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.

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