Saturday, March 24, 2012

Good morning

The first time I went into San Francisco Zen Center I showed up early on a Saturday morning for their introduction to meditation.  I'd been meditating on my own for seven or eight years, but I thought the introductory session would be the best way to see what SFZC was like and to get further into practice there.  I also thought I would learn something, not just about their own particular style of zazen or Zen meditation, but about meditation in general.  You see, a key concept for me is 'beginner's mind' - the idea, as SFZC founder Shunryu Suzuki put it, that 'in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few'.  This valuing of the tyro's perspective is part of the reason I started this blog, trusting that my ignorance of Buddhist practices would be welcomed by some as a form of knowledge.  Hence the name of the blog, which means 'Beginner's mind', also as it happens the official name of SFZC City Center, or Beginner's Mind Temple.

So even though I'd had some experience of meditation, I turned up to the introductory session with Beginner's mind.  There was a crowd of about twenty people in the lobby, the cross-section of the SF population that I've grown used to seeing at SFZC: thirtysomething women, bearded hipsters with thick-framed glasses, a few older people looking determinedly open-minded.  We were joined by a tallish woman in black robes who welcomed us to the Zen Center and then almost immediately broke off to explain, 'I'm nervous!' as if she were slightly surprised and somewhat disappointed at the return of this childish habit.  She told us she'd come to the Zen Center a decade or so previously because 'suffering lay so thick' around her and she couldn't find any way out of or beyond it.  She said she'd been struck by something Leonard Cohen had said about Zen touching places that Western civilization couldn't reach.

She led us into a spacious room with tall windows on two sides and a mat of closely-woven reeds on the floor which made me look out for karate kicks and judo throws.  She talked a bit about the statues arranged around an altar on one side of the room, especially the central 'museum-quality' one of a stone Buddha chilling on what looked like a tree-trunk.  He rolled deep: his posse of four or five other enlightened types were strolling along beside him, one of them serene and white and apparently rather fancying herself, the guy on the far side effortfully hideous, making a face like he'd just taken a swig of a beer can someone had peeed into.  Our guide was telling us about zazen, how you had to make sure your hips were higher than your knees and that your hands were touching in a mudra and that your thumbs didn't get lazy (she showed us the arc of her joined hands collaping like a badly-made bridge).

She told us how an important moment had come in her meditation when she saw that she was about to start thinking about a subject that upset her and realized she didn't have to go there, that she could leave it aside.  She talked about turning up to her first retreats in a pink jacket, and told us that it was important to wear muted colours and to avoid wearing perfume (something they're also big on at the Spirit Rock center).  She actually talked for quite a long time - about never liking Zen, about realizing she was a Zen student when on a Tibetan retreat, about becoming a priest...It was a bit like a dharma talk.  Finally she struck the bowl-bell with the holy smacker and we sat in silence for about five minutes.  Five minutes!  I felt cheated.  I would have asked for my money back but of course I never donate any money.

The actual dharma talk followed slowly.  First all the grown-up meditators had to come up from the real meditation hall downstairs and press into the Buddha Hall where we were sitting (there were maybe seventy people).  Then the other monks had to file in, bowing constantly, as if they were mechanical donkeys extracting oil, and adjust their mutltiple layers of robes around and on top and from under themselves: the black sheets over the white sheets, the brown towels tucked under the armpits.  Then the speaker could come in, clutching a crooked little stick that he'd presumably nicked from a miniature shepherd: he bowed at us, he bowed at the Buddha, he bowed at us, he bowed at his friends, he bowed at the Buddha again, he sat down, he bowed, he adjusted his robes, he took a really close look at his little stick.  I can't remember much about the talk, except he read it off a print-out he had in front of him on a lectern, and that it was, perhaps as a consequence, painfully boring.

After the talk a handsome young monk stood up and began talking in a cut-glass English accent - something that seemed entirely unexpected at first, and then immediately afterwards, entirely appropriate.  He told us what would be happening for the rest of the day: there was a queer dharma group, dharma en espanol, a writing group in the lounge.  There was also 'Zendo forms', which I went to.  A mousy-looking woman led us shyly down to the meditation hall and showed us the local hokey-pokey: you put your left foot in, you bow to nothing in particular, you go to your cushion, you bow and turn yourself around, and that's what it's all about.  She was wearing a blue bib or rakasu that seemed to denote the lowest level on the Zen Center food-chain and looked like a flimsier version of the black bullet-proof vests with curtain rings that I'd seen some of the older people wearing at PZI retreats.

That first trip to the Zen Center was typical, in some ways, of my experience of Zen.  It was very boring, excruciating on the lower limbs, and almost offensively caught up in parrotted Sanskrit and aped japanoiserie.  At the same time, there was a peace about the place, the kind of out of touch formality you meet in old people whose faces are creased with smiles and who you just want to hug but dare not.  They also had tea and cookies for a dollar, which I can't believe I've so far failed to mention.  On the whole, it wasn't half as scary as some people I know had made out - certainly, nobody had told me off for clearing my throat or sneezing during meditation.  And something about its size and relatively long tradition gave me a feeling I'd never had before in the West, that I was in a Japanese Buddhist temple, meditating and chanting with others, and that it was the natural thing to do.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The fall of tortoises

Zen Buddhism advises you to step off the 100-foot high pole, but though last week's post was a cliffhanger, I won't walk off that particular cliff until next week.  This week I prefer to talk about a Japanese man who pretended to be a cat.  But wait!  I can explain, though not entirely.  My sister lived in Japan for four years (and now she has lived in Korea for the same amount of time - you can read her blog about it to the right of this post).  During the whole time she lived in that fascinating country, I never visited her once.  Japan, you see, is far away, and in any case I was more interested in traveling to Italy back then.  I also never knew that I'd become interested in Zen; not to imply that Zen has anything to do with Japan, but you know what I mean.  Despite my never visiting her, she did send me innumerable postcards and also give me a number of Japanese novels for Christmas.  I've read one of them now, I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (in translation!), and I thought I'd tell you about it.

I am a Cat is narrated by - you guessed it - a cat.  Soseki originally wrote only a single short-story employing that particular narrative technique, but when readers whined for more he ended up expanding the story into a full-length novel.  The novel shows the strain of having to stretch out such a simple idea over hundreds of pages: soon enough, the focus shifts away from the cat and his thoughts to the lives and conversations of the characters the cat is constantly watching.  The main character is Sneaze, the cat's 'master' (though we know who is really charge).  A bumbling schoolmaster, he enjoys frequent visits by his friends, Waverhouse, a cynical free-thinker, Coldmoon, a young scholar, and Singleman, a Zen practitioner.  The novel has not one plot but several, as various fads and schemes pass into Sneaze's consciousness and - not too long aftwerwards - out of it.  It is written in a light, whimsical, and thoroughly English style, reminiscent of nothing so much as P.G. Wodehouse. 

Soseki's novel is not Zen scripture in the sense of the Diamond Sutra, nor Zen literature in the sense of the Blue Cliff Record, nor even a Zen book like Bring me the Rhinoceros.  But it does arguably get to the essence of Zen in a fairly direct way, partly simply by swapping the heroic narrator Western readers have been used to since Conrad for an ordinary domestic cat.  But the cat also makes statements that could pass as pithy summaries of the Zen approach to things: hearing humans muttering about how life would be so much easier as a cat, he observes that 'if they really want their lives to be nice and easy, it's already in their own good power to make them so.  Nothing stands in their way.'  There are also occasional references to Zen institutions and traditions, often lightly mocking, such as the story about His Ineffable Holiness the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, who discovered that placing one's buttocks on a cold stone was a reliable corrective for rushes of blood to the head.

But a more serious case for Zen is made in a long speech in which Singleman tries to convince his friend Sneaze that however hard you try to fix things, new problems will always arise.  'For the real issue', he goes on, 'the problem in your mind, remains unsettled, however hard you wrestle it around, until your dying day...Nobody, however mighty, can do as he likes with the world.  None can stop the sun from setting, none reverse the flow of rivers.  But any man is able to do as he likes with his own mind.'  Hence the importance, says Singleman, of a systematic program for developing control of the mind, and that is what Zen offers.  He ends by quoting a stirring quartet supposedly composed ex tempore by Sogan, a 13th century Chinese master, when faced with decapitation by a Mongol swordsman, which ends with the defiant declaration 'One is not awed/ by threats of such a blowless blow'.  (The Mongol swordsman was apparently so disconcerted that he dropped his sword and fled.)

Singleman's comments are predicated on a distinction between Western 'positivism' and Japanese quietism: 'The progressive positivism of Western civilization has certainly produced some notable results, but, in the end, it is no more than a civilization of the inherently dissatisfied.  The traditional civilization of Japan does not look for satisfaction by some change in the condition of others but in that of the self.'  Placed in that light (and described in that manner) the traditional Japanese way certainly looks attractive, but Western readers may want to reassess their initial reaction after reading one of Singleman's examples: you may, he says 'live under an oligarchic government which you dislike so much that you replace it with a parliamentary democracy', but changing it will do no good.  After a century of Japanese history, this doesn't just look flaky: its falseness has been demonstrated by events.

But it would be misleading to present Singleman's views as if they were straightforwardly those of Soseki, who later on exposes his Zen character to considerable mockery at the hands of Waverhouse.  Waverhouse even claims that Singleman's Zen proselytizing has driven people insane.  One man, he says, 'went to the Zen center at Kamakura [where my teacher David Weinstein studied] and there became a lunatic'.  Another, with a tendency to gluttony, began mixing up his koans and his meals, and 'on one occasion, he informed me somewhat ponderously that beef cutlets might soon be coming to roost in my pine trees'.  Some of Singleman's own statements don't even require outside ridicule: when asked how to practice Zen, he replies: 'There's really nothing to learn.  Just concentrate, as all the Zen masters advise, on the pure, white cow which stands there in the alley.'

But however much institutionalized Zen is - quite rightly - pilloried in the novel, the cat often returns to the essential teachings.  'The proper study of mankind is self', he reflects at one point.  'The heavens, earth, the mountains and the rivers, sun and moon and stars - they are all no more than other names for the self.  There is nothing a man can study which is not, in the end, the study of the self.  If a man could jump out of his self that self would disappear at the moment of his jumping.'  And he tells a story (if this isn't a koan, what is?) about how the playwright Aeschylus thought so much that his hair fell out, at which point he was killed by a passing eagle who decided to try to smash open a tortoise's shell by dropping it on the Greek's shiny pate, which it had mistaken for a stone.  There is no finer use of the Classics than this little anecdote; and no finer admonition about the dangers of thinking too much.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Moving towards the center

A month or two ago Adam informed me that he'd been cheating on me.  Us, rather.  Adam's a Buddhist friend who encapsulates everything I'd thought Californians would be like when I first came here (which makes sense, since he's from Massachusetts).  He's young, he wears what looks like a shark's tooth around his neck, he spends most of his free time surfing; he says 'hella' and 'dude'.  He's also extremely friendly, and he was the first person to welcome me to the Wind in Grass community I now sit with weekly on my first visit.  But then for a while he disappeared, emerging only occasionally in the flesh at one-day meditation events and more frequently in the virtual reality of Facebook, dressed garishly in a succession of bizarre cotumes.  But there he was that Wednesday night at regular pratice again, sheepishly admitting to us that he'd been meditating with another sangha.

It was, it turned out, the San Francisco Zen Center, which has a fair claim to being the oldest Buddhist temple outside of Asia, and is certainly the biggest and most well-attended I've seen, with maybe a hundred people in the meditation-hall every week.  It was founded in the 1960s by Shunryu Suzuki, a priest of the Soto sect from Japan who came over to San Francisco to serve the emigré community in Japantown, but who was adopted by beatniks and dharma-bums who had a fascination with seated meditation.  After Suzuki died, his burgeoning convert community moved into the handsome and spacious building in the Lower Haight that it still inhabits.  Later on, it acquired two other properties: Green Gulch farm, a center for work-practice and organic farming, and Tassajara, a traditional monastery in the California wilderness.  But you can read all that on the internet.

My own view of the SF Zen Center was formed by a couple of entirely contingent factors.  The first was my reading about the sexual and other misconduct of Suzuki's successor Richard Baker (which I've written about already) and the frankly straight-out weird actions of his successor, Reb Anderson (which I'll write about now).  The story is that Anderson was out running one day in Golden Gate Park (a smart thing to do), when he came across a recently-murdered body and a gun, and decided to sit beside it and meditate (not so smart).  He then took the gun with him and stored it in the Zen Center, only to retrieve it one night weeks later to brandish it at a homeless person who'd tried to mug him (dumb and dumber).  He said he was only trying to scare the mugger, but the police weren't impressed.  Nonetheless he wasn't charged, and I'm told he now greatly regrets the entire incident.

The other factor that did a lot to form my view of SFZC was that a lot of the older people in my own group, Pacific Zen Institute, had started out practising there and had, for various reasons, defected.  One man had done damage to his spine after trying too zealously to sit in full-lotus posture without sufficient preparation.  Another simply found that his practice wasn't progressing.  Another preferred a lay style of practice to one that seemed to focus on training priests.  As various as the complaints were, though, there was a common thread: SFZC was a a very formal, strict, and traditional place.  This struck a chord with me: a couple of years previously I'd been researching retreats online and had been put off by all the black gowns and stern faces on the SFZC website, and by the apparently high bars to being involved in pratice periods and retreats.

The Baker and Anderson stories both seemed to encapsulate the dangers involved in giving too much power to religious leaders, and that has always been a particular concern of mine.  The alleged formalism of the Zen Center was also something I found not to my taste, and although this was more an aesthetic than a principled difference, I do still sometimes wonder whether over-attention to ceremony can be a distraction the direct practice of awareness and compassion.  But Adam's going there made SFZC seem more accesible to me, especially when he pointed out that it was two blocks away from where I lived.  Since I'm still in an exploratory phase in my practice and since I still see San Francisco as a strange foreign city that's to be explored, I decided to go down one morning and check the place out.  I had decided, in other words, to cheat.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Brave yellow hay

Old-time (13th century) Zen master Dogen said that studying the way is about studying the self, so here's more about me (not the real me; the pseudonymous one I'm more sure about).  Seeing that he's a fictional character, it's not all that surprising that there's no good picture of Mr. Propter out there on the internet, so I had to make do with one of Aldous Huxley for my blogger's profile instead.  When I introduced Mr. Propter a few weeks ago, the introduction amounted to a summary of some of the central ideas in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (to give the longer title of the US editions of the book).  There Huxley comes across as rather straightforwardly as a proponent of a certain kind of social and political detachment, and more centrally of a particularly uninstitutionalized form of religious experience.  He is, to put it more simply, a mystic, or at least an admirer of mystics.  But if you read some of Huxley's other novels you come away with a quite different impression.

At first sight, Huxley's novelistic career presents a rather unusual development, progressing from the light-hearted yet mordant satires of the 1920s, to the spiritual and psychedelic utopianism of his final novel Island.  The strangeness of writer's artistic trajectory is mirrored by what seems an unusual course through life for Huxley the man.  Scion of a distinguished intellectual family - Matthew Arnold the poet and critic was his grandfather, and Thomas Henry Huxley ('Darwin's pit-bull') his great uncle - Huxley received the conventional education of an English gentleman, attending Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford.  By the end of his life, Huxley had relocated to California and transformed himself into a disciple of the neo-Hindu mystic Prabhavananda and an enthusiastic advocate of New Age causes.  The Doors of Perception, his report on his experiments with mescaline, published in 1954, went on to become one of the literary touchstones of the counter-culture of the 1960s.

Once you scratch the surface, though, and read through a few of Huxley's novels, this bewildering career begins to take the form of an understandable enough progression.  It is true that the early novels are taken up almost entirely with the witty but ultimately meaningless chatter of the English upper-classes, and that the rather perfunctory episodes that punctuate their dialogue are chiefly calculated to expose the hypocrisy and moral emptiness of that particular slice of social life.  In a characteristically inconsequential tale-within-a-tale embedded in Huxley's début, Crome Yellow, published in 1921 and set in an aristocratic country-house, a naive young suitor makes the acquaintance of three ethereally spiritual sisters, who declare their distate for the 'coarse' activity of eating.  Later, he unintentionally comes across them feasting surreptiously in a hidden chamber, their hands clutching chicken-drumsticks to their mouths.

And yet it is possible to discern something else beneath the impeccably witty surface of these early books.  What that something else is precisely is difficult to tell, but it's unmistakably present.  Mr. Gumbril, the hapless anti-hero of Huxley's 1923 follow-up Antic Hay, in a rare break from galivating around fashionable London, reflects that there's 'a spite of everythng, at the back of everything.  Lying awake at night, sometimes - not restlessly, but serenely, waiting for sleep - the quiet re-establishes itself, piece by piece...The quiet grows and grows.  Beautifully and unbearably.  And at last you are conscious of something approaching; it is almost a faint sound of footsteps.  Something inexpressibly lovely and wonderful advances...Nearer, nearer come the steps; but one can't face the advancing thing.  One daren't.  It's too terrifying, it's too painful to die.  Quickly, before it is too late, start the factory wheels, bang the drum, blow up the saxophone.  Think of the women you'd like to sleep with, the schemes for making money, the gossip about your friends...'

There are similar moments in Brave New World, Huxley's 1932 vision of a scientific future which has rather surprisingly proven to be by far his most enduring work.  The world of the novel is both utopian and dystopian.  All sources of pain and discomfort have been removed by scientific progress and the systematic application of reason; and if anything does go wrong, citizens can have recourse to soma, a kind of souped-up valium that acts as a panacaea for mental anguish.  But precisely because of this, life has lost all meaning.  A hint of where that meaning might still be looked for comes when Mustapha Mond, the Contoller, decides to suppress a new book because its ideas might lead people to 'lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness'.  And as the Controller concluded, this was quite possibly true, 'but not, in the present circumstance, admissable.' 

Huxley's denigration of chemically assisted happiness in Brave New World sits rather uneasily with his later eager adoption of drugs as shortcuts to spiritual experience.  And for those inspired by Mr. Propter's advocacy of an autonomy grounded in meditative practice, Huxley's later championing of the psychedelic cause can seem something of a disappointment.  As late as 1952, in his non-fiction work The Devils of Loudun, Huxley explained that there were two paths for those seeking to transcend the dissatisfactions of the ordinary self:  downward transcendence, sought for in alcohol, which provided some refuge, but at the cost of the obliteration of all consciousness; and upward transcendence, which offered an escape from the mundane while preserving, and even enhancing, clarity of thought.  Huxley died in 1963, too early to witness the discrediting of psychotorpic drugs as a toll-free highway to higher consciousness.  But the quiet lurking below the chatter of his earlier novels can still remind us to listen out, every once in a while, for footsteps.