02 September 2009

Not Knowing

So much of Zen Buddhism is about not knowing. Irritating. I like to know. I like to think I know. I like to tell everyone in my life what they should do to improve their lives based on what I think I know. I wish I could say I'm being too harsh, too self-critical but I don't think I am. But drop off your first-born for his first year at college and you find out just how little you really know.

(Again, I must apologize. Almost all that I've done in Zen Buddhism that leads up to this lies in raw notes in notebooks, soon to be transformed into posts so I can ONE DAY catch up with myself but I just can't resist writing about some of this when it applies to what's happening in my life right now. [I sure wish I'd thought about doing a blog from the first day I started this thing....] So, please don't miss the new posts I'll be adding fairly consistently this month starting just after the 6 March 2009 post...)

One of the central rituals in the Zen tradition is something called the face-to-face meeting ("dokusan") with your teacher. In the Japanese White Plum tradition, as it is in many traditions, it's a wildly ritualized one-on-one meeting the folks at ZCLA suggest having at least once a week. You wait in the face-to-face meeting line, sitting just like you sit in the zendo, on your cushion, meditating ("just sitting") until you're at the front of the line. When Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao rings her little bell, you signal that you're coming by tapping a large iron bell twice. Then you walk down the hall with your cushion and your question. I think you're supposed to talk about issues that come up in your practice but try as I might to get around it, I found out pretty quickly that "practice" is no different than your life. Sit still and what ever's bugging you in your life shows up, like it or not. Every time I go in to that little room, with or without a question about Zen Buddhist practice in general or my efforts in particular, we somehow end up talking about my thinking and my ideas about life to which Roshi inevitably responds: "Is that true? Is that really true? How do you know?"

And there is always only one true answer: I don't. I don't know.

And then I trudge back up the hallway, cushion in my hands, convinced yet again about how little I actually know when I stop for a second to really question my assumptions.

For instance, when I dropped Luke and all of his stuff off at college for the first time, I was all set to indulge in the maudlin. I'd imagined it all: on the plane he played his part perfectly, falling asleep with his head on my shoulder as he always does. We shopped without rancor for the last few things, ate dinner with my parents as they live near where he's going to college. I didn't tear up in front of him but, in bed the night before, I went through all of those scenes of him as an infant, toddler, middle-schooler all in black etc and indulged. He was leaving. Our family would never be the same.

But then Luke veered from my script. He was supposed to hustle me off campus and then not call me for weeks because he was having too good a time. But Luke was miserable. Nothing was what he expected. He was panicked. And I went right down the tube with him. For days. Not completely. I did leave before I got involved setting up every last thing in his room for him. I did get on the plane and head home. I did keep the phone calls and text messages down below insane. But I took his panic and made it mine. I spun out all the possible scenarios - none of them good - about what his unhappy reaction meant about his immediate future and my parenting. And then I started to give advice. And obsess about what I could have or should have done, could say or should have said to make it better. I "should have" stayed to fix his room up because nothing is more depressing than a disorganized chaotic nest.

Then I finally remembered this "not knowing" thing I keep hearing about from the teachers at ZCLA. I don't know if Luke's unhappiness is actually bad for him. I don't know if he'll finally want to come home, I don't know if staying is what HAS to happen, I don't know how Luke should or shouldn't help himself deal better with the transition and, what's more, I don't know, if Luke actually took any of my advice, if he finished setting up his room the way I thought he should, for example, that he'd actually be better off in the long run. I don't know.

As soon as I really really realized that, I suddenly noticed what MY living room looked like. All around me were chaotic piles of clothes, books and CDs Luke had pulled out of his room to give away. And I don't even want to talk about the stacks of books by the side of my bed. Here I am obsessing about getting Luke to set up and to clean up his new room so he'll feel better about his life while sitting in a mess of my own. What better proof of how much I don't know?

After a day and a half of staying off the phone, off the internet, so I could move the stuff off the living room floor and out of the house, I felt better.

Not knowing. I'm working on it.

Related articles that refer to "not knowing" or the people in this post:

-- A lecture by Shunryu Suzuki
--a profile of Bernie Glassman, who was there at the beginning of the ZCLA)
-- a Zen talk Korean Zen teacher Hyunoong Sunim
--a dharma talk by Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman on Shunryu Suzuki's Beginner's Mind
--podcast interview with Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, part one, part two, part three

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