Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mind the gap

A man is hit by a truck somewhere in Tibet.  As he lies dying by the side of the road, a red-robed monk hurries up to him, rouses him, and leads him through an elaborate ritual.  When the monk has finished, the man dies, apparently in peace.  This is one of a number of wonderful tales of old Tibet told by Sogyal Rinpoche in his Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.  Some are believable, others less so.  But the book as a whole is a warm and candid overview of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism by an acknowledged master with considerable experience of teaching to Westerners. 

I took this book out of the library (a cardboard box) at Wind in Grass before heading to Europe in September.  I'd heard it was a classic and wanted to have a survey of the Tibetan path after my exploratory incursions into the Tibetan Tse Chi Ling center in the Lower Haight.  It does offer a good introduction to Vajrayana thinking and I can see why it's become a classic, since it's engaging and clearly written.  Having said that, my sense that I was getting the best possible presentation of Tibetan orthodoxy made it easier for me to recognize that this particular style of Buddhism is not for me.

The book is actually many books in one.  It's a repository of yarns about the great masters and odd characters of a Tibet that was lost under the tank-tracks of the Chinese invasion.  It's a memoir of Sogyal's own experiences of that world, and a tribute to his various teachers.  It's an accessible handbook of the most important Tibetan meditation techniques, especially those focusing on the hour of death, like phowa (the practice the monk administered to the man dying on the road).  It's a meditation on death itself and of the way it's approached and handled in traditional Tibetan and contemporary Western culture.  And it's a guide to and defense of traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about death, rebirth, and karma.

In this last aspect, Sogyal has been very impressed by accounts of near-death experiences, which he sees as confirming traditional Tibetan teachings about the stage of transition between life and death.  For a fuller defense of the doctrine of reincarnation, he turns to scripture, where he finds appealing analogies for the way consciousness might be passed on - the transference of a flame from lamp to lamp, for instance.

Later in the book, though, we're plunged into an eschatology that such attractive images can't justify.  We're told, for instance, that we'll wander for 49 days after our deaths as invisible homunculi, during which time our karma will sweep us towards a good or bad rebirth.  It reminded me of Aquinas, whom I studied at college, whose Five Ways argue that a God (at least, a first mover of the chain of causation) must exist, but which do nothing to legitimate the entire panoply of Catholic religiosity that the philosopher goes onto sanction in the rest of his work.

I was also reminded of religious types who stop you in the street by asking questions like, 'are you interested in life?'  The answer is yes, of course - but the connection between that affirmative answer and their crackpot theories of what valuing life should consist in almost always seems a great deal more tenuous than they take it to be.  Sogyal is not quite as vapid, but the transition from his statements about the importance of death to his detailed descriptions of his own culture's account of death is at many points an uncomfortable one. 

Still, there is much to cherish here.  The book is steeped in a ready ecumenism which often has its author recommending that people meditate on an image of Jesus if they prefer him to the Buddha; the Virgin Mary often features as an acceptable substitute for Avalokitesvara.  The sketch of meditation at the start of the book as a time when the mind is allowed to sink into rigpa, the ground of being, is one of the best that I've come across.  And there are plenty of statements which did strike me as straightforwardly true, such as the tendency of our developed lifestyles to make the mind skittish and distracted. 

If old-fashioned religiosity isn't your thing, be prepared.  Sogyal will assure you of the occurrence of several miracles, including the manifestation of a 'rainbow body' at the death of his teacher (an event which was sensed, he insists, by monks hundreds of miles away).  And although he usually tries to hone in on the essence of a practice for Western consumption, he still lists the full mantras that you should use to ease your loved one's journey across the gap between death and rebirth. 

Since I was often touched by this book and the practices it described, I tried one at Wind in Grass the other night.  I simplified the phowa practice, invited everyone to picture themselves as drops of water merging with a great ocean, or as a candle-flame being absorbed in a greater light.  People here take readily to this kind of experiment, which I'm grateful for, and most of them seem to have enjoyed it.  One woman said that as a vet she encounters death all the time, and it's good to have a way of dealing with it that isn't simply pretending it isn't significant.  I told them I wanted to try the practice as an experiment, not because I thought we were all going to die after the session.  Although, of course, as one person pointed out, at some point we were.


Friday, August 24, 2012

Green galaxy

About a year and a half ago I had to go to the hospital because there was sand lodged behind my eyeball.  I'd spent the day with my then girlfriend at Stinson Beach.  It's a lovely place, the perfect Californian seaside town.  Unfortunately the beach was rather windy the day we were there, and we spent a lot of it huddled under various shawls trying to keep the pebbly granules from assaulting the flesh on our faces. I lost that particular battle, and spent a few hours at San Francisco General getting my eyeballs bathed,  a process which is less pleasant than normal bath-time, and not because of the absence of a rubber ducky.  And I also lost that particular girlfriend a few months down the line.  Funny thing though - about a year after that I was in Mill Valley for a friend's wedding and set off for the nearest beach with my current girlfriend.  I'd forgotten the name of that beach-town, so you can imagine my bewildered sense of déjà-vu as we drove up a rather familiar winding road and then down to a windy beach.  I didn't get sand in my eye that day, but I did notice something I hadn't the first time - the sign to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, pointing down the green hill into a secluded valley.

I'd heard of Green Gulch before, of course - it's one of SF Zen Center's three sites, the other two being the City Center I've written about here before and Tassajara Mountain Monastery.  I'd looked into getting to Tassajara, but it's very remote, and also amazingly expensive to stay there as a guest (we're talking hundreds of dollars per night - in the range of four-star hotels).  So I called Green Gulch and asked if there was any availability in August.  They said I could stay for two days only - they were otherwise completely booked up.  There are two types of guests - guest retreatants and guest students, and we got ourselves in the wrong place a few times by mixing the two terms up.  Guest retreatants pay $60 a night, stay in very pleasant private rooms, and each day they meditate for two periods of 40 minutes and work for three hours.  Guest students pay $20 a night, stay in less pleasant shared rooms, and their daily schedule involves four periods of meditation and six hours of work.  Why pay if you're working?  (Or, why work if you're paying?)  I suppose there are overheads, and besides, I felt that $60 was a pretty good deal for the guest room that I got.  

Since I don't have a car, I put my name up on the rideshare part of the website, but perhaps unsurprisingly it seems to be common for people to ask for rides there and not so common for people to offer them.  I planned on getting public transport into the city and then making the three-hour hike across Golden Gate Bridge up to the retreat center, but the night before I was booked to arrive someone offered to give me a lift up.  She was a ballerina working in San Jose who'd trained in Winnipeg and been raised by Washington state hippies as a devotee of a Hindu guru called the Hugging Saint (got that?)  The other person in our carpool was a lady from New York State who was starting an MA in transpersonal psychology at Sofia University in Palo Alto (no, not Bulgaria).  These are the the type of people you meet when you go to meditation retreats in California, and very pleasant they were.  The ballerina wanted to get to Green Gulch for the public Sunday session, which features meditation and then a talk, and turned out to be almost exactly like a Saturday session at City Center, if slightly less well attended.

I can personally attest that the meditation hall at Green Gulch is the coldest place on the face of the earth.  I proved this by shivering through a 40-minute meditation session and a 45-minute dharma talk, shivering even though I'd just bought a 'Green Dragon Temple' hoodie for $50 from the office.  (I'd forgotten to bring a sweater in sunny Palo Alto, but it gets cold and foggy that close to the ocean.)  The speaker that day happened to be Linda Cutts, the current Abess of Green Gulch.  ('Abess' is a lovely word I learned in California for a female Abbott - one of the best things about American Zen is that the women get to practice and take up positions of authority on an equal basis with the men.  There was even a Japanese female monk at Green Gulch, and I wondered whether she'd had to come to the US to be able to take a full part in the spiritual tradition of her native land.)  Linda Cutts talked about turning 65 and thinking of things she now felt able to let go of, first on the list being boxes and boxes of old letters, some of them Mother's Day letters from her children.  

She also talked about how the first time she went to City Center and everyone started bowing to statues of the Buddha she'd felt a strong reaction as a Jew raised never to worship graven images.  She said she'd asked Reb Anderson about it and he'd replied, 'Oh don't worry about that - you're just bowing to your true self'.  A crap answer (why would you need to put a statue of the Buddha at the front of the room if you were bowing to your true self?) but apparently she'd accepted it.  And the liturgy at Green Gulch is very similar to that at City Center - lots and lots of bowing and lots and lots of chanting.  I heard while I was there that they actually bow 9 times every morning rather than the traditional 3 because their founder, Shunryu Suzuki, had thought it would be good for Westerners to 'get their heads down'.  Good or not, Zen Center types certainly get their heads down.  Whether they can get their heads around the Japanese syllables they chant every day is another question - but the chanting certainly has a hypnotic quality which is powerfully tranquilizing, and that can be calming or worrying, depending on your point of view.

After the morning program we walked around the compound, which is beautiful in a slow, quiet way, with simple wooden buildings connected by boardwalks and walkways snaking through foliage and darting between huge trees.  It's kind of like the secret camp they make in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' that looks like a city of tree-houses, except this time with more of a Japanese touch.  North of the meditation hall you walk down an avenue lined with flowers of every size and hue, followed by orchards, greenhouses with Buddhas seated cheekily among the potted plants, and finally the fields, scored with long rows of fat green stars pushing upwards.  Then there's a gate, and you're back into ordinary beautiful California: a farm with horses, the predictably windy beach, and then a long path winding along the ocean.  I walked to Pirate's Cove and back both days I was there, and it took about three hours.  At night I'd hit the saunas, which are of a weird modern variety without steam but with infra-red rays instead.  They're outside where the pool used to be, but it's been covered over with planks of wood to make a deck, who knows why.

Even with the three hour walk, the work, and the sauna (not to mention the meditation), I had a hell of a time getting to sleep the second night.  That happened the first time I went to a sesshin at City Center.  It's probably mainly to do with the jolt in your schedule you get from suddenly waking up at 4:30 rather than 8 every morning, but it doesn't feel like that.  It felt both times as if two things had happened: 1) all the time I'd spent trying to be 'awake' had led me to be permanently awake; and 2) I'd lost all control over myself.  On the first count, it was as if I was playing out some ghastly parody of the Buddhist ideal, always aware, constantly conscious.  Every time I went into a half-dream I'd step back, cooly analyze it ('Oh look, you're falling asleep') and then automatically pull myself back into awareness of things around me, which I bloody well didn't want to be aware of any more.  On the second count, after an hour or two of this I put some clothes on, stepped very briskly into the kitchen in the guest-house, and devoured an entire loaf of bread with the ruthless efficiency of pure want.  An elderly Japanese man who was staying in the guest house came in as I was scoffing the loaf and looked rather bemused. 

I actually liked the Green Gulch schedule more than the schedule at your typical sesshin, since there are only two hours of compulsory meditation each day, and that means that my legs hurt less.  It also, unfortunately, means that there's more time for work, but I must say (and, amazingly enough, I can say) that work at Green Gulch is actually rather pleasant.  Everything is highly ritualized.  Every room, including the kitchen, has a little shrine in it, and before every period of work the whole team assigned to a particular task gathers in front of it to bow a few times, offer incense, and learn the names of newcomers.  We even had a reading of about a page from Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind one morning.  I am generally an ambivalent bower, but the little ritual seemed to endow the entire process with mutual respect and a kind of holiness - we weren't just dicing potatoes, but chopping them for our co-workers, for the Buddha (who likes potaotes every now and then), and what's more doing it with Beginner's Mind (or I certainly was, since even simple cooking tasks are genuinely entirely new to me).  The man running the kitchen, Phil, was one of those religious people you like, with a smile constantly playing on his lips and around each eye.  He even asked us not to talk in a way that didn't make us want to punch him.

The other nice thing about going up to Green Gulch rather than going to a sesshin is that you can talk to people at meals.  The thing it seems natural to ask people as an opening gambit is always 'how long have you been here?' and there's a lot of variation in the response.  One girl, who'd dropped out of college in LA, had been there a year and a half, basically since Stinson Beach had made its assault on my retina.  Then there was a student who'd been there one day, like me.  She was finding college stressful, and had turned to meditation for that reason, which neatly recapped my experience.  There was also a classic old-style East Ender (of London, I mean) - he had the tattoos and the accent and the whole look.  Apparently he'd fallen into a job at a meditation center in the Westcountry run by, wouldn't you know it, John Crook and Simon Child, the Western Chan people, the latter of whom gave a talk at Stanford only a few months ago.  He told me how John Crook was one of those stiff-upper lipped Englishmen from the distant recent past and ran Zen retreats like a military training camp.  At retreats he'd get everyone up in the morning to do jumping-jacks in the rain.  I laughed a lot because I'd found out that John Crook had been at my school in England and I remember seeing a video of the place in the 1930s.  Every morning at break they'd make all the students do jumping-jacks.

Pretty soon my two days at Green Gulch had come to an end.  On balance I think I like it slightly more than City Center, and I may well go back as a $20 a night Guest student.  Two hours of meditation a day is plenty, and getting some farm-work in between sits would certainly help me physically.  Their style of Zen is as rigidly formal there as it is at City Center, but I'm slowly realizing that they don't kill you when you're slightly out of step.  I know because I lived through a Zen disaster.  After we went to the beach the first day I went to the meditation hall for the evening sit and service.  I bowed to the Ino, I put my left foot first, I bowed to the Buddha or whoever that statue is, I put my hands together and in front of me like I had a stomach-ache.  I bowed to the room and to the wall, and swung myself clockwise (clockwise!) to face the wall.  As I pulled one of my legs into half-lotus, a thin but persistent stream of sand flowed down out of my turned-up trouser-leg.  I'd carted it all the way there in the fold of my khakis - the beach had gotten me again.  There was a long swirl of sand on my black mat like a galaxy.  When the bell went I got up like any other po-faced Zen student and briskly swept my mat with a stern hand.  


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Translating quiet

I don't know what's going on in China.  I've never been there, in fact.  Which is why when a member of the Buddhist Community at Stanford sent an email around inviting us to a dialogue with members of Beijing's Longquan monastery, I thought it was very convenient.  I haven't always been a big fan of Buddhist events involving foreign monks, largely because their English is often very bad - no fault of their own (my Chinese isn't too hot either), but still hardly conducive to passive understanding, let alone dialogue.  But I've been warming to this kind of event since writing this blog.  It makes me feel very worldly and journalistic to go to talks by teachers from Japan, Tibet, even England - and I don't even have to do any traveling.  They all come to the Bay Area, or we drag them here, because San Franciscans' hankering for gurus is on a par with Londoners' thirst for tea.

The other thing that's always put me off about monks is that they're always late for shit.  Or at least, they're late for meetings with me.  Once in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos in Spain - the monks there are the Metallica of Gregorian chant - a Benedictine fellow made my friend and me wait two hours to speak with him, and all we wanted to do was ask dumb questions about Catholicism for our school project.  Then there was that guy from the Dhammakaya Foundation who was studying towards a PhD at Stanford who used to hold regular meetings - and was late every time.  This time the monk and his crew were about an hour late.  Poor Rebecca from BCAS who organized the visit kept popping in, red-faced, to apologize and inform us that the delegation was on its way.  At first they were in Berkeley.  Then they made it to Palo Alto.  At a certain point they'd found their way onto campus but had promptly gotten lost.

Being Buddhists, we hunkered down and made a show of being good at waiting.  In fact we sat on the floor in a circle and meditated.  After the first session everyone introduced themselves, and I was amazed to find myself face to face for the first time with members of the Stanford Zen group: I knew them immediately because they looked very serious and calm and introduced themselves as members of the Stanford Zen group.  It felt strange to meet them, because we'd passed each other like ships in the night.  When I'd first heard about them I was above Zen, and just wanted to meditate with the 'normal' Buddhists.  Then I got into Zen through my Wednesday sitting group in San Francisco, and wasn't interested in attending evening events on campus.  And it seems like I'll never have a chance to sit with the Stanford Zen people, since I'm a regular at Wind in Grass the same night of the week as they meet...

They seemed very nice and to know exactly what they were doing, despite there being no certified teacher around.  But there were other people there who I knew from BCAS, like Forrest, the Chinese Master's student in something sciency, who occasionally came to afternoon meditation when I was there.  It turned out that he was actually from Beijing, or had studied there, and had even been to Longquan monastery once or twice.  He started telling us about how the monastery had been effectively left to rot at some point in the 1960s, but had seen a huge revival in recent years, not only providing a home for monks, but also welcoming thousands of lay Buddhists through its doors.  There were quite a few Chinese and Chinese-Americans there, some of whom I'd seen at Buddhist events before.  A few people were talking in Mandarin.

When the delegation turned up it was similar in its general modus operandi to the similar monk + hangers-on teams I'd seen with the Thai Buddhist community.  There was a thin young monk at the center of everything bowing in all directions; he never seemed to have enough spare cloth around him to conceal all the objects he needed, which meant that people constantly had to hand him things and later take them back.  This was the Venerable Wuguang, the first Chan Master I'd seen in the flesh (unless you count Simon Child, who for some reason I'm not counting because he's Western).  Besides the brown and grey robes rather than the bright orange ones I'd seen in Thailand, not much differentiated him from the Theravada monks I'd met in the past, except maybe a bit more focused calm and a bit less ebullient smiliness.  He sat down in the center of the circle.

Immediately everyone scattered from the area like frightened pigeons, but he repeatedly encouraged us to sit beside him, so I took one for the team and did.  He seemed friendly enough.  The session consisted mainly of us asking him questions in English, which a translator would then relate to him.  He'd answer in Chinese, at which point that would be re-translated back to us.  I seem to remember that most of the questions were about the place of Chan in modern-day China, the day-to-day workings of the monastery, and the interface between monks and lay practitioners.  I got the sense that things were much stricter there than at even, say, the San Francisco Zen Center: the Chinese lay people seemed to live like the monks in SF, while the Chinese monks seemed to keep all the old vows of absolute celibacy and almost constant silence to the letter.  I of course asked a question about accountability, and got a well-meaning but slightly bewildered response.

Some of our side were asking their question in Chinese as well as English, and eventually the session flipped to them asking us about ourselves.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and said a bit about why we liked meditation or Buddhism or had come to this event.  All this was related to Wuguang, who smiled very approvingly at everyone after they'd said their bit.  I wonder how it sounded to him to say that I'd taken up meditation because it helped with headaches, but he seemed to think it as good a reason as any.  At the end of the day they started handing out gifts to everyone, mainly DVDs of prayers and chants.  We were also warmly urged to check out their website, where they translate Buddhist texts into other modern languages, and also visit them in Beijing.  Maybe one day I'll make it, so that I can finally say that I know the price of tea in China.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Over the bridge

Here I am again, not writing a blog post.  To be more specific: 'Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands;/ I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding;/ When I pass over the bridge,/ Look, the water isn't flowing - but the bridge sure does'.  I stole that from the fifth-century Zen poet Fudaishi, and it doesn't make much sense.  I stole the poem from D.T. Suzuki's book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which I decided to read the week I did a three-day retreat at San Francisco Zen Center. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki is not to be confused with SFZC's revered founder Shunryu Suzuki; though this in fact often happened, and the priest is said to have invariably responded to being confused with the scholar by saying, 'He is the big Suzuki.  I am the little Suzuki'.  Top of my list for things to read that week had been the little Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, but there wasn't a copy of it in the library, so I went with the big Suzuki's introduction instead.  It turned out to be exactly as nonsensical as Fudaishi's poem.

Despite its emphasis on approaching things as if for the first time, I get the feeling that the beginner is not well served by the existing introductory books on Zen.  If you read the reviews of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind on Amazon, you'll see the occasional note of pious praise punctuating a flow of complaints about the book's incomprehensibility.  Introductory books about Buddhism that are clear, succinct, and accessible are not hard to come by at all, from Damien Keown's Very Short Introduction to Rahula's more scholarly classic What the Buddha Taught.  But for some reason the Zen sect has trouble making itself understood.  Insiders say that this is because the tradition contains mysteries that you can only appreciate if you find them out for yourself; cynics on the other hand will insist that the lack of clarity is a feature of a system that aims mainly to erect high fences against outsiders.  But not only is the language designedly obscure in order to keep people out; how well you can master its eccentricities determines an internal hierarchy, topped by teachers who can say whatever comes to mind.

I can't say how true that was of Zen as practiced at various periods in its long history, but American Zen certainly seems reasonably open to newcomers.  On the other hand, it still has problems with internal hierarchy.  But if you want a satisfying brief statement of crazy Zen, look no further than Suzuki's book, which has a chapter in it entitled 'Illogical Zen', and several more whose content would have justified similar titles.  Many of these chapters seem to consist entirely of mad koans whose point always seems to be the same: abandon all theory and grasp the reality right in front of your nose.  You might think telling that to people in plain language might be enough (and would also allow the ideas behind the recommendation to be criticized), but there's always the counter that people need to be surprised, confused, or shocked into dropping their stories and theories and excuses.  At times, there is an attractive rebelliousness about this tendency.  When Joshu was asked, 'Isn't it a praiseworthy thing to pay respect to Buddha?' he replied, 'Yes, but it's better to go without even a praiseworthy thing'.

After a few of these stories, though, one's patience runs thin.  Suzuki retells one in which the philosopher Doko came to a Zen master and asked, 'With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth?'  The master answered unhelpfully but typically, 'There is no mind to be framed'.  Doko was a reasonable man, so he persisted.  'If there's no mind to be framed, what are all these monks doing here?'  The master was an unreasonable man: 'No monks here'.  The philosopher was exasperated, and asked, 'How can you tell me a lie like that to my face?'  His Zen antagonist wasn't fazed: 'I have no tongue'.  Finally, the philosopher gave up, admitting to the master that he had trouble following his reasoning.  'Neither do I understand myself', said the master, perhaps with a feeling of triumph, but maybe just with the guilty sensation you sometimes get when you know you've been unreasonable to someone who was just looking for some simple answers.

Suzuki himself presents these stories with apparent approval, but by the end of the book he's doing what the master in that last koan refused to do: he's explaining why there are so many Zen monks in the East, and telling you what they're up to.  That's where the radical antinomianism of Zen breaks down, when it's faced with the undeniable fact that Zen is not just the direct seizure of what's there, but a set of practices and institutions that are as strict and concrete - if not more so - than piano-lessons and the swim club.  And it's probably a good thing that the absurdity gets tired and goes to bed at some point, because there's a point  - somewhere in that story I just quoted - at which it starts to make a fool of itself.  I'm no fan of ossified institutionalism, especially in religious traditions that are supposed to be about compassion and humility.  But I'm also no fan of nonsensicality and claims to have gotten beyond rationality once and for all - the perennial excuse for bad philosophy, or just run-of-the-mill sloppy thinking.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not the kind of rationalist who thinks that reason can explain everything and is universally applicable to every situation life throws at us.  I'm also not so ignorant as to believe that humans are entirely rational creatures - our minds are indeed like icebergs, with the rational tip distracting us from darker masses below the surface.  But I also think that there's a difference between admitting that there are certain situations that rational thought doesn't enter into - falling in love, say - and claiming that such situations trump, disqualify, or defeat rationality in all its forms.  Zen koans, just like faith, may bypass rationality or transcend it, but to say that they preclude or discredit it is going too far.  Indeed, to say that is to fall foul of some well-known philosophical traps.  All of these traps are set by irrationalists themselves when they go to the extreme of saying that nothing makes sense.

If nothing makes sense, neither does the proposition, 'Nothing makes sense', in which case nobody has any reason to believe it; indeed, it has no meaning at all.  Socrates skewered Parmenides by wondering whether his claim that all truths are relative was itself relative.  If it was, Socrates had no reason to go along with it; if it wasn't, the claim provided a counter-example to itself.  The logical positivists declared that all meaningful sentences had to be testable or analytic; but since 'All meaningful sentences have to be testable or analytic' turned out to be neither testable or analytic, it couldn't be meaningful.  And if all the thoughts and stories in your head - as Zen seems to suggest - are equally meaningless, then so are thoughts about Zen and the thoughts of Zen.  Of course, that is a conclusion that most Zen masters would willingly accept, but it leaves them in a dangerous place, where anything can be said because everything is equally senseless.

And that seems to bring Zen perilously close to nihilism, an association that Suzuki is eager to fend off. It's true, he says, that Zen declares that everything is empty, but what emerges when that is realized is joy in the present moment.  But isn't joy in the present moment empty too, bringing us back to nihilism?  Zen sets up an emptiness vortex that it's difficult for Buddhism to escape.  Maybe it's just that I'm skeptical that compassion is really what does emerge when people are convinced that anything goes - maybe what more often emerges is the domination of the less by the more bold, of the more by the less scrupulous.  Which is why my confirmation got me thinking about whether I'm really a Zen person rather than an ordinary old Buddhist.  After all, though Theravada belief is radical enough - it denies the existence of stable individual identities, for instance - it is understandable and coherent.  If you get the feeling that the bridge is flowing under you rather the water, maybe it's time to go back to the four noble truths.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Breaking an entering

Once when I was at secondary school I turned up to rugby practice wearing a green shirt.  This wasn't usually unusual, but it turned out to be unusual that day - when I looked around, I could see that every other player on my team was wearing a blue jersey instead.  The master gathered us round and told a parable: 'Once there was an Italian soldier', he told us, 'who said, "It is not I who is marching out of step - it is all the others!"'  Since the word had apparently fallen on stony ground, he pointed at me.  'In just the same way, our young Canadian might say today, "It is not I who is wearing the wrong shirt, but all of you!"'  The boys, suitably instructed, suddenly decided to find this very amusing indeed.  Strange, because that argument had always seemed to me to be a very promising line of defense.

This episode came back to me last week when I took refuge - Buddhist confirmation - at a ceremony at Wind in Grass in San Francisco, because when I arrived at the ceremony, I had no idea what it would involve.  (Afterwards an older friend asked, 'Haven't you ever been to a refuge ceremony before?'  Um, no.  This is the sort of thing people only ask you in California.)  At some point in the ceremony Chris Wilson said that our community was founded on the idea of not knowing.  You can say that again.  Of course, I'd been discussing individual vows with my teacher David Weinstein over the phone, once a fortnight, for the last few months in preparation for the ceremony.  But I didn't realize that we would be expected to give personal responses to every precept as they came up.

The girls had their notebooks ready - I could see their scrawled, cryptic responses on every page.  They looked deep.  Sara said, 'You're some kind of improv artist, aren't you?'  There were lots of people there, many more than the usual five to ten quiet souls who tend to turn up to our weekly meditations.  There were people I'd seen on Pacific Zen Institute retreats, including some who'd led exercises or done talks, and who doubtless knew an ill-prepared regugee when they saw one.  There were people I'd never seen before, parental types and cool kids and beautiful women, all clambering through the door to get a look at us.  It was the most people I'd ever seen in that space, with the possible exception of the workshop on the body, which had involved up to thirty adults moving around the room pretending to be blind.

It was also the most ceremonial occasion I'd ever seen at Wind in Grass.  There was even an order of service, which I flipped through desperately as soon as I got my hands on to try to get a glimpse of what was to come.  On the cover of it was printed 'Entering the Way' and a picture of a dog leaping off a dock into a lake, tail up, tongue out, eyes bulging in blissful brainlessness.  The 25-minute meditation period had been burning with worry round the edges and had now collapsed into clumps of ash.  David was sitting at the front with everyone else in a huge ellipse around the edges of the room and speaking about how he'd decided to change all the words used in the traditional English-language refuge service because they'd rubbed him up the wrong way.  We'd all agreed that 'Entering the Way' was better than 'Taking the Vows' beforehand.

On the night it emerged that he'd gone further along the same lines as that early change, replacing 'vows' with 'intentions' and 'I vow to (+ infinitive)' with 'I take up the way of (+ gerund)'.  He'd also got rid of all references to 'the Buddha'.  I'm usually up for a bit of iconoclasm, and I am all for updating translations every now and then, but I must say this last change came as something of a surprise.  When David said, in explanation, 'I don't need the Buddha', I got a chill down my spine; I don't like it when American Buddhist leaders say things like that, if only because the Buddha is usually the only person they have to answer to on anything.  But of course David was right in principle: I remembered my favourite story about the monk who threw a statue of the Buddha of the fire because he was cold (the monk, not the Buddha).  When reprimanded, he pointed out that he'd only put wood on a fire.

David was saying, 'When he got up from under the tree, people asked him "What happened to you?" and he said, "I'm awake" - "I'm Buddha", and unfortunately the name stuck, and now we have this whole religion'.  I saw Chris adjust his position slightly on his chair.  But with the preliminaries over, it was now time for some chanting, which Michael fulfilled with his usual aplomb.  Next up, the vows, sorry, intentions.  The format was announced: Michael would ring the bell, everyone would chant one of the vintentions, and then we would give our individual responses to them.  Of course the first response to the first intention ('I return to [not 'take refuge in'] awakening') went to me.  I said what I thought I thought: meditation was about waking up from what you thought was important in your thoughts to what you thought was a distraction in the world around you.  Alles klar?

David said, 'What about awakening?' and I said that meditation was a model for the rest of life: waking up from your obsessions into the unfamiliarity of everyday happenings.  I hadn't realized this was going to be an interrogation.  But then he moved on.  Sara and Marika were reading out exquisite postmodern verses, terse, spare, moving.  Jean-Paul had turned up late but was now throwing up little flags of verbal weirdness in response to every challenge - whether in surrender or celebration, it was hard to tell.  Something in me learnt the rules of the new game, and anyway the intentions were coming quick and fast, so I turned into Wittgenstein too.  'I take up the way of not killing' became 'Loving my brother, who's a trained killer'.  I'd remembered talking to David about I couldn't really be a pacifist with my family (and beliefs), and somehow this had been transmuted into silver in the intervening downtime.

The quickfire format drove me to a few other responses that felt authentic.  Asked to enter the way of not being stingy, I said, 'This one is impossible for me' (which may not count as entering the way, but was certainly not breaking the precept against lying).  When it came to lying, I said 'This one for me is still about trying not to lie', since I'd found the interpretation I'd been offered - not lying to yourself, etc. - wishy-washy and evasive.  But some of my own answers sounded just as wrong as they escaped  from what Homeric heroes went around calling 'the fence of my teeth'.  My answers to the precept against intoxication and against abuse of sex both sounded the same - I took the intention in both instances not to indulge in drugs or sex for any but two reasons: getting high and pure lust.  In both cases, there was a pure thought behind it, but when it came out I wondered whether I'd betrayed myself.

'Betraying yourself' is ambiguous, obviously, implying that you've shown something true as well as cheating on someone inside you.  My discussion with David had turned on the idea that both drink and sex were not bad things, as long as they weren't used solely to fill a void, supply a crutch, prop up a dependancy.  I remember reading a piece by Chesterton ages ago to the effect that the only real reason to drink is not for medicinal purposes but because it's fun - which was also, he believed, the only real way to reap its health benefits.  One of my concerns about getting into American Buddhism had always been that people here want to make things easy for themselves, twisting the precepts to say what they can live with, not what they've always meant.  But more than that I've feared that the confirmation ceremony would turn me into a joyless prig, readier to carp than cartwheel.

So if the ceremony preserved and showcased that ambivalence, my wholehearted dedication to both living well and letting live, perhaps that's not such a bad thing.  In any case, that part of the game-show was finally over.  Chris Wilson had been asked to provide a welcome to the community, and he hit the nail on the head.  There was an elephant in the middle of the room and he pointed at it.  'Many of you who've come to see your friend or loved-one take refuge tonight might be concerned about this being a cult' - the elephant looked down at the floor - 'but really, there are no gates to this community.  No gates to stop you coming in, and no gates to shut behind anyone once they're inside'.  Chris was probably one of the only people there who would say without hesitation 'I'm a Buddhist', and he'd taken the whole ceremony on the chin.  He'd also, in his sixties and with a history of heart trouble, surreptitiously entered the hall the day before and single-handedly swept and sanded the entire floor. 

Talk about showing the way.  When the ceremony was over, this being Wind in Grass, there was a party.  There was wine but I went for the organic lemonade - I'm not going to be living in San Francisco forever.  I was feeling a bit strange about the ceremony but Adam looked at me and said, 'Dude, you look radiant - I've never seen you looking this happy', so I must have been smiling.  Interesting, because usually I think I'm smiling and people come up to me and tell me I'm looking glum.  After half an hour or so I had to catch the train down to Palo Alto, where I'm living for the summer.  I read my Greek history book and thought about the last phase of the ceremony, when David had given me the name 'Curious Owl', not knowing that I am a scholarly devotee of Athena the grey-eyed.

He'd told Sara and Marika that it was traditional not to wear the rakasus (ceremonial bibs) he was giving them in the bathroom, but 'I think that's wrong, because if it's not in the shit and the piss, where is it?'  I closed myself in the jogging metal bathroom of the Caltrain and looked at the poem David had written for me,  'Looking long and hard/ Through the dark/ Never looking away/ But, who?'  I looked at the certificate he had written it on, wondering whether I would file it away quietly among my diplomas, take it to my parents for framing, or set it on fire some day in a field among riotous drunkenness, like my exam notes after finishing my GCSEs.  I looked down into the toilet and smelled the urine of a thousand techies swishing darkly below.  I looked long and hard and didn't look away.  I didn't need to ask who or why.  It was a perfect moment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pain killers

A small friendly man with glasses slipped two white pills into my hands.  I closed them over the pills and bowed to him.  This was Day 2 of my second sesshin - meditation intensive - at the San Francisco Zen Center, and the small friendly man in glasses was Roger, who'd been my work-partner earlier in the day when we'd been assigned to sweeping the steps outside the temple.  He'd said that he'd noticed I was struggling in the meditation hall, and indeed I was.  I'd been sitting cross-legged left foot over right, then right foot over left, then kneeling with a cushion, then kneeling with a bench.  I'd had pain in my legs and lower back as well as in my head and neck, which is where I usually have it.  As we were sweeping the few leaves that had blown up the entrance steps onto Page Street, Roger offered to get me some Ibuprofen from his room upstairs.  'It really helps', he beamed.

And indeed it did.  That was the first sesshin I've made it through from beginning to end, probably because it was unusually only three days long.  I'd stayed up at retreats for longer periods - five days in the case of one Pacific Zen Center sesshin - but I'd always missed either the opening or the closing ceremony.  In the closing ceremony of this Spring sesshin, we all sat kneeling in rows with the two teachers - Wendy Lewis and Rosalie Curtis - sitting on chairs in front of us.  We passed trays with nuts and dried fruit on them to each other along the row, bowing every now and then to say thanks.  The people I'd just spent three days in silence with began to open up, producing accents I'd never expected to have to match with those particular faces.  The Senior Dharma Teacher said, 'There's always a first sesshin, and only one'.  I nervously offered my several failed attempts as counter-examples and said I was feeling pretty proud of myself just for still being there.

The last time I'd spent three days at SFZC had been during a seven-day intensive.  I'd signed up for five days and made it through three, dropping out because the pain in my legs and back had started to keep me awake at night.  This time everything felt less strange and less painful.  The constant bowing I took in my stride, which bothered me in some way because I hadn't changed my intellectual objection to it; only my attitude had somehow shifted nonetheless.   I genuinely enjoyed the ritualized oryoki eating, and this time not only the part when people in robes run down the meditation hall sliding a wet cloth along the wooden beams which separate the meditation mats from the floor.  I was even able to see the fun in the 'random reading' of the Diamond Sutra: everyone was handed a translation and asked to read from whatever point of the text they wanted.  Holy hubbub ensued.  And I made it through the three days with pain, but without feeling that the pain was taking over me.

Why did I go back after the first retreat, when I'd decided that SFZC's stern style didn't appeal to me?  I was about to move out of my room in the Lower Haight after nine months there, and I sensed I'd never again live within a stone's throw from a Buddhist temple.  I wasn't feeling rich (not that I ever am), and I knew that I'd be able to cut costs by sleeping at my place and making the five-minute walk to the temple for the early-morning starts.  And I'd been reassured by Victoria Austin's comments about SFZC's commitment to oversight and transparency during my interview with her.  This time around, the atmosphere was pretty much the same, and all the things I took a dislike to - the excessive and pervasive formality, the arid dogmatism, the grim-facedness of it all - were, unsurprisingly, still there.  Rosalie Curtis used her dharma talk partly to insist that things which beginners found rebarbative they would eventually uncritically accept.  I agree, but is that really a good thing?

Wendy Lewis' talk was better.  It was at least clear, well-prepared, and gamely delivered.  She is also knowledgeable, with an MA in Religious Studies from SF State, and her sermon certainly had something of the academy about it.  (She described Buddhism at one point as 'a non-theistic soteriological tradition'.)  The sesshin was also kept ticking along with military precision by David Haye, who would make a fine army officer if he ever wanted to trade compassion in for shooting people.  I ended my second intensive at SFZC again feeling pretty sure that this particularly faithful rendering of Japanese Zen wasn't for me, but all the same recognizing that the temple is a unique place in the West and one that I've been lucky to be involved with.  I don't know if I'll be back.  As for Roger, he sold his highly successful café on Potrero Hill and has moved in as a monk full-time; he's traded in lattes for Ibuprofen, and I wish him and his co-residents as pain-free an existence as there can be.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sylvan approaches

'As someone who was raised a Christian, became a Buddhist, and also practices classical Indian dance, I often find myself in turbulence on an airplane wondering who to pray to'.  The President of the Buddhist Community at Stanford was introducing one of our recent visiting speakers, Sylvia Boorstein.  Hannah'd been prompted to make the remark by an anecdote that occurs in one of Boorstein's books and which the speaker then retold for the audience after the introduction was finished.  Boorstein had been traveling along winding mountain roads to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  She was in the front seat and could see all the way down the sheer cliffs on her side of the road.  At a certain point Jack Kornfield, who was traveling with her, reached forward and asked, 'Are you scared?'  Boorstein said, 'Yes'.  Kornfield asked, 'Are you praying?'  Boorstein again said, 'Yes'.  'To Buddhist gods or the Jewish one?' Kornfield pressed her.  'All of them', Boorstain replied.  Kornfield said, 'Good'.

Sylvia Boorstein packed the house.  The house was the sanctuary, a religious space on the top floor of one of the Stanford student-union buildings.  Usually we get two or three people in there at a time for meditation, and maybe twenty if a local speaker comes.  When Simon Child came from England there were thirty or so people in the audience.  For Sylvia Boorstein they came out in droves, presumably down from Marin where Boorstain teaches, at Kornfield's Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  They had the look of devotees on what Kornfield calls 'the upper middle path': older, white, earnest, wealthy.  Boorstein herself fit right in, a kindly grandmother who's just made tea and now is going to tell you a story.  And tell she did.  There was the one about the trip to Dharamsala.  There was the one about activism in the 60s.  And there was the one about the hairdresser in France who asked her why she was always wearing a bracelet on her wrist.  'That bracelet was blessed by the Dalai Lama!' was her answer.  'If I had a bracelet blessed by the Dalai Lama, I'd never take it off either!' was, apparently, the hairdresser's reply.

There were lots of stories about the Dalai Lama.  People like the Dalai Lama.  He's like Nelson Mandela or the Queen - he's old, seems harmless, and he smiles a hell of a lot.  Now, it's probably the case that his policy of peaceful negotiation with China has been better  - or, at least, less disastrous - for his people than violent resistance against the world's largest army would have proven.  There's no question that he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1989.  And I have no wish to rehearse in full the standard attacks from the left that have been compiled by journalists such as Johann Hari: that the Dalai Lama is an unelected theocrat, that he has conceded too much to China, that he believes that disabled children are sufering for the karma of past lives.  (It's worth pointing out here that Hari's interviews should be read with great care after allegations surfaced that he made much of them up.)  All the same, there are a few things American Buddhists, and Americans sympathetic to Buddhism, need to realize and remember about the Dalai Lama.

First, the Dalai Lama is not the leader of world Buddhism.  He's not even the leader of the most widespread sect of Buddhism, so that his position lacks the authority of, say, the Pope (a figure with whom he is often implicitly compared).  He is a senior monk in one tradition (Gelug) within Tibetan Buddhism, and also fulfils a conventional role as the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans more broadly.  Second, the Dalai Lama's type of Vajrayana Buddhism is an especially strange form of the religion, departing quite far from the orthodox Theravada path and even from the more florid offshoots of the Mahayana branches of Buddhism.  It subscribes to the clumsiest and least rational forms of the doctrine of reincarnation: when one Dalai Lama dies, followers look for another by dangling the former incumbent's possessions in front of Tibetan babies, hoping their eyes will light up in recognition.  Finally, the traditionalism of the Dalai Lama's practice leads him to take up positions that would shock most of his liberal fans in the West; he believes, for example, that anal sex is an aberration.

Some observers have also found him to be intellectually underwhelming.  And then there is his closeness to celebrities such as Richard Gere.  As with many public fugures, the list of complaints could go on and on.  As I was preparing to write this post, however, I was afforded a reminder of the core integrity of the man.  A correspondent sent me the news of the latest scandal in the perpetually scandalized world of American Buddhism.  Ian Thorson, a graduate of Stanford, was found dead beside his girlfriend in the Arizona desert, after the two had left a silent retreat in the wilderness.  The leader of the retreat (who'd studied at Princeton) was Michael Roach, who'd previously been married to Thorson's girlfriend.  Although he'd taken vows of celibacy and poverty as a monk, Roach had recommended Buddhism as 'a path to prosperity', and had recently taken to hitting the dance-floors of New York.  But when the guru traveled to Dharamsala with a group of students in 2006, the Dalai Lama refused to see him.  Not even Tenzin Gyatso knew exactly what gods Roach was praying to on those winding mountain roads, but it's a fair bet that one of them was Moloch.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Coming back to earth

This morning I went back to the Tibetan Tse Chen Ling Center on Webster for their morning meditation.  Like the first time I went, I was the only punter, and, like the second, I was led through a bizarre series of visualizations involving deities (or half-deities, who knows) that I'd never made the acquaintance of before.  This time rather than Green Tara it was the turn of White Vajrasattva to take a spin above my head, to be blended with the image of my teacher David, and finally to be melded into the rather tired Satruday morning consciousness of Yours Truly.  Vajrasattva is associated with purification, so the meditation also involved calling to mind any little mistakes I'd made in the past few days, visualizing them as inky spots in my body, and then imagining them being eradicated as my torso filled up with white light.  Later on, I was asked to think of my frailties as puss or faeces that was being flushed out of what the instructor euphemistically referred to as my 'lower orifice'.  Later still, they were insects being driven from my mind out of my mouth and nose.  I thought, 'Yuck'.

At the same time, I could see how these visualizations could be understood as a more vivid form of some of the mental exercises I'd been led through by Jason Newland in his free chronic pain MP3s.  Many of them ask you to visualize your body as free of pain and whole, and this did in my case seem to have an effect on my suffering - hardly surprising, if the recent trend of research that sees pain as part of the brain's image of the rest of the body is on the right track.  Nonetheless I was a bit put off by the repellant nature of some of the Tibetan imagery.  I went to do my laundry, sat in Café International, and picked up one of the array of hippy dippy Bay Area magazines they have on offer there.  It was called Common Ground, and contained a piece on the commune in Marin once inhabited by Alan Watts, plenty of ads by charlatans claiming they could heal you with their 'intuitional insight' (which apparently is hereditary), and an interview with a former NASA astronaut who had an epiphany on his trip back from the moon and has since had his eyes opened to the truth about UFOs.

If there's one quality I admire in others and want to cultivate in myself these days, it might just be open-mindedness.  Still, I have other values (like a commitment to some minimal sort of analytical rigour), and the juxtaposition of ads for blatant fraudsters with notices about Buddhist retreats made me frightened - as happens every now and then - that what I was getting into by taking refuge is just another wacky superstition.  It made my ask myself again why I've chosen to take the precepts, as I'll be doing in a ceremony in July in a sort of Buddhist confirmation ceremony.  In the past, I've explored this question from the angle of what events or experiences led me to take that decision, a narrative approach that has much to recommend it in religious matters.  But there is also a more intellectual side to the story, or at least a rational one: I took the decisions for certain reasons, and it's these reasons that I return to when I'm feeling the pangs of doubt.  Which, naturally enough, I often do.

My attachment to Buddhism (if that's not too uncomfortable a phrase) stems mainly from my love of meditation, but of course meditation is something you can do in a secular tradition without taking any ethical precepts.  The reason I began to want to take up the ethical precepts was partly due to the intuition that meditation - developing knowledge of my own mental processes - was better if I avoided being a dick, and that not being a dick was easier when I made sure to meditate.  On a basic level this is simply a matter of being more contented, calmer and more patient after sitting.  And it also has to do, I think, with developing the ability to step away from the places your own thoughts or feelings are pushing you.  But there is a level at which the connection between meditation and ethics is even simpler than that, since both consist partly in returning to things we already know or sense are true.  This is why the precepts often seem pointless to people - everyone knows that stealing or killing is bad; who needs a bunch of vows to tell them that?

I spend a lot of time around academic philosophers, and they'd be eager to point out at this juncture that ethics is a rather complicated affair.  What is lying?  Would you tell the truth to an assassin who came to your door asking where your housemate was?  And so on.  Of course, we can all admit that ethics is a complicated affair in such extreme cases, and that its basic contours are fuzzy around the edges.  But doing good is an endeavour separate from academic philosophy; it's healthy to bear this in mind if you want to avoid being disappointed with either pursuit.  And nine times out of ten we know more or less what to do; maybe we don't do it at the time because we're angry or lustful, but most people looking on at the time, as well as we ourselves with hindsight, agree more or less about what was right.  That's why most people find it hard to disagree with any of the Ten Boddhisattva Precepts just as they have a hard time knocking many of the Ten Commandments.  Neither provide all the answers in all cases (especially the philosophical thought-experiments), but they remind us of something.

And what they remind us of is that we know, more or less, where to go in order to avoid being a massive prick.  They don't flesh out the content of what it is not to steal, or what it is not to lie, or what it is not to abuse sex, but they do remind us that speech and taking and shagging are areas of life that we might find it useful to be careful about.  This lack of content has actually been a boon to such basic ethical systems, since it has allowed them to remain true in the face of cultural change.  My friends in San Francisco take a rather different view about what constitutes sexual immorality than the average medieval Tibetan lama (I assume), and yet it remains true even in San Francisco that cheating on your partner with their sister (say) is probably not the right thing to do.  So the taking of precepts functions like many of the other aspects or religious practice: it reminds us of what we already know, of ourselves.  When I sit and meditate every day it's partly just to remember what I knew when I was lying in my back yard as a child, watching the clouds wander across the sky. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Black widows

Mind training in seven stages, stone scorpions moving up the river, green female superheroes hovering above my head: these are the main things I think of when it comes to the Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies on Webster Street at Oak in the Lower Haight.  After a few months of going to the SF Zen Center every Saturday I decided it was time to check out something in the Tibetan tradition, and I'd come across this place online.  It's just up the street from me, but it's hard to tell that it's a Buddhist center from outside.  What you see is just a largish San Francisco house, although once or twice I've stumbled across red-robed lamas when I've set off for runs in Golden Gate Park.  Once you climb up the long stone staircase, you know you're entering a place of peace: there are potted plants and flowers all the way up, and a stone statue of the Buddha at the top.  It's like the memorial staircase leading up to chapel at my boarding school: before evensong there were candles on either side.  You had to keep silence, and if you didn't your friends would punch you on the arm.

The first time I went in I'd decided to show up for their Saturday morning, 9am meditation session, which is supposed to be welcoming to newcomers and seems to serve the same purpose as the 'Introduction to Zazen' period at SFZC.  There was a determinedly kindly man with hippy jewelry and a pony tail who let me in.  To the left there was a bookstore full of yellow and orange volumes about tantra by lamas called Rinpoche; there were also some large metal containers with tea and coffee.  To the right of the entrance was the main part of the temple.  At the far end of the smallish room was the kind of ritual paraphernalia I'd last seen at the Tibetan place I'd once frequented in London.  There were seven glasses of water on the altar.  There were statuettes of lamas with saffroned hats that made them look like they were portaging with bright yellow canoes.  There were framed potraits of real lamas grinning piously and looking nice.  On the walls were tapestries full of strange deities of various colours and shapes and sizes.

That first morning I happened to be the only person to show up for meditation, along with the man who was leading the session, a gentle middle-aged guy with glasses.  We sat in silence for half an hour, and then for the next half-hour he read me the scripture the center had been working with for a few months, the Seven-Point Mind Training.  The text as we have it was composed in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa, but the tradition was inaugurated by Atisa some three hundred years earlier.  The Seven-Point Mind Training is not so much mind training and a set of ethical principles and pieces of advice on meditation practice; also, it has 59 points, though these are grouped into seven sections.  These include genuinely helpful reminders ('Don't expect gratitude'), sensible but rather obvious reccommendations ('Don't eat poisonous food'), haunting but hard-to-interpret aphorisms ('Don't make gods into demons'), and bizarre proverbs ('Don't transfer an ox's load to a cow').  My favourite was 'Don't make sarcastic remarks'.  Yeah, that's really going to work.

The following week I went on Sunday morning for the 10am dharma talk by the resident lama, Ngawang Dakpa.  This time the room was full of extremely earnest Western students, most of the sitting cross-legged on cushions, wearing beads on their wrists, and taking notes in notebooks.  Dakpa sat cross-legged on a raised platform at the front and began the session by chanting a series of Tibetan sutras in a guttural voice at an unfollowable pace.  The Western students did their best to keep up, mumbling the weird syllables printed in their liturgical handbooks.  The actual sermon was also in Tibetan, and was translated into English sentence by sentence by a thin white-haired Englishman sitting nearby (with occasional input from a very young Tibetan monk who seemed to have a better grasp of English than his elderly teacher).  In my limited experience of Tibetan Buddhism it has always struck me that native Tibetans still seem to have a monopoly on teaching; I haven't come across senior American teachers in this school to compare with the convert masters at SFZC or PZI.

Partly because of this, I've always found that the cultural distance between the Tibetan teacher and the Western followers is often very great, even if the Western students have spent some time in Tibet.  To the newcomer, the experience of trying to piece together what a lama is saying from a simultaneous translation is often nothing short of bewildering.  Dakpa gave level-headed advice based on the Seven-Point Mind Training, but also enlivened his points with anecdotes from his youth (for example, the story of a monk who gave away all his possessions, only to have a change of heart soon afterwards and go around asking for them all back).  At one point there was a story about a monk with evil thoughts who encountered a scorption underneath a stone.  Here the translator looked puzzled, and the younger monk intervened.  It was actually not a live scorpion, but a stone one.  Everyone looked very relieved that the matter had been cleared up, so Dakpa went on to tell us how the stone scorpion travelled every year a few meters up the river, towards the stupa with the miniature stupa inside it.

Confused?  I was.  I was also surprised that there had been no formal meditation as part of the morning's service.  So I went back two weeks later to the Saturday morning meditation.  This time it was led by a different person, a younger man called Scott wearing an T-shirt advertising Iceland.  He led us in the kind of visualisation exercise that I tend to think of as typical of Tibetan practices and that I'd come to the center partly to explore.  After the usual calming preliminaries (easing tension in the body, watching the breath), Scott invited us to visualize green Tara, a deity that was pictured on one of the tapestries hanging on the wall.  She was a princess, sitting cross-legged; she had silver bracelets on her wrists, a crown on her head, and a large blue flower in her hand.  On her face was an expression of serenity and compassion.  Her body was green but immaterial, and she was floating right above our heads like a green light.  We were invited to identify our mind with hers, and both of these minds with the minds of our personal teachers.

This was probably the most complex (and, frankly, trippy) meditation practice I'd experienced, so it's not surprising that I found it strange and difficult.  I noticed a resistance within me to meditating on my teacher as if he were an object of religious devotion; I felt a resistance to visualizing a deity (although Scott said it was fine to see her as an archetype rather than an actually existing spirit).  Above all, there was something that was just a bit Star Trek about a beautiful green woman.  Beautiful?  Well, I have to admit that when I was asked to visualize a woman, my mind immediately started visualizing a sexy woman.  Since I'd just seen a trailer for the new Avengers movie, green Tara in her regal attire started out looking uncannily like Scarlett Johansson in a one-piece leather outfit.  Then when we were reminded that G.T. symbolized active social virtues, she began to look a bit like my girlfriend, who does a lot of volunteering.  Then we were supposed to integrate our personal teachers, so that green Tara - an alien avenger version of my girlfriend - started to take on some of the features of my teacher David, who is a man in his fifties with a white goatee.

All of this was very confusing, so I asked about it at the end of the session, half wondering if the instructor would be shocked by the places my mind had gone and cast me out on my green-woman-fancying ear.  In fact he said that this was a very common reaction, and not at all to be discouraged, as long as the practioner was able to use the momentum of his natural desire for a greater enthusiasm for the practice.  He said that human desire is actually welcomed in the Tantric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and that the Gelugpa school he was a part of sought to unite the Tantra and Sutra traditions.  The danger was that students would misinterpret the advice and let themselves go, so that meditation turned into sexual fantasy, and an esoteric practice of liberation into a familiar habit of dependency.  In this way, he said, Tantra was like walking a razor's edge between not using the energies you have natrually arising within you, and being wholly directed by those tendencies.  I wasn't too worried: David did recently tell me that when he visualized Guanyin the image that most came to mind was Alfred E. Neuman, so I took my experience in that spirit.

When I came out of the center and walked down the steps I noticed that the guy with the pony tail seemed to be holding a garage-sale.  I asked him about it, and he told me that they were getting rid of all the stuff they didn't need for their impending move.  Move?  It turns out that the Tse Chen Ling Center will only be at its current location only for a couple more months.  Where are they moving to?  They're not sure, but they are looking for a smaller place, in the city, with good links to public transportation.  It sounds like they have the resources to move, but haven't yet been able to confirm a new location.  They'll need quite the moving van for all their ritual objects.  In the meantime, they're there every weekend.  Go up the stairs past the flowers and pass the stone Buddha, who may or may not be a scorpion mounting an aggressive (yet very slow) takeover against a stupa inside a stupa.  Inside there are tapestries of kick-ass green superheroines, who will dance right above your head if you will only sit still and be quiet.  Because, you see, though it might look like there are 59 stages to Mind Training, there are really only seven, and they are all right here.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Attent chan

I've been spending more time on Stanford campus again recently, and the other night had the opportunity of attending a talk hosted by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, in their Distinguished Practitioner Series.  The speaker was Simon Child, a medical doctor and Buddhist teacher from England, and the title of his talk was 'Chinese Zen comes West'.  Yes, 'Chinese Zen', because although Chan is the proper term for Zen's Chinese precursor, Child decided to use a number of Japanese terms in his talks, since it is Japanese Buddhism that has so far been more influential in the West and whose terms are therefore more familiar to a Western audience.  Child is softly spoken, in his fifties, and has a gray beard, large glasses, and a passing resemblance to Oliver Sacks.  Before giving the talk he led the audience in an optional half-hour session of meditation, during which he kneeled in seiza position with a bright yellow throw over his legs.

Child studied in England with John Crook, an academic ethologist who - I learn from Wikipedia - went to the same secondary school as the writer of this blog.  Crook was in turn the student and protegé of Sheng Yen, a Chinese master who was born in Shanghai but emigrated to Taiwan after the revolution.  Sheng Yen was a teacher in both the main schools of Chan, Linji and Caodong (or, in Japanese, Rinzai and Soto), and thus held lineages founded by Linji (810-866) and Dongshan (807-869) respectively.  (Both of these strands trace their lineages back to Huineng, 638-713, the Sixth Patriarch, who is supposedly linked by a single line of descent to the First Patriarch Bodhidharma, who is 28 generations removed from Mahakashyapa, the only one of the Buddha's disciples who knew what he was up to when the Buddha's sermon one day consisted entirely of him holding up a single flower.)  That, then, is how Buddhism got from Siddhartha Gautama to Simon Child, more or less.

Since Child's lineage has two separate strands, his practice also used two approaches, both of which I was somewhat familiar with from the Soto practice at SFZC and the more Rinzai style of PZI.  Child's opening meditation encouraged us to become aware of various parts of our bodies in turn, before inviting us to integrate the discrete impressions of the separate parts of our bodies into a single sensation of presence.  This is the method of silent illumination or mozhao, associated with the Song master Hongzhi Zhenje (1091-1157).  When he talked about his group's Western Zen retreats, however, Child described a practice focused on koans, or, in Chinese, gongans, and especially on the 'head' of the gongan, a particularly crucial phrase or question that the student is invited to repeat to himself over and over again.  This is the huatou practice advocated by Dahui Zong Gao (1089-1163).

The main subject of Child's talk was the coming of Chan to the West, some differences between Western and Eastern practitioners, and how to adapt Chan to a Western context while remaining true to the traditions of the practice.  Child said that in his experience of doing retreats in Taiwan, the UK, and the US, Westerners tended to be more questioning of the practice, while Chinese Buddhists were more ready to follow instructions without challenging the teacher to justify them.  He described the new style of Western Zen retreats that he and his colleagues in the Western Chan Fellowship have been doing for two or three decades now, telling us how they combined traditional silent meditation with periods of spoken practice in pairs that are closer to Western psychoanalysis.  According to Child, we should not be too wary of integrating therapy into Buddhism; after all, one of the Buddha's titles was the great physician.

I was very happy to hear what Child had to say about Chan in the West, since many of the issues he was discussing have been knocking around in my own head for quite some time.  Child was very careful to avoid stereotyping Chinese and Western Buddhists while all the same making some generalized comments about his experience of practitioners of different backgrounds.  But while Child seemd content to say that Westerners are skeptical and questioning of both teachers and methods because of their upbringing and leave it at that, I would prefer to go further.  Asking questions, insisting on evidence, and auditing holders of authority do not simply reflect Western values; they are a way of going about things that reflect universal concerns not to be misled, fooled, or abused by others.  In short, I am not sure whether seeking to unite Eastern mysticism and Western politics doesn't miss the point: what we should be seeking to synthesize are instead two systems with universal appeal, both centered around similar conceptions of human dignity.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Synaptic juice

The San Francisco Bay Area is its own little world.  I don't mean that in the sense people sometimes mean it: the most reflexively left-leaning corner of America, one of the most pot-friendly, a haven and promised land for gays with the dubious luck to be have been born and raised in the Bible Belt.  All those things are true, of course, and are worth enjoying, and maybe even being proud of: I have to say that I savoured the rare juxtaposition of a rock musical powered by drag queens on a recent Friday night with a meditation and service with black-robbed monks in the Zen Center the following Saturday morning.  But what I appreciate most isn't the area's well-defined and well-known profile, but its less celebrated diversity: not the fact of weirdness but its multifacetedness, and even its coexistence with the humdrum.  Alongside the gays of the Catro and the Mission's hipsters, there are also the yuppies in the Marina or the retirees of Marin.  And maybe no region attracts as much interest from outside the area, and as much ambivalence from inside it, as the South Bay, not so recently rebranded as Silicon Valley.

The Bay Area's an interesting place to practise meditation for a range of reasons.  There's a certain liberal tolerance of what others get up to, an open-mindedness about spiritual practices inherited from the hippy movement, and longstanding connections with Asia, as close to SF as to any American city.  But one reason it's an interesting place to become acquainted with an ancient tradition is its hyperbolic modernity, its position at the cutting edge of scientific research and technological innovation.  The cultures of Eastern mysticism and high-tech entrepreneurship come into contact more than you think, and have settled into a comfortable enough relationship: I only recently met a young man at SFZN who leads mediation sessions at Google, a company that regularly hosts talks by such mindfulness luninaries as Jon Kabat-Zinn.  I have my doubts about the spiritual-technological complex, partly because the union of an ascetic tradition enjoining detachment and a computer industry focused on making a profit looks to me like an awkward hook-up.  Still, like many an awkward hook-up, it's hard to deny after the fact that the experience has been interesting. 

In the Bay Area, the junction of science and spirituality is something you can decide not to pursue, but which will probably thrust itself into your attention every few months regardless, so I thought I'd give you an update on a couple of recent experiences (that is, experiments) that I've had.  The first was a result of an email that was sent around to the Buddhist Community at Stanford mailing list.  Now, I've seen negative reactions to people using that list to send round requests to support the monks' protests in Burma, on the grounds that the issue was a political and not a spiritual one.  But, this being Stanford, we quite regularly get emails from researchers - research, you see, is never political, especially when it might lead to the development of an iPhone app.  And on this occasion the researcher involved offered us a coupon for Jamba Juice, and fruit smoothies can be counted on to constitute just too much temptation for any California Buddhist to resist.  I signed up immediately, and booked a slot at Stanford's Calming Technology Lab.  I never knew it existed, but as I can now assure you, it does.

I was met at the lab by a friendly young doctoral researcher called Neema Moraveji.  He fixed me up with an apparatus designed to track my breathing, which consisted of a band that I put around my torso and some wires  He then asked me to sit at a desk and perform some simple tasks on the computer: one of them was to count down from a given number in sevens.  After a certain point I was told to watch a video informing me that your brain performs better when you're calm, and that calm states correlated with states of deep, slow breathing.  After that, I was told to try to deepen and slow my breathing, something I found surprisingly easy - maybe it's all the meditation, although none of the styles I practice encourage you actively to control your breath, just to notice it.  Finally, I was asked to return to the exercises on the computer, and repeated them for a second time.  The aim, as I understood it, was to develop technology that would encourage office-workers to slow their breathing, thus increasing both industrial productivity and inner contentment.  Win-win.

The second recent experience of this type started after a pretty dry dharma-talk at SFZC.  A young woman stood up after the Ino had finished his announcements and introduced herself as Kim Fisher, a doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  She needed meditators to volunteer for an experiment she was conducting as part of her dissertation.  CIIS is an institution that was founded in the early 70s by SF types connected with the human potential movement and interested in bringing together East and West, spirituality and science.  They offer Master's courses in subjects like 'East-West Psychology' and 'Dance Therapy', as well as doctoral programs in Psychology and related disciplines.  It's a small school with not a lot of money, so they were not able to offer me a boosted smoothie in return for breathing deeply.  But I went along anyway to one of their buildings in the Upper Market area of town, just before the street turns really nasty.

When I went in Kim immediately asked me to meditate for half an hour in whatever style I chose.  I knew that she was interested in testing intellectual performance, so I went for my concentration practice, after describing it to her.  She had cushions and mats set out just like in the Zen Center and sat next to me when I sat.  (Considering that she was doing that all day, her experiment must be affording her a pretty good chance to get some sitting in, dissertation research meeting Buddhist retreat.)  After we'd finished I was called over to a desk, told a short story, and asked to repeat it word for word.  Then I was shown a complex geometric object and asked to reproduce it on a piece of paper using only a pencil and memory.  It looked like a 7-year-old boy's design for a space-ship.  At a certain point the fire-alarm went off, which she said would probably force her to throw away some of my results.  A week later I was called back in and I did similar tests but this time without meditating first.

I asked both of these researchers more about their projects, but it's understandable that they were cagey about the details, seeing that the studies were ongoing.  On the other hand, it's not hard to guess that the basic methodology involved in both is to compare performance on mental tasks before and after meditative practices of various sorts (in the first experiment, it was the physiological correlates of relaxation that were tracked, whereas in the second meditation was left to each individual's own definition).  Both studies were extremely interesting to take part in, and it's hard to be against learning more about meditation in this way (though I've had a go in previous posts on this blog).  It will be key for both scientists, I would suppose, to restrict their conclusions to claims about the effects of meditation on subtracting by seven and redrawing space-ships, and not on global intelligence (whatever that is).  And though (to be fair) neither researcher is explicitly excluding the spiritual aspect of meditation, it's hard not to feel that, in giving people an app that reminds them to take deep breaths rather than integrating them into a challenging ancient practice, they're missing out on something.  What that something is can't be quantified; but so much the worse for quantification.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rocking the breath

What is the point of this blog?  I don't know - at least, I don't know if it has a single purpose, but I can identify three or four different ones.  And one of these is to provide an independent and when necessary critical viewpoint on some of the many different meditation centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.  So far I've written a lot about Pacific Zen Institute, a little about San Francisco Zen Center, and still less about the Buddhist Community at Stanford.  But I'm slowly but steadily expanding my experience of local groups by checking out new places.  This aspect of the blog is bound to become more prominent since I decided I didn't want to get deeper into PZI.  So here's a brief report on a single day I spent at a prominent local vipassana temple in Marin County.  The report is admittedly a bit late, so we'll have to turn the clock back to last November, when I got an email from someone at BCAS saying that they were organizing a trip to Spirit Rock.

Spirit Rock was founded in the 1970s by Jack Kornfield, a Dartmouth graduate who went to Thailand with the Peace Corps and began studying with the forest-dwelling monk Ajahn Chah.  It works in the vipassana tradition, the way Westerners refer to the style of practice derived from the Theravada or orthodox Buddhism of south-east Asia and Sri Lanka.  It's set among the rolling hills of Marin County, in Woodacre, California.  If you climb the hills right outside of it you can see the San Pablo Bay in the ditance, a flat blue oval ringed by round green hills.  I made the journey up there with four other members of BCAS: our driver, a Zen student; a Chinese girl who'd converted to Buddhism against her atheist parents' wishes; a Religious Studies major keen on Tibet; and an American girl who'd spend a few weeks in a monastery in Thailand a few years previously.  We drove through the large red gates of the bridge and across into the overwhelming lushness and prosperity of Marin.

We'd signed up for a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock on a sliding scale: there were special prices for young people, but being in my late 20s I didn't make the cut, and ended up handing over something close to $100 for the day.  When I got there I was also expected to give a donation, dana, for the teachers.  (Jack Kornfield claimed the basic fee barely covers operating costs, and none of that goes to the teachers; hence the need for donations.)  But what I saw as a pretty steep ticket-price didn't seem to have turned off any punters.  We noticed that as soon as we got there, since the large field that served as a parking-lot was packed with cars.  When we got into the main meditation hall there were probably a five or six hundred people there, mostly on chairs arranged in a semi-circular pattern.  At the front there was some space for a throng of leg-crossing types, and at the back behind the last row of chairs there were people sitting and lying in all sorts of positions on the carpet floor.

The schedule was simple: Kornfield would lead us in a half-hour period of seated meditation, and then experienced practitioners would go outside for walking meditation while first-timers would stay inside for more instruction.  The meditations were pretty standard, although I particularly appreciated the opportunity of practising metta, or loving-kindness meditation, which seems rather under-utilized in Zen circles, at least in California.  Mike Hagerty had taught me the classic approache to metta before, but I'd always found it rubbed me up the wrong way to start a meditation by wishing happiness to myself.  Kornfield told us this kind of resistance was typical in Westerners, so we started off by trying to imagine what our parents felt towards us, and then transferring this love towards ourselves to others.  Kornfield interspersed periods of meditation with some choice passages of other teachers' books, most of them gently humorous. 

When I went out to do walkng meditation I was expecting the ritualized, rhythmic one-foot-after-the-other style that Zen types practice, all in a line of meditators who circle in a given space.  Instead what I saw when I stepped outside was a scatter of individuals, all pacing slowly and solemnly in no particular direction, or in all directions severally.  It looked like they were perfect androids slowly running out of battery power, or like they had all realized they had forgotten their keys inside at exactly the same time, and were racking their brains to remember where they had put them.  I'm not a big fan of walking like there's cement drying in my veins, so I just walked straight up the hill, past a stone Buddha statue festooned with wildflowers, on and up along the path (always good for metaphorical thinking).  When the bell rang I'd be right at the top.  I'd see the robots all suddenly home towards the meditation hall, and I'd race down hill to meet them there.

During walking periods you could also talk to the four or five junior teachers, who set up shop in little cabins outisde the main building.  One youngish guy advertised himself as a skeptic who welcomed skeptical questions, and I wanted to talk to him, but his sign-up sheet filled up too fast, so I went to talk to a teacher whose day-job was as a somatic therapist.  I talked to her a bit about chronic pain, and she was sympathetic, but I was a bit put off by how keen she seemed to get me onboard as a patient, even giving me her business card.  (Mind you, this is America, and people do that all the time, even at social events.)  At the end of the day we all gathered by these huts and walked back to the car.  Lucy, who'd spent time in Thailand, said she appreciated having a Westerner explain the teachings to her.  Everyone else seemed happy enough.  We headed out, part of the calmest tailback you'll ever see.  That was my day at Spirit Rock.