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.


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.