Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just Another One Day

My favorite priest is leading the practice period at Green Gulch this spring so I've signed up for both one day sittings and the Sesshin at the beginning of April which marks the end of the period. I've found myself lamenting the fact that I won't be able to do a full Practice Period for more than ten years, since I have a seven year old and taking three months off from being a dad is basically unthinkable. So, I'll have to make do as a Zen Reservist: one weekend a month, two weeks a year.

Guest Bowls

I had a deadline Friday night at midnight, some work had to be completed and submitted. I also had an aunt visiting from out of town, a doctors appointment and a meeting which I needed to be prepared for. Busy day, lots going on, while I was getting packed for the one day I put my Oryoki set next to the door so I wouldn't forget it.

Around 10PM I finished up and finished getting ready, double checking my reservation I noticed that there wasn't the usual note about the guest house stay. Considering this for a second I packed up a small tent and brought it along, after doing some laundry I finally left the house around 11 PM. Guess what I forgot?

Camping Out

There wasn't an note on the door with my name on it, and I didn't want to bust in at 11:30 and see if there was a room unoccupied I could use for the night and settle up with the office in the morning, besides I hadn't slept out for a while, so I headed down to the beach. Walking through the farm at night with just a crescent moon and the glow of the city over the hills is an experience of sounds and smells (the compost heap is a particularly fragrant spot), the creek babbling along with you on it's way to the ocean, the wind rusting the trees and grasses, the howling of coyote up in the hills, the breath and chewing of the horses outside the bottom gate, the scurrying in the bushes on the path to the beach.

The tent I brought is a bivvy shelter, I can pack it with the mattress and sleeping bag already in and roll them up into a compact bundle that sets up in less than five minutes. The hike down to the beach is about fifteen minutes, so right around midnight I was tucked into bed on Muir Beach, with a great view of the sky and the surf in my ears. Despite that I didn't sleep much, and the first sitting is at five, I had to get up, break camp, hike back and get changed then stash everything back in the car. There was just enough time for coffee.

Wholehearted Sitting
There is a lot of talk about wholehearted practice around here, reminding us that the Way of Zen (and I think any other serious religious practice) demands complete dedication. It's like a marriage, unless you commit to working through the hard times together it's very difficult to make real progress. We see an aspect of this in the Christian tradition of Nuns becoming figuratively married to Christ and wearing bands on their hands.
When we sit on the cushion with the intent of giving ourselves wholly to our own Buddha nature for a day we give up our everyday thinking and engage in examining ourselves so that we can provide support for all brings. It seems like selfish navel gazing but everyone in the zendo is working as hard as they can to improve themselves and help the people around then. Sitting silent and still with that intention is both an welcome break from our daily accumulation of karma and an opportunity to discover how to keep from reacting without first considering the outcomes, which tends to improve the quality of the karma that we do create.

Confession and Repentance
I wasn't very wholehearted in sitting, especially not at Oryoki, which was a bit of a disaster, I neglected to ask the Ino for guest bowls, thinking that the form would the the same as the Saturday morning Oryoki breakfasts at City Center, so there wasn't a tray for whoever came in after me, since I took theirs. I didn't find out about that until after breakfast, which I felt pretty bad about.

There's no setsu, just a paper napkin; a metal spoon, which can be loud against the bowls if you aren't very, very careful; and the chopsticks are very polished lacquer and round, which makes them roll around on the tray and there was no way I could pick up the almonds with them. When we got to the wash cycle I tried to use the paper napkin on the end of the spook as a setsu, which almost works. When it came time to drink the ambrosia I was amused to find that it tasted a lot like paper napkin.

The services felt good to do twice in a day, but I was completely relieved when i was on the morning dish shift. Lunch in the Zendo went better than breakfast, I figured out how to clean with the napkin so that it doesn't end up disintegrating into the cleaning water, made a nice stack of bowls and dropped them off in the kitchen. Took a walk down the farm road for a bit then back for a coffee or two before the afternoon sits started.

Exit Strategy
After tea, there is a short break, I stopped by the office and signed up for the sesshin at the end of the practice period and at that point, already in my jacket, with my car key in my hand, that I knew it was time to go home. My legs were complaining louder and louder as the day progressed, my lack of sleep catching up with me, I pulled a sheet of paper out of my pocket and penciled in a quick note to the Ino, who wasn't at her post in Cloud Hall, stopped to tell the Doshi's Jika just to make sure and got in the car.

I drove across the bridge and into the city, not to my house but directly to Macy's. I needed to buy some sheets and new pillows for the house, having thrown out the old ones the night before. After taking them home and putting them in the washer I called up a friend who had been wanting to talk and went out to dinner. So, in the end, I skipped out on the last three sittings to go shopping, eat fancy food and have drinks with a buddy.

Looks like I'm going to need a little more practice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Zen Lingo: Intimacy

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.


The word 'intimacy' gets throw around a lot at the Zen Center, and at first it's a bit of a surprise. Intimacy has long been relegated to a euphemism for sexual intimacy; but, for the most part, that's not what we're talking about. Nope, it's just good old fashioned closeness, deep familiarity, the feeling of family.

A lot of time when we use the word intimacy in colloquial speech we're using it to highlight the lack of intimacy implicit in a brief or sudden relationship: "Those two used to be intimate, now they don't get along so well." Or, "I heard Sam and Max had an intimate encounter after leaving the bar." Usually these are followed with chuckles, maybe a little eye rolling and preparations are made for dealing with the fallout of the two parties actually developing some intimacy only to find out that they really don't want it.

Decades Together

When relationships start to stretch out longer than a few hours, the intimacy that develops starts to really highlight the delicate nature of our connection to each other. Those first few days and weeks set the tone for the months and years to follow, the first steps should be careful and mindful if we intend to build something that lasts. And as the years add up the depth of the connection grows, and we can see the strength of it as well. This is easy to understand when thinking about the intimacy that can develop between bonded partners over time, which, I hear, can be really nice.

Now, look at the issue in the context of developing stable relationships with an entire community, and we have a real challenge on our hands. All human communities deal with this one way or another, and spiritual communities have the even greater challenge of integrating people who show up looking for refuge from their lives and sometimes themselves. Nobody signs up for this because their life is going great (or maybe they do, but I haven't run into any of them yet), people come to spiritual community because they want to make themselves better, and they realize that it takes committed long term relationships to do that.

San Francisco Zen Center has had a regular residential population since before the monastery at Tassajara opened in 1967. Some dedicated students rented apartments across the street from Sokoji before the group moved into City Center in 1969. That's more than 45 years living together as a community, which creates a level of intimacy that it's hard to understand from the outside. A year in I'm only beginning to see the vague outlines of what it means to practice with a group of people for that long. Maintaing a stable community over that length of time also requires a lot of stewardship, and thankfully the annals of Zen are full of accounts of monks being ejected from the temple, so there is ample precedent for doing so. Even the Abbots aren't immune.

They Come and They Go

The first hurdle to clear is just showing up more than a few times, a lot of people come and go: Lay practitioners will drop in for a practice period, Green Gulch hosts farm and garden interns for part of the year, there is a guest student program running at Green Gulch and City Center for people who are interested in engaging in the practice for a week or longer. Many come for the experience in organic farming and gardening, stay for the duration of their internship and are never heard from again.

I introduced myself to one of the Priests In Training at the farm, who I'd seen on and off for more than six months but had never talked to, and had my suspicion confirmed in the following chat: for the long term residents, building relationships with new arrivals who'll be gone in six months is a bit of a loosing proposition. They come, they sit, they leave. Not all of them, a few stick around, either for extended internships, the following practice period or possibly a work apprentice post.

Managing this influx and out flux of people is tricky, and intimacy issues crop up quickly. In a community of more than 55 people there are bound to be people you don't see eye to eye with, people that are attractive, people that trigger aversion, and on and on. There are some interesting guidelines, guest students in particular agree to the following:

"guest students are asked to refrain from drug or alcohol use and from initiating new sexual relationships during their guest student stay"

This might seem a bit heavy handed at first, but having had some experience with community when I was younger, I have to say that it's not a bad idea at all. And if you dig into the Ten Essential Precepts you'll notice something interesting, the 3rd get's more coverage than any of the others. Clearly there are still Shoes Outside the Door in many people's minds around here.

So intimacy is a big deal, both the euphemistic kind and the day to day living with over decades kind. Just a year in and I'm starting to feel like part of the community, getting to know some of the quirks, personalities and stories that come with even just occasionally intersecting with the residents once or twice a week.

Face to Face Transmission

Getting back to the Sandokai, there is another form of intimacy around here that's critically important. The transmission of the lineage requires deep intimacy between teacher and student, it's a level of face to face engagement that we seldom get in life. Some people have it with their therapist but that relationship is focused on the patient, but what goes on in dokusan is (or should be) very different.

The goal of the teacher is to push the student towards their awakening, and to give confirmation when they reach it. This process of transmission requires that the teacher and student are able to see into each other in a way that is impossible without decades of intimacy. Understanding is only part of the process, there must also be decades of practice and devotion to the process of pouring oneself into the behavioral mold of the Buddha. The conventional wisdom is that it takes a decade to get it, and another to figure out how to teach it.

This is the true intimacy at the heart of practice, it's what we get up at 4:30 in the morning to experience. Sitting and breathing together, in silence, then chanting and bowing together, is it's own intimacy. Learning about each other and ourselves as we go through the forms, each deviating in their own way, the community coming together to show us our rough edges. It's this intimacy that allows us to get beyond the facades we present, to see ourselves reflected in the community, to get feedback from people who are trying their best to simply be helpful. For the benefit of all beings.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Religious Question

Zen isn't really a religion, it's more of a philosophy…
- radom co-worker

Is Zen a religion? Or is it more of a philosophy? I've heard this question asked a few times, it's sometimes generalized to Buddhism in general but Zen has attained a particular mystical quality in the Western consciousness since it's introduction. When seen from outside, it has all the trappings of religion but there is no supernatural power to worship, as we find in most other religions.

Sakyamuni Buddha was a bit of an agnostic—though that term didn't exist until Thomas Huxley coined it 1869—when asked if there was a god or supernatural powers his answer boiled down to, "I don't know, it's not important to your enlightenment. don't worry about it." Zen continues this tradition of relying on direct experience, you can imagine a Zen Master responding to the same question in much the same way the founder did, though they might make you do a Koan or two first.

So the open question is how do you define religion, there are plenty of definitions that either imply or require a God to fit the bill, here's the first definition from the dictionary that I have handy:

religionnoun, the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods

Zen, and Buddhism in general, with their emphasis on direct experience and the present moment, don't so much say that there is or isn't God or a life after death, but that it's not really possible for us to know and thinking about it is just another mental formation which comes and goes and has no reality. Another way of looking at it is that the question itself separates the asker from God; the idea that you have a self individual from the universe and that there is another, separate entity which is more or less than you is what prevents you from directly seeing the answer to the question. In essence, Zen refuses to answer the question when posed in this way: it's best answer is, mu.

Enter Avalokitesvara

Buddhism is at first glance polytheistic, as there are many different statues of various Buddha and Bodhisattva incarnations all over the temple, altars to the myriad various forms taken by the Buddha over the two and a half millennia of development and transmission across Asia. D.T. Suzuki describes Kannon or Avalokitesvara in Manual of Zen Buddhism:

Kannon is exclusively the Bodhisattva of compassion. In this respect he resembles Fugen (Samantabhadra), … He is one of the most popular Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism.

Except, if you clicked the link to Kannon, the Japanese name for the god, you'll notice that the figure depicted is the earlier feminine form Guanyin, which came from China. Some scholars argue for an origin in Tamil or Hindu traditions suggesting that Bodhidarma brought the idea of the Bodhisattva across with the Dharma and welded it onto an existing popular figure.

What's going on here is called syncretism, it's the combination of previously unrelated religions traditions after they are exposed to each other. Buddhism, as it's made it's way across Asia and eventually to the shores of America has synthesized with established religious order and modified itself to adapt to local tradition, the Bodhisattva ideal being used to explain the actions of the existing local deity. It happened in Tibet with Bon, in China with Confucianism, in Japan with Shinto and here in America with Church Culture (which is why we have Saturday and Sunday programs with a talk for lay practitioners, for e.g.).

At each stop along the way Buddhism adapts itself to the local religious environment, never trying to displace and freely adapting it's symbolic language to match the local idiom. The concept of a Bodhisattva, one who surrenders their own enlightenment for the sake of others is an easy match in most religions. Jesus Christo Bodhisattva, already exists in peoples minds, I think.

This provides us with a tantalizing clue about what we're looking at; the symbols in our altars are just that, symbols. The priesthood understands this and allows the symbols to change with context while maintaing their meaning within the dharma. The dharma is modular and adaptable to different religious environments, it's also able to coexist with other traditions in relative harmony because of this, but is that enough to make it a religion on it's own?

If It Walks Like a Monk…

Here's where it's hard to look at Zen and not see religion: monks, monasteries, chants, prayers, ceremonies, candles, incense, bowing, retreats, study, sutras and the congregation of lay followers all scream organized religion (the kind that makes the new age, 'spiritual but not religious' crowd recoil a bit). If all the external trappings of religion are there, isn't it a religion? If it walks like a monk and chants like a monk, isn't it a monk?

And yet without one or more deity we question it, we wonder if it isn't all just a complicated pacifier for the human need for structure and ritual, evolved over the centuries as a way to give our natural desires for religious experience an outlet while preserving and perpetuating the dharma. The priests like to say that "emptiness is form" which implies that even the absence of something can make something else a reality.

The First Science of Mind

Buddhism is arguably the first psychological science since it relies and insists on direct experience of the practitioner to develop an enlightened mind. Buddhism developed and evolved during a period of great religious and philosophical diversity in Asia, to survive and perpetuate it needed a freely relatable set of symbols which could be mapped to other religious systems, creating a bridge from one system to another.

By venerating the local gods and idols for their most noble traits, no sense of competition is created and the ideas in the dharma can be introduced. By having a strictly agnostic stance on the existence of any sort of god or gods prevents conflict by essentially avoiding the sort of questions which lead to religious wars.

These features of Buddhism have allowed it to survive alongside one or more religions with relatively little cultural cost. When engaged in theological discussion there's very little firm ground in Buddhism to defend, so it's hard to win or loose an argument about any religious topic when the opponent openly professes to not knowing the answer and isn't interested in fighting at all.

What is This Thing Called Zen?

So if, Buddhism itself isn't a religion, but a system of psychology and practice that uses the religious nature of humanity to perpetuate itself and maintains a parasitic or viral or symbiotic relationship with one or more 'traditional' religions, what then in Zen? Has the vast silent emptiness of sitting meditation taken early indian, Himalayan, Confucian, Shinto and finally American traditions and given us something that is the ultimate subversion of religious thinking (is there a soul? how can there be when there isn't even a self!) but which could not have come down to us through the ages without it's close alignment and coexistence with several different religions.

Zen then is the syncretic product of the original Buddha Dharma and a number of religious and philosophical traditions, the rituals, robes and forms carried forward and absorbed from various contacts over the millennia. Leaving us with a rich history of literature, ceremonies and artwork depicting the development and transmission of the way (an idea borrowed from the Tao). Buddhism may not, in itself, be a traditional religion because of it's lack of any recognizable god, but everywhere that it is practiced it has adopted and preserved the rites and icons of some other religious institution, along with the seed of the dharma itself.

There is another definition of religion in the dictionary, one which I think fits Zen much better than the first:

a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance: consumerism is the new religion

Zen sees the transmission of the Buddha Dharma as being of supreme importance, it is pursued with religious fervor by the priests as they spend each day trying to make themselves into a Buddha for the benefit of all of us. I can't think of any greater act of devotion or worship or faith. If that's not religious I'm not sure what is.