Monday, December 9, 2013

Buddha's sorrowful and joyful rainbow body

Last week-end I attended the Rohatsu retreat held by Chris Fortin and Bruce Fortin.

In some traditions, the pilgrimage is as important as the sacred site, or, in this case, the shared intention to sit together at the important time of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

For me, the trip to St Dorothy’s Rest, the retreat site outside Occidental, was upsetting and even scary.  I left at 2:15 pm, allowing almost three hours to drive up through San Francisco and up highway 101. On 19th street, in San Francisco, I saw a somewhat demolished motorcycle and worried about the driver, who was no longer present on the street.  I hit snail traffic at San Rafael.  I get claustrophobic in this kind of traffic, so I decided to exit at Lucas Valley Road and drive up the coast.  It began to rain and get dark. 

On the climb up Lucas Valley road, I pulled over so that a car – the driver was in a big hurry – could pass me.  A few minutes up the road I could see that he had side-swiped a car, and both cars both were limping off of the road.  I had no map, and I have refused to get a smarty-pants phone, so I didn’t know the way to Occidental.  I periodically made wrong turns and had to call Brad for instructions.  I reached Occidental in the dark.  The redwoods were dark and rainy.  I got lost on the way up to St. Dorothy’s and found myself on a one lane road, high in the redwoods, with no side rails. I arrived in tears.

Usually people talk about the difficulties of meeting oneself “on the cushion.”  I have now reached the point in my practice where zazen is actually restful.  Often the “bliss and repose” that Dogen described. The retreat itself was very quiet – practicing alone and together.

I meet the longing and sadness and anxiety in my life off the cushion. When I listened to various people at the retreat share their own grief and physical pain, I thought that this suffering has to be the fabric of our lives, and there will never be some mystical, end-point enlightenment.

At the moment, I am sewing a black okesa.  I hold it in my hands and wonder, “What is this?”  It seems dark and beautiful and sacred, but somehow “other.”  At the retreat I had a vision of the actual Buddha’s robe: it is made of shimmering, translucent fibers of silver and gold and pinks and blues.  It is the robe made of the beautiful and sorrowful and ever-changing patterns of human existence.  It is my skin and the skin of others.  It is actually “wearing the Tathagatha’s teaching,” as we say in the Robe Chant.

On the way home, I decided again to drive down the coast, but this time it was a low light, golden winter day in California.  I stopped at a seafood restaurant at Tomales Bay that had once been a kind of shack, but had now become upscaled.  A woman at a table next to me said, “If I drink one more Napa Chardonnay, I’ll scream.” I felt sick at heart.  On the way home, there was bumper to bumper traffic approaching the Golden Bridge.  It seemed early in the day to be so slow.  People had slowed to watch a man, who was perched on the rail of the bridge, while police were “talking him down.”

I can’t actually ordain with the robe I had imagined.  But I think I will go to Britex to find this fabric and make my own, special robe: Buddha’s rainbow body: car accidents and ice cold rain and getting lost and peaceful zazen and suicides.  And love.

Friday, November 22, 2013

All is Lost - Robert Redford

What do you believe?  Is there a divine rescue, or is all lost?

Okay - if you plan on seeing this movie, don't read any further, unless you want to know the ending.

This movie's only actor is Robert Redford, who is sailing a small sailboat somewhere in the Indian Ocean.  This is how he loses everything:

  • A steel cargo container, floating in the ocean, rams a whole in the side of his boat
  • Redford manages to patch the hole.
  • Finally he finds the radio (and we have been wondering why he has taken so long), but he can only get vague crackles
  • There is  a huge storm, and the mast is broken.
  • Water is a few inches deep in the boat, but overnight it is filling rapidly
  • He inflates and boards the life raft
  • The boat sinks. 
  • His potable water is contaminated
  • The one fish he could catch was snatched away by a shark.
  • Two ships pass him by and dont see the flares.
  • He is near death, but sees a boat
  • He makes a fire, but soon the whole raft is aflame
  • He falls into the water, falling peacefully deeper and deeper.
  • All is indeed lost.
  • But not really! A light shines down, he swims upward, and we see an arm pulling him up.
So it is clear to me that this is an allegory of a man approaching death and dying. [Redford at age 77 surely must be thinking of these matter.]

I liked the image of him peacefully passing away.  I was really angry at the ending!
Not that I wouldn't wish the imaginary best for the character he is playing, but it is too deus ex machina.

One could respond that this is Redford's vision of the ultimate: a benevolent arm pulling one up to the light.

I think a lot of people have this image or love this image.  My own opinion is that it ruins the truth of what we actually know: that when you die, you lose everything.

There is part of me, however, that wishes I could believe in the divine rescue.  I just don't.  Ever since I was a child I have thought that one should not believe something because it is a beautiful story.

Maybe buddhist practice is here, right now, losing everything.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Death in the Family

For me, the end of a life is always announced with a phone call:

“Hi John.”
“Amelie was killed.”

Just a few words to open shock, disbelief, sobbing.  Amelie, my niece, was only 24 years old.  She was riding her bike South of Market at 7:07 am, riding to make an early morning meeting at her work, Voce Communications.  A big rig passed her on the left, and then cut to make a right turn.  Amelie crashed into the truck and was run over by its rear wheels. I saw a photo of her mangled, blue bike on the Internet.

I rushed down to my sister Jessie’s home in Redwood City. We embraced, sobbing. “My baby is gone.  My baby is gone,” she repeated.  What to say?  What to do but sit with this giant grief.

Until these moments, I had never really believed in “life after death.”  It’s not that I disbelieved it either.  I just didn’t know. But I said to my sister – and now believe – that she is very much present with us, between us.  I could actually feel her. Jessie said, “Yes, I am closer to Amelie than I have ever been.”

What I want to say is this: joy and grief and love exist at the same time.

Amelie’s brother, Charlie, aged 21, wandered in and out of the rooms, crying, confused. Jessie would disappear and then re-emerge, saying, “This can’t be true.  I don’t believe this.”

Over the next few days, Jessie’s friends arrived, a few at a time, bringing food: lasagna, cheese, cookies, fruit.  I think I would go to bed and not get up again, but Jessie needed this flood of love and support.  I told her of “Indra’s net,” the celestial net in which the nodes are stars, are beings, and that we are all interconnected.  And that the net would hold her and would not let her fall.

What I want to say is: Joy and grief and love exist at the same time.

There were decisions that one thought one would never have to make. Immediately. Cremation?  Open casket and then cremation?  Going to Amelie’s apartment to find clothes she could wear – to cover everything but her face. Scattering of ashes? Where?  Phone calls, phone calls, phone calls.

Brad, my husband, was the anchor to all the plans, gently suggesting to Jessie that her ex-husband, Amelie’s father, Denis, might want to see the body.  He was arriving from Strasbourg.  Amelie’s sister, Rose, needed to be located.  She was traveling somewhere in Spain with her cell off.  Every grieving and confused and overwhelmed family needs someone like Brad to guide them, love them, hold them.

It was decided that there would be a viewing of her body at the funeral home before cremation.  How odd when the body is dead.  The person is gone, but, still, the body is there.  So sad – her beautiful eyes, her perfect mouth with the bright red lipstick she always wore.  Her hands utterly cold and hard – with nail polish, carefully applied by someone we didn’t know.

I grieved for those who grieved.  Her young friends came up to the casket. Some stood at a distance, some kneeled, some sobbed.  I wondered if this was the first time they had seen a dead body, had realized that death is indeed possible, even for them.

I could hear, across the folding screen, laughter.  Jessie’s laughter!  Others laughing as they shared Amelie stories.  She was a wild and loving and crazy young woman. People would go back and forth: to spend a few moments with Amelie, and then to go to the adjoining room to drink wine and share stories.  Brad and I remained with her body.  I wanted to keep vigil in some way.  I wanted to stay with her.

Later, above her casket, in the subdued golden light, there was a slide show of her life.  People were laughing, because she was a very funny person.  She loved to make faces in front of a camera.  Amelie lay motionless below her life.

Her ashes were spread in the waters just beyond the Golden Gate bridge.  We threw flower petals to follow her ashes. The fog was such that we were in a gray, cold place to say good-bye, and then as we entered Sausalito, blue sky and then radiance of sun on water.

What I want to say is this: joy and grief and love exist at the same time in this very fragile and precarious life.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Phony Guru

I saw a documentary called Kumari, made by a second generation Hindu living in Los Angeles.   I think his name was Dave, or Jim, or something like that.  He was raised as an all-American boy, and his film documented his real life experiment of adopting the guise of an enlightened Hindu yogi.   At age 26 he went to India to study hatha yoga and observe the wandering yogis.  When he returned, he decided to grow his hair and wear the orange robes and beads of an Indian sannyasi.  He adopted the accent of a Hindu speaking English.

He then took two women friends who taught hatha yoga, and he set up a store front shop as an enlightened yogi in a Los Angeles suburb.  Slowly, more and more people, young and old, came to study with him.  He would sit cross-legged across from a disciple and listen deeply and empathetically to the disciple’s problems.  He and his yoga associates set up “intensives” where disciples would send “blue light” to each other. He even lead them in chanting his name, “Kumari jaya jaya.”

There were many testimonials by disciples of how Kumari had changed their lives, and how they saw their “inner light.”  At the end of the film Jim – or whatever his name – has an “unveiling” of his true identity.  About one half of his disciples left in shock, but the other half laughed and embraced him, saying it was a good joke.

Based on my life experiences with spiritual gurus and teachers, this film was really disturbing and creepy.

So,the documentary  is humiliating – that we could be so easily duped.  On the other hand, it shows that we essentially need each other.  In our daily, work-based lives, we do not communicate deeply, at the level we would call “spiritual.”  This documentary suggests that even if the teacher is a phony, the premise of two people meeting deeply is authentic.  The problem, of course, is that the “spiritual teacher” often ends up exploiting his followers – most especially, taking sexual advantage of the adoring female followers.
The more relationships I have with teachers, the more mysterious and confusing this has become.




Monday, February 25, 2013

Proust and Zazen

My husband, Brad, and I have been reading Proust’s The Search aloud for three years.  We drive to a beautiful spot and read about ten pages (which actually takes awhile).  Saturday, parked high above the Golden Gate Bridge, we have just finished volume three, The Guermantes Way. The main characters in this volume are the Duke and Duchess of Guermantes, who are aristocrats in Parisian society of the late 1800’s.

Proust is known as one of the greatest Western novelists, and, indeed, he has great descriptive power.  He can write ten pages on the beauty of a Hawthorne bush.  But, he can also be really, really tedious, especially when he describes a Parisian salon or dinner party, as he does here, at the home of the Guermantes.  Near the end of volume there is a long dialogue – forty or so pages – between the Guemantes about their aristocratic and noble families.  An excerpt:

In the past we were Ducs d’Aumale, a duchy that has passed as regularly to the House of France as Joinville and Chevreuse have to the House of Albert.  For instance, my sister-in-law’s son bears the title of Prince d’Agriente…

These descriptions became so boring and oppressive that I wanted to skip them.  But Proust always has a “method to his madness.” Near the end of this long dialogue, an old friend, Swann, is ushered in by the footman.  The Guermantes are on the way to a dinner and ball. Their discussion about their aristocratic heritage continues as they are about to enter their carriage. When the Duchess blithely asks Swann if he will accompany them to Venice, Swann says he cannot go because he is terminally ill.  The duchesse dismisses this as impossible.  She is poised with one foot inside her carriage when Swann asserts that he is, in fact, going to die within three months.  She hesitates. 

Will she stop, turn to her friend, and speak earnestly of his illness, or continue to enter her carriage, denying any possibility of her friend’s death?  She enters her carriage.  She is completely caught in the habit energy of her life.  She can speak for hours on the most trivial of subjects, but she cannot pause for her friend.  She gets into her carriage, missing any opportunity for meeting the actual truth of her life – that she and everyone she loves will one day die.

And the genius of Proust is that this applies to us all.  I often feel the rushing of my mind and life energy.  I often feel as if I have an appointment, but this is absurd, since I am retired and rarely have appointments.  I am especially aware of this crazy energy when I sit zazen. It can be very difficult to be quiet, to step out of the river of my rushing habit energy. 

But sometimes I can sit straight, and my mind is still, and this feels like the most important thing I can do for myself and for those I love.





Sunday, February 17, 2013

Unrelenting Passion

I am listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and I visualize him full of passion and longing and grief – a passion that brings forth this sad but beautiful music. 
I struggle with this passion, a lifelong friend and challenger.  What is this?  What is this driving insatiableness?   Earlier in life it felt like sexual desire.  And now ­­­­­­­­­­­­it doesn’t.  I once was an actress, using this passion to express myself, but once the curtain fell, the thrill was gone, and the passion has been as strong as ever.
One of the greatest causes of suffering is the feeling that one’s life is unsatisfactory.  So I cultivate gratitude as the antidote, but I know deep in my heart that I am still desperately dissatisfied.  And then I am disturbed that I must not be grateful enough.  What do I want?  What would fill me up?
I am practicing Soto Zen from the same place of longing and passion.  Zen could be seen as both easy and difficult.  Easy because there is no dogma and no fixed beliefs to which I must subscribe.  And this is a good thing, because I have arrived at a state of intellectual anarchy.  And yet I have faith that sitting zazen is the way.  To what? 
Now that is the hard part.  We are meaning constructing beings and our passion and longing is for some kind of coherence.  Do we need this because of our certain death – and as an older person, I think of this daily – or because there is something we need to become, to actualize?  Whenever I hear Mary Oliver’s line about how are we going to live “our one and precious life”, I cringe.  Don’t remind me.  I need to chill out around this.  I need to relax.  I shouldn’t take things so seriously. 
Wouldn’t it be great if “just sitting” was enough?  I think the spin on “just sitting” in Zen could mean to focus on zazen and not on scriptures or other forms.  But the “just” might mean: drop all hope of identity and purpose in this lifetime.  Drop all aspirations and longings and passions – even for the good stuff.
I think this is what Zen is about.  Just being yourself.  Clinging to nothing.  Now we all know these words very well, but there is a reason that bodhisattvas are called “fearless.”  Because if you really, really drop all hope for meaning and identity, you might end up in a very scary place. 
On the other hand, passion and fire may be our very selves.  To be alive is to be passionate.  The practice may be just to sit with that passion and expect nothing.