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 emigrĂ©, 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.