Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Green Gulch practice period Part 4: Reb Anderson

It amazes me that I have been in the Bay Area for 40 years and had never met Tenshin Roshi, aka Reb Anderson.  I was delighted to spend time with this great teacher.  He is, as most know, one of the original students of Suzuki Roshi and has subsequently been the abbot and senior dharma teacher of the San Francisco Zen monasteries for many years. 

Reb has the amazing gift of greeting every person with great love.  He has a penetrating, almost unnerving, look that seems to create an immediate intimacy and friendliness.  And I was able to meet his look without fear or shyness.  I particularly remember being only a few feet away from him in the dish room.  We looked at each other eye-to-eye, in a way that one rarely fully meets another.   

I must say I was a little wary of him.  I knew very little about him (and still don’t), but I had heard he had a lot of charisma and personal power.  I spent many years with charismatic gurus in the tradition of kundalini yoga, and while I received many gifts of insight and love from them, I now believe that I will be very careful about giving my complete devotion to any teacher. 

Norman Fischer advised me to have dokusan with Reb, so I set up a meeting.  I felt strangely exhilarated in his presence.  We were both laughing, like two children in a sandbox.  I told him how I had once asked Norman if he was a Zen master, and Norman replied, “Unfortunately, no,” and how later Norman told me that I could study with Reb, a genuine Zen master.  After telling him this story, I looked directly at him and said, “Are you a Zen master?”  He smiled his enigmatic smile and said, “I don’t know.”  I asked him what a Zen master is, and he said both the “unknowable and mysterious” and “all the stories we tell about him.”  I was flattered that Reb asked my permission to tell the story at Sunday’s dharma talk, without mentioning Norman’s name.  It was interesting that Richard Baker was there at his talk, which could have been entitled, “What is a Zen Master?” 

In my second dokusan – encouraged by Norman – I told him about my many years with kundalini gurus and the hurt I had suffered by their betrayals of my trust.  I told him I am now reluctant to trust any teacher.  Although I am very devotional by nature, how can I love the teacher but not the man? This is my lifelong koan.  His answer at the time was a little vague to me.  He seemed to be linking the Perfections (generosity, etc) with how to love the teacher.

But a few days later, I experienced an important insight, which I saw as a profound answer to my question.  Reb and I passed each other in the dining room.  We looked deeply at each other.  Afterword, I was filled with great love and joy.  I realized that it was just love, not really directed to Reb, because, after all, I do not know him at all.  It was just love – fluid, dynamic, alive!  Anything added on is just extra.  Love is the mysterious and pure.  When we add on our stories to the person, we open ourselves to attachment and suffering. 

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful practice to greet each person with this non-clinging and mysterious love? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Green Gulch Practice Period Part 3: “Everyday mind is the way”

I had heard many of the senior dharma teachers in Everyday Zen say that Zen is a “body practice.”  I never really understood what they were saying.  Zazen is sitting in the body, but isn’t every meditation technique also in the body?  What could this mean? 

I would say that one of my greatest insights during this Practice Period is that Zen is indeed “washing your bowls.”  Or, in more rustic terms, “chopping wood and carrying water.”   

The monastic schedule was very rigorous.  I was up at 4:15 am to take a shower (primarily to wake up, but it also seemed like the only luxury, since the lavender scented shampoo smelled so good).  There were two periods of zazen, and the rest of the time I was working in the kitchen until 2 pm, with breaks for breakfast and lunch.  There was a rest period between 2 and 4 pm.  I learned to fall asleep the moment I lay down!  At 4 pm there was a study period, but I have to admit that as much as I love reading Buddhist books, I was not interested in this at all.  Then zazen, dinner, and two final periods of zazen. 

The kitchen work was fun but really exhausting.  I became one of the official onion choppers, since I was one of the few people who could tolerate this work. We chopped in very close quarters, and as fast and efficiently as possible.  I was concentrating so hard that once Martha de Barros came to stand right by my side, and I didn’t notice her, until she softy said, “Hi, Barbara.” 

There were days that we have a half day sit, with 5 periods of zazen in the morning.  On the full day sits and during sesshin, we had ten periods of zazen. 

The thoughts in my mind were no more intellectual or “spiritual” than asking myself, “What’s next?”  "Do I have dishes tonight?"  "Do I ring the Bonsho bell today?"  On the way from the kitchen to my room in Cloud Hall, I would often look at the mud and leaves on the path and think, “Just one foot in front of the other.” 

In zazen, my thoughts did not race.  In fact, as I look back, I am not sure I was thinking of anything other than how to hold my posture in such a way that I could make it to the end of the meditation period.  Sometimes I actually counted my breath.  Sometimes I did deep breathing, not because it was recommended that I breathe from the “hara” (an area around the navel), but because it felt good to get oxygen to as many cells as possible! 

So, my awareness was literally in my body – either sitting upright, or paying attention to the sharp knife so I wouldn’t chop a finger off. 

Perhaps this body practice is good because it keeps you very mindful in the present moment.  The “be here now” sort of thing.  I think that we mostly don’t do this in our usual everyday lives, so it was an important experience for me to live this way for two months. 

“Everyday mind is the way,” as it is said in a famous koan.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Green Gulch Practice Period Part 2: Zazen

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation.  It is simply the dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally illuminated enlightenment.

                                                Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

Zen is, after all, zazen: just sitting.  But how many of us have wondered whether Dogen was making some kind of cruel joke?  Where is the repose?  Where is the bliss? 

Zazen, zazen, and more zazen.  Sometimes a minimum of two hours a day on the cushion, usually 3 hours, and during the 7 day sesshin, ten periods of zazen.   I checked the sesshin schedule, and there were 295 minutes of zazen a day (equaling 4.91 hours), and if you add in the dharma talk, tea, and three oryoki meals, that is an additional 3.5 hours on the cushion.   

I thought I had trained for this.  I was sitting 30 minutes a day, 3 times a day, for two months.  But I felt as if I had never sat at all.  I knew that I should not condemn myself or feel like a failure – although that was often how I felt.  As my good friend and mentor, Chris Fortin, said, “It’s not that you were a failure, it was just not what you expected.” 

The big shock was on Day 2, when we did a tangaryo.  I went to the Ino, the head of the hall, and said, “Let me get this straight.  I sit from 5 am until 9 pm with bathroom breaks and three short breaks for meals?” “Yes,” she said, “do your best.”   

Doing my best was an ever-present koan.  What is my best?  What is the discomfort one works through in order to gain a strong posture that one can hold?  What level of pain is simply too much – pain that would cause any reasonable person to stay in bed?   

During the entire practiced period, I was dismayed by how much my body hurt.  I switched between a chair and the cushion, but I can tell you sitting motionless in a chair for 40 minutes can be just as painful as sitting on a cushion. On the chair, I felt burning sensations in my neck and shoulders.  On the cushion, pain between my shoulder blades. 

One good thing:  during the 40 minutes, I was constantly making small adjustments and learned my true posture.  My teacher, Norman Fischer, said that I would become intimate with my spine.  How true! If I slightly bent my head or tucked my chin, my neck and shoulders felt better.  I would adjust my spine and learned that if the vertebrae were in a line, like children’s play blocks stacked in a column, I could sit better.  There was a balance between using muscles to sit upright and yet staying (relatively) relaxed.   
This must sound pretty masochistic, and one would reasonably question whether this is a “cult of pain,” – words my mind repeated at my very lowest experience.   There were instructions from the Abbess to stay with the schedule, to stay with the pain.  I do not agree with this philosophy at all.  I think intense pain is not necessary and possibly harmful.  But I do think, now, that pushing through discomfort can be useful. 

So, although this description might sound grim, it was, in retrospect, a wonderful challenge.  After these two months, it is as if I found my posture, found my foundation, and I am now able to just sit for several hours.  Not exactly in repose and bliss, but with a body-mind open awareness that is actually refreshing.





Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practice Period Green Gulch Zen Center (part one)

I went to the two month practice period at Green Gulch Farm, one of the San Francisco Zen centers, to immerse myself in monastic practice.  These centers, founded by Suzuki Roshi of the Soto Zen lineage, are the “mother ships” of Zen practice in America, and I am extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity. 
I agreed not to leave from October 13th until December 11th.    

I imagined that my primary training would be in the “forms” – seated meditation (zazen), chanting, bowing, and moving in the zendo (meditation hall).  But upon reflection, I see that my primary training was how to live in harmony with a lot of people,  and the importance of following the precepts. 

Precepts are the foundation of Buddhist practice and evolved around the time of the Buddha.  The purpose was to create harmony in the sangha (community).  In fact, the precepts derive from The Six Harmonies, which include right speech and how to handle conflict. 

I lived with 2 other women in a very small room.  [Scientific studies have shown that if you put 3 elderly rats in a small space, they become aggressive, and subsequent studies have shown that this remains true for elderly women as well.]  I meditated, moved, ate, and worked in very close quarters with 30 other practice period participants.  It was so tight in the kitchen and the dish washing room that we were rotating and working around each others like small gears in a wristwatch.  

I was so exhausted that I had no tolerance for conflict.  Once a new arrival – a very large man – blasted a torrent of anger at me in the kitchen, because he thought I was violating “functional speech” by wanting to clarify whether we tore lettuce by hand or cut it with a knife.  Normally I would have a quick retort, but I was so tired that all I could say was “wow!”
Once I had a squabble with a roommate over the placement of a very bright light.  Of course, this seems absurd, and it is, but at the time it was very irritating.  But I saw immediately that I did not want my composure ruined by anyone or anything.  And the only choice is to let go.  Let go and let go and let go. 

I met up close and personal my own impatience and irritability and aggression.  I have a wonderful husband, and we rarely argue.  I am retired and spend most of my time alone, so I have not had to cultivate the virtues of patience and holding my tongue.  In effect: right speech.   

There is a precept that says “A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill will.”  I was probably in continual violation of this precept.   But it is probably human to have antipathies toward certain people, and I learned that some people who have lived there for a long time, did, in fact, have feelings of ill will.  The difference is that they had learned to live skillfully and harmoniously.  You bow to everyone.  

So, yes, the most important lesson was how to live and move harmoniously with a lot of people.  It was to my benefit to cultivate these virtues.  The motivation came from within and was not something imposed from the outside – some way I “should” behave. 

When I think back to the conflicts I have had at my various workplaces, I think I would have been much happier if I had lived for two months in a Zen monastery.   I doubt the American corporations would endorse this kind of training, but it’s not a bad idea!