Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sesshin obsession

Why do I even bother?  If Zen is traditionally so hierarchical, and its teachers wield peculiarly unconfinable types of authority, why am I still getting deeper into PZI and preparing to become a card-carrying Buddhist (without a card)?  Part of the answer is that I think that convert Buddhism in the West is a religious tradition at a revolutionary moment; less dramatically, it's a practice whose forms are undergoing an unusual amount of scrutiny as newcomers imbued with Western scientific and political convictions look for something to put their minds at rest.  I want to be a fully committed part of the Western Zen community - which involves, in my view, exposing it to honest criticism when it looks like there's a need for it - partly because it presents me with an exciting and worthwhile project to be part of. 

But of course, there'd be no point in taking the time to commit to or constructively criticize a project if you didn't see any value in it, and that brings us back once more to the question of why I think a spiritual community is such a valuable thing.  And that brings me back once again to the experience of PZI retreats, and to my third ever sesshin, the autumn session of last year, when I stayed for six days and five nights.  (Meditating all day can be a shock to the system, so I'd decided to work my way up to a full week-long practice session.)  I thought I'd arranged a lift up to Santa Rosa with my friend Sara, but she'd gotten a different impression, and anyway had just come down with the flu.  So I phoned an immaculately composed Zen student from Santa Cruz and asked her at about an hour's notice to come through San Francisco and pick me up.  It was once again a quiet drive up, either because my friend was already in her Zen Zone, or because I'd just made her drive through a city full of traffic (or both).

As it turned out, this time the retreat wasn't in either of the buildings just outside of Santa Rosa that I'd been to before, but at a more remote location somewhere around Occidental, an giant's step or two closer to the Pacific.  As we got closer to our destination, the roads got narrower and windier, and the trees grew taller and started huddling around the car like pedestrians in some crowded metropolis.  The place itself was another Christian retreat-centre, but this time it felt less like a convent or a hostel and more like the base for a Scout-camp or a souped-up tree-house.  Parts of the dorms upstairs had no windows, only screens that let the air breathe in an out of the room, one to ten to one again.  When you looked out the windows of the dining-hall downstairs there were trees so close you could touch them, and hundreds of others farther away that made you remember how depth is a startling thing.

By this time, most of the faces around me were familiar rather than startling.  I worked in the kitchen with Socrates, who turned out to be called William and to be a master soup-chef as well as a peerless trumpet-tooter.  I worked away at my dissertation-reading during break-periods beside the professorial room-mate at my first retreat, who was engaged in seemingly inexhaustible paperwork for his academic department.  I recognized the jolly French professor with clever socks, the serious silver-haired woman who oversees my perennial requests for financial aid, the Santa Rosa Unitarian minister with the square glasses.  I still embraced my WiG friends when I saw them like a castaway clinging to the fragment of a mast.  Ashley was there, a reassuring presence; Sara beat the flu eventually and got there; Michael chatted to everyone with unrestraned loud friendliness as his daughter crawled around the Zendo making the serious faces crease.

I also renewed my affairs with two people I'd fallen in love with on my first retreat, one man, one woman.  At some point when I was making tea I turned and looked down to see the diminutive Chinese artist Alok looking up at me like I was a redwood reminding him how height is a startling thing.  He said, 'Hey, Short Stuff.'  He looked eighty at least, and had apparently brought his new girlfriend with him; since she complained at one point of having done 'one too many prostrations' in Tibet I assumed it was a good match.  One day David Weinstein the teacher told us we didn't have to say grace, apparently just to confuse us, but Alok and his partner went up to the altar with offerings and performed their own little rite, just the two of them, grateful for the food or for eating it together, or just hedging their bets.

The periods of discussion are one of the things I like most about PZI, partly because my resistance to top-down teaching gets to steal a nap (though our head teacher John Tarrant's replies can sometimes, in the Japanese tradition, verge on put-downs), but mainly because you get to meet and learn from all the people who've been silently meditating next to you all day.  At one point in a discussion about refuge vows Alok started talking about how he'd made a vow to his partner; when John asked if that was necessary he said 'Yes and no', and then, 'It wasn't as if the ladies were queuing up', which made me chortle.  (John said, 'Well, I don't know.')  He said that after he stopped being a Christian minister, he'd switched from prayer to meditation, and hadn't prayed in years; but when he met his girlfriend,  'I got down on my knees and prayed to God that if I were meant to be with this woman, he would let that happen; and if we weren't meant to be together, he would let that happen too'.  Logically, it struck me as the most pointless prayer ever; but it was about putting your heart in the right place.  It all is.

He also talked about how he'd originally been reluctant to become part of a religious community, especially a Buddhist one, since 'Why be a Buddhist when you can be a Buddha?'  But he said he'd more recently decided he wanted to become a full member of PZI, but hadn't been able to find a job in Santa Rosa.  I found it quite touching the way he yearned to be closer to the group and its regular meetings.  (Once or twice unconditional statements of dedication to the community of this nature got me thinking frightenedly about whether I was being drawn into a cult, but only once or twice.)  As for the second person I'd fallen in love with, the beautiful old lady, she told us that after many years of practising with others she'd reached a place in which she felt only a great tenderness towards others, and towards herself.  John said that comment would be the right note to end on; I agree.

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