Saturday, March 24, 2012
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.