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

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