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.

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