden handle floating off the bottom and the iron rake head keeping it on the pond floor. I tried to reach over, almost flooding the boat in the process, after a few minutes of poking at it the course of action was pretty clear. I stripped out of my rain gear and handed my glasses over to my co-pilot, and with a quick "Shikata ga nai" was over the side and into the pond.

The pond is cold and the water is a bit murky, especially after having been stirred up by all the weed pulling. I hopped in and it was way over my head, after coming back up for air I held onto the boat and searched around with my feet until I had the rake between them and could pull it up. Rake retrieved we paddled back over to the cheering raft crew, not only did we save them a swim the farm crew wouldn't have anything to hold over our heads afterwords.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Tuesday

Tuesday: Composting

As much as I enjoyed working in the kitchen, one of my goals for the week was to get out and do some physical work on the farm. So when we heard that we were going to help with composting on Tuesday I was pretty excited. Even if it was raining a little, and all I had on was my jeans and a light windbreaker.

The task, is to build a layer cake of organic material that will be hot-composted down to organic fertilizer for the farm. The recipe has an adorable mnemonic "Farm Girls Must Sing", each of the letters is an ingredient: Food Waste, Green Waste, Manure and Something else I can't recall. The food waste comes out of buckets, the same we'd been putting our trimmings into during yesterday's kitchen work. Green waste was some cleared brush from a field, which was pitchforked onto the pile. Manure, thankfully, is handled entirely by the tractor, which works from a larger pile and scoops up enough for a layer. The paper towels from the kitchen and bathrooms are composted as well. Durning the composting process the pile is turned several times and heats up high enough to sterilize the pathogens in the manure.

Once the buckets of food waste have been emptied they need to be rinsed, then scrubbed with a brush, and the rinsed again. There were a lot of buckets, and they still had plenty of organic matter in them. Near then end I was so tired that I carelessly dropped the hose. The nozzle landed on the handle and sent an arc of water into the air and directly onto my head. I'd already turned my back and was just thinking, "wow, the rain really picked up, hope it's not long before we head back!" when the farm intern I was working with came over and turned off the rain.

By the time we were finished I was soaking wet, cold, tired and covered with rotten vegetables. The buckets had all been cleaned stacked and loaded into the truck. It was a relief to be excused for lunch and start the hike back up the hill. At the end of the morning, there was a sense of both connection to the kitchen work on Monday and accomplishment at what we had achieved together. The compost pile was taller than any of us and bigger than all of us together.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our emotional pain, anxiety and other problematic mental formations that we forget about good old fashioned physical discomfort. Composting in the rain with inadequate gear really clears that up. You get wet, the work is messy and physically demanding, I started out chatty and conversational and ended up quiet and focused on just the task at hand.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Week on the Farm: Monday

Monday: Kitchen Work

The kitchen is the center of comunity life at Green Gulch, as is the case in pretty much every religious community I've seen. Meals are shared and after the first ten minutes of silence you can start getting to know some of the residents as well as other guests that are staying for various lengths of time. After my last two retreats which were silent, this was a huge difference and a bit of a relief. I've been coming up to green gulch for about six months, and there are pleunty of people I recognize but haven't had an opporunity to talk to. Over the course of the week I made a lot of connections with people in the community over various meals, it's a wonderful moment when you hear the clackers that signal the end of the silent portion of the meal and everyone says good morning to each other all at once.

At any Soto temple the office of head cook is called the Tenzo, and it's a little more than just the executive chef, there is a text dedicated to the work of the Tenzo written by Dogen himself, the Tenzo Kyokun, also meal preperation starts with a small service in the Tenzo's office, with an inscence offering and a few bows by the Tenzo or Fukiten (the Tenzo's deputy, this term may only be used at Zen Center because there is literally one other web page with the words Tenzo and Fukiten on them). Once everyone has bowed in it's off to work, my first day I did some dishes and prepped some lettuce for salad later in the week. We were extra careful to be gentle to the slugs that we found in the lettuce, though they did end up in the compost.

One of the treats of working in the kitchen is that you end up seeing the results of your labour on the dinner table over the course of the week, more than one salad contained ingredients I prepped on Monday. As a beginner you will typically get some rather simple food prep or cleanup work, work periods are fairly quiet times with most communication in the kitchen consisting of the type of warnings you hear in working kitchens everywhere: "right behind you", "open oven", or more often just a quick "knife" as you walk by with any sharp implement. The instructions are to pay close attention to the task at hand, be slow and careful, ask questions if you're not sure where something goes or what the correct way is and most of all, enjoy it.

Stay tuned for the next existing installment: Compost

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Week on the Farm

Or, What I did on my Summer Vacation.

It was time for a vacation. I totally could have booked a week in Hawaii and sat out on the beach sipping drinks out of a pineapple and pretending to surf, instead I signed up for a week at Green Gulch: getting up at 4:30 in the morning, scrubbing toilets, building compost piles and cleaning out the pond. Basically, I paid to do work that you can't pay americans to do any more and I had a great time.

If you're planning on staying at Green Gulch there are three choices: You can treat the Guest House or Wheelwright Center as a hotel and rent rooms by the night, or you can sign up as a Guest Student, or a Guest Retreatant. Guest Student and Guest Retreatant both participate in the sitting schedule, staring at 5 in the morning, and both have work assignments. Retreatants are given the afternoon off and get a private room. I signed up for the week as a retreatant and stayed in the Guest House as well as a couple of nights in the Wheelwright Center with my daughter over the weekend.

Sunday night I packed up and drove over the bridge, got in around eight in the evening and took a walk down to the beach just after sunset:

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The morning schedule is the same every day: up before dawn, Zazen, Kinhin, more Zazen, Service, Soji then Breakfast in the dining room. After Breakfast there's a work meeting and as a Guest Retreatant you get your work assignment for the day from the Guest Student Manager and spend the morning helping with various aspects of running the farm.

The work assignments sort of make the day, and for each day of the week I'm writing up a seperate self contained entries. Here's the list, which I'll update with links as they're posted:

Monday: Kitchen Work

Tuesday: Composting

Wednesday: Pond Cleaning

Tursday: Back in the Kitchen

Friday: Home for a Day

Reading List

For me, getting involved in Zen practice has involved a lot of reading to help myself get up to speed reasonably quickly. Here's my suggested reading list, in recommended order (which is not necessarily the order I read them in):

Suzuki Roshi

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (kindle)

The Classic. Required reading if you're planning to practice at Zen Center. Seriously, if you're reading this blog and haven't read this stop right now, got get a copy and come back when you're done.

Zen is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki (kindle)

A collection of short, easily digestible, quotes and anecdotes of Suzuki Roshi. A good one to have handy for idle browsing or if you want a quick something to ponder.

Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (kindle)

Not by Suzuki Rosh, but an account of his life and the early years of SFZC. Full of stories that really help to make sense of some of the particularities of life and practice at Zen Center. My favorite is about how the first rule at Tassajara is that brooms should be stored with their bristles up, and every time I've opened a broom closet (which turns out to be a lot) I've found them stored just so.

Not Always So: Practicing the true Spirit of Zen

Another collection of Suzuki Roshi's talks. It's only available in print right now so it might take me a while to get around to finishing.

Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (kindle)

Some of Suzuki Roshi's last lectures, discussing the Sandokai which is chanted on a regular basis in services, and particularly during memorials. I'm about half way through so that the first half of the chant is filled with meaning and the second half is still a bit of a mystery.

Reb Anderson

Reb is the most senior teacher at Zen Center and lives at Green Gulch. His two books cover the precepts (which you'll want to read before asking to take the precepts and getting permission to start sewing a Rakusu) as well as a collection of Dharma Talks he's given over the years.

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisatva Precepts (kindle)

Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains: Dharma Talks on Zen Meditation (kindle)

D.T. Suzuki

D.T. Suzuki is a well regarded Buddhist scholar who wrote some of the first english texts on Zen. He's primarily concerned with Rinzai but these texts are what brought a lot of people to Zen Center in the 60s and 70s so they're helpful in understanding the early history of the lineage and some of the details of practice.

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (kindle)

Manual of Zen Buddhism (kindle)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Rotten Cherry

Not so far gone that you'd notice, maybe a little too soft,

popped into my mouth and then spit in to the compost.

Reconsidering, I dig it out, chew till it's gone.

It still tastes mostly like cherry.