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.


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.


A lot of walls are in my future.

20 April 2008