Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beginning Post

About a year ago, I walked into a community centre in San Francisco and made the acquaintance of some nice young people wearing party hats who threatened to kill me.  I'd just moved to the city from the South Bay, had been practising meditation for about seven years, and wanted to find a group in my neighbourhood - Potrero Hill - that I could sit with.  Luckily, I didn't have to look very long or very hard, since I soon saw flyers for a Zen group that called itself the Wind in Grass Sangha.  I jotted down the details, even though I'd never been attracted to Zen among sects of Buddhism.

Actually, I'd never been that attracted to any of the sects of Buddhism, thinking of myself primarily as an agnostic with a Christian background who liked meditation.  But if I'd been forced to choose one school it would have been a strain of what I considered the no-nonsense orthodox tradition (Theravada), rather than one of various florid offshots of the Mahayana tree that took root later on.  I looked up the website of the group advertised on the flyer and was put off by all the activities they seemed to be engaging in: group discussions (not what I was looking for), Zen games (pretentious-sounding), and koan practice (which looked like a distraction from the concentration meditation I was used to).

Nonetheless, the group did meet almost unbelievably close to my new room - a less than five minute walk up to the crest of the hill, from where you could see the whole city lying spread out and sparkling before you, and down again to Carolina Street.  It actually took me a few weeks to find the place, but when I did, I felt immediately at home, possibly just because the people there were near my own age, clearly not Buddhists from birth, and obviously the kind of people who had other things going on in their lives.  That night we sat outside on the balcony, with the Bay Bridge standing behind us in the distance like some mechanical caterpillar petrified in the act of clambering across the bay.

A tall confident man in a business suit was telling us a story about a student who wanted to reach enlightenment.  He went to a teacher who told him to meditate for a year and come back then if he hadn't reached enlightenment.  After a year of disappointed application, the student came back to the master to report his failure.  The master told him to try again for a month and see what happened.  Surely enough, the student returned again, dejected, and fared no better after another week of practice and then a single day.  Finally, the master said, 'Meditate for the next hour, and if you don't reach enlightenment, I'll kill you with this knife'.  Lo and behold, the young man had an awakening.

It just so happened that the night I walked in was the group's one-year anniversary, and that's why everyobdy was wearing paper party hats.  Since nobody had reached enlightenment after a year (or maybe since they all had, and just wanted to have some fun), our practice that night was to meditate with a a stalk of burning incense in our hands, imagining that our lives would end when the incense burned out.  I wasn't sure if I knew how to wake up completely in such a short span of time, so I concentrated on the glowing tip of the incense as it moved down towards my fingers.  In the discussion, a clean-cut man with German accent said that he'd given up meditating before the end, and had surrendered to enjoying the moment, just being on the balcony above the bridge and the bay.

I got away without anybody killing me, but then, I hadn't reached enlightenment either - at least, I didn't think so.  I'd also decided that the people in this group were unserious, crazy, and possibly dangerous.  Some part of me had also apparently decided that I'd be going back the following week, and that's exactly what I did - and I've been back virtually every week since then, with a break while I was away in Europe over the summer, until now, when we're again nearing a group anniverary.  The people in that group have become my community, and some of my most trusted friends in the city.  And Zen has become the path I took and have walked down for a year - a route I know little about, from a country whose language I don't understand, but which seems to lead somewhere interesting.

I'm starting this blog for a range of inter-related reasons.  One is that it's a central idea in Zen - stressed by Shunryu Suzuki - that there is much to learn from the mind of a beginner, even for a master, and I hope that the thoughts and impressions of a tyro in the practice will be interesting to others.  Another is that it's often difficult to explain to my friends and family exactly what I'm up to when I go to Zen, and this will provide an account of my activiites and reflections for those who want one.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want this blog to help make our group the best that it can be, transparent to outsiders and comfortable with  internal criticism.

Over the past year, Wind in Grass and Pacific Zen (the institute of which we're a chapter) have given me an inspiring glimpse of the value of a religious community.  But too many communities of this sort have been corrupted by the failure of members to speak frankly to each other and to outsiders about the sort of problems that occur naturally in any human group.  I feel immensely lucky to be among a group of people who are as committed to open-minded experimentation as they are to valuing the religious traditions they have taken as their own.  And I think that the best way I can help out is by putting into public space a frank record of my ideas and experiences as someone approaching an ancient practice with a beginner's mind.


  1. This post makes me conscious of a very real value in what you're doing. I've no doubt ranted at you whilst drunk about a great many things, including people who claim to 'have their own spirituality', which in practice involves lighting up scented candles in a solitary bedroom, etc. Not something I'd ever accuse you of (like all sensible people, when you're alone in your bedroom you do one of various things that the Vatican tells you not to do -- reading Baudelaire for example); and of course you're very well aware that the value of solitary meditation is related to the potential dangers inherent in the same practice. So I'm very pleased that you seem to have found a congenial congregation to wear paper hats with. Next time we're drunk I'll let you know all about my views on the importance of 'parochialism' + community + communion; for now I wonder: how does your congregation deal with conflicts, tensions, and simple rubbings the wrong way? Without a doctrine of 'Original Sin', etc., I mean.... Most Catholic churches/parishes/congregations tend to be fairly crap at dealing with these things so thank Augustine we've got a handy excuse....

  2. I like the freedom to experiment that I've found with this group a lot. At the same time, I sometimes worry whether Western Buddhists are making things easy for themselves by simply choosing not to try the practices that they would find most difficult (not drinking alcohol, for example). I'll definitely write a post about this at some point.

    As for the importance of community, that's also much on my mind. The basic Buddhist vows to take refuge in awakening (buddha), the way (dharma), and your friends (sangha) already includes the idea that a spiritual practice is better if it's a fellowship.

    One of the main reasons I started this blog was to air my thoughts on how being in a community feels and on conflicts and controversies within the group. At first I was shocked when I found out about certain people's imperfections, but nobody's perfect.

    What I've realized is that if you wait around for a group every member of which you agreed entirely with all the time, you'll be sitting alone a lot in your room with a candle. Which, by the way, I would highly recommend; but I think you'll agree it's a way of avoiding something difficult and valuable.