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.
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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.

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