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.

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