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!