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.

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