My first reaction to that statement was relief: if she felt the need to address angry reactions to what was going on, then at least I had company. I mean, one of my feet was developing a deep blood blister where the cotton shoes were rubbing, my back and thighs were coming up with odd twinges from kneeling and standing motionless for long periods on marble floors, it was over a hundred degrees at midday, and people were yelling at us because we couldn't flawlessly follow dozens of rules we'd just heard for the first time 48 hours ago - in Mandarin. I was feeling especially mortified by my glaring imperfection, me, Miss Teacher's Pet Rule-Follower, unable to kneel when I was supposed to kneel, bow when I was supposed to bow, stand when I was supposed to stand.
That morning, when I’d blown it yet again, and was looking frantically through the chant book, I suddenly noticed the commands to kneel, bow and stand, in some cases, were actually in the chanted words themselves. So most of the people knew when to kneel, bow, and stand because it was actually in the words they were saying, the same words I was chanting but couldn't understand. I started to cry. Right there, in the front row, in my gray and brown robes. I felt like I was six. Unfair! It’s all unfair!
I sat in the air conditioned auditorium afterwards. A nun was speaking Chinese into the microphone up front when the teacher from Torrance passed me a note. It said: "If you would be interested in similar experiences without the frustrations, look into the Shambala Center in Eagle Rock – very American - or anywhere that’s oriented towards laity.”
I scribbled "thank you" on the note and gave it back to her. I was grateful for the kindness of this stranger I’d been wordlessly muddling along with for four days. But I had another reaction as well: Sure, I am pushed to my limits by all this but I don’t think I want diluted Buddhism, one made palatable for my American idiosyncrasies. Certainly not for this project because that would be off-point but I'm not sure I'd want that anyway. First, it’s unfair to think I was learning how to become just another practicing Buddhist when this retreat's very title, "Short-term Monastic Retreat," told me otherwise. I'm quite certain the rigors of clergy training in any faith would put me into the same state, no matter what the religion. But if the point of Buddhism is, as they said, to reveal the true nature we all have hidden by our greed, anger and ignorance, well, it was plain that this retreat was certainly kicking up a dust storm of my defects.
The Venerable standing in front of us in the auditorium was talking about our attitudes towards this retreat, the challenges we were facing in ourselves because of its rigor, she said that the lack of complicated morning skincare should feel freeing. “You should be happy because no one will be looking at you anyway. No matter how good your skincare products, you cannot use them on your mind.”
Someone laughed. I thought it was in appreciation of the idea. It does make its point in a funny way. But the Venerable barked, “You laugh? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Where is your mind? No one’s going to look out for you. We have this structure, these corrections to help you.”
I was shocked. I felt like I’d fallen into some alternate universe where conventional social niceties were violations and what would be rude disregard was a virtue. It sure felt anything but compassionate to me. If that’s compassion, it’s a pretty muscular definition unlike any I’ve known. I don’t think of stern admonitions demanding to know “where is your mind?” as compassionate. But perhaps I should consider it.
My mind is usually on anything but where I am or what I’m doing. Instead of concentrating on the rituals I'm learning, I'm almost exclusively focused on pleasing those around me, doing it "best" and, therefore paradoxically, doing it worst. I've had jobs where practically my entire concern was over what people thought of me rather than the tasks at hand. Right now, I get in the car to drive the boys to school and I swear the car drives itself. I remember none of the actual driving because I’ve nursed whatever worry I have to some kind of action plan for the day. And it's never occurred to me that this might be a problem. I love the world that swirls in my head – most of the time – and I think I even use it to protect myself.
I remember when I first realized that I didn’t have to actually be in the car with my squabbling family, that I could look out the window and conduct thought experiments in my head – If I can see that man walking his dog on the street, can he see me? Will any boy ever want to kiss me? If I broke my leg like Helen Pilling, would as many people want to sign my cast? – and, whatever imperfections I decided my family members had, would fade. I could no longer see them or even hear them.
A lot of the time, I am still that little kid worried about what the world thinks of me. My head is crammed full of it.
On the other hand, the very idea to do what I’m doing came from one of those mind-wandering drives. About a year before 9/11, I’d gotten tired of feeling bewildered when I listened to news reports of people of faith in disagreement or at war with each other over matters of faith so I decided to take two freshman survey courses at the local state university: Intro to the Bible and Intro to World Religions. On my final drive home from the classes, I felt a deep relief that at least I now understood some of the basics of what people believed, of what was actually written in the Bible. But, as my car left one freeway for another, I began to think, "I still have no idea what it feels like to actually practice any religion. What would happen if….?” And this project is what came of that mind ramble. I’m not so sure I want to give those rambles up. Or if I should even try, what the purpose might be, and what any of this has to do with religion.
But the central purpose of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering and there is no doubt that these nuns think suffering comes from our thinking, from an out of control mind. And, believe me, I could see and feel my mind run riot almost moment by moment in the four days of not talking and just doing.
On the retreat schedule, every morning after breakfast, we had a walking meditation. Sometimes it was a normal deliberate walk, other times it was as slow as our breathing. We were supposed to be utterly conscious of our bodies as the weight shifts from one foot to another. We were always in a line, always behind the same person.
This morning, Ven Miao Hsi was busy so we had had a new leader, an earnest young nun who was concerned that we looked so nervous. Well, yeah, we were nervous. There seemed to be so many ways to go wrong, so many ways to be "unmindful." She seemed particularly concerned about my furrowed brow. "You seem worried. I can tell by the lines on your face."
I thought: well, I suppose there's botox for that. Unfortunately, I could ever pay someone to inject paralytic toxin into my face so, instead, I choose to think of the deep lines around my mouth as my "smile" lines and the twin vertical lines over my nose as my "thought plumes." On my sane days, I'm even rather proud of those. But the collision of all of these present moment-by-moment rules with my people-pleasing performance anxiety and churning storytelling brain was eye-opening. I hadn’t considered the extent to which I fundamentally operate from “I think, therefore I am.”
If thinking is the source of suffering, (which it’s pretty hard to argue it isn’t) I think I embrace suffering. In fact, I might go even one step further: I can’t think of a lesson I’ve learned in my life that was worth anything that I learned without suffering. I mean, would I be on this retreat if I didn't believe in the value of suffering?
Well, maybe there is one.
When I gave birth to my sons, I learned I was capable of sustained, unconditional love. I suppose some might argue there was suffering involved, physical and structural life changes, but I can’t call any of it that. Although sitting here right now in front of this keyboard, I can go into the future, the future when, if I’ve done the job right, my boys will leave without a thought for their independent lives and, yes, I will suffer then. I can weep right now, thinking about it.
Is this evidence of the damage thought can do? Is this an example of how not being where you are, where your body is at this moment, can saddle life with unnecessary pain, wiping out present joy?
“Anyone can be a Buddha,” the shorn nun said. “All sentient beings are equal. No one is more likely than anyone else.” We just have to come to know that, to be able to see this “precious pearl” we all have hiding under the muck of our greed, anger and ignorance. And this “compassionate” stress on being present in the here and now is meant to help us see everything that we contribute to our own muck.
One of the Venerables asked if we thought our life was tough, if we thought this retreat was tough. “Easy or tough, depends on your mind. Happiness and suffering all come and go. Nothing is permanent.”
Not even this retreat.
11 July 2007