20 July 2007

Next steps

I'm not sure whether everything I've learned at the Hsi lai Short-term Monastic Retreat is specific to Buddhism in general or if some of it says more about Chinese Buddhism or even Chinese culture. The kind of Buddhism practiced at the Hsi Lai temple - a blend of Pure Land, Rinzai and Ch'an Buddhism - is one of the most widely practiced types of Buddhism in the world, while Zen Buddhism (the Japanese word for Ch'an) is far more well-known here in the United States, in part, because many of the very first Buddhist practitioners who came in the late 1800s and early twentieth century were from the Zen tradition and, in part, thanks to the 60s and writers like Alan Watts (The Way of Zen, etc), among many others. Maybe if I spend some time in Zen Buddhism, I'll understand more about what's central to Buddhism in general as opposed to Chinese Buddhism or Hsi Lai-specific practice.

Here are some of the key books Professor Chris Chapple from Loyola Marymount and others suggested that newbies to Buddhism read:

The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau

Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki

Buddhism by Huston Smith and Philip Novak

...and some of my favorites...

Zen Mind, Beginner Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

On Zen Practice: Body, Breath and Mind by Taizan Maezumi with Bernie Glassman

Appreciate Your Life: The Essence of Zen Practice by Taizan Maezumi Roshi

15 July 2007

Some additional post-retreat thoughts

About death...

I've finally found a group of people more obsessed with death than me.

About suffering...

Siddartha Gautama, the prince who ultimately became the historical Buddha*(term explained below) was so traumatized by suffering - by birth, illness, old age, and death - he left his family and life of power and priveledge behind to find a way to alleviate suffering, especially that of others.

I don't think I dislike suffering that much. I don't seek it out but it's part of the life I love, it's part of love, and I would rather have the pain of attachments than no attachments.

(I need to throw in a disclaimer here: Please remember the title of this blog. I am writing about my reactions to what I'm learning, to my very shallow but, I hope, slowly growing understanding of each faith. It is inevitable that I will look back at some of what I thought and wrote and be aghast at my misinterpretation of what I was taught but I know of no way to avoid that and tell the truth of this journey. I beg anyone who has a deeper understanding of the faith I'm writing about to please comment. That way others who read this won't be left with just the information I convey...)

Intensity is what I live for and, though I hate it, I can palpably feel my life when I suffer. I think I'm very very lucky when I love enough to suffer. I still ache about the loss of my grandmother and Kevin's father, in particular, after long slow declines but my experience of illness is that it's been an opportunity for the expression of real love in action, a chance for true intimacy. And the funerals - at least the ones I've attended - reveal how meaningless petty squabbles really are.

My meaning has come from throwing myself as fully into life as I possibly can, muck and all. Suffering? Bring it on. If it's here, I'm going to feel it, know it, benefit from it, and, I hope, learn from it. So I'm a little confused about "alleviating" suffering. Does it mean I need to care less? Love less? Live a dull gray life? If I don't have suffering, will I have a life worth living?

About my outward focus...

Yes. I get it. I am too outwardly focused. More precisely, my attention is often on others, hoping that by watching them, I'll know how to act and live. Is this what gossip is about? A way of groups communicating how one "should" behave? Of holding up the behavior of others to see how we measure up?

My self-concept comes, more often than it should, by what I see reflected back to me from the people in my life. I'm flying when I get love and approval, in the dirt when I don't. But there's more to this than that. I love moving through the world hyper-aware of what's going on around me: light through a train window on a fingernail; a woman at a table staring at the table top, the other chair pushed crooked away from the table; the smell of a thunderstorm; my sons giggling together in the back seat; Matt driving me for the very first time; that first look from Luke when they put him on my belly and he turned to look up at me. Perhaps these moments of hyper-awareness have been my primary "religion" up until now. Is doing this an illusion? A delusion? I guess if I only feel alive when reacted to then Buddhism would say that is a problem. Well, ignorance, at least.

But the emphasis on not being able to look around at the Hsi Lai Short-term Monastic Retreat? I felt like I was missing a lot. I can't tell you what others were doing, thinking, or feeling - which is a lot more fun to notice than what I'm thinking and feeling. (As if I could tell from watching them, from what I could see on their faces....)

I guess thats the point. I believe my scrutiny of the world around me and the people in it is helpful to me and others. Buddhism tells me (I think) that that it's a waste of my time and energy. First, it means I see myself as separate and apart from others, from the world, not interdependent and interrelated. Second, I'm not actually present for my own life. And, third, I use my observations of the "outside world" to make up theories about how to hold on to the "good" people and events or to prevent the "bad" ones from coming into my life ever again. Even I can see some of the problem with this: so many events I thought were "bad" at the time, turned out not to be. And how many grasping "successes" have I had that weren't that at all?

15 July 2007

*When people say "historical Buddha" they're differentiating between the actual person who began what is now known as Buddhism and all Buddhas, because there are countless Buddhas. Buddhism does not consider Gautama Buddha the first, the last or the only Buddha. In fact, each of us has Buddha-nature and the practice of Buddhism is designed to help us realize that.

14 July 2007


Re-entry's been strange. Matt keeps asking me why I'm being "so quiet," when am I going to "turn back into your regular self?" I think that's more about his fear about me changing in some way that might be uncomfortable for him rather than any big change in me. Plus I don't think I've ever been away from them for eight days straight since I worked for 60 MINUTES and that ended when Matt was two and Luke was four. I do feel a bit "stared at" by my family and even some of my friends, like they're looking for some evidence that I'm changing, perhaps going off the deep end. Maybe I'm just making it up but I find myself trying to assure people that I still have the same foul mouth I got from working in a television newsroom and snarky attitude. Why it's so important to me to show no evidence of change I have no idea.

When I told Luke about all of the detailed rules at the retreat and that I finally found that some of it was good in that it forced me to be more present and less in my head chatter he said, "That's called Stockholm Syndrome, Mom."

Matt added, "I feel like I'm talking to a concentration camp escapee."

I don't know what to say about this except to report it. I'm freaking out my children...and maybe others who are just too polite to tell me.

14 July 2007

13 July 2007


We were a sea of faces, lined up across the steps leading to the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple's main shrine, our last moments as temporary Buddhist monastics snapped and recorded.

Those wearing the orange robes are the Venerables, our teachers. In the rows of gray behind them, are all of us "Preceptees"

As soon as it was over, there was talking – a lot of it – as well as teasing and laughter as people brought out their own cameras to photograph their groups before our “unordination ceremony” stripped us of our robes.

It was a relief to laugh, to smile, to compare notes, and I sure was looking forward to going home to Luke, Matt, and Kevin, to my own home and life, but it was also disorienting. I’d walked in a line, from dawn until bedtime for a week, with the same people, looked at the same set of rounded shoulder blades in front of me, got poked by the same playful tormentor behind me. I guess you can’t help feeling literally connected to others if you do everything together but what surprised me was the deep affection I felt for this small group of strangers. I mean, we’d barely spoken to each other and yet it was odd to think I’d get in my car in a couple of hours and just drive off.

The unordination ceremony was officially called “The Relinquishing of Monastic Precepts.” It took place in the main shrine and was the ordination ceremony in reverse. We ritually took off and handed back our prayer mats, our begging bowls, the orange bag for the begging bowls, and our brown robes, all symbols for what we were really giving back: the requirement to live by the monastic precepts. While there was the same amount of chanting, bowing and kneeling, the service seemed almost underwater…or maybe I was. There were people in the room who were crying. Whether it was from relief that the week was over or because they regretted that their time as a monastic was over, I couldn’t tell. Me, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. When I’m done something, I’m done, and that hadn’t gone completely; I had to struggle to be where I was, not to run through the checklist of what I needed to do to get out fast while I stood with my neatly folded brown robe, both hands curling up from the bottom around the front edge of the square of brown fabric, ready for my turn to hand it over just when I’d gotten good at keeping it on, keeping the open side of the robe from flying open as I walked. (That double wrap of the loop did the trick.) I was also just starting to know when to kneel, when to bow, when to stand up, to be able to chant with comfort “Na Mo Ben Shi Shi Jia Mu Ni Fo” (“Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha” ) on the way to meals. I could even remember which way my folded hand towel was supposed to hang and which way the folded edges of my prayer mat were supposed to face when I held it in front of me when I walked. All this, just when it was time to go home.

As we walked back up the hill to our room for the last time, I thought about Hemu. While the collision of my non-ritual self with a 24/7 ritual life was bound to be stressful, there was one notion I hadn’t considered: how much easier it is to live a spiritually dedicated life when absolutely ever facet of your existence is proscribed and provided. I am not saying it isn’t hard, that it doesn’t require more discipline than I currently have, but Hemu and the hundreds of thousands of dedicated lay followers of religions all over the world like Hemu somehow find a way to live a life centered on the practice of their faith while also remaining, as the Hindus say, “householders.” They have families and jobs and still the most dedicated among them do all that their faith calls them to do. That seems even harder than owning nothing and living full time at a monastery. Perhaps what I’m missing is the complete lack of personal time, of a personal life. The monastics in charge of the retreat went to bed an hour or more after we did and got up hours before. And I’m not sure if there’s anything like time off.

Maybe it’s all hard. Or it just seems that way to someone with only enough discipline to muscle through an intense week of practice but who appears to lack whatever it is that you need to sustain a daily practice.

After a cup of way-too-sweet mocha at a grocery store coffee counter with the Hindu flight attendant, I started the drive home. I can take any one of three different highways so I had to turn on the radio to see which way had the least amount of traffic. The clatter of the news radio station was overwhelming. I couldn’t listen to it long enough to get to the traffic report. I decided just to drive and take whatever came.

When I walked in the door, Matt ran to hug me. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Are you sure? You seem kind of quiet.”

I told myself he was just looking for the drama. “Yes, I’m fine. Stop.” I kissed him again and said, “I’m going to put my stuff down and take a shower.”

I took my knapsack of stuff and the bag we were each given full of parting gifts - a few books, our Certificate of Completion, a copy of the huge group photo, a collection of the daily essays we wrote – back to my room. I couldn’t believe how much stuff Kevin and I had. It was just our room, no messier than usual, but the stack of books next to the book shelf by my bed, the computer and pile of notebooks on the desk, the closet which I’d said just the week before had “nothing to wear” in it -- all seemed repulsive.

After my shower, which turned out to be much shorter than I’d planned, I found myself carefully going through drawer after drawer in the bathroom, throwing old make-up, lotions and hair products away until there was little left and each had a clear place to be.

13 July 2007

12 July 2007

Breaking loose...

It's over. In less than a day. I knew the short-term monastic retreat was coming to the end because one of my suitemates, the woman behind me in line, has started to tease me. How do you tease someone without saying a word? Believe me, she could do it. Mostly it involved poking me at times when my reaction, if seen, might embarrass me. Grown, married women, both of us. I loved it. I hated it. I was embarrassed by it. It was unbelievably funny.

What is it about rules, serious rules, that make breaking them so delicious? Especially after trying to hard for so many hours, so many days, to follow them. Or is that just me? Is this the part of me that keeps me shallow...or keeps me sane? Is humor the enemy of spirituality? Of religious practice? It kind of feels that way to me sometimes.

In the two sessions in which we let people know who we were, I found out my playful tormentor was a flight attendant who'd been raised in a Hindu family.

12 July 2007

A cookie?

One day to go.

I've gotten pretty good at the whole food thing. The way it works is the servers come by but, because you can't look up or around, all you see of them are their hands and the bowl or tray of food they're carrying. You let them know how much you want - if you want more or none - by a series of hand gestures. The food has been consistently good vegetarian fare with lots of various forms of soy products. However, I don't care how hungry I get or how indiscriminate I am supposed to be, I will never like lima beans. And, after the first day, I drew the line at the morning rice soup which I may never be spiritually sound enough, from a Buddhist point of view, to choke down. I will always discriminate against that.

At lunch, which was always our last meal of the day, I'd finished all I'd been served. After that, tea or hot water was served. Next thing I knew, a white-aproned waist appeared in front of me with a plate of cookies in its hands. Oreo cookies. I thought it was a joke.

In violation of everything I knew I was supposed to do, I looked up at the young guy holding the plate and, without a word, using only my eyes, asked if he was for real, if he was actually offering me an Oreo cookie. After six days of green and white fare, the sight of that cookie was a shock, a joke, a punch line. He smiled a "yes" back at me.

That moment, that exchange of delight, was even better than the cookie.

12 July 2007


I only managed to memorize a few of the texts we were supposed to try to memorize during the week. The slightly odd syntax that comes from direct translation was a mixed blessing; in some ways, it made them easier to remember. Here they are:

#1 Taking Refuge - the central Buddhist vows that most Buddhists recite in one form or another. The key idea that never changes is: the vow to take refuge in the Buddha (the historical teacher/the Nature that we all share), the Dharma (the teaching) and the Sangha (the community.)

Taking refuge in the Buddha, I wish every sentient being to understand the highest doctrine and make the greatest vow.

Taking refuge in the Dharma, I wish every sentient being to study deeply the sutra Pitaka and acquire an ocean of wisdom.

Taking refuge in the Sangha, I wish every sentient being to lead the congregation in harmony and without any obstruction.

#2 Transfer of Merits (what this means: wikipedia, Buddhanet)

May kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity pervade all Dharma realms.

May all people and heavenly beings benefit from our blessings and friendship.

May our ethical practice of Ch'an and Pure Land help us to realize equality and patience.

May we undertake the greatest vows with humility and gratitude.

#3 Humble Table, Wise Fare - written by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, founder of the Hsi Lai Temple's denomination, the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order whose headquarters are in Taiwan.

With an open mind
Every road is wide
With a pure mind,
Everywhere is the pure land.

Know how to listen
- you will accept the Dharma
Know how to think
- you will benefit from the Dharma
Know how to cultivate
- you will apply the Dharma

Although being a leader is good
Because you can lead the community
Being second is also wonderful
Because you can complement and support others
A leader should take care of the weak

When working, there is no real difference
Between the important and the menial.
When serving, there is no real difference
Between the worthy and the undeserving.
When learning, there is no real difference
Between the young and the old.
When cultivating, there is no real difference
Between the sage and the ordinary.

#4 The Heart Sutra (Prajna Paramita) This one I worked on and almost got under my belt before the end of the retreat. This sutra is one of the most important teachings -- if not the most important - in all of Mahayana Buddhism. It's considered by many to be a concise summary of the central tenets of one of the two main schools of Buddhism. There are many many different translations of it. The non-English words in it are Sanskrit terms that largely remain no matter what version you read.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, while contemplating profoundly the Prajna Paramita, realized that the five skandhas are empty, and thus he was able to overcome all sufferings.

Sariputra, Form is not different than Emptiness, Emptiness is not different from Form.

Form is in fact Emptiness, and Emptiness is in fact Form.

This also applies to feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness. Sariputra, Emptiness is the nature of all the Dharmas. It can neither be created no annihilated, polluted nor cleansed, increased nor decreased, therefore, in Emptiness, there is no form, feeling, perception, volition, or consciousness. No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. No form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or conception. No object of sight, and no consciousness; no ignorance nor its extinction; no aging and no death nor their cessation; no suffering, causes, cessation, nor the path; no wisdom nor attainment.

As there is nothing to attain, a Bodhisattva who relies on the Prajna Paramita has neither worry nor obstruction. Without worry and obstruction, there is no fear, away from confusion, daydreaming, and thus reaches Nirvana.

Buddhas of the past, present, and future also rely on the Prajna Paramita to attain Supreme Enlightenment. Thus one should know that the Prajna Paramita is the great mantra and the supreme of all mantras. It is unequalled and able to emancipate all sufferings.

This is true and not false. Thus proclaiming the Paramita Mantra, one says, "Ga-te, Ga-te, Paraga-te, Parasanga-te Bodhisattva."

11 July 2007

11 July 2007

Suffering and compassion

Compassion. At least once a day someone says the heart of Buddhism is compassion. Today one of the Venerables – that’s the title of the women in black robes – said instead of getting angry in our minds about the Discipline Master’s actions and barked commands, we should recognize the difficulty of what she’s doing and the selfless compassion that’s involved.


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


Silence is a powerful force. It changes your brain.

The retreat had been, by no means, a meditation retreat (we'd only done that twice for less than an hour each time) and we'd sat through a couple of lectures a day but, aside from two group meetings, none of us were supposed to talk. Ever. Not in our rooms, certainly not at meals, not even on bathroom breaks or while we worked together in the afternoons on our assigned chores. (Our group mopped marble, vacuumed the long red indoor/outdoor carpet; cleaned the office windows, sills and ledges.)

So, when our gray-suited line opened the dining room door to leave the silent hall and found ourselves in a parted sea of regular folks - dads in plaid shirts, moms holding their small children back, a cacophonous school group eager to get in to eat, their voices caroming from marble floor to cement ceiling and back, all curious to get a gander at us as we streamed by without looking at them -- the sound, the energy was overwhelming.

Just months before I'd been in one of those school groups with Matt's class. It's how I knew about Hsi Lai. I'd been one of those unconsciously noisy people, unaware how I was affecting others. None of them were especially noisy by American standards, by my normal standards, yet there I was, in effect, unable to stand my own noise.

10 July 2007

Help! I'm back in elementary school!

It's a good thing I'm typing this or you'd never be able to read it, my handwriting is that bad. I was the only one I knew of who Miss Holmes kicked back down to pencil after graduating to pen in fifth grade. I don't remember if I was ever allowed to write with pen for the rest of the year. So, when we were told to go to the conference room on top of the other wing of the Hsi Lai Temple, that we were going to spend the next hour "copying the Heart Sutra," I confess I panicked.

The conference hall had long U-shaped conference tables that could seat dozens of people. At each place around the table was a beige booklet and what looked like a black brush but was actually an automatic brush, kind of like a pen except with a brush instead of a roller ball or ballpoint. We could copy the Heart Sutra in Chinese or in English. Guess what I chose.

The Heart Sutra is considered the best. most condensed summation of Buddhist thought. It's hard to overstate its importance. It's venerated in all branches of Buddhism. Its power comes not just from the meaning of its words but the very vibration of saying it aloud. Some branches say that The Heart Sutra is enlightenment. There are many different translations of the Sutra, (this link takes you to one of the versions.) There are longer and shorter versions as well as line-by-line interpretations of it by countless Buddhist monks and scholars.

The practice of sutra copying is yet another exercise in focus, in mindfulness. And there's nothing like making the effort to do something perfectly with breathtakingly imperfect skills. I think heard Miss Holmes, wherever she may be, cackle when she saw me take up that brush and try to flawlessly trace those faint gray letters. And here are the results of almost an hour of work.

Yes, the part in black was all I got done.

Avalokitesvara was profoundly absorbed in prajna-paramita; I, on the other hand, was profoundly absorbed in trying to stay on the lines.

I think Buddhists might say there's no difference. Miss Holmes would beg to differ.

My new name?

When you become a Buddhist monk or nun, you get a new name. Mine was "Ben Ri." For the rest of the Hsi Lai Eight Precept retreat, that was what I was called and how I had to sign my name. Our entire group was "Ben" something. When they gave me my new name tag, I decided that, when I got a chance to talk, I was going to ask Venerable Miao Hsi how to pronounce it and what, if anything, Ben Ri meant.

This idea of getting a new name... I guess that happens in a number of different religions. At least some Catholic nuns change their names when they become nuns but I think they get to choose their own. I'm not sure how I feel about this idea of a new name, of leaving the one I was born with behind.

Before I got married, I never felt all that strongly one way or the other about the whole name change thing, perhaps because I really only ever use my first name anyway. It's unusual enough, it usually doesn't require a last name to separate this Marley out from all the rest. So, I figured that, if I got married and if I liked my future husband's last name better than mine, I'd change it. If I didn't, I wouldn't. But, when Kevin and I decided to get married and it turned out that I actually did like his last name, I found I just couldn't do it. I'd been "me" too long. It felt weird to change my name, the implication seemed too great, like I was going to have to give up my very identity just because I'd decided I could spend the rest of my life with this guy and I didn't think that's what being married meant, giving up my separate identity. I thought it was more like deciding to go down the same path together.

Now, this may explain some of why we had a pretty rocky time of it our first decade together. But, just a few months ago, as a twentieth anniversary present, I told Kevin that I was finally -- and officially -- going to take his last name. He burst into tears. He'd been pretty cool about it when I'd decided not to back in 1987 so I was shocked it meant so much to him. I can't finish all the paperwork to make the name change official until the end of the summer but I put a ribbon around the initial social security forms and gave them to him as my present. Just in terms of reaction, it may be one of the best presents I've ever given.

I wonder what it'll feel like, how much it'll matter, that my name will be new, different. I mean, I even have to get used to a new signature when my pen seems to write the name I was born with almost automatically. I guess I'd better start practicing...

But I'm not writing about marriage...although, perhaps, the problem I had letting go of my old identity and the effect of that unwillingness is exactly why ordination comes with a new name. I guess I have a pretty strong notion of who "Marley" is and what it means to be me. I always assumed that that was a good thing, something to work for. And it's important to me, this name: it was my mother's mother's last name. There have been consequences of the choice of this name for me, a story that went with it, a story that I love, that has become mine because my name is Marley. So, when I consider the possibility that I could, if I wanted to, live the rest of my life without that name, I find it completely confusing. There is part of me that's sitting here demanding to know who I might be, then, without that name? Would I be "me?" Should I care that much about something that's the definition of superficial? I mean, my name isn't me, is it?
My Hindu teacher, Swami Sarvadevananda (who also got a new name when he became a swami) refused to talk about his previous name, the name he was given at birth. He'd left that person behind along with his old life, his old concept of himself. Do I want to leave mine behind? Is it even possible?

How much does my name have to do with who I am anyway? Who I really am?

During the time we were supposed to be taking our showers, I went looking for Venerable Miao Hsi. She was answering email at her desk. "Can you tell me how to say my name?"
I cannot even pretend to replicate here how Ven Miao Hsi said to pronounce Ben Ri: it's pronounced nothing like it looks. The "Ben" part is pretty straight forward but"Ri" involves some teeth, mouth, and throat action we don't use in English that I could never quite master.

And how did she choose mine? "We just give out the names at random. From a list. 'Ri' means 'now,' so Ben Ri means: 'beginning' or 'starting now.' "

Beginning Now. Pretty perfect, eh?

10 July 2007

09 July 2007

Compassionate Hitting?

In a talk sometime after our "ordination," one of the Venerables told a story about a monk-in-training whose teacher asked him, "Why did you come here?"

"I want training."

The Master shouted, "You think only of yourself!" and beat him with a stick.

The next day the Master asked him again, "Why did you come here?"

The monk-in-training said, "For your training."

The Master hit him with a stick again and said, "Answers can't come from outside! They have to come from you!"

Still the monk-in-training came back a third time. (Stories like this always have a third time, don't they?)

The Master asked, "Why have you come?"

The trainee said, "If you want to beat me, beat me."

And he was enlightened.

I'm not sure this story translates, culturally. I don't know about you but I don't want to learn anything from someone who is hitting me. Call it ego, call it pride, call it resistance....I call it self-preservation. I guess that's the point, that it's that "self" that gets in the way of realization but, I dunno, the idea that hitting can be compassionate just plain makes no sense to me. My parents spanked us. I hated it. It was shaming. It felt like the ultimate exercise of power of the big over the small. I don't remember learning anything from it except secrecy and guile.

At one point the Venerable said we "preceptees" (i.e. temporary monastics-in-training) had it much easier than the real trainees back in Taiwan: they have no place to sleep they can call their own, for example, and the detailed rules are rigidly enforced, sometimes with sticks. A little research turned up the fact that the Rinzai sect of Mahayana Buddhism is known for this. Here's a link to a pretty well-known Zen monk named Brad Warner (author of Hard Core Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up, among others) explaining the source of this practice by talking about the beginning of Rinzai and Master Rinzai, himself.

All I know is, it's hard enough to put up with the fierce scowls from the Discipline Master and the threats of public tongue-lashings; I can't imagine lasting one day if hitting were part of this.

It's a good thing that people keep talking about the ways in which Buddhism changes as it becomes established in a new culture. (*see below for more on this) It's hard to imagine this stick thing surviving in any form of Western or American Buddhism.

Note: Some of these links are in the column over there ======> in the "Stuff to listen to" list but here are a bunch of links where Brad Warner talks about Rinzai Buddhism at the Victoria Zen Center in Victoria BC, Canada:

(and there are number of other talks on this site: Living Zen)

* Cultural differences in Buddhism
The two main branches of Buddhism are Theravada, which is found primarily in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia, and Mahayana, which is practiced in Japan, Korea, and Tibet. (Both are represented in the United States.) Grossly simplified, Theravada says you should focus on your own salvation; Mahayana says the salvation of others comes first. Theravada is older. Mahayana is more popular.

Tibetan Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama, is quite different from the Chinese Rinzai/Pure Land/Ch'an that's practiced at the Hsi Lai Temple. Because of its distinctive characteristics, Huston Smith refers to Tibetan Buddhism as the "third way." It's a great example of the way in which Buddhism settles down over time in a new culture. Tibetan Buddhism came directly from India but it incorporates some of Tibet's pre-Buddhist deities and has a more mystical tradition. In China, Buddhism interacted with Confucian concepts of social order and so became something quite different from Tibetan Buddhism.

The Heathen gets...ordained?

Ordination day at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple and it’s over 100 degrees.

Even the nuns looked nervous. They’d spent three hours the day before trying to teach us everything we needed to do during the ritual and we’d given them good cause to be nervous.

Along with having no clue that the retreat was conducted exclusively in Mandarin, I didn’t fully understand that we were literally going to be temporarily ordained. The central purpose of the retreat was to give lay people the experience of a monastic life, if only for a week. The idea is that there might be people who long for this kind of commitment who can’t do it in this lifetime because of the commitments they already have to their parents, or spouses, or children. So the central ritual is a temporary ordination and we spent the first full day preparing for it. Part of the preparation was explaining just how serious, sacred, what we were doing was, even if it was only for a handful of days.

In the auditorium before the training and rehearsal, they went through a list of things that would disqualify us from going through the ceremony – which seemed like kind of an awkward time to be going through a list like this. People had rearranged their lives, some had come from all over the country and even Canada to be at this monastic retreat, so none of us were going to want to find out we might not be able to fully participate. I mean, I could give a list a mile long as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to be ordained even temporarily, the most obvious was I knew essentially nothing about Buddhism, but the Discipline Master said no one could go through the ceremony if we were “from another religion” and “intended to return” to that religion. Did that apply to me? Am I from “another religion?” I can’t say I’m Buddhist but does that mean I’m from another religion?

I feel like I’ve spent my life hearing that I don’t belong. My father was raised in a Jewish home but, according to Judaism I’m not Jewish because my mom is not. I think I’m not Jewish because I don’t know a thing about it, not because my mom isn’t, but I guess that just helps make the point. I went to a grade school with an Episcopalian tradition. I wasn’t Episcopalian. I’ve been asked quite often if I’m “born again” without anyone really taking the time to explain, precisely, what that actually means. I’m from a neighborhood and family filled with guys but the school I went to for twelve years was all girls. It gets even more petty: in third grade, my telephone number didn’t begin with CH7 the way everyone else’s did. Sitting in the coat closet before school one morning with Nanny and Wendy, Nina and Helen, I knew that, if my telephone number began with CH7, they would like me better. I just knew it.

So, you bet I was “from another religion” if that actually meant “not Buddhist” and I guess I could say there was a distinct possibility I will return to this nothing from which I came but I had laid everything, everything, out in my application and interview: I told them who I was, what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. Full disclosure. So, now what? We were about to get our final training to go through this ceremony that would make us actual monks in training for the rest of our time here and, well, should I go through it? Could I?

I found Venerable Miao Hsi sitting alone at her desk during the break before dinner. She assured me I was good to go. As I was. Okay. I was going to become a temporary Buddhist monastic or nun. It was kind of like becoming a judge without even knowing there were three branches of government. But if Miao Hsi didn’t think it was a problem, if she thought I might learn something worth learning from this, I set my own doubts aside and just tried to do what I was told to do.

And what were we taught? Everything. In some ways this was the best part for me in that they started from scratch without assuming anyone knew how to do even the most basic of acts correctly. Like bowing. Finally someone taught me how to do it and, the only way I could draw attention to myself was by not bowing.

First, you bend at the waist, then you reach forward with your left hand to the far corner of your brown cushion then, as you kneel down, you put your right hand down, too. Once your head is touching the cushion, you turn your hands over, unfurl your fingers so that your palm is flat open, ready to receive “the feet of the Buddha.” Then you gently lift them up above your bowed head before standing back up in a smooth, even motion. When you walk into the temple, you do this three times. When you leave the temple, you do this three times. And, at all sorts of points in the ordination service, you do anywhere from one to nine of these sorts of bows.

It was so much easier bowing in a crowd than alone. And being taught how to do it correctly – and when – was great, even if I was usually a beat behind because of the lag in translation. I think if religious institutions everywhere simply posted or handed out a “how to” guide in the back of every pew, “kneel here, sit here, bow here, etc.,” there’d be a lot more people willing to at least check out a new service or two. New people like me are always worried we’re going to be up when everyone is down or down when everyone is up and the fear of being mortified has kept me outside of more than one religious institution. Even Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, wrote about the trauma of the uninitiated in his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain.

“Another thing which Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic church, The effort it takes to overcome imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous amount of effort.”

He should know; he was writing about himself long before he became a monk, when he was beginning to think just about becoming a practicing Catholic. And I don’t think this feeling is confined to those wanting to learn about Catholicism. So I was incredibly grateful and relieved that nothing was taken for granted at the Hsi Lai retreat and tried to throw myself into doing whatever I was taught carefully and in synch with the rest of the room.

Monastic robe. They were going to hand them to us in the ceremony and we were going to have to know how to put them on correctly. Not so simple. The robes hang from one shoulder and then close underneath the opposite arm with a small cloth loop around a fabric knob. It’s pretty easy, at least for me, to put the robe on the wrong shoulder or inside out and, when you sit down or kneel or stand up, you can pull the knob out of the loop without knowing it. I cannot tell you how many times someone pointed out that I was walking along, unaware that my robe was flapping in the breeze...until I figured out that I could wrap the loop around the knob twice.

Sitting mats. We were given a sitting mat that was actually beautiful, orange and red geometric shapes, bordered in black. It came already folded like an accordion in four longitudinal pleats with the corners together on one side. We were told to walk with the folded mat draped through our fingers, open edges to one side. I still can’t tell you which but I can tell you that the nuns think which side matters a lot but for a good reason: if you hold it right, you can easily unfurl it in one effortless motion and then drape it on the cushion you kneel on. To make the mat fit on the smaller cushion, you have to make a horizontal fold in the middle of the sitting mat as you lay it down, kind of like a Mad Magazine rear cover. And, like the Mad Magazine cover, when it’s folded right, it makes a picture; in this case a properly folded mat makes the shape of a square cross. When it’s not in use, you either carry it in front of you like this --->>>

…or hang it over one arm, underneath your robes.

The hard part of opening it up is making sure it’s flush with the far edge of the cushion and then neatly draped with that fold, in synch with your neighbors - which is a heck of a lot easier to do if you can figure out when to begin. And getting it elegantly folded back up with the edges open on the correct side and on one arm (where it stays during the service) while politely turned away from the front altar? Hah.

Begging bowls. All Buddhist monastics have one and only one bowl from which they are supposed to eat and drink everything. Different sects vary in how rigidly they treat this practice. During the Hsi Lai ordination ceremony, we were going to be given a ceramic bowl during the formal ritual and required to carry it with us the rest of the week in a bag slung over the shoulder opposite from the brown robe shoulder. We learned how to receive it during the ritual, bow, and then put the bowl into the tight, zippered pouch without dropping it on the marble floor. The bag was orange, round, made out of parachute-like material with a long strap so the bowl end up carried on one hip underneath the robe. All fine, but the straps, which had to lie neat and flat across one shoulder, were wrinkled and hard to smooth down. I often felt the person behind me straightening out my strap and I did the same for the person in front of me.

Oh, yeah, and the ceremony was dozens of pages long with chants and call and response sections in a booklet where everything was in Chinese characters, phonetic syllables, and English translations. The only way I could keep up with the chants was to stick with the phonetics so I rarely got a chance to truly understand what I was chanting. When I asked Miao Hsi about this later, I found out that the meaning doesn’t matter so much as the sound we were making together. It's all about the sound more than the words. It’s funny what a big difference just knowing that makes. I kept getting frustrated that I wasn’t intellectually engaging with the content of the texts and so missing most of what was meaningful but, in fact, had I just let go of my intellect and gone with just what was happening there at that moment, I would have gotten more of what that ritual experience was designed to offer.

There was a lot of kneeling as well as bowing all the way down, sometimes once, sometimes three times, sometimes more and the number of times didn’t always match what the manual said. And there was no question, the small group of us English-only speakers up in the front row were by far the worst in the room of over two hundred “preceptees.” I could feel the shrine full of gray, brown, and black waiting for us so many, many times.

I got stuck most often on getting the sitting mat refolded. It was possible to kind of shake it back into order if you held it right but I rarely got it right. (Until the second to last day, one nun or the other would come by and just grab the mat out of my hands and turn it around so the edges were facing the right way.) And kneeling down and touching your head to the cushion without the ceramic bowl flying around and smashing on the floor was an art in itself. I never broke the bowl – a MAJOR faux pas, I mean, monks are supposed to go without eating if they break their bowl – but mine certainly clattered against the floor and a dining room chair once or twice.

Given all of this, it’s no wonder the nuns seemed particularly on guard when it came time for the actual ordination.

I was so intent on doing what we were supposed to do, when we were supposed to do it, all I felt during the ceremony was panic about messing up, the challenge of standing still for so long on marble floors in the incredible heat and raw, cracking feet, and relief when it was finally over. I was, for the moment, a Buddhist nun. I was, most certainly, an empty suit.

9 July 2007

The outfit

The temporary monastics, all of us!
(The people in the orange and red robes are the real deal)

Hot flashes in monk's robes

...or are they nun’s robes? Things seemed pretty gender neutral here. The women in robes referred to themselves and the men as “monastics,” a word my spell-checker doesn’t like.

Two nights, two mornings into this seven day monastic retreat and I can tell you there are some things about this monastic life that are a lot simpler: you sleep in the tunic and pants you wear all day so you don’t need to choose clothes or even get dressed in the morning – you already are. And you have nothing to do to get ready other than wash your face, brush your teeth, and pull your hair back…if you have any. (Real Buddhist monastics, women included, shave their heads. It symbolizes giving up worldly concerns.) All of this makes getting down to the stone courtyard to stand in motionless lines in front of the scary Discipline Master before 6am almost no problem.

That is, if you aren’t having menopausal hot flashes. During a triple-digit heat wave.

Our room had no air conditioning. And those silver tunic and pants? They had elastic at the wrists and ankles and were nice and polyester-smooth on the inside. So when the raw, searing heat raked up from the sides of my hips, up my neck, behind my ears, drenching my scalp in sweat at least once an hour - all night, all day - I felt like I was sealed in a microwave bag. During the day it was hell because you were not allowed to move at all once you were standing, kneeling or sitting. So I’d suddenly feel myself drip and not be able to do a thing about it. At night, once the lights were out and the three other women in the room seemed to be asleep, I stopped trying to “sleep like a bowl” and tried wet dish towel instead, even going so far as to unbutton one and even sometimes two of the buttons that kept the tunic closed up to my neck. It’s amazing how quickly a few restrictions can make previously insignificant things feel wanton.

In the courtyard at dawn this morning, though, there was a bit of a breeze along with the withering stare of the Discipline Master. It wasn’t just her drill sergeant demeanor that made her so frightening. In that long list of instructions we were given on our first day, we were told to start memorizing six different Buddhist and Hsi lai texts and that we must be ready whenever the Discipline Master asked, to recite any one of them. Recite or kneel in atonement if we couldn't recite on demand. On the stone. For at least ten minutes. (Well, that’s what they said would happen. I never saw anyone made to kneel in such a harsh manner.)

Some tracts were short, some were very long. They were: the Refuge and Transfer of Merits Verse; Humble Table, Wise Fare; the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra; the Great Compassion Dharani; Rebirth in Pure Land Dharani; and a Prayer for Those Entering the Monastery. (I’ll put some of the texts up in a later post.)

It was utterly unclear to me if I could be called on from day one to recite things I couldn’t possibly have memorized. We were encouraged to memorize them in the language in which they were written (there were Chinese characters, phonetic spellings and English translations for each) but I had to draw the line somewhere. And it wasn’t like we had a lot of time to study: we had our shower time and a short thirty-minute break in the middle of the day. Period. If I had a prayer of memorizing anything, it was gonna have to be in English so at least I’d know what I was saying.

Just two days in and I was standing on stone at dawn in rough cloth shoes that were starting to rub my feet raw in the weirdest of places terrified that the black-browed nun was going to demand that I recite something I hadn't memorized yet. All I’d gotten under my belt were the Refuge and the Transfer of Merits Verse:


Taking refuge in the Buddha, I wish all sentient beings to understand the highest doctrine and make
the greatest vows;

Taking refuge in the Dharma, I wish that all sentient beings to study deeply the Sutra Pitaka and acquire an ocean of wisdom;

Taking refuge in the Sangha, I wish all sentient beings to lead the congregation in harmony and without obstruction.

Transfer of Merits

May kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity pervade all Dharma realms;

May all people and heavenly beings benefit from our blessings and friendship;

May our ethical practice of Ch'an and Pure Land help us to realize equality and patience;

May we undertake the greatest vows with humility and gratitude.

I found myself wanting to clean up the grammar, to suggest a simpler way to say some of these lines. But I didn’t. I made a decision to jump into this fully so my focus was solely on doing what was asked, hoping that, at some point, I might have a clue about why.

9 July 2007

07 July 2007

Learning how to eat

I thought I knew how to eat…

By taking the short end of the stick, you can cultivate virtue.
By putting yourself in another’s shoes, you can develop compassion.
By accepting things as they are, you can be carefree.
By enjoying without attachment, you can always be happy.

Venerable Master Hsing Yun
Humble Table, Wise Fare: Living the Dharma

I was looking forward to dinner. I was hungry.

Our suite of six, led by Ven Miao Hsi, walked in a line arrranged by height down the hill, across the courtyard and into the dining hall. Wherever we walked all week long, we always walked in that line, facing the same back.

Dinner turned out to be a lesson in how to eat for the week, the rules.

In the dining hall, rows of narrow metal tables topped with clear vinyl faced a center aisle where Venerable Hui Sheng, the Director of Social Education at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple, sat on a higher platform to eat. There was so little space between the tables, so little space between the chairs, it wasn’t easy to sit down especially when we were supposed to do so in utter silence. As in no sound at all. No sound when you pulled the metal chair out from under the metal–legged tables, no sound when you slipped your body between two chairs while a couple of hundred others were doing the same, no sound when you pulled your metal chair back under the table - across the linoleum right next to those metal table legs - while sitting on it. And, once you were as close to the table as possible, you had to sit upright, never leaning on the chairback, and still. Utterly motionless. Looking at nothing.

I am not a quiet person.

I am not a motionless person.

I love looking at other people. Love it.

Once we were all in place, Venerable Hui Sheng began our first meal together by explaining Buddhist etiquette, about the reasons for all of the rules. He talked about the importance of mindfulness in all we did, about not disturbing the mindfulness of another, especially another monastic. That was, afterall, what we all were about to become for eight days, Buddhist monks and nuns.

“Now imagine what this hall would sound like if each of you made even a little bit of noise. There are so many people here, it would be very noisy indeed.” So he taught us how to eat so we would disturb no one.

We had two small plastic bowls, a small plastic plate, and metal chopsticks lying right in front of us on a paper napkin. He pointed out that, if we simply picked up the metal chopsticks they would clang together and make noise. To avoid that, we were to hold down the eating end of the chopsticks with two fingers of our left hand while putting the first two fingers of our right hand on the each of the ends of the chopsticks, lifting them up and apart from the other before fully grabbing onto them with our right hand.

Next came the bowls and the plate. During the lengthy prayer we chanted after sitting down, the left bowl was filled usually with soup, the right bowl was usually filled with rice and the plate with an assortment of vegetables and soy-based protein.

Once the chopsticks were in hand, we were to take one side of the left bowl with our left hand and the other side of it with our chopsticks – metal chopsticks against hard plastic – and move the bowl to our right side, closer to us. Then we were supposed to take the bowl of rice on the right, moving it across to our left side.

We then were supposed to pick up our bowl of white rice with our left hand, fingers underneath the bottom, and lift one bite of plain white rice to our mouths. “Don’t dip your head to the bowl or look around. Chew carefully. Taste the rice.” We were to do this two more times before eating anything else at our place. Venerable Hui Sheng told us to eat from the rice bowl, putting whatever else we wanted to eat first into it. There was an elaborate system of communicating if you wanted more of anything as we weren’t allowed to speak or even to have eye contact with the people serving us. Drinking water wasn’t poured until you put one of the food bowls back, empty, near the far edge of the table, signalling that you were ready for it to be filled with water.

No matter what, at the end of the meal our bowls had to be clean. For those of us with no better than B+ chopsticks skills, doing all this without making any noise was pretty near impossible. Our clean bowls were supposed to be silently stacked and neatly lined up with everything else, along the far edge of the table when we were finished. We were then to sit erect, hands in our laps, looking straight ahead at nothing, until we were told the meal was over.

Eating was just plain scary. Every bite, every gesture, became a potential attention-grabbing embarrassment. That we were each responsible for the serenity of every other person in that room seemed to make beans more slippery and bowls of soup more sloshy. Far from being mindful in the sense of methodical and serene, my mind was a battleground of fear, confusion, and desire to excel (read: to please). I wanted to be the best but feared I’d be the worst. If attachment to ego is a cause of suffering, my uncertain eating skills put me deep into it.

Even worse, there was no hiding, no space to make a mistake because they’d put us English-speakers right up front. When I first saw where they put us, I was happy; I like to be able to see what’s going on, up close and in detail. But, not only wasn’t I supposed to be doing that, it also meant that they, too, could see me, up close and in detail. I guess it was so they could easily give us the extra help we were clearly going to need but we were so close to the monk presiding over the large room, every mistake felt huge. And it wasn’t just my imagination. Our mistakes were noticed and, on occasion commented on. “It is important not to make scraping noises with your chopsticks when you clean out your bowl.” “You must ask yourself why you want to eat some food and not eat other food. It is practice to take what is offered.” “Please do not look around. What is there to look at?”

What was there to look at? What wasn’t there to look at? Everything was new. Everything was something I felt I needed to see. Plus I look at people when they talk to me. I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “Marley, look at me when I talk to you! It’s just plain rude not to.” My mom’s first assessment of someone I’d bring home was often, “I like him. He looks you right in the eye when he’s talking to you.” But there, in that room, in that situation, my need to look was even more extreme: how would I know what to do and when if I couldn’t look at everyone else? For goodness sake I couldn’t understand Mandarin and had to wait for the translation of directions that were often issued as immediate commands. It just seemed plain logical to bolster the lagging information with visual cues. Logical, but wrong.

Facing us, right across the aisle, were all of the men with their newly shaved heads. If I’d been able to look at them I would have relied on what they were doing when I wasn’t sure. I would also have tried to figure out who they each were and why they were there. Without conversation or real information except what my eyes could see, I would have filled my empty mind with stories spun from the slightest shreds of visual information, fantasies about who they were and what their lives outside the retreat were like. One was only fourteen years old. I’d have followed his progress all week long had I been allowed to look.Was he having a rough time? Was the guy next to him helping him or did he feel burdened by feeling responsible for someone so young? Maybe the boy was his younger brother. Did they look like they could be brothers? I could have wasted a lot of the retreat in these irrelevancies, none of which had the slightest chance of being true, and all of which would have blocked what the retreat was meant to do, make us collide with ourselves, with the clouds in our minds.

The cost? I would have lost the awareness of what was happening to me – something I do a lot. And I wouldn’t have been able to watch myself panic and rebel; to recognize my dependence on the distraction of others, the way I use them to avoid myself; or to notice, for the first time in my life, that white rice actually has a taste.

7 July 2007