23 December 2008

Grace

I am a complete coward. I thought I wasn't going to write for a while but spending time with family has a way of slamming my face right up against some of my most lovely traits. The moment my parents come, I hide.

Most of the year we say grace at the dinner table. I shouldn't say we. Matt says grace. He came home from preschool one day and simply announced that he was saying grace and he has ever since, the very same one he learned in preschool. "God, you are very good to us, to give us food each day, to make us big and strong, so we can work and run and play. Amen."

Luke hates it. There have been nights when the simple act of Matt saying grace has touched off yet another round of the never-ending theological, philosophical, legislative ( as in "I shouldn't have to be forced to sit here while this is being said.") debates.

I love that it hasn't changed one bit in all these years. I wouldn't know what to replace those words with anyway and I sure wouldn't want to replace the feelings. I don't know if what is said matters as much as that we take a moment to appreciate that we are sitting together, to recognize, with gratitude, that the many things that could disrupt such quotidian tranquility are not in our lives. I like the fact that, at fifteen, Matt likes the ritual and still feels comfortable with those preschool words in his mouth. I even like the fact that, as much as Luke sighs and complains, he still takes the hands of whomever is sitting on either side of him and suffers through it.

Okay, so why on earth do I let the simple presence of my parents in my house cow me, cow us into abandoning one of our rituals?

At dinner years ago, when Matt was four or five and the words of the grace were still fresh, he started to do what he always did: make us hold hands. My mother was shocked but she complied, perhaps because he was cute and small, but the eye-rolling and significant looks at my dad were loud enough that none of us - especially Matt - wanted to do that again.

It makes me so sad that I haven't figured out a way to be myself and their daughter at the same time. I feel lost if I force it, lost if I don't but there is something about taking the time to recognize the sacred in the day-to-day I don't ever want to lose.

20 December 2008

Christmas break

Mom and Dad are in town so I'll probably be too busy dealing with the "now, why exactly are you doing this crazy thing" questions to post until the end of the month but, maybe not... I hope your holiday season, whatever it entails, is filled with peace and joy.

A present -- my favorite passage of the Bhagavad Gita from Stephen Mitchell's translation all together in one place:

He who can see inaction
in the midst of action, and action
in the midst of inaction, is wise
and can act in the spirit of yoga.

With no desire for success,
no anxiety about failure,
indifferent to results, he burns up
his actions in the fire of wisdom.

Surrendering all thoughts of outcome,
unperturbed, self-reliant,
he does nothing at all, even
when fully engaged in actions.

There is nothing that he expects,
nothing that he fears. Serene,
free from possessions, untainted,
acting with the body alone,

content with whatever happens,
unattached to pleasure or to pain,
success or failure, he acts
and is never bound by his action.

When a man has let go of his attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship
and his actions all melt away.

Bhagavad Gita 4.18-4.23

30 November 2008

Mumbai

Does this really have anything to do with faith? With religion? If someone robs a bank but says the devil made him do it, or Jesus, or God, a jury sees that for what it is and convicts him. We don't blame the faith the bank robber happened to choose to use as an excuse for his indefensible acts, right?

In the middle of the chaos, Mumbai still under seige, a woman interviewed on the radio pleaded for all people of faith not to use this crisis to pull apart from each other but to join together, to use it to rise above, to see what we share not what divides us. I hope her voice is heard and her prayers are answered.

Thanksgiving

I didn't bang pots and pans around this year. I think Buddhism had something to do with it.

How come I can leap from the a table in someone else's house to offer to help clear and clean the dishes, how come I can put my head down and simply do what's in front of me on a retreat at the Zen Center or the Hsi Lai Temple and even get pleasure from mopping a floor or scraping an old label off a window with a monk yet, in my house, the very thought of any item on my to do list gets a heavy sigh? What is it that makes the make the ordinary stuff of life feel like such an intrusion on my life? Just thinking about organizing my finances, doing the dishes, cleaning out the cabinets, the car, the flower beds is definitely something I can identify as suffering...that is, until real suffering comes along. Today I finally got it that it's all in my head and that's because I had a truly lovely Thanksgiving and I changed nothing about it except what was inside that head.

Karen Armstrong's quote is really coming home to me. Maybe religion isn't just about believing things; it's also about doing things that change your life. In these small but profound ways, this is definitely changing my life.

Okay...this post gives me an excuse to underscore that, as I am scurrying to get this blog up to date with where I am, putting up what I've been doing for the past eighteen months or so, I am currently working on Buddhism and beginning to figure out how and where to do Daosim which is coming next whether or not that was my plan. When I told Professor Amir Hussain I thought it might be time to start figuring out what came next and how to do it and it was either Confucianism or Daoism, he sent me to Robin Wang, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. (Note: she's in the philiosophy department, not the religious studies department which is the very first thing I have to deal with: why does Huston Smith call Confuciansim and Daoism religions? Are they? And are either even "practiced" here in the United States? And is it spelled Daoism or Taoism? )

Anyway, Professor Wang said, "Oh you have to start with Daoism! Much more interesting. You have to deal with the body!"

Great. I decided to do this to get beyond the body but, no matter what I do, my body keeps getting dragged back into it.

Sorry to confuse the heck out of you with the past present and future all going on at once in this post. I hope to be thoroughly contemporaneous as soon as possible. When I catch up, I'll republish this post in its proper chronological place. In the meantime, please email me to let me know you're out there, to give me some sense of who's listening and what you're thinking about all of this. I'd like to know.

Right now I'm grateful I live in a home with people who don't mind my crazy ideas, who have supported me even as I act on them.

12 November 2008

Subscribe!

You see that heading over there ========>>>> in the skinny column? "Subscribe to posts?" If you click on it, it'll make following along with me even easier.

I tested it out and, when I clicked on the "subscribe to posts" link, it offered a bunch of choices like "My Yahoo", "Add to Google" etc. When I clicked on "My Yahoo," it put my blog on my Yahoo home page, right next to all the other stuff I like to read every day like the AP and Reuters services as well as a bunch of newspapers, blogs, and service items to which I like to have quick access. (Okay so I don't really need to know the weather in every single family member's home town but I do...)

So, try it out! I like company!

04 November 2008

Voting

Voted today. I waited in a long line - my first long line to vote ever - and it was thrilling. Usually I'm in and out in minutes but not one of us on line was impatient or put off. (Well, one school principal was happy when I let her go ahead of me.) Every person stood there, certain they had a purpose that morning and that it was critical they acted on it regardless of the outcome. Debbie, who's worked for my father in his office in rural Delaware for more than a decade voted for the first time....and she was excited about doing it. Today, so many of us felt that we mattered, that what we did today mattered. Isn't that faith? Isn't important to act out of that kind of faith whether or not it turns out to be correct? Didn't we all feel good acting out of that faith today?

22 May 2008

Learning how to sit...all day



What I love about ZCLA is they take nothing for granted, they assume you need to be taught.

At the heart of Zen practice is something called "sesshin." The ZCLA curriculum describes sesshin this way:

Literally translated, sesshin means “to unify the mind.” It is an extended silent retreat in which our normal daily schedules are set aside to allow for a more focused zazen practice, integrated with walking meditation, face-to-face interviews, mindful work practice, chanting, rest, oryoki meals, and talks.
Most sesshins last a week, you sit for six or more hours a day, and are completely silent but, once a year, ZCLA has a shorter, three day Introduction to Sesshin to teach us newbies how. So I signed up.
~~~

The day I was supposed to check in for the start of the sesshin began with yet another huge fight between Luke and Matt over music. Luke drives Matt to school. Given their previous music wars - Luke insists on playing things like Gogol Bordello, a gypsy punk metal band, while Matt prefers classical, opera or, perhaps French bistro music - I said there would be silence, no music, during the ten-minute ride to and from school. Yet, there they were on the phone on the way to school, screaming at the top of their lungs. So I made good on a previous warning: I went to the school, handed each of them notes between classes with a bus schedule and quarters for the fare home, and drove the car out of the school lot.

This is what silent retreats are for: mothers of teenagers.

Late that afternoon, I drove through the worst weather I'd seen in Los Angeles in a long, long time - not just rain but even a funnel cloud that turned a tractor-trailer over in another part of the city - and got there in time for dinner. Tomato soup, a salad filled with vegetables and whole grain bread which the six of us ate while chatting. When dinner was finished, Koan, a tall friendly guy with silver hair and glasses (who I found out later was the head of the ZCLA Board) said that, as all of the teachers were in a meeting, "Do what you can to help clean up." He left the four of us - two guys, the roommate I'd been assigned, and me - in the care of one ZCLA member. One of the guys went outside to stretch. The other stood supervising as my roommate and I started to wash the dishes. I just couldn't resist handing the guy a dishtowel and pointing to the silverware. Definitely not "zen" of me but, then, he wouldn't be getting the benefit of the practice if he didn't help out, right? Right?

Did I mention that I had three younger brothers growing up? Or maybe I was just on a roll from following through with Luke and Matt.

I've never really worked in an industrial kitchen before so I spent way too long wrestling with the big washer/dryer/sanitizer but even that was kind of fun. Why is the work I do anywhere but my own home fun? Give me a campsite and some dirty dishes and I'll have a blast figuring out how to clean them. Same dishes at home? Ugh. All in my head. But there is something gratifying about everyone doing it together, working towards the same goal that just doesn't happen very often, at least not in my house, not without a certain amount of grousing. Okay so, growing up, I was one of those big grousers but I still remember those weekends when my Dad decided it was time to clean out the garage or the basement or some other monumental, somewhat disgusting task, with more fondness than makes any sense at all. Those working weekends rank up there in my memory with cotton-candy filled trips to the circus. What I remember most is how close I felt to my Dad while simply sorting through a box as he swept the floor nearby.

Once dinner was through, it was time for the evening sitting in the zendo...followed by oryoki bowl training for those of us who needed it. That would be me.

03 May 2008

Alarm bells

Okay, I'm gonna talk about why I've been so deliberately vague about the location of this retreat....

4:45am. I was almost late for the dawn sitting because my pants hadn't fully dried from yesterday's attempt to wash out the coffee I'd spilled on the drive up so I'd been up in the middle of the night dodging deer in the moonlight to use the dryer in the building with the washrooms. The day began with 108 full prostrations which, I'm telling you, is better than any morning calisthenics. From standing, you bow, then get all the way down on your knees and touch your forehead to the ground and then stand back up. 108 times. Empty brain. It was actually pretty great.

I didn't have half the trouble sitting I'd had the night before. No ticks. Legs didn't die. Minimal sweating. Mind, it wasn't easy to sit. For many of the half-hour sessions, I took counting to a new art form. I figured out how many times I counted to ten, on average, in a thirty minute session - somewhere between seventeen and eighteen times - and I'd just keep track of sets of ten. Counting to ten, seventeen or eighteen times doesn't sound so bad, now, does it? Better than sitting for thirty minutes without any way to mark time...over and over and over again. There were even moments I actually didn't fight sitting there, as much as one or two whole minutes. Those were lovely.

They did use the "wake up stick" (kyosaku) at one point, though. One of the officiants got it from the altar and creaked slowly behind all of us and ritually smacked those who asked to be hit twice. You had to ask to be hit which, my guess is, is the way it is in most zendos in the United States. I couldn't see how it was done but the sound of the people around me getting thwacked was pretty alarming, given the essential silence of the room otherwise. The stick didn't come out during every session of sitting and I don't know why it's used sometimes but not others but I sure am going to find out more about it.

Using the oryoki bowls and all the ritual that went with them wasn't so bad. While everyone was serious in their attempts to hew to the ritual, there was a low-key vibe that made looking up and following along as best you could okay.

But part of the retreat included a face-to-face interview with the center's spiritual leader. We were taught the ritual for waiting our turn, how to know when our turn was, what to do when we went in, and how to leave. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to say but I did know I was going to explain exactly who I was and what I'm doing. The monk couldn't have been sweeter. We talked for a while, about what I wanted from the practice and why but then he said, "I want you to be my student."

"But I don't live anywhere near here."

"That's okay. You can sit with people down in Los Angeles but you can be my student. Do you want to be my student?"

Although I didn't know much about Buddhism, I was pretty sure it wasn't supposed to go this way. There's a strong tradition of teachers resisting students when they first show up, waiting to see if their desire to learn is strong enough to overcome the first few "no"s.

It's a mystery to me about how one chooses a place to practice, a spiritual leader to guide you, if you aren't able to continue on with your family's traditions for whatever reason. I guess I'm looking for a teacher so committed to their own practice that who is or isn't around them doesn't matter all that much.

I hope I'm not doing the Woody Allen thing, running away from a club that would have me, but this just didn't feel right. I think I'm going back to take another class at ZCLA.

02 May 2008

Religion, Faith, and Sitting

...a spectacle. I made a spectacle of myself.

After dinner we were supposed to meet to learn about something called oryoki bowl eating. There were bowls, wrapped up in a napkin, already with our names on them, in cubbies. All told, there were actually three different cloths - a napkin, a mat, and a wipe - as well as three bowls of different sizes nesting in each other, a long cloth case which held a wooden spoon, a pair of chopsticks, and a small rubber spatula. The largest bowl was called the "Buddha" bowl.

The teacher taught us how to unwrap, set up, and use all of these things, just so, and then the ritual to put them away. He also said that, as we were going to be eating in silence and "the server will be behind you," we needed hand signals to indicate if we wanted more or less of what was being served.

Complicated doesn't even begin to describe the unwrapping and then rewrapping of all the things. I couldn't keep my napkin/wrapper from coming undone once I put everything together which was the least of my problems. But the man teaching us was pretty low key about it so I figured the only way to really learn it all was just to muddle through a meal or two.

Then came the evening "zazen" or sitting. After the overwhelming detail of the oryoki bowl training, I was actually looking forward to just sitting.

It was one of the worst hours of my life.

Okay, so that's hyperbole but, in the list of my very worst moments, days, periods of my life, this ranked.

It all began innocently enough. I was on a small square cushion facing a wall, a bit out of the way, next to one other beginner. I took my glasses off, which seemed like the right thing to do as I was going to stare at the base of a wall anyway, and hung them on the top of my shirt, just above where my borrowed black robe closed. For possibly the first time, being near-sighted was actually helpful; the whole soft-focus thing was a cinch with my glasses off.

I sat and began to count my breath. All fine. It was quiet in the zendo and there was no "stick" - the so-called wake up stick that confused and frightened me a bit - in use. Good. One to ten, then one again.

But then I started to notice that I was fine.

All hell broke loose.

I had run sixteen miles the day before. I was sore and tight to begin with. My legs went dead. Not just dead, but dead dead. Then, I got so nervous from my legs going dead that I started to sweat. I've never been much of a sweat-er but leave it to me to have this moment be the sweat of a lifetime. I was sweating so much it was dripping down the back of my neck. Then I started to panic, panic that my panic was turning my sweat into stinky flop sweat. Was my odor assaulting the nostrils of the poor guy right next to me? Was I emitting some horrible smell that was, even now, wafting its way throughout the zendo?

This, of course, made me sweat even more.

A shrill internal monologue began. "Calm the heck down. You can do this. You can sit through a half hour of anything. You've done this before."

A little whimpering voice inside my head started up: "I can't. I really, really can't. What if I start to cry?" Because that was what I really wanted to do, cry.

"Grow up. Stop wishing for things to be over. You always regret what you rush. Remember when you felt overwhelmed when the boys were little? Don't you want those moments back now?"

"Nice try. I'm going to throw up. I know it. And my legs feel three sizes larger than they are. I really want to cry and my back hurts and now my right sit bone feels like it may come through my skin. Really. I think it's gonna come through my skin. I can't move. I can't adjust because you're never supposed to distract the people around you--"

The guy next to me began to move. He scratched his nose. He rearranged his legs. A reprieve!

I took advantage of his initiative to change from a half-lotus position to kneeling. I put the cushion between my legs to support my butt the way Luminous Heart/Penelope had taught us at the Zen Center. I could actually feel the blood flow back into my legs and out again. A breeze began to move the air. I started to relax.

One of the questions that often comes up is: is Buddhism a religion? Buddhism resolutely does not discuss the issue of a higher power or creator god so there are those who say it isn't a religion. Professor Huston Smith, author of the book, The World's Religions, certainly considers Buddhism a religion but he does take the better part of a chapter to list aspects most religions have in common...

- authority: people and institutions who occupy positions of authority
- ritual
- speculation
- tradition
- grace: "the belief, often difficult to sustain in the face of facts,
that Reality is ultimately on our side"
- and mystery

...that Buddhism does not share. Professor Smith says that the historical Buddha began "a religion of reaction against Hindu perversions - an Indian protestantism." It was devoid, at least in his lifetime, of all of these aspects conventionally associated with religion.

Professor Smith said Buddha "preached a religion devoid of authority." The Buddha said:

Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves.

Smith said, Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual. The Buddha said:

Belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies is one of the Ten Fetters that bind the human spirit.
Buddha preached a religion that "skirted speculation." Smith quotes his parable of the poisoned arrow:

It as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural caste or the lowest caste. Or if he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know of what name of family the man is; or whether he is tall or short, or of middle height; or whether he is black of dark or yellowish....etc (it goes on this way for a while and then...) ...what have I explained? Suffering I have explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.

Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: 'These teachings are not good, these teachings when followed out and put into practice conduce to loss and suffering' - then reject them.

Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.
And, finally, according to Professor Smith, Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple - that he tries to work a miracle.

All this is a little confusing because it seems that many of these elements were at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple; ritual for sure. What rituals there are at the two Zen Centers I've see so far do seem simpler than those at the Hsi Lai Temple. But whether or not Buddhism is a religion, I'm in no position to argue. Buddhism is a chapter in Huston Smith's book called The World's Religions so, for now, that's good enough for me. What I can tell you, even at this early stage, is that it sure takes a mountain of faith to sit for hours at a time, day after day, especially when you're told "just sit."

In between two half-hour sessions of sitting, we got up and did a slow walking meditation and then sat back down for our final session before bedtime. Although I'd cooled down and calmed down, I noticed that my neck was still dripping. Odd. I wasn't hot anymore. I finally couldn't bear it and lifted my hand up to wipe the drip away.

It wasn't a drip. It was a tick.

I was so surprised, I let out the smallest of yelps, flicked my arm, and knocked my glasses off my shirt. They skittered across the polished wooden floor just out of reach. In a room full of silently meditating strangers, I crawled across the floor, collected my glasses, and sat back down on my cushion.

I tried to count my breath but I got stuck on just one number: six, six hours of this tomorrow. Six. I had no idea how I was going to do it.




Traces

I found a one-day sitting for beginners in a beautiful Zen Buddhist center a day's drive from Los Angeles and decided to go. It began before dawn so I arrived the afternoon before, shortly after spilling a full cup of coffee on one of the two pairs of pants I brought to wear.

If you go to a Zen retreat, here's a tip: although the email may say go to the office when you arrive, most likely, no one will meet you. After I stood around trying to figure out where to go, I finally interrupted someone in the kitchen to ask for help. Turns out everything you need to know is posted on pages right outside the front door: where you sleep, where you sit in the zendo, the schedule, the rules etc. I guess everything's set up to eliminate as much talking as possible. Next problem: finding a place to wash my pants so they'd have some chance of drying before morning.

The showers and toilets were in building of their own. There was a place for shoes outside and, just inside, there was a sign saying it was a "silent area" and another that said, "No Trace."

I have never in my life see a cleaner bathroom. There were three stainless steel sinks which looked like they had never been used, a spotless floor, empty trash cans, and polished wood. Even the rubber sink stoppers for each sink were placed in exactly the same position on the rim of each sink. And I would let my children eat off the floors in the bathroom stalls. I was scared to even use it.

Does "no trace" mean no trash? I had very little time before dinner and, I'm sorry, but washing your pants in the sink leaves a trace no matter what you do. My "traces" were paper towels used to wipe up the sink and the water dripped on the floor. I just had enough time to hang up the pants just outside the cabin before dinner.

28 April 2008

One Hundred Hours of Zazen...uhm, well, maybe



It sat there so innocently, that little white booklet: "Zen Practice 5, One Hundred Hours of Zazen in One Hundred Days, Practice Book." So I took it home, along with about half a dozen flyers announcing other events at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

Here's what it said inside:

The practice is to sit one hour a day for one hundred consecutive days. You may choose to sit a half-hour in the morning and a half-hour in the evening. You may choose to sit a full hour, alternating periods of sitting and walking, or however an hour fits into your day.

The aim of this exercise is to establish a foundation for daily zazen practice. When you sit, you sit. When you walk, you walk. The practice is it let go of all that arises, including all thoughts regardless of content, all feelings, sensations, etc. Do not use this time to think.

Two pages describe, precisely, how to sit; one is an excerpt from Eihei Dogen's Fukanzazengi which says, "If you grasp the point of this practice, you are like a dragon gaining the water or the tiger taking to the mountains."

I'd like to be like a tiger taking to the mountains.

The other page of "how to" gives very specific details about what to do with your spine, legs, mouth, eyes, hands, breath, and attention, as well as the gatha (which is like a prayer) you chant three times when you first sit down:

Gatha of Atonment
All evil karma ever committed by me since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,
Born of my body, speech, and mind,
Now I atone for it all.

...and the one you chant three times when you're finished:

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows

Sentient beings are numberlesss, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.

Then comes six pages of empty rectangles for each of the one hundred days, space we're supposed to fill with "brief notes about my sitting." It's a pretty intimidating number of boxes to fill but I don't think I'll learn a thing about Zen just reading books about it. I might as well jump in. Whether I stay here at ZCLA or study Zen somewhere else, the heart of Zen Buddhism is, after all, sitting. Besides, it'll be easy to get going: I've got an overnight retreat at another center this coming weekend - a perfect time to begin.

27 April 2008

How to Zen

Feeding hungry ghosts?
A few of us came back for the second Zen Practice class at ZCLA. It was a relief that it was Luminous Heart again and not someone new. "We're going to down to the Buddha Hall in about three minutes to do the Gate of Sweet Nectar Ceremony which is the ceremony that closes out our week of practice and then we'll stay in that room and talk a little bit about how your practice is going."

Gate of Sweet Nectar? I don't know what I expected but I guess I assumed that all you did was meditate in Zen Buddhism. It never really crossed my mind there'd be services. In fact, that's probably the reason I decided to check Zen out. It sounded simple. Fun even. I think the first time I ever head the word "zen" was in the title, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance. Of course Robert Pirisg is quoted as saying, ""it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."

But Luminous Heart was telling us we were about to go to a service in the Buddha Hall. "What I want to let you know there is some floor bowing and I didn't teach you that last time. If it's more comfortable, when you see people getting ready to bow, you can do this,” she bowed at the waist, “which is a standing bow, or you can simply stand and not bow. If you want to do a floor bow, you simply do this--" And, with that, the tall, more than middle-aged woman just dropped down right on the bare floor to show us. Once her head was on the ground, she lifted her hands, palms up and flat open, slightly above her head. When she stood back up, she said, "The symbology of it is you're bowing to the Buddha, you're bowing the Buddha in yourself, you're bowing to all the other Buddhas in the room. And this gesture?" She repeated raising her open hands, palms up. "It's as though you're lifting Buddha in the palms of your hands. We call it raising the bodhi mind. It's not necessary at all for you to do it but, if you wish to, you can do it."

While I felt appreciative of her acknowledgement that bowing can be tough for some of us, I realized, while she was giving us other options, that I have learned something: I can now bow without making a big deal of it. But it sure was nice to hear Luminous Heart acknowledge just how hard bowing might be for all kinds of reasons. For me, it wasn't creaky knees or joints but my pride, my dislike of kowtowing to anyone or anything, my discomfort with doing things that feel inauthentic and, more than anything, my fear of looking stupid. However, once I got that I’m not bowing to a statue or to a person so much as indicating, symbolically and physically, that I don’t think I’m above anything or anyone else, that I’m at least willing to hear what others have to say about their beliefs and practices, to be open-hearted, I could bow. I can bow in gratitude. That’s what my bows mean anyway. There are still times I feel stupid bowing, mostly when I imagine someone I know watching me do it, but that happens less and less.

We walked down the driveway to the Buddha Hall. On the porch outside, a woman stood with a wooden mallet in hand, occasionally hitting an iron bell. We had to walk by her to put our shoes in the rack and then walk behind her to get into the Buddha Hall. She didn't seem to notice we were there, all around her. She just stood there, waiting for her last ring to die away, ready to strike when it did.

There were a few people in the Buddha Hall when we walked in. The room was carpeted, about the size of a living room, with an altar on the far side, a square brown mat in the center for the officiant, and a variety of percussion instruments in the far corners on either side of the altar. Aside from that, the room was open. The handful of us newbies filed in to one side of the room and stood in a line with our backs to the windows, facing the center of the room and the double line of people on the other side. Together, we made a center aisle for the officiant. As people came in, they bowed in the direction of the altar and joined the line of people on one side of the room or the other. As they took their place, they did a small polite bow to those on the other side and then stood still with their eyes down. It was quite clear that you didn't chitchat and catch up with your neighbors while waiting for the ceremony to begin. And, just like at the Hsi Lai Temple even though the kind of Buddhism at the Zen Center is different, anyone who had to cross the center line, cross in front of the altar, paused and bowed as they did. Well, almost everyone.

The person ringing the bell started doing it faster and faster until there was a series of quite fast strikes, then the bell outside stopped and the woman came in. The service was ready to begin. A couple of gongs inside and then someone blew on a conch shell. I've never seen anyone actually do that except in weird Hawaiian movies., certainly not in person.

The chanter began to sing:

Calling out to Hungry Hearts

Everywhere through endless time

You who wander, you who thirst

I offer you this Bodhi Mind.

It was a very sweet service. It helped that most of it was in English although there was some chanting in Japanese and some in, I guess, Pali or Sanskrit, I'm not sure which. All of it was easy to follow in the books everyone was given just before the service began. The chants talked a lot about feeding hungry spirits, both figuratively and literally, I guessed, as there were cans and boxes of food all over the altar. When it came time to bow, most people did the floor bows but some just bowed from the waist. I had no problem doing the floor bows although it's quite a trick figuring out how to do it when you're standing so close to everyone else; a standing person takes up much less room than one who's kneeling with their head on the floor. You kind of have to step out of line a bit and angle yourself so you don't put your butt in someone's face.

After the service, we ZP2 students stayed behind in the Buddha Hall where Luminous Heart explained the hungry ghosts. While, in some sense, they do refer to beings who are not currently living, they are also us, the part of us that wants and needs and is desperate to have. That helped me. I'm not so sure where I am on the idea of ghosts in other realms. Yes, my name (Marley) is associated with a pretty famous ghost in literature, Scrooge's partner, but I'm not entirely certain ghosts have much meaning for me except in the realm of fiction. However, when you describe them as that part of me that's never satisfied, well, there's no doubt that is real. And it does make me think of all the people I know, both dead and alive, whose disappointments are still palpable to me. I don't expect any of them to appear before me but I think I can feel in my body what this service is trying to address. And the food on the altar? People are supposed to bring a can of food to the service that goes to a local food bank.

Luminous Heart asked if the service made anyone uncomfortable. One guy said he didn't care for the bowing. Luminous Heart said she’d had trouble with bowing at first, too. "I was raised Presbyterian and, when I came into another practice and had to learn to bow, my mentor had also been a Presbyterian so, when I said, ‘I'm not going to bow!’ he said, ‘Bowing is very good exercise for Presbyterians because their necks are soooo stiff!’" She laughed. "You don't have to do it but you could experiment with it and see what that feels like to bow to the universe or to yourself or to love. Take it at your own pace. Each of us has their own history about what each of these things mean: bowing, incense, candles, black robes, all of it.”

She then asked about how the week between the two classes had gone, our "practice," she called it. One guy talked about the difficulty of sitting while suffering from allergies and bad knees. "When you start to meditate, every ache, every pain, every habit that you have--" Luminous Heart pulled her hand across her nose in a fake dramatic sniffle, chuckled, and then said, "everything it is that you do, that we all do, and that we think we really must do or we'll probably die if we don't do it immediately, comes up. So it's very interesting to experiment, to notice that you want to scratch your shoulder. You can scratch it if you want to, it isn't good or bad, but try to just notice the itch in your shoulder. Period. Just to notice the itch. "

Just typing that last sentence, I'm starting to itch, like, everywhere: under one of the pads on my eyeglasses, under my left shoulder blade, in my left ear, in the crease in my right elbow, etc. I bet you're pretty itchy now, too, just because I've made you think about it. Well, that happens when you're sitting. Especially when you first start. You’re supposed to try to ignore those.

Uh-huh.

Luminous Heart said, when you do, "Sometimes it gets greater and it probably will because your mind is saying, 'Oh, my goodness!!! Scratch that itch now!' Well, if you want to scratch, you scratch. It's just interesting to begin to experiment with what we think we need to do with our bodies." Luminous Heart then distinguished between this kind of shifting around and the kind we really should do, like, if your back starts to hurt, for example.

When it was my turn, I talked about how hard I found it to sit with my eyes open. “My black cat seems to plant herself wherever my eyes appear to be. And what harder to resist than a set of big green eyes staring up at you?”

Luminous Heart nodded and said, "The more you can learn to do it with your eyes open," she said, “then you can be sitting on a bus or in line at the bank with your eyes down like this and still know when it’s time to step up. You're not caught up in what's around you, nor are you avoiding it. You notice there's a cat walking by and then the cat isn't there any more and there you are again. So, it's a good practice."

That, or doing it in a room without the cat.

Another guy talked about the fact that, in the past, he tried to sit for twenty-five minutes but he had a hard time finding that much time with a small daughter.

"It is said here very, very often that it's about six hundred times better to sit for a short bit every day than to sit for an hour one day and none the next and thirty minutes the next. The continuity of the practice is what builds the stuff, the energy, the qi ("chee"), that thickens the concentrating ability so if you want to start with five minutes, that's fine. But at least you will have put your tush on the cush at least for that day. Your psyche knows that, you're whole being knows that. Is your child an infant?"

"Sixteen months."

"I meditated with my daughter when she was an infant. If you can meditate with her, it's heavenly especially if you do it right before they go to sleep, it goes right into their bodies."

A younger guy said he wakes up in full "monkey mind" so he found it helpful just to sit by the side of his bed for five minutes before heading out the door for work. "When I could hear the birds and keep coming back to my breath, that was good. As opposed to when the thoughts that go whssh, whssh, whssh."

Luminous Heart, who earned her living as a psychotherapist, pounced on his statement. "Everybody has monkey mind. There is no such person that doesn't, including Buddhas. Everyone thinks. We're not going to be stopping thinking! So the issue is: can you come back? Are you coming back? If you have maybe two breaths that are focused, then good on you, you know? That's better than zero. There's no such thing as a 'bad' sitting. Your tush was on the cush and you were present. That’s what counts."

Boy, is this a liberating idea: nothing gets in the way of meditating more, for me, than this idea that I'm doing it "wrong" or even that I'm just no good at it because, the moment I sit down, my mind starts to race. I thought the point of meditating was to stop your racing mind, to stop thought. Luminous Heart said that wasn't the point. You simply notice what's going on and then come back to the breath. The point is that coming back.

One woman said that, when she gets a focused breath or two, she'll suddenly notice that she's had them...and lose focus.

Luminous Heart broke up. "Yes! 'Aren't I wonderful that I had that focused breath' and then you're gone. It's very funny. You can feel yourself popping up after a while: 'I'm getting this down, aren't I wonderful!' Clunk." She laughed, "So I want to encourage you to keep doing what you're doing. Keep that one committed time. You want to be realistic but maybe just a little bit outside what's easy to do and then, if you can find one other time you can sit a little, then do."

Next up, our first zazen (seated meditation) in the zendo. Luminous Heart reviewed the ritual involved in walking in to the zendo….and there was a lot of it. On Sundays at ZCLA, there are two half-hour sessions of meditation with about ten minutes of walking meditation – “kinhin” - between them. The only time you can enter, leave, go to the bathroom or get a drink of water is during the walking meditation. But, because we were coming in to sit for the first time in between the first and second session, there was an additional, pragmatic ritual: we had to wait until everyone was back in front of their cushions so we didn’t inadvertently take someone’s seat. “They'll be in walking meditation and we'll enter after the clap, step over but not on the threshold, bow, and then take any empty seat. If you go to the far side of the room, make sure you walk behind the altar. If you pass any of the seats marked “monitor”, you pause and give a little bow of acknowledgement. When you get to your cushion, bow to it – it’s the Buddha’s seat, your seat – then turn and bow out (to the rest of the room) and then sit and turn around to face the wall.”

Wow. The saving grace to this overwhelming list of things to remember was that Luminous Heart somehow conveyed that no one would bite our heads off when we made our inevitable mistakes.

Once we got to the zendo, we took off our shoes again, and picked up whatever we needed – one of the small round cushions called zafus or a small bench or a chair – and waited in the vestibule. The stream of people in the kinhin walked at a pretty good clip around the U-shaped room. It was a little confusing to hear that we weren’t supposed to walk in front of the altar yet that’s just was this “kinhin” was doing.

When the clap came, each person put their hands up in a prayer position and kept walking until they got to their cushion and stopped. The abbot, Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, stopped in front of the cushion facing the altar. We then started filing into the room.

I was so intent on bowing at the right time and remembering not to walk in front of the altar, I stepped right on the thick wooden threshold. I wondered why it was so important not to step on it, was it one of those mindfulness tests?

When I found an empty cushion, I put my zafu down on it, bowed to my cushion, the seat of the Buddha, then turned and bowed to the room, and sat down.

Facing the wall.


20 April 2008

Beginning Zen


I decided to check out the Zen Center in Los Angeles, it seemed like an easier place to begin than most. They had a "beginners" tab on the front page of their website, a list of classes that began with Zen Practice 1, an explanation of what "zazen" is and how to do it. It just seemed welcoming.




I drove to ZCLA on a crisp sunny day through a somewhat tatty neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, tatty, that is, until I rounded the corner onto Normandie Avenue and drove to the top of the small rise. There, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, was a collection of perfectly painted old houses with a pavered drive between them that led past a small fountain and into a garden. A few chairs and tables were on two thick patches of grass and partially shaded by a couple of towering redwoods. Downtown Los Angeles?

A man in black cotton - John - was looking for trash by the front gate but not finding any. When I asked him about the classes for beginners, he said, "You're early. Come around the back by the coffee machine, if that matters to you!"

The room with the coffee maker also had mail cubbies, two couches, the main bulletin board with a lot of sign-up sheets and announcements about things like "Wall-Gazing Day" and the "2008 Precept & Jukai Series," as well as two strings across one wall with more than a hundred name tags clipped to them. I guessed they belonged to the members. It was kind of sweet that everyone had their own name tag, that there was that much concern for making sure that people knew each other, that assumptions weren't made everyone knew each other, leaving newcomers feeling like outsiders.

Pretty soon there were a few other beginners desperate for coffee and some regulars. You could tell the difference because the regulars were dressed in black.

Eventually, a tall, bird-like woman wearing black robes and a sweet smile gathered all the newcomers together near the front door. "My name is Luminous Heart, as I'm known here, or Penelope. I'm a psychotherapist and a Zen priest here at ZCLA."

Luminous Heart/Penelope described the community at ZCLA - somewhere between 100-200 members, 50 very active, and just under 30 of them live in the apartment building on site as does the Abbot, Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, who lives in one of the houses. She then gave us a brief tour of the "zendo" (the meditation room) which was once the first floor of another of the houses. What had been living room, kitchen and who knows what else, was now an open U-shaped room. Rectangular black cushions were around the perimeter and, in the center, was an altar with something other than a traditional Buddha on top.

After that, it was off to the "Dharma Hall," yet another of the wooden houses, this one at the end of the driveway, where Luminous Heart/Penelope taught us how to "sit." Let me tell you, this "sitting" has little in common with what I do every day in chairs. Well, maybe a little. A lifetime of having legs too short to reach the ground in most chairs means I sit cross-legged most of the time. Even at proper dinner tables. Even at restaurants, though most people I eat with don't ever know it. But there was a lot to learn about "sitting," starting with literally how to do it.

The Dharma Hall had a gray wall-to-wall carpet. Clean. In fact, every surface, inside and out, every bathroom, every floor, every counter, the garden and courtyard were remarkably clean.

We sat in a circle and Luminous Heart asked each of us to talk a bit about our backgrounds and why we'd come. I explained myself completely. My reason didn't seem too much stranger than anyone else's and it didn't seem to make a difference. Luminous Heart/Penelope said she came to the practice years ago when her mother died and two different people gave her a book by Thich Naht Hanh. "I couldn't pronounce his name at the time but I decided to learn more about this thing." And, after a spending some time in a variety of places, she ended up at ZCLA where she had been for some time.

Before beginning to teach us the what, why and how, Luminous Heart/Penelope said: "You haven't come to a military camp although maybe it'll seem that way at first. We don't do rituals for rituals' sake. These practices are designed to keep you in the here and now, to help you keep the focus on that which you are given to do."

Luminous Heart then showed us every way we could sit: on cushions of varying sizes, on small benches or even on chairs. You could sit in a full lotus (cross-legged with each foot on top of the opposite thigh,) a half-lotus (just one foot up)...


...or in something called a Burmese position where your legs are folded close to your body but resting on the mat and not crossed....


...or you could kneel using a cushion or small bench under your butt.

The key is you have to sit with an utterly straight back, unsupported by anything. If you sit on a chair, you can't lean against the back.

I'm not sure if so many choices are offered to people in Japan, for example, but at ZCLA, the point is fulfill the basic posture while allowing each person to work within our body's needs and limits so we can sit comfortably for at least thirty minutes at a stretch.

But there's more.

Your head is tilted down which insures that your neck is long and straight. Your hands rest on your feet if you're in the lotus position or on a small cushion in your lap if you aren't and you make a small oval with your hands and thumbs - the whole time you're "sitting." I guess that serves as a kind of alarm if you start to fall asleep. I mean, it's pretty impossible to keep your thumbs lightly touching if you're nodding off. And here's the capper, at least for me: Luminous Heart said, "Your eyes should be open, a sort of soft focus, a little bit out in front of you. The point is we're trying to wake up." And then you begin by counting your breath, from one to ten, and then starting over again. You can count an inhale as "one" and the exhale as "two" or one whole breath, inhale and exhale, can be "one," the next whole breath as "two, etc...it's a matter of personal preference.

Eyes open? I have a hard enough time sitting still to meditate when my eyes are closed, but eyes open? Really? Oh, and one more thing, most of the time you're "going to be facing the wall." Eyes soft-focused on plaster. Luminous Heart said she'd had problems with the whole eyes open thing when she started and tried to convince Roshi that it wasn't good for her. "But Roshi said, 'Just give it a year and see.'" Luminous Heart now says she can't imagine doing it any other way.

Sigh.

A lot of walls are in my future.

20 April 2008