Saturday, December 31, 2011

Democrats or donkeys?

My teacher David did a talk near the end of my second retreat with PZI that centered on Jerry Brown, the past and present governor of the state of California.  It turns out that Jerry Brown has a longstanding interest in Zen, and shortly after losing the race to become the Democratic candidate for President, he boarded a plane for Kamakura in Japan to experience a few months in a traditional monastery.  It just so happened that David was studying there in the same period, and the two Americans ended up sharing a flat.  (I'd overheard David talking about the Governor before; one night at WiG he mentioned, in an unpretentious way, that Jerry had called him to ask about state funding for addiction-recovery programs; David advised him not to cut it.)

David told us how there was a tradition in the temple in Kamakrua to celebrate any spiritual breakthroughs made by individual students.  And amazingly enough, Jerry Brown experienced a breakthrough of just this sort during his relatively brief stay at the monastery.  It's my understanding that the teacher recognizes and confirms progress of this sudden kind; but when the Japanese Master announced to the other monks that Jerry had experienced a breakthrough, the celebrations were somewhat muted.  A number of the Japanese students got together and drafted a letter to the Master beginning with the phrase, 'A number of us believe...' and expressing their suspicion that Jerry Brown's breakthrough had less to do with essential understanding than with his status as a politician.

It was clear enough - though I don't think he said so explicitly - that for David, the monks' reaction was motivated mainly by envy.  In any case, the main point of his talk was that we shouldn't consider anything as outside of our practice, including our thoughts and feelings about the progress of other students or about decisions made by a teacher.  As usual, David seemed to have the best intentions, and if we assume that Jerry's breakthrough was genuine (or that the Master took it to be genuine), it's not hard to perceive an embarassing lack of dignity in the actions taken by the other monks.  But what is the Master was really corrupt, and just certified a breakthrough to increase, say, the fame of his temple in America?  When I asked David this on the night, he said he'd talk about the corrupt master when he came across one.  (It doesn't strike me, from my superficial researches, that they're that rare.)

I can remember a talk I heard at school that was given by a visiting expert on Asian politics.  When someone asked him why India was virtually the only stable democracy in Southern Asia, he replied that it was because India was one of the only countries in the region where Buddhism was not a major force, and that Buddhism taught people to be content with whatever government they had, and not to engage in violent revolts.  I'm not overly fond of religious explanations of political structures, and in any case Japan and South Korea are counter-examples to the posited correlation between Buddhism and political repression (and Thailand and Sri Lanka may be turning into further exceptions).  But the claim has always stayed with me, partly because it runs counter to the link that many intellectuals (such as Aldous Huxley) want to forge between meditation and personal freedom and autonomy.

For me, there's nothing more heart-breaking (and no stronger admonition for converts) that the sight of earnest and loving students of the dharma being abused by con-men like Dennis Merzel, and taking it lying down.  On the other hand, it's hardly surprising, since meekness and acceptance is partly what they've been taught to cultivate under all circumstances.  The problem with David's advice to treat your suspicions about a teacher as part of your practice - hosting them with a patient mind the way you would with pain, say, or a distracting noise - is that it assumes that the suspicions are unfounded.  It's just like when overeducated wranglers accuse opponents of employing 'rhetorical devices' instead of arguments: the phrase itself implies that the arguments have no substance, but allows its users to avoid saying why.

These people would be better off simply showing how the argument they're attacking doesn't stand up to scrutiny; and Zen teachers who accuse critical students of base motives would be better off simply demonstrating that the students' criticisms have no basis in reality.  The fact that they often don't choose this route, tending instead to treat complaints as distractions or pathologies, points a finger at a very real problem with authority in spiritual communities: there is always a danger that the very content of the practice becomes part of the structures of authority that were meant to be incidental to it.  Scott Edelstein advises that we give teachers authority only in their specific field of competence, just as we listen to a doctor's recommendations about our physical health, but not about what car to buy.  But this may underestimate and impoverish the scope we desire for our spiritual practices.

The problem, in plainer language, in that we want our spirituality to seep into every aspect of our lives; a path that worked well for money problems but couldn't help you with grief or bitterness would not really be a spiritual path at all.  Because of this, it's hard to tell people to listen to their teacher's expositions of koans while turning a deaf ear to their comments about marriage (even if the two things could be clearly separated in the first place).  It's been my experience with PZI that students (myself included) want to discuss their personal problems with a teacher; that's one of the reasons they turn to the practice.  An attempt to restrict the authority of teachers by restricting the applicability of the dharma is bound to fail, since the whole point of the dharma is that it's universally applicable.

If trying to compartmentalize spirituality and politics as two separate spheres does damage to spirituality, though, we should remember that it does damage to politics, too.  There is no space in any aspect of human interaction in which politics is not operative, and we only hurt ourselves and others by pretending otherwise.  In other words, the standards of logical argumentation and evidence-backed claims that we employ in our professional lives should not be abandoned simply because we're in a group whose raison d'etre is spiritual.  If teachers or students try to wiggle out of this, we should judge them for it, though of course we should also try to judge in a non-judgmental way.  If Jerry Brown deserves to be treated on campaign with as much compassion as the next Zen student and human being, he also deserves to be dealt with in the monastery with as much scrutiny as any other politician.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sesshin accession

Before I write more about the peculiar dangers of spiritual authority, how not to join a cult, and ways to test the purity of your Kool-Aid, I wanted to give you a sense of what a wonderful thing a spiritual community can be; since without some sense of the immense value groups of this sort can offer, and given the pitfalls and dangers that are associated with becoming a part of one, it might seem perverse that I am persevering on the particular path I've found myself following.  I also wanted to continue the story of my growing identification as a Zen student and of my increasing involvement with PZI in particular.  And there seemed to be no better of way of doing both these things than by continuing my narrative of my experiences at PZI retreats in Santa Rosa.

The first time I'd been there for the weekend, only two days, though it felt like far longer.  The second time - Spring sesshin - I decided to increase my stay by one day, making it a slightly longer weekend.  I got a lift up with my friend Sara, and when we arrived at the site of my first PZI retreat, just outside Santa Rosa, I realized that we would be staying in a different building on the same site, this one also apparently designed with Christian retreats in mind (the room where I met David was actually a chapel).  The meditation hall was much smaller this time, with only around thirty people in it; there were the familiar alien artworks hung on the walls and the same old twisty well-armed deities chilling on the white altar, the incense curling around them like cigarette-smoke at some Parisian cafe.

This time round we each had our own rooms, so that I felt less guilty about going back to it when I was tired of meditating.  I even did a bit of work on my laptop, reading an extraordinarily helpful and boring article on the finance behind the construction of the Parthenon in fifth-century Athens; I may regret this.  I skyped with my then-girlfriend at night, which was sweet then depressing, as all her anxieties poured into the room, overwhelming my most earnest efforts at Zen mopping.  Naughtier still, I slept well beyond the jangling bells at four thirty in the morning.  Instead, I set my alarm for shortly before seven, and then skulked around in the corridors waiting for the good meditators to emerge before joining them in the queue for breakfast, with sleep gumming up the corners of my eyes and my face leaden with weariness and shame.

On the first day I ate breakfast, cheerfully acknowledging the hungry ghosts; I meditated through the morning, guiltily reverting to my visualizations; and I went out for a walk to the lake, which hadn't moved.  In the afternoon session somebody suddenly announced 'Prepare the hall for sutra service'.  Everyone swung their mats round so they were facing the corner of the room, or dragged them closer.  In the corner of the room was one of the stern-looking men I'd seen talking about Christianity, now with a tambourine; Socrates, pressing a rather unexpected trumpet to his lips; a young man I'd felt a pang of sympathy for when I'd first seen him, bent double with back trouble; and an extraordinarily beautiful woman, eighty years old at the youngest. 

They were providing cheerful - if occasionally somewhat disjointed - accompaniment to the liturgy we were chanting or singing from the floor of the room.  This, apparently, was a Sutra Service, and I hadn't encountered it on my first retreat only because the Winter sesshin is a pared-down version that focuses on almost entirely on meditation.  We recited Hakuin's praise song of meditation just like we sometimes did at WiG - you see, meditation can't be praised enough - as well as a series of other pieces in any number of unidentifiable Asian languages.  The old lady led the chants as the Cantor, but her voice was frail, and broke down completely at the point where 'Guanyin finds us on the dark and br--o--ken roads'.  She was the worst cantor of all time, and also incomparably the sweetest.

I've since been told that this is one of the most mould-breaking and experimental aspects of PZI, that there's a makeshift jazz band (with occasional forays from a didgeridoo) leading the chants, which are often set to rather catchy tunes.  (One returning member was so shocked by the change she even began reciting the diamond sutra on her own - so I have heard.)  If experiment it is, I have to say that I like it.  Much of the sentimental attachment I have to Anglicanism is mediated through hymns that I had to sing week in, week out, in the school chapel, and which are now an inextricable part of my spiritual and emotional fabric.  And I'm beginning to feel a similar tenderness towards the lilting melody that carries the three refuge vows, the way we do them: 'Buddham saranam gachami/ Dhammam saranam gachami;/ Sagham saranam gachami:/ Buddham, dhammam, sangham.'

John encouraged us all through the retreat to imagine (that is, realize) that every event that occurred and every thought that arose was for us, for our benefit, and only for us (though that last formulation seemed to me to go a bit too far).  The koan featured two friends washing bowls when they saw a crow tearing apart a frog.  'Why does it always have to be this way?' one said to the other; and he responded, 'It is for your benefit, Master.'  It was not quite like the dream in The Magic Mountain, where there's a city whose members treat each other with respect precisely because they know that in the temple, old hags are tearing apart an infant.  It is more like sitting there realizing that my life has been blessed not in spite of headaches, but because of them: perception, like community, is a coin with two sides.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Zen democracy

Once upon a time there was a student who traveled for months to ask a great teacher about the way.  As he was trekking the final stretch towards the once distant monastery door, the master came out to meet him, saying, 'Hello, what is the way?'  The student had a sudden realization and waved his arms around wildly.  The master asked, 'How did you come to this great understanding?'  The student replied, 'What ways are there?'  It's one of those koans that makes the way seem very crooked and then suddenly very straight.  For me it's about how I used to stumble upon myself quite often just being there, especially when I was a child: sitting on a stairwell at school doing nothing but hearing the silence, laying in the backyard at home watching the clouds cross the sky.  The techniques and the drugs and the programs came afterwards, and so did the way: before I was just there.

But there's something else I like tremendously about this koan, and that's the way the student knows more than the master, and in part precisely because he doesn't know what ways there are.  (As ever, I may have mangled the precise form of the traditional koan, but that may not be a bad thing.)  One of the things that struck me most about the philosophy of Zen as it's been taught to me by students and teachers at WiG and PZI is its emphasis that the truth is available to everyone, and that in a deceptively immediate manner.  Everyone is an awakened one: they just need to wake up to being awake.  Those moments of gentle awareness you had as a child are available to you right now, as soon as you stop trying to get to them.  As John Tarrant told us at one point, the thing that seekers go searching for when they go on journeys of discovery - that's here with us right now.  In its essential philosophy, Zen seems an eminently democratic path.

In its historical practice, on the other hand, Zen seems an eminently hierarchical institution.  Since WiG and PZI are so informal, it took me a while to work this out, but Chan and Zen as they have come down to us from our Chinese and Japanese ancestors carries with it an organizational structure that looks something like this.  On the outside are all the billions of people who aren't Zen practitioners, or who haven't realized that they are yet.  Once you start studying with a teacher, you become - unsurprisingly enough - a student.  You can take refuge (jukai) to become an official Zen Buddhist and get discounts on enlightenment; and you can undergo ordination (tokuda) to become an official Zen priest and get to lead various ceremonies.  But the top rank of the hierarchy (I don't see any point in disguising that that's what it is), is the master or teacher (roshi).

A teacher becomes a teacher by being granted dharma transmission (inka shomei) by someone who's a teacher already.  That teacher will have become a teacher in the same way, so that chains of succession called lineages are formed that branch out into the future like family trees.  More importantly, each lineage provides in theory at least a clear and unbroken link to the past, to the beginnings of major branches of Zen (all Rinzai offshoots go back to Linji), to the roots of Mahayana Buddhism (all Chan branches go back to Avalokitesvara), and to the deepest roots of Buddhism in India.  Ultimately, all lineages are supposed to provide a link between your unfriendly local Zen teacher and Siddhartha Gautama himself, the original seed.  (Or, to be cynical for once, all lineages are a legitimizing rhetoric meditation teachers can make use of to present themselves as heirs of the religion's one true founder.)

Since I'm currently committed to formal conversion to Zen Buddhism (and am mindful of the precept against lying, and not really sure what to think about the one against denigrating 'the way'), I should say that I think dharma transmission sounds like the biggest load of horseshit since apostolic succession in Christianity (actually, the first is older than the second, but never mind).  Maybe it's just that the translation 'dharma transmission' brings up images of one robed weirdo transmitting forking blue streams of dharma-power through his fingertips into another one's convulsing body.  (On reflection, that may just be my thing).  More seriously, there's no way you can be sure of a linear succession of teachers stretching back 2500 years; as it happens, I study the fifth century BC, and I can tell you very little that's definitely true about what went on.

Worse, the practice of dharma transmission is patently undemocratic, since rather than being elected by students, teachers are appointed by other teachers.  (Sure, there may be good reasons why you don't want a teacher elected by students; but that doesn't mean that it's democratic, and that's my point here.)  It's my understanding that one of the reasons that Richard Baker was allowed to get away with so much for so long at SFZC was that 'he had transmission', meaning that his commitment and integrity should be beyond doubt.  Since students who want to become teachers depend on their teachers' opinion of them for advancement, it wouldn't be surprising if senior Zen students weren't quick to criticize their teachers or publicize their wrongdoing, since that way they might put in jeopardy something they'd been working years to achieve.

So I'm not studying with David Weinstein because I think he's the caretaker of the true teachings of the Buddha; I'm studying with him because he seems like a solid chap and because he's been practicing meditation several decades longer than I have and so can reasonably be assumed to have a correspondingly greater understanding of it.  As for John Tarrant, he seems to wear the title of roshi a little less lightly than David; not that he's hung up on formalities.  One of the most encouraging anecdotes I've heard about John comes from my friend Michael, who used to study with more traditional Zen teachers on the East Coast.  When he first did work in the room with John, he went immediately into a full prostration, and John was horrified and told him to stop.  I'm with him and the ancient Greeks in having no taste for proskynesis.

At one of the first one-day events I attended with John he told us that even if you make mistakes you can be happy - even if you've slept with your best friend's wife, there's no point in beating yourself up.  That didn't fit in very well with my understanding of the eightfold path, our ten precepts, or the general principles of not being an asshole, so I said something polite expressing my distaste.  Afterwards John shook my hand and thanked me for what I'd said, promising he'd think more about it.  Since then I've expressed my confusion or disagreement to him in public discussions on several occasions, and have been met with a mixture of prickliness and encouragement (once he praised me for sticking to my guns, only to later tease me for the position I'd taken).  Nobody's perfect, and it can be hard to respond gracefully to critical probing, especially in a public setting.  All the same, considerable authority should always come at the cost of continual public scrutiny, so I'm grateful for the moments of graciousness.

At one point during my last retreat I needed to re-charge my laptop, but couldn't find the right kind of power outlet.  While searching for one in the corridor I came across John carrying his laptop, so I asked him where there was an outlet.  These retreats are meant to be silent, and you're also not supposed to look other students in the face, let alone the master; from what I can tell, pulling what I did at some other Zen retreats would have gotten me cast immediately into the outer darkness to hang with the hungry ghosts.  John just told me to look in the kitchen.  I found that reassuring, because if there's a feature of Zen that elicits my inner (and outer) resistance, it's the undeniably hierarchical nature of its institutional structures.  In my professional life, I study ancient democracy, partly because I'm fascinated by the possibility of non-hierarchical collective action.  And there must be a way of restructuring ancient Zen so that its practice is as democratic as its philosophy.  That way, we could take a step towards realizing that our inherent equality is as much spiritual as it is political.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Roshi romances

This post will also be about sex, though it's also about domination (so don't be put off).  Sometime after I started going to Wind in Grass every week, I started looking around online at other Zen places in San Francisco.  Obviously the first one to show up in search results was the San Francisco Zen Center.  It claims to have been the first Buddhist temple of any denomination outside of Asia, and today it must be one of the largest Zen communities in the Western world.  I've only recently visited the place, and I'll have other more positive things to say about it in other posts (as well as more negative things, I'm afraid).  But for now I want to tell you about a story that caught my eye virtually as soon as I started looking into the history of the place.

The first head of the center was a Japanese emigré, Shunryu Suzuki, who's famous for the concept of 'beginner's mind' that provided the name for this blog.  Nobody seems to have anything bad to say about him.  The first American abbot at the center was a man called Richard Baker; he succeeded Suzuki.  Baker was by most accounts a charismatic and dynamic figure; he built up the Zen Center's property holdings, increased the size of the community, and hobnobbed with local bigwigs, like erstwhile (and current) California governor Jerry Brown.  But it later emerged that among the extracurricular activities was the energetic pursuit of a number of affairs with his students, including a woman who happened to be married to one of the center's main benefactors.  All of this is covered in detail in Michael Downing's 2002 book Shoes outside the Door.

Baker was forced to resign in 1984, but you might supect that the episode had a lot to do with a bunch of hippies in the 60s and 70s entering into authority relations and spiritual practices with naive optimism rather than cautious skepticism.  But people are more realistic now, and that kind of sex scandal must now be in the past, right?  Wrong, unfortunately.  Just this year, in February, Dennis Merzel admitted to three adulterous affairs with students and announced that he'd be disrobing as a Zen teacher (that's the term for it, though it's an unfortunate one in the context).  After a number of American Zen teachers issued a statement calling for him to stop teaching, he agreed, only to change his mind shortly afterwards.  No longer part of Zen, he now teaches his own brand of meditation.

And the evidence that sexual affairs involving Buddhist teachers and students is not just anecdotal.  Jack Kornfield published a study a few decades ago now in which he surveyed 54 Bud­dhist, Hindu and Jain teachers in the United States.  According to their responses to his brief questionnaire, only 15 observed celibacy.  34 out of the 39 others admitted that they'd had sex with students on one or more occasions.  The particular predilection teachers appear to have for the bodies of their students appears to cross demoninational boundaries (with Tibetan teachers performing particuarly strongly), as well as differences in sexual orientation.  The only factor that appears significantly to lower the likelihood that a teacher will commit sexual improprieties is being female. 

For a lot of my friends, a consensual relationship between a teacher and a student isn't a big deal.  As they point out, it happens all the time, at various sorts of educational institution.  It's easy to understand the dynamic and the temptation, and also easy to see that you can be overly cynical, given that some of these relationships actually lead to loving partnerships.  I accept that valuable relationships sometimes do develop in this way, but I'm skeptical about how often they do, particularly in view of the disparities in power written into every interaction between teachers and students.  I'm not saying that Zen teachers should all be celibate; the fact that most of them in America don't pretend they're not sexually active is a healthy thing.  But I don't really understand why guys who are meant to be all spiritually complete have to turn to their students for sex when they could presumably just log onto a dating website.

It's true that nobody's perfect, and that sexual transgressions don't necessarily invalidate a person's teaching or erase all the good they may have done by introducing others to meditation.  This is one of the reasons I'm still part of the PZI community, even though I've heard from reliable sources that the group's founder John Tarrant had a fling with one former student (when they were both single), and even though I know that he's now in a relationship with another (they seem open, though not in-your-face, about it).  John's an insightful speaker and an open-minded organizer, and I'm happy to go on retreats led by him and listen to his talks while having David Weinstein as my main teacher.  At the same time, I think I have a duty to be open about what I've learned so that others can make up their own minds.

Scott Edelstein's new book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher deals firmly with the excuses that teachers guilty of transgressions often have recourse to, but also recognizes that sexually transgressive teachers may nonetheless have much of value to say.  He suggests a simple principle: rather than dismissing wayward teachers wholsesale, we should allow them to continue to do good (by lecturing, for example), but take steps to stop them doing harm (by limiting one-to-one meetings with students, say).  He also recommends that spiritual communities have clear codes of ethics and behaviour, and that they have proper oversight by independent boards.  I don't think PZI currently has a code of ethics, and though it has a board of directors, that board is headed by our main teacher.  I have to admit that I'd be happier if things were arranged differently.  In the meantime, this is my shot at right speech.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Zen cricket

You may have read the phrase 'Zen cricket' on this blog.  I had a go at explaining what Zen is in my second or third ever post; so now here's a shot at explaining cricket, prompted by someone asking me about it the other night.  Cricket is a sport played by men in white trousers with red balls (and green knees).  The pitch is a circle or ovoid of whatever spatial extent happens to be available on your local green; it may include holes, hillocks, or trees.  At the centre of the pitch is a wicket, which is a rectangle of flattened grass, and also refers very confusingly to the two wooden constructions set up at each end of the wicket: yes, at each end of the wicket (rectangle of grass) there are two wickets (wooden things).  The wooden things actually consist of three sticks called stumps and two twig-sized bobbins called bails.  If a red ball knocks the bails off the stumps while you're standing nearby with pads on your legs and a bat in your hand, you're out.

This usually happens after a chap at the other end of the wicket (grass) propels the ball towards you at high speeds.  He does not throw it; this is strictly forbidden.  Instead he must sling it down onto the wicket (grass) with a rigorously straight arm after going through what looks like an attempt at doing trikonasana (triangle pose) in the middle of a forty-yard dash.  You make runs by smacking the ball back at him as hard as you can, or by politely stopping the ball in its tracks and running away.  If you successfully abscond to the other wicket (wood), that is one run, but be careful where you hit the ball!  There are men in white trousers cunningly placed all around you at positions known as slip and gulley and silly mid-off.  A friend of mine at silly mid-off once took a ball smack in the forehead.  It left a red dot that made him look as if he'd experienced a sudden conversion to Hiduism.  He was standing about two feet away from the batsman; hence the silliness.

The first cricket match I ever played ended with 137 runs for us and 4 points for them.  It was a draw (a tie).  This is one of the central ways in which cricket is like meditation: you never really win, but then, you never really lose either.  You'll doubtless be dismayed to learn at this point (after slogging through two paragraphs) that the phrase 'Zen cricket' you've seen in this blog really has nothing to do with a fusion of Japanese spiritual rigour and English sporting eccentricity, interesting though that particular combination would no doubt be.  Instead, the Zen cricket is simply a green plastic bug that hops around from student to student as we speak our minds in the green green field of our Wind in Grass zendo.  Why then did I just give you a delightfully unhelpful description of the English sport of cricket?  Two reasons.  The first is because I've realized that Zen is the last refuge for authentic Englishness; but more on that in a later post.  The second is to introduce a post on our Zen games.

You see, one of the things I've been up to on this blog is giving you the lowdown on what we get up to at Wind in Grass.  We do something different every week of the month: so far I've covered the dharma talk, interviews with a teacher, and community night, and our Zen game nights are the only regular event left.  (Not counting what we get up to on the fifth Wednesday of months with five weeks, when all hell breaks lose, anything goes, and we meditate and walk and drink tea.)  Dharma talks and dokusan are venerable Zen and Chan traditions, and community night is our way of honouring the sangha, but how Zen games fit into the tradition is anybody's guess.  I'm told our teachers approve of our experiments (and this is partly why we like them).  But I must confess I can't really tell you what Zen games are.  I don't think Michael could either, and he runs them most nights.

We've already established on this blog that Wittgenstein was a Zen master (along with Socrates).  In the Philosophical Investigations there's a lot about games, because the word 'game' was a good example in the master's mind of how words meant: there's no essential quality that chess and tennis and manipulation share that makes them all games; rather, they're all linked to each other at different points, the way members of a family resemble each other through different features.  Our games are also like that, though like many things that change a lot they tend to have the same form every month.  After we meditate for half an hour, Michael invites us to meditate again for two or three minutes on something in particular: complaints we have, for example, or why we're here.  Then the Zen cricket does its innocent grasshoppery rounds through the tall grasses of the half-light we sit in. 

If I'd been called into construct a religious group a few years ago, the last thing I'd have done would be to put a businessman with a law degree in charge of organizing it.  And that, it turns out, would have been an enormous mistake, since one of the best things about Wind in Grass is that it's so well-organized despite all the informality, and most of that is Michael's fault.  Everbody gets to speak one at a time, for as long as the Zen bug is with them.  As Michael says, this isn't to put anybody on the spot; it's just because we want to hear what everyone has to say, and because we suspect that extroverted people don't have a monopoly on wisdom.  A- fucking -men.  People comment on what they came up for them in the experimental supplemental meditation party.  And more times than not, that somehow hands the rest of us, and them,  a shiny reflective fragment of their entire lives.

Once there was a game about complaints; I thought I would win, since I thought I had some pretty solid complaints about my life.  Naturally I was aghast when it turned out that other people were also bloody good at suffering; half of them at least had more heartbreaking misfortunes than my own, damn them.  Once there was a mind game about the Buddha; I talked about killing him, Chris told us all he did was wake up, Mick discussed his hairstyle.  Everybody said something completely different about the same bloke; it was like watching Citizen Kane.  Once Toby led a Zen game which was apparently a well-known mindfulness exercise.  Not well-known to me; she gave us raisins and I immediately asked her whether I could eat mine.  It turned out that was the game; we were meant to look at the raisin, smell it, listen to it, sense it and undress it and snort its pheromones.  At some point I'd realized I'd eaten one of mine before she'd told me I could, which I meekly confessed to later. 

I'm not sure who told us to play games like this, to conduct these trailblazing experiments, to muck about in the sandbox; but it's always a new enough joke to feel like an ancient practice.  We are all, we working young of San Francisco on winter nights, Englishmen on village greens in high summer.  Somehow we've figured out that the best way of making use of the space and time we have is to play a careful, bizarre, and elaborate game with each other.  At the centre of it is a red ball that means pain; it will hit you in the head in no time if you're silly and stand too close.  We launch it at other with stiff arms after cartwheels, swing at it wildly with bats, or wait in the outfield watching affectionately its suprising career.  Sometimes we can see it, high in the blue sky, hurtling towards us.  It looks very much like a fearful thing from underneath; but all of us are shouting out to catch it, because we know that there's nothing more joyful than to catch it in your smarting palms and to hurl it up again sky-high.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


This post will be about sex, so keep reading.  This first paragraph, though, will make another point about meditation and neuroscience (and if you're tempted not to read it first, just remember that skipping foreplay is bad karma).  There seems to be plenty of evidence that meditation will eventually change the structure and functioning of your brain, which sounds amazing, but which is actually less amazing than what people like Robert Aitken have been saying for centuries, that it changes your character and your way of experiencing the world.  But in any case, it's one thing to accept that the practice is transformative, and quite another to want to sign up to the particular transformation it offers.  I once read a report on a study suggesting that experienced meditators could eliminate their subconscious startle reflex.  I thought, 'Impressive', and 'Why the hell would I want to do that?'

I had an exchange of emails at one point with a friend who was at the time (and is still) studying philosophy.  I was already interested in Buddhism at the time, and had been telling him about the four noble truths and the eightfold path, which I'd learned about in Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught.  My friend (like many friends to this day) urged me to consider what he saw as the inhumanity of ideals such as the extinguishing of desire and the realization of selflessness.  I wondered whether the attempt to extinguish desire made us more inhuman than unthinking servitude to it; whether the realization of selflessness had led to greater acts of inhumanity than selfishness' full realization.  And anyway, though I didn't really want to extinguish my self or my desires completely, I knew I wanted to become less self-regarding and less anxious; and that was enough to keep me going.

I know what you're thinking: what does this have to do with sex?  Well, achieving the orthodox Buddhist ideal of exstinguishing desire would obviously involve extinguishing what for many of us feels like the tallest and hottest flame of all, sexual desire.  That's presumably the main reason that monks strengthen the traditional precept against sexual immorality into a vow of celibacy.  I remember reading about Buddhism in a comparative religion textbook we used at my secondary school called Six Great Religions.  There was a picture of some monks with shaven heads looking very silly and very pleased.  Next to them there was a text box saying: 'KEY IDEA: celibacy is key to spiritual development'.  I thought, 'Gosh'.  Although really, Christian monks have usually had the same idea.

I can sometimes see where they're coming from.  Being free from desires may sound unattractive, but it can really just be a way of being fully present in the moment: enjoying the way the sky is ripening to purple over the silhouette of your neighbourhood may be more difficult if you're thinking that you haven't gotten laid for a few months and need to be plotting how to put that right.  And I'm surely not the only twentysomething single in America to be weary of dating: all the fussing and striving that goes into finding someone to desire, pursuing them, and eventually either disappointing them or yourself.  One of the things I've liked about being in relationships it's easier to put all that to one side.

There is, of course, another side to the story.  Many people's most intense experiences of being alive have come from romantic relationships or sexual adventures, and some of them would no doubt insist that those moments were not merely physical but spiritual.  James Joyce seems to have been one of these people: the ecstatic vision that Stephen Daedalus has of the girl with bare legs at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simultaneously a religious epiphany and an erotic dream come true (as well as an Ovidian metamorphosis, but we'll put her turning into a stork aside for now).  And there's a vein of tantric Buddhism that embraces this: there are even buddhas who are said to have come to realization in more senses than one. 

There's a Zen koan that asks 'Why can't the clear-eyed boddhisatvas ever sever the red thread?'  Nobody knows the answer, but John Tarrant thinks the question is about desire, and his view on this deserves some respect.  Chris Wilson talked one night about how those great old Theravadin monks, try as they might, could never really exstinguish all desire; and about how the Zen way was more to accept that the world we're in was a world of desire, whether we liked it or not.  I looked up to see my friend one seat over nodding vigorously.  Since joining the group, I've gradually pieced together the complex web of relationships, amicable and professional and sexual, that helped bring it into being, and the equally complex network of emotions, desire and love and hatred, that still holds it together.

I've always approached meditation groups as a refuge from all that.  Most of my Zen friends would probably remind me that there is no real refuge from desire, so I'd better stop pretending I can find one.  I won't pretend I've never felt attracted to anyone I sit with.  But I won't date within the community, just like I won't date in the department; call me Theravadin, but I'm not into sanghacest.  Occasionally, I look around the zendo at my dear friends, knowing that they're feeling impatience or anger toward someone, and feel glad to be free of it all (assuming I really am).  But more often, I watch them meditating together and bowing at one another, and become aware of a feeling in myself of admiraton, perhaps awe, even envy, that though they go on feeling lust or longing or regret or frustration at one another, they always do so, in this space at least, with compassion and dignity.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Night community

I used to prefer cats to people, but recently I've been coming round to the human race.  When I first starting meditating, I saw no reason to do it with anyone else; actually, since it seemed like kind of a weird thing to be doing, I prefered nobody else to be around when I was doing it.  I remember reading a passage in one of Christmas Humphreys' books where he says that Buddhists don't really do community; they just read books and meditate at home on their own.  I found that reasuring, since I never really liked having to talk to people after church.  Once when I went to a Quaker meeting with a friend he said, 'We like to think of coffee after Meeting as an integral part of Meeting, but I'm not very good at that'.  So we left without talking to the welcoming older people, and I was glad: they looked boring.

At some point I realized that I was so busy with working, playing, and drinking that I wasn't anywhere near meditating every day.  I thought that joining a group would provide me with some extra motivation or will-power, and I was right.  Even though I didn't take to the group in Oxford in a big way, I met some apparently normal British students who were into meditation and weren't shooting for a certificate in yogic flying.  I talked every now and then to the teacher about meditation, and that made me want to try out the advice he'd given me, if only as a matter of personal courtesy.  And when we sat, I couldn't get up and absent-mindedly start perusing books as I sometimes found myself doing at home.  I had to meditate, and that reminded me that I liked meditating, actually rather a lot.

When I moved to Battersea I found that there was a very good chess club down the road and a very ornate Buddhist temple.  There was an altar or three at the end of the meditation hall, any number of snarling deities or half-deities wielding all manner of blades, candles and flowers and mandalas and gilt-framed photographs of reincarnated Rinpoches.  There was a complex series of bells, deep bells and tinny bells and jangling bells, to tell you to start meditating or stop, to start walking or stop, to make tea or drink it or listen to the dharma talk or do one yourself.  The people were the kind of Western Buddhists who started sentences with phrases like, 'When I first started down The Path...'  A man from Toronto gave me some useful hints about meditation, but it wasn't enough to keep me going back more than once or twice a month.  The chess club was great though: I went every week.

At Stanford the chess clubs was rubbish: everyone was analyzing and talking about math.  It was only in my second year that I started turning up to the meditation sessions advertised online in the Old Union.  There was guided meditation offered by a young man that looked to me like your typical Stanford grad student - clean-cut, Asian, serious and pragmatic - except that he had a certain calmness about him.  After a few sessions stubbornly doing my own practice, I decided to give his visualizations a try, if only as a matter of personal courtesy.  I ended up coming every week, even during breaks when I'd be disappointed to find no-one there.  Sometimes it was just the two of us; usually two or three others came.  There was a medical student, an tiny Indian girl, a middle-aged woman in philosophy.  We talked a little bit after the meditation about how we'd felt, and all the things we'd thought.

The year after Sith graduated I found what I'd thought was my ideal group.  There was no hierarchy, though there was a Religious Studies student who'd been a novice monk and answered my questions about monasteries in South-East Asia.  We'd meet, sit in our own ways for half an hour, and then disperse without saying much more than hello, goodbye, and thank you.  The following year afternoon sessions were led by a happiness researcher who drew something of a larger crowd.  There was a young techie who told us how meditation sometimes made him burst into laughter for no reason, a chilled-out Brazilian with an afro who just couldn't stop smiling, an anxious undergraduate who said looking at the contents of her own mind terrified her.  And all these groups were my sanghas; this year I've started staying for dharma circle in the same space.  Another year, another community.

If I'd been given the power to create my own ideal meditation group, it wouldn't have looked like Wind in Grass.  There wouldn't have been any koans, for a start, since I've always been a small-vehicle guy when it comes to meditation.  There wouldn't have been discussions or Zen games or dharma talks.  There certainly wouldn't have been statues of the Buddha, candles, or incense, not to mention disembodied heads, energy eggs, or Zen crickets.  But part of joining any community is being with people who have different preferences than you do, and different ideas.  If they didn't, it wouldn't be a very interesting group to be in, since you'd never learn anything.  Sometimes when I'm sitting in Wind in Grass I come across a rich tenderness in myself towards our altar, a drawer with a table cloth over it loaded with paraphernalia.  I didn't realize I would like it; thank goodness someone else did.

Once when I was on retreat one of the more severe looking students told me I should bow when approaching the teacher's room, bow after I'd gone through it, and then bow to the teacher before sitting down.  The next time I went into the room I did just that, and David looked at me and said, 'Dan probably told you to bow - which is sweet, since he's trying to make younger students feel at home.  But you should know that I couldn't care less.'  Since then, I don't bow to David (I shake his hand).  But for the rest of the retreat I still bowed to Dan.  You bow to Dan by bowing before entering the room to speak with the teacher.  I know Michael likes bowing too, so sometimes I bow to Michael.  You bow to Michael by bowing before sitting down, before serving tea, before lighting more incense.  And it seems fair enough, after all the bowing he's done for us by organizing Wind in Grass.

Once a month we have Community Night, when our practice is even less formal than usual (which you'd think would be difficult, but somehow we manage it).  There's a beautiful baby girl stumbling headlong around the zendo, gooing and gaing and aiding our meditation - she's a year old, the same age as my niece in distant England.  Our artist friend Mick, who left for Mexico last year, is here in the form of a wax energy sculpture on the altar - he is disguised as an enormous translucent egg.  My friend Ashley is sitting across from me cycling through memories of sticking needles into people therapeutically, which is her day job.  Marika is here with her boyfriend, Michael is here in his business suit, Raffy is looking clean-cut.  We are huddled in our wooden hide-out like revolutionaries or terrorists dedicated to doing nothing.  This is my secret society of friends, my sworn conspiracy of meditators, my night community.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sesshin session

The day after I came back from my first retreat, I knew I could thank the man who offered to smack me with a stick, the tea that almost scalded me, and all the serious people who didn't speak to me, for the high that I was feeling.  I was hiking back up Potrero Hill with two bags full of cheap and heavy groceries from Trader Joe's, singing under my labouring breath and composing in my head an umpromising poem I would never write down.  How had I gotten there?  It had started with Wind in Grass organizer Michael urging me to go (on retreat, or as he called it, sesshin), and making it easy for me by telling me I need pay only what I could and arranging a ride for me from the city.

The drive up to Santa Rosa was quiet - there was a man next to me that we'd picked up from the airport who gave one-word answers to my friend Ashley's attempts at conversation, and who I decided must either be very Zen or very rude (or both).  When we got to the Angela Center (usually used for Christian retreats) we went up in the elevator and stepped out into an inchoate zendo.  There were two stern-looking older men talking about Zen and Christianity and complaining about how the people materializing out of the elevator were wearing shoes in the meditation hall.  Almost immediately I was coopted by a tiny Asian man who directed me like a mechanical crane to hang several of his paintings high up on the walls.

I was shown to a room where I met my room-mate, a physics professor who seemed anxious about his allotted task of ringing the bells for the week.  The bells?  I was soon familiar with them, since they woke me at 4:30 the next morning.  I stumbled into the meditation hall where there was a man who looked like Socrates bowing and pouring tea to the people seated next to me, one at a time.  He was pouring steaming tea into my cup in the dark, and suddenly I realized the cup was filled to the glowing brim, the hot liquid about to spill over and scald my hands.  Later Socrates approached me in the hallway and whispered the convention: you're meant to hold your hand out until you've gotten enough, and then pull it sharply up.  Why hadn't anyone told me?

After the first two hours of meditation, I went back to my room, but then glanced at the printed schedule and realized that everyone else must have gone down to the dining hall for breakfast.  When I got there there everyone was muttering evilly in guttural tones about demons and hungry ghosts.  I stood by the door, awkwardly.  After breakfast I was put to chopping carrots and told to do it mindfully and above all quickly.  Then there was an hour of free time.  I followed a path past statues of Mary and Jesus out to a grassy hill.  I went over the hill, over a wooden fence, through the woods and stood staring for a while at a lake steaming in the early morning like hot tea.  When I got back to the zendo I realized that my socks had been soaked through with dew as chilly as dawn lakewater.

In the meditation hall there were probably forty or fifty people, with one long row along the walls and another smaller rectangle of mats in the centre of the room.  Most of the silver-haired solemn people that made up the majority of the group were wearing the black bibs with the curtain-rings that I'd seen Chris wearing at Wind in Grass.  Were they all chaplains or priests or masters of some sort?  To my left there was an altar covered with a thick white cloth and topped with three gilt statues of gyrating Eastern deities with limbs to spare and loaded with slicing weaponry.  There were tall candles burning tall fat flames and vases stuffed with flowers and a stalk of incense trailing an elaborate wake of smoke.  I looked across at Ashley seated opposite me and prayed that she would know what to do when the time came.

After a while there was an announcement: the Head of Practice would soon be stomping around and we had the choice of either getting a shoulder massage or being whacked with a stick.  Excuse me?  It seemed like a joke, a choice that wasn't really a choice at all.  Who would choose to be whacked with a stick?  As it turned out, a majority of the serious elderly people wanted the rod on their shoulders: they bent down ceremoniously to the left, whack whack, they slid down to the right, whack whack.  I'm told that this is to help meditators avoid falling asleep during the long afternoon sessions.  I went for the shoulder rub and have never looked back.  But I needed it: sitting cross-legged for eight or nine hours a day is tough on your body, especially if you're already in chronic pain.

At the end of the first day someone said, 'Prepare the hall for dharma talk'.  Everyone gathered into a crowd, there was a boing sound like when Wile E. Coyote runs into a cymbal, and in walked another man with an extra silly Buddha bib like David's.  He talked for a while in faded antipodean cadences about how most of our lives consist of killing zombies, one after the other, but there were always more.  After the talk we all stood in the candlelight and David came in.  He said, 'A man walks into a restaurant and orders the soup.  After a while, he calls the waiter over and complains that the soup is unbearably salty.  When the waiter looks incredulous, the man says, "Taste it yourself".  The waiter replies, "But you don't even have a spoon"'.  And that was life too, complaining of how bitter things were when we hadn't even made an effort to taste them.

The next morning I began to notice the trees outside through the window of the meditation hall.  At breakfast as we grumbled our grace, their deltas of rich wood began to distinguish themselves from the darkness.  I talked illicitly with the tiny Chinese man: it turned out he'd been a Christian minister, then had gone an various voyages to India, and now practised Zen.  I walked out to the lake, filled to the glowing brim with cool water.  I was whisked away by Chris to see David and do work in the room.  I chopped vegetables efficiently, and ate and slept.  The next day it was time to leave my first sesshin (I could only stay for the weekend).  The night before David had said, 'It's when I'm on retreat that I start to notice myself building the house of pain.  It doesn't stop me doing it, but I notice myself doing it, and somehow that's enough'.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Zen people are assholes

Once there was a temple that was destroyed by fire; its great library was completely destroyed.  Priests from a nearby shrine came to the great temple concerned about the loss of ancient Tang and Sung dynasty texts.  The master told them, 'None of them have been harmed'.  'Where are they then?' one of the priests asked doubtfully; 'Would you show us the Tang edition of the Mahavairochana sutra?'  The master held up one hand.  The priests didn't know what to make of this, but another one asked to see the later translations of the Lotus Sutra.  Again, the master held up one hand.  He said, 'The covers were burned, but you can still hold the texts in your hand'.

That was one of the first koans I heard at Wind in Grass.  When it came to the discussion, everyone put their interpretive pennies into the hat.  When the Zen bug (which preceded the disembodied Buddha head) came to one hipster girl though, she just put up her hand.  She looked kind of pissed off.  Later on I got to know her better when she ended up being up at retreat the first time I went to one.  Before you eat a meal on retreat there's a weird ritual where a plate is passed around every table and everyone puts a morsel of food on it.  Then one person from each table takes the plate up to the altar and offers the food up.  The whole while everyone in the room is muttering a dark twisted form of grace in which we invoke all the demons and hungry ghosts, asking them to take our food and be at peace.  One of the first times I was involved in this I took a particularly plump raspberry and put on the offering plate.  A few seconds after the rite had been concluded the girl whispered harshly over at me, 'I can't believe you gave a whole fucking raspberry to the hungry ghosts!  They don't even exist!' 

Zen people can be assholes.  I don't mean that in a complaining way; it's just something I've noticed and appreciated.  It's part of what makes me feel at home at Wind in Grass, since there's a certain normality there.  The hipster girl told me how she'd been on a vipassana retreat for a whole month once.  It had changed her permanently and made her happy and all that, but one of the things that stuck in her mind was that it was impossible to go through doorways, because whenever you tried there'd be a smiling Buddhist on the other side inviting you to go through first (at which point you'd obviously have to smile back and insist that the smiling Buddhist go through before you).  That doesn't seem to be a problem at Zen retreats.  I was definitely intimidated by some of the people I saw at my first retreat, but then I got to know them better, and now they just scare me.

Ultimately, the practise is about compassion (like all true religious paths, perhaps).  But there's a lot of emphasis at the outset on authenticity, too: you never get the impression that people have plastered smiles on their faces, which has sometimes been my suspicion at meditation events of different persuasions (not that having a smile plastered on your face isn't better than having most other things plastered on your face).  If you're pissed or randy or distraught, the Zen prescription seems to be to just be pissed off or randy or distraught (and maybe: notice that you're pissed or randy or distraught).  Don't criticize yourself for it.  After a while you'll realize that being pissed, randy, and distraught are all fine states of mind to be in, and you won't be so desperate to change your state of mind or the state of the union.  And from below the surface of that equanimity compassion will bubble up naturally.

That's my understanding of the teaching at this point, and I don't like it all that much.  (So my understanding may still be imperfect, or the teaching may just be crap.)  But it does raise an interesting and obvious point about Buddhism: that's it's a capacious and varied set of practices, and it shouldn't be surprising that different emphases in terms of the ethics will lead to practitioners who react differently when they meet each other at doorways.  This also links up with the recent posts on meditation and neuroscience, since it's often amusing to me to read of studies that show how 'meditation' has this or that effect in the brain.  What kind of meditation?  Often they'll stipulate it's 'Buddhist meditation'.  Thanks.  (My former teacher Mike Hagerty's work is an exception in this regard, often describing in detail the particular type of meditation that's being studied).

It's pretty obvious, though, that different types of mental exercise will lead to the development of different features of personality, just as different physical exercises lead to the development of different muscles in the body.  That actually seems to be one of the starting assumptions of lots of meditative practices: people who do metta for example, are aiming partly to cultivate a generous attitude that will issue in right deeds and good action.  So it's no surprise that meditators who concentrate on an object of meditation will develop a certain one-pointedness, and that Zen types who just fucking sit for hours at a time will become increasingly badass.  I don't want to emphasize this too much, since in the end there seems to be something common to all types of meditation which just grants you peace in an unpredictable way (maybe in the way that all types of exercise make you feel slightly better somehow).  But it's worth noticing, and worth bearing in mind: be careful what you sit for.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

This is your brain on meditation

Let's return to the question of the scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, making the scope of our enquiry slightly broader than pain this time around.  There seems to be a lot of research out there suggesting than regular meditation can improve your overall health, reduce anxiety and depression, and even make you smarter.  As far as I can tell, the claims seem to be true, though I wouldn't be surprised or dismayed if some of them turned out not to be.  But I want to make two points here: the first is that it has always seemed to me that the hardest way to get the benefits of meditation is to try to get the benefits of meditation; and the second is that health, cheerfulness and smarts are all very well, but there's a way in which meditators who focus on getting them are missing out on something much better and readier to hand. 

There are plenty of meta-scientific studies out there showing that research on most novel medical treatments follows a consistent pattern: at first, the new technique is acclaimed, as study after study demonstrates that it has incredible benefits, low costs, and few side-effects.  After a while, there's a reaction, as studies appear that imply that the vaunted effects represent little more than the action of placebo.  In a final stage, researchers settle into a consensus that the novel treatment, though not the panacea it had at first seemed, is also not the fraudulent practice some had accused it of being.  And something similar may well be in store for research on meditation, scientific research into which is still relatively young.

On the other hand, meditation itself is not a new practice but an ancient one, dating back at least 2500 years.  There's a sense in which anyone who has met an experienced and authentic meditator - a monk, say - knows that their practice has developed certain character traits, whether or not they want to develop those traits themselves.  And there's a sense in which what neuroscientists look at (brain waves, neurogenesis, activation of various areas of the brain) are phenomena of secondary importance when it comes to meditation.  We don't experience the ion channels in our neurons, can't tune into our brain waves, don't feel our amygdala lighting up the way it does on a scan.  But we do feel better about the world after sitting still for a little while, and that may be all the evidence some of us need.

Still, it's encouraging to see how the initially sceptical scientific community in the West has fallen slowly but surely head over heels for meditation.  There have been a number of crucial contributions.  One was the medical researcher Herbert Benson's work on the 'relaxation response' and its health benefits in Boston in the 1970s.   Another has been the cooperation encouraged by the spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso between neuroscientists and advanced meditators at the annual Mind and Life conference, inaugurated in 1987.  And another was the neurologist James Austin's 1998 book Zen and the Brain.  There are now centres dedicated to meditation research across the US, including one at Stanford.

And what have all these researchers found?  I can't hope even to survey the findings of the thousand or more studies on meditation that have been published since the 1970s.  But here a few especially suggestive findings.  Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee studied 201 African Americans in their fifties and sixties who had been diagnosed with heart disease, following these subjects' health over nine years.  Half the group was assigned to a course on diet and exercise, while the other half enrolled in a meditation class.  At the end of the study, the researchers found that the incidence of heart attack and stroke in the group of meditators was only about half the rate in the control group.

Similarly spectacular results were reported for the treatment of depression in a study carried out at UCLA.  The group of subjects is this case was a worryingly small one, of only 36 people, all of whom had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and all of whom were taught to meditate.  Reported symptoms of depression in the group as a whole had nearly halved after three months, and the benefits were retained for the rest of the year.  (The three-month duration of the activation period, reported in a few studies I've seen, chimes with my experience.  It was about three months after I'd started meditating for the first time than I began to feel I had a real handle on my facial pain).

Another smallish study from UCLA looked at the brains of 44 people, half of whom had practised meditation for several years.  MRI scans showed that the hippocampus - an area of the brain associated with memory - was significantly larger in the brains of the meditators than in the control group.  Admittedly, this may have been because people with large hippocampi are pre-disposed to meditate rather than because meditation increases the size of your hippocampus.  But researchers at Harvard and Yale have interpreted similar results as suggesting that meditation actually stimulates the production of more grey and white matter in regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex. 

This is just a glance at a few studies on three aspects of health that meditation has been claimed to improve.  But it looks like we have a simple technique that is free, has no side-effects, is available to everyone, and that reliably makes people healthier, happier, and cleverer.  I'm not in a position to be able to offer any sort of reliable meta-analysis of this research, but the balance of evidence seems clear.  But though I suppose that meditation might make you healthier and happier and smarter, I don't think people should meditate in order to achieve these goals.  I don't really think people should meditate in order to achieve other goals either.  The thing is, I don't think people should meditate to achieve any goals at all.  In fact, meditation for me is partly about realizing that there aren't any goals you need to achieve apart from appreciating the amazing show the daylight is putting on for free.

My first problem with meditating for health and happiness (or even wealth, as I'm sure some do) is that it makes the practice into another kind of striving.  Even sophisticated (or just plain honest) Christians like C.S. Lewis have always stressed that prayer isn't about getting what you want, but about putting your heart in the right place so that you want (or at least accept) what you get.  And as a matter of observation it seems that you only stop being nervous about a presentation when you stop making its success such a big deal; you only stop worrying about a date when you realize that your happiness isn't going to depend on its outcome (though your ego might); and that in general, and paradoxically, things only start falling into your lap once you've sat down and given up reaching for them.

My second problem with focusing excessively on the medical gains of meditation is that it misses the real windfall.  When they asked Gautama what he'd gained from enlightenment, he reportedly (I get this from Henry Miller) replied, 'Nothing - and that's exactly why it's enlightenment'.  Stopping worrying about your job, your health, even your family, must all ultimately be part of an understanding that there's nothing you can possibly lose (or fail to gain) that will take away this moment, with the lamplight and the stillness and sounds of the night.  And it may be that that realization will heal your heart and grow your brain.  I don't care.  I sit in the half-light, listen to the silence, look around at the restful objects teaching me how not to move, knowing there's no improvement I can make that will make this moment more true.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Work in the room

The third or fourth time I turned up for meditation at Wind in Grass I found that they'd hidden a man with a white beard in the closet.  The space we sit in has a rustic, outdoorsy feel, even though as soon as you step outside you can see the densely clustered towers of the downtown area sparkling away beside the Bay Bridge.  Every time you walk in the door it's like going on an urban camping trip.  The wooden floorboards are rough and unsanded (some work practice we never seem to get around to), and throw up splinters that unquestionably help with mindfulness when we're doing walking meditation in our socks.  In the corner there's a wooden door with a catch and behind it there's a small space between the wall behind you and the sloping bedrock of Potrero Hill.

That night they'd announced that the teacher David would be coming.  After we started meditating the girl to my left put the disembodied head of the Buddha in my hands and disappeared into the corner.  Beneath the noise of the heater you could hear hums and haws and sometimes an explosion of laughter.  After twenty minutes or so she came back to her cushion.  I passed the head of the Buddha on to the person to the left of me and opened the door of the closet.

In the closet there was an empty chair, and across from it another chair with a man with a white goatee in it.  Next to him there was a little table with a bell and some other curious objects on it.  Around his neck he had a kind of apron like the one I'd noticed Chris wearing, only this one was yellow and sparkly, as if he had taken care to dress up extra silly to keep the children entertained.  He looked friendly and glad but also kind of mischievous, as if he were savouring the happy outcome of a recently executed practical joke. 

This, I later learned, was our version of dokusan, a private interview with a Zen teacher.  (This was also my first encounter with a Zen teacher, although I'd foolishly taken the other chap with the black bib as a teacher, because he had taught me things.)  I've heard that in Japanese tradition the interview can be quite confrontational, with the master throwing the student a koan immediately upon entry and ringing the student out of the room with the bell if a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming.  When I heard this I immediately felt at home, realizing that the Japanese had invented the Oxford tutorial.  'How did the ancient Greek city-state get there?'  'How do you stop the sound of the distant temple bell?'  Ding-dong.  We've all been there.

My actual experience was much more disconcerting, consisting as it did largely of patience.  I sat down and waited for the teacher to say something, and he sat there and smiled.  At a certain point we started talking about meditation.  I'd already been practising for seven or eight years but immediately felt that everything was upside down.  More precisely, I felt like the strange man sitting opposite me was flipping my brain over, repeatedly and lighthearetdely, the way you flip a fried egg over on a frying pan.  Flip, flip.  This is your brain on koans.  And my koan was to stop the sound of the distant temple bell.  With what?  How come?  No idea.  It was like an extra secret dangerous mission from the spy agency that you couldn't refuse. 

I've since had many sessions in the room with David Weinstein, in Wind in Grass, on retreat, in somebody's house in Alameda, over the phone.  Somtimes we talk about meditation, which I thought is what I was meant to be doing at first (and that may be right; I don't know).  Sometimes we talk about what's going on in my life, which I was pretty sure was wrong, until I found out that's what most people in Wind in Grass were doing (not to say that it isn't wrong; it may be).  And sometimes we talk about stopping that damn bell from clanging in that distant bloody temple.

After I'd put forward my interpretion of the koan, my thoughts concerning it, and my complaints about it ('My koan doesn't appear to be working'), David started asking me to show him how to stop the bell without using words.  I have no idea how to do this, but I've figured out that figuring something physically is a big part of koan work, the only way, David told me, of getting the understanding into your bones.  I will work on that.  In the meantime, I look forward and backward to meeting strange men with white beards whenever I enter the closet.  There I am with Socrates in the Agora, finding out thay I have no idea what piety is.  With a priest in the half-darkness, admitting that getting everything wrong is alright.  With Wittgenstein in the deckchairs, a fly being coaxed towards the open end of a bottle.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


One day a friend of mine asked, 'What do you actually do when you meditate?  Because just thinking about your problems over and over just sounds awful to me'.  I had to agree that that sounded awful.  So it's lucky that that isn't meditation.  Although maybe it can be if you do it with the right attitude.  Because after a while you realize that everything you do, if you just take the trouble to be aware of what it is that you're up to, can be meditation.  It's the flip side of the old koan where the earnest young student asks, 'Master, what is meditation?' and the master says, 'Not meditation'.  Precisely - and not meditation is meditation.

But of course if you'd told me this when I first became interested in meditation it would have seemed like nonsense, and maybe it is.  So let's start how I started, by becoming aware that there are two broad styles of meditation, a style centred on concentration, and a style centered on mindfulness (samadhi and vipassana in Sanskrit respectively, for those who like ancient languages).  I also came across a few other approaches (like metta or loving-kindness meditation) that didn't seem to fit into either category, but I've come to think of most of them as involving some aspects of concentration or mindfulness (since loving-kindness is partly about becoming aware of the other people around you).

In any case, the first form of meditation that most people meet is based on focusing on the breath.  This is the style of meditation I learned about on the internet, and it's typical of many of the concentration approaches to meditation in that it offers you an object of meditation (the breath) and asks you to rest your attention on it.  Another popular technique is to focus on a simple physical object, like a doorknob (favoured by the British teacher Christmas Humphreys), or a ring (something I tried to pin my thoughts to for a while).  The visualization technique I learned from my Thai friend really just replaces the physical object with a mental one like a ball of light.

Mindfulness practices, instead of drawing the mind to a single point, invite you to expand it to embrace everything around you.  You can begin a mindfulness meditation by just becoming aware of the various parts of your body and how they feel, or by simply listening to the sounds around you while trying not to let any particular train of thought carry you away.  When thoughts come, which they will, just notice what they are without criticizing yourself and go back to listening to the noises around you or being aware of whatever sensations there are in your body.  You don't need to grasp at them - they'll come on their own, and all you need to do is pay them the tribute of your attention.

I've practised both these styles of meditation, and I've found that they are different in some ways.  I find mindfulness a more pleasant or rewarding practice when my mind is relatively relaxed and open to the world pouring in.  On the other hand, when I've had a stressful day and my mind is jumping from thought to thought (as one teacher always put it) like a monkey leaping from branch to branch (as it says in the scriptures), I find that concentrating on a visualized object will block out distractions like nothing else, though the exercise itself might feel difficult.  But the more I practice these two different styles the more I'm coming to think that they're doing more or less the same thing.

One way of communicating one of the things they have in common is to say that my friend was right - though meditation is never primarily about your thoughts, in some ways any meditation worth its salt will give you some kind of knowledge of your own thoughts.  In zazen (zen meditation) as I've been taught it the path to being aware of your thoughts is very direct - especially in its most unadorned form, shikantaza, in which you just sit and notice what happens, and whatever does happen in your mind is meditation.  But even the concentration styles have this feature, since though your intention is to focus on the object of meditation, part of the effort of doing that will be to notice where your thoughts have strayed to.

I could put it more strongly: the meditation object in these styles acts as a kind of crowbar with which you can pry your attention from your individual thoughts.  When I first read about meditation on the internet, the monk who wrote the piece I was reading went on at some length about how labelling your thoughts would eventually make you realize that your thoughts and phenomena in the world were two different things.  I didn't understand this at the time, and I took it to be so much metaphyscial claptrap I could leave behind while taking away a useful relaxation technique.  But actually, what the monk was saying is exactly right: really, it's only since I've started to become aware of all the voices in my head that I've realized that I'm going sane.

It's so easy to assume that your friend being an asshole is just a natural feature of the world before you consider that your friend being an asshole might just be a thought rather than something factual.  And your thought may well be right, but it may be useful just to be aware that it could also be wrong.  Mindfulness meditation makes you aware that there's difference between your thoughts and reality by the opposite route: rather than making you aware of your thoughts, it invites you to be awake to what is going on around you, which you then notice is not the same as the thoughts you'd complacently taken for truth.

And after a while you realize that what is going on around you is so much more varied and complicated and spacious and beautiful than what you were thinking that it's not even sad.  And after a little while longer it strikes you that even the anxious thoughts that are distracting you from the moment are part of the moment too, and you recognize that whatever you do, however you may conspire to cock things up, you're part of something very interesting.  And then you can relax, because there's no tecnhique or theory you could possibly need to make anything more perfect than it already is.  What is meditation?  Not meditation.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Meditation and pain

'You're going to be in pain' is the general idea of the first noble truth, usually translated grimly as 'Life is suffering'.  The other noble truths conspire to tell you what's causing the pain (being thirsty) and that there's a way out of it.  I suppose that the orthodox prescription is to adopt the ethical practices of the eightfold path, thus reducing your thirst for things and so your annoyance when you don't get them (or your disappointment when you do).  But is there any evidence that meditation itself can reduce pain?  Isn't the idea that the mind can influence the body a load of hippy shit?  And even if I think that meditation is helping my headaches, couldn't I just be wrong?

In the early days of my headaches, I tried a number of different therapies, some conventional and some less so.  I tried to get an idea through the popular press about what therapies had scientific support and what did not.  I went to various chiropractors, who would give my neck sharp twists, as if they were trying to finish me off around the wrong corner of a Steven Seagal film.  I found out that though there's a cultural bias in the research, there's a relatively good amount of evidence suggesting that acupuncture can help with one or two conditions (mainly idiopathic headaches and nausea), but it didn't work for me.  I went to an osteopath who - I could swear - could make my right arm weaker or stronger by adjusting my neck (and no, I've never been able to figure out how that worked). 

Compared to the uncertain evidence supporting many alternative therapies, studies suggesting that meditation helps reduce pain are rather numerous (though some are vitiated by a lack of proper controls).  In the 1980s Jon Kabat-Zinn conducted a series of experiments at the University of Massachusetts Medical School involving subjects in chronic pain who were invited to take part in a ten-week course in mindfulness meditation.  There was a statistically significant decrease in reported lower levels of present pain, negative body image, and pain-related depression among the patients who completed the course, and no significant improvement on any of these dimensions by members of a control group, who were given more conventional treatments such as nerve blocks, physical therapy, and antidepressants. 

More recently, a research group at the Université de Montréal compared pain tolerance in 13 Zen practitioners (with over one thousand hours of meditation each) to that of 13 non-meditators (with no or little experience of meditation).  The researchers placed heating plates on the subjects' calves, and warmed them up to between 43 and 53 degrees Celsius.  The meditators tolerated greater levels of pain in both meditative and on-meditative states.  More recently still, scientists at Wake Forest University subjected 15 people to the same level of heat before and after a course consisting of only 80 minutes of meditation, and found that the individuals reported significantly less discomfort after the training (and that the reported reduction in sensation was accompanied by differences in brain activity).

But meditation happens in the mind, while pain affects the body, so how does that work?  There are two common misconceptions here: one is about how pain works and one is about the relationship betweend mind and body.  As its happens, both misconceptions could be attributed to Descartes, although both ideas have an insidious plausibility that makes it likely that people have often come to them independently.

The first unhelpful notion is that pain is a signal that travels along a nerve from a stimulus (the tack you stepped on) to the brain (which registers the sensation); pain represents an accurate signal of damage to tissues.  Fortunately and unfortunately, things are actually more complicated than that.  In fact, there's no reliable link between how much you're hurt and how much pain you're in, as suggested on the one hand by soldiers who get their arms blown off and don't feel any pain until they're out of the combat area (lots of damage, no pain), and on the other hand by sufferers of chronic pain (lots of pain, not always much continuing damage).  The neurologists Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall drew attention to cases like these and explained them with their gate-control theory of pain, in which downward inhibitory signals from the brain (saying 'I can't take in that pain signal now because I have to protect my comrades in battle') and constantly-reinforced signals (saying 'your head must still hurt because the experience of that car-accident was so traumatic') have as much to do with what you feel as what is happening to your body.

The second unhelpful Cartesian idea is dualism, that mind and body are two separate substances.  The theory has of course been extensively debunked over the last four hundred years for a number of reasons, chief among them the philosopher's inability to give any satisfactory account of how the two separate stuffs could possibly interact with one another.  And yet the assumption that the mind can be conceived of as existing separately from its physical substrate underlies many of the thought-experiments that seem still to be in vogue (as in Hofstadter and Dennett's collection, The Mind's I).  Against this backdrop, the more of an uncompromising monist you are (believing either that everything is completely mental, like Berkeley, or that everything is entirely physical, like Hobbes), the more likely you are to comprehend how meditation has an effect on physical pain.  Meditation can reduce pain because it impacts the brain, and the idea that the neurological control-centre might have an effect on the peripheral nervous system should not be considered an outrageous one.

Sometimes I wonder whether the benefits I'm deriving from meditation are just all in my mind.  That is partly why I like to look up scientific studies, to reassure myself that all the time I'm investing in meditation isn't being wasted.  But in my better moments I realize that this is a peculiarly ridiculous kind of doubt.  The benefits of meditation are, of course, all in my mind - it's just that my mind includes my body (or, if you want, they're all in my body, which is also where the mind is).  And in any case, can I really be wrong about my own state of pain?  Pain is a subjective state, and if the relief I'm perceiving is merely subjective, that's fine with me.  In the end, whatever regions of my brain are lighting up when I meditate, and whatever neurons are firing or being generated, all that really matters for me is that sitting down on my own, without any desire to get well or change things, makes being or not being in pain not really matter so much at all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Some light on me

Since I'm writing under a pseudonym, maybe it's a good idea if I tell you a little about myself and how I reached this wonderful end point of being a bewildered beginner at Zen.  Well, I was born in Calgary but never really lived there.  I lived in England but I'm not really from there.  I study ancient Greece from hypermodern California.  And I know a thing or two about Augustine and Aquinas but couldn't really tell a Dogen from a Hakuin at this stage.  Despite that, there are two main things that have apparently made me well-suited for a Buddhist practice: being a Christian and being in pain.

What kind of Christian was I?  Several.  My first great teacher was my mother, who seems to know nothing about Christian doctrine and cares even less.  My earliest memories of organised religion are of stuffy churches in army barracks that we went to as a family every Sunday as an obligation.  But once I remember we were swimming in the lake outside our family cottage, the sun was laying down a line of light on the water like a blurry path, and my mother was telling me that this was what was wonderful about Christianity, that it wasn't about any particular God but just enjoying being in that light.  Even then the comment struck me as pretty obviously false, but I sensed that behind or beside it was something interesting.

When I moved to England I went to a traditional Anglican boarding school where we were made to go to Chapel three times a week, sometimes four.  There was also an optional candlelit mass on Friday nights that I would go to.  I remember sitting in a pew at one of these and looking up at the light falling on the stone arches opposite me.  At some point the Reverend asked us in Theology what being a Christian was all about.  We suggested love, kindness, going to church, but all those answers were wrong; apparently the core of the faith was to believe that Jesus redeemed our sins by dying on the cross.  I decided that I either didn't understand that or did and didn't believe it, so I must not be a Christian.  It didn't make me sad, because I was sixteen, but later I'd miss that moment in chapel.

Near the end of my first year of university I started feeling pain in my face.  The doctor told me I needed to relax, so I went to Italy for the summer, drank lots of red wine, and started meditating after reading an article about it on the internet.  I did it in secret and pretended I was doing something different if someone caught me in the act, like wanking.  After a while my facial pain got better and I felt like something interesting was just behind or underneath the light falling on the wall in my room.  Then I got hit on the head playing rugby, and have had a headache ever since.  I stopped meditating because it scared me to think of what might be happening to my concussed brain.  I tried exercising three times a day, not drinking tea, drinking a bottle of wine every night, switching girlfriends.

And somehow I was still meditating, not every day or every other day, but occasionally.  I joined a group the term I did my final exams at Oxford and didn't like it much, but felt lighter walking home hugging my cushion.  I went to a temple in London and didn't like that much either, but remember once noticing the way the light was falling on a tree outside and kind of enjoying it.  When I moved to California, I found myself studying what I loved with a group of close friends in a land of eternal sunshine, but for some reason I was still suffering.  I tried taking more pain medication, using anaesthetic patches on my neck, getting a tooth removed.  And somehow I kept meditating, off on and on, and then suddenly on and on, every day, with a new technique another grad student taught me.

I still use that concentration practice, but there was something about it that pushed me more towards discipline than freedom.  I spent a year being unhappy but calm and wondering if I was simply calm but unhappy.  When I walked into Wind in Grass I found a bunch of nutcases in party hats who seemed neither calm nor happy but keen on wondering.  I didn't take to some of the traditional koans - I couldn't care less about whether the dog had buddhanature, whatever that was.  I didn't like the liturgy, especially when we chanted about people like Guanyin - who was he?  But every so often I'd find myself sitting there, wondering at the pain and the play of light, and I'd be in the lake with my mother, the chapel in England, and also no other place but here, after all this time the only real place to be.