Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Copulation of Shiva and Shakti

There is a little room where I wait before I have a meeting with my Zen teacher.  On the wall is a tantric picture – not at all a Zen picture – of Shiva and Shakti.  Shiva is all blue and sits immobile, facing front.  Shakti is all white and is straddling Shiva, sitting on him, her back to us, with her legs around his body.

In addition to the very Eastern idea that the explicitly sexual is totally appropriate in religious iconography, I find the idea of Shiva and Shakti relevant to teachers, even in the Zen tradition.

According to Shaivism, Shiva is transcendent consciousness – the absolutely calm yogi, uninvolved with the world.  Shakti, his consort, is the immanent – the energy of creation.  He is the thought-free state of meditation.  She creates and plays in the world. 

I find this interesting because I think of two Zen teachers that I love.  The man will listen to your everyday woes, of course, but he is much better at coursing in the absolute, in emptiness.  [And then it is very possible that he will forget the mundane details.]  The woman, on the other hand, listens with the body and heart of compassion.  She understands the nuances of words and actions.  She comforts and heals.

Of course, a man and woman teacher can do both.  But each has his/her essentially different approach.  And we become intimate with and need both.

Traditionally we practice with one teacher.  Practicing with a man excludes the feminine.  Practicing with a woman excludes the masculine. 

Do you think it would upset hundreds of years of Zen tradition if we studied with both?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Express Yourself!

My root yoga guru – Swami Muktananda – had a great story.  Two swamis were travelling in India and had no place to sleep.  They found a home of a business man, and, in the middle of the night, entered an empty bedroom. The elder swami advised the younger, “Whatever you do, don’t become anyone.”  That morning the owner discovered them and started shouting at them, “What are you doing in my home?”  The younger swami was outraged and said, “I am a swami!!”  The owner beat him and threw him out the door.  The elder swami said nothing.  The owner said, “Clearly this man is a fool.  Get him out of here.”  The younger swami was bruised and bleeding.  He said, “How come he beat me and not you?”  The elder swami said, “I told you not to become anything!”

Chapter Two of Suzuki Roshi’s book Not Always So, is called “Express Yourself Fully.” Suzuki Roshi says, “Trying to become someone else, you lose your practice and lose your virtue.”  I often object, thinking, “How can you ever be anyone but yourself?”

Soto Zen is famous for its austere forms:  sitting meditation facing a wall (zazen); formal walking (kinhin); bowing together; even eating meals in a highly formalized way (oryoki).  I actually love this kind of practicing together, but I can definitely see why many Westerners object.  We think we are preserving our identity and authenticity by being  original and unique.  And yet, Suzuki Roshi says that he could see each person’s unique nature, when everyone was sitting in the exact same unmoving position facing a wall.

I think back to the national sprint bicycle championship in the 1970’s – a time when one would think I was most uniquely and specially expressing myself.  On the qualifying round to put me in the top three, my foot came loose from the pedal.  While I went around the track with my foot helplessly pulled up, and the cranks going round and round (a sprint bike has a “fixed gear”), I could hear my teammate cheering me on.  Afterwards, instead of humiliation and despair, I just laughed and laughed.  Not just because it was funny, but because I could see that that had nothing to do with who I really am.

Last December I was at a week-long Zen retreat in Mexico.  It was in silence.  Even if it were not in silence, I can’t speak Spanish.  We moved and walked and chanted in formal unison.  At the end of the week, I had such love for each person.  I felt at some mysterious level I knew them better than my co-workers in the law office where I have worked for twelve years.  Real and deep intimacy with each different person.

So maybe fully expressing ourselves is fully experiencing the love that is always so.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Suffering and Being Fully Alive

I am at home, unable to walk because of an injured hip, and online on Facebook.  I am struck by the image of the Jizo Bodhisattva – standing tall and serene amidst the rubble resulting from the earthquake in Japan – posted by my friend Ruth Ozeki.

What does this mean for me?  Buddha – or God, or Allah, or the Radiant Light – cannot prevent suffering, and yet, he/she promises to remove all suffering by following the Way.

The Way of Zen is to be fully alive in each moment.  Clearly this does not always mean a joyful walk in the misty redwoods or swimming with the fish in Hawaii. This moment for many Japanese means unimaginable horror, fear, grief, hunger, cold, and pain.  This moment for me in Pacifica means searing pain in my hip and fear that I may be unable to work.

So often I feel like a personal failure when I am disabled or sick.  Why such a lack of self-compassion?  We wonder at the beauty of a sea anemone quickly withdrawing into itself when touched.  And yet it is difficult to see that suffering and pain and the attendant fear of what the future will bring is being fully alive.

Yesterday I was walking with a cane.  Then I saw men and women – even young, athletic looking men – walking with a cane or a crutch.  I had never noticed!  And so, now, when I think of people having to evacuate their homes in Japan, I imagine an elderly woman, unable to walk, with no place go.  Suffering is personalized. 

To be fully alive is to meet your own suffering head-on and to see that millions are also suffering.  In some ironic, mysterious way this acknowledgement of your suffering and joining in the suffering of others is a source of compassion.  This compassion is a source of peace of mind.

This is the Bodhisattva standing in the midst of devastation.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Accomplishing Nothing!

I saw a cartoon in which a woman is reading her college alumna magazine.  She has a distressed look on her face.  Her husband tells her that if she wanted to feel good about herself, she should not have attended such a prestigious college.

So I attended Vassar, a prestigious college, I am told, and now I wonder, "What did I accomplish in my life?"  At age 62 almost 63, I am entitled to review my life.  And quite honestly, I don't think I actually accomplished anything.  Yes, I know, having a child counts for something, but I mean something more famous-making, like writing poetry or starring in a Broadway play.

I always feel as if I am starting over...over and over again.  Now I am a Zen student, and starting over seems to be a prescribed thing to do.  But starting over to do what?

My husband Brad has a photo of an old man sitting in a lawn chair, blowing bubbles through a big bubble-making holder.  He is the picture of total joy.

Can I do that?  Can I surrender all ambition and just be happy?