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.

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