Sunday, April 29, 2012
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
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.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Around the time that I was becoming aware that I was going to become deeply involved in Zen Buddhism, I decided to start reading the Bible. Not its greatest hits, not passages I could remember from chapel at school, but the whole damn thing from beginning to end (in translation, admittedly). I figured that if I read a book a weekend, I could be done in about a year. Why did I decide to do this? A range of reasons. I had a copy of the book at home, and don't have enough money to buy new books (especially Buddhist books, which are always pricey). It's undoubtedly one of the classics of world culture, so I thought I should have some familiarity with it. It might teach me more about the ancient societies of the Near East and so help me put my own work on classical Greece into perspective. Finally, I was expecting it to be, if not the good book, at least a good book, full of memorable tales, powerful phrases, and ageless wisdom.
It's been about a year and a half, and I've now finished reading through the whole of the Old Testament, so I thought I'd tell you how it went. To sum up, the Old Testament is rubbish. More precisely, it is terrible, since 'rubbish' captures the wearying incompetence but fails to communicate the active maliciousness radiating from many of its pages. I remember reading a quotation to the effect that the God of the Old Testament was the most unpleasant character in any work of world literature. It struck me at the time as the sort of exaggeratedly aggressive claim made by atheists with an axe to grind. But after reading through the whole book, I must say that it strikes me as true. Yahweh hates everyone but his chosen people, and takes a childish joy in annihilating his enemies. He wreaks horrible revenge even on his own people for petty transgressions of his pathologically fussy law, killing people for collecting firewood on the Sabbath, for example.
There are a few passages in the Old Testament that unambiguously condemn homsexuality (like Leviticus 18:23). There are many more which are clearly misogynistic (like Leviticus 12:1-6, in which a woman is said to be twice as unclean after giving birth to a daughter than to a son). Granted, most ancient societies were misogynistic (though the Greeks rarely had problems with homosexuality), so perhaps we should judge the people of the Old Testament by the old standards of their time. But even in this perspective, they and their God seem peculiarly vicious, for example in several times putting to death everyone, without exception, in the cities they conquer (Deut. 2:34; the Greeks tended to kill all the men and let the women and children live on as slaves). Among all the sacred slaughter and self-righteous hatred, a few episodes of bizarre cruelty distinguish themselves by their sheer randomness, like David's wedding-gift to Saul of two hundred freshly plucked Philistine foreskins (1 Samuel 18:27).
But the problem is not only that the people and God the Old Testament describes are pathological, but also that for the most part the Old Testament simply does not work as literature, let alone as transcendent revelation. It is incoherent, patchy, and all in all shabbily written. Why does the Lord put a mark on Cain, 'in order that anyone meeting him should not kill him', (Genesis 4:16) when there is nobody else around on earth yet? Why do we need to know, in the midst of one of the interminable lists of names that the Old Testament goes in for, that 'this is the Anah who found some mules in the wilderness while he was tending the asses of his father Zibeon' (Gen. 36:26)? Even as ancient history, the Old Testament does not really work: its ideological biases are painfully obvious, it jumps around between equally repetitive accounts of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and written as it is from the often confused and inevitably parrochial Jewish perspective, it fails to give any clear idea of what exactly is going on. Jerusalem is often taken, but it is usually hard to know who has taken it.
I should make clear at this point that I don't write any of this with pleasure. I have an interest in religious syncretism, and am attracted to the idea that all the great religions say more or less the same thing once we look beyond the particular words in which they are saying it. So I was hoping that the Old Testament would help me relate the Christianity of my youth to the Buddhism that's become my daily practice. But there's no use mincing words or shrinking away from my own impressions: the Old Testament is on the whole a boring, confused, and evil book, and the less time you spend with it the better. This is doubly disappointing to me because there are so many Jews in Buddhist groups in San Francisco who keep up a dual practice in the temple and the synagogue and who build bridges between monotheistic and atheistic religions (like Tova Green at SFZC). I am forced to believe that the modern Jews I know who are open-minded and generous have become that way not because of their sacred text but in spite of it.
I also want to add that I haven't posted this in a spirit of religious one-upmanship. I haven't had time to read through many of the ancient Buddhist scriptures, but I have no doubt that they contain an equal or greater amount of inconsistency, randomness, and sheer nonsense as their Jewish counterpart (partly, admittedly, because they are so much longer). I doubt that they contain quite as much malicious war-mongering, but I'm well aware that Buddhist societies have inflicted their fair share of that all-too human brand of suffering. Nonetheless, I would notice here that the undisputed centrality of the Old Testament (or at least the Torah or the Pentateuch) means that its deficiencies drag down Judaism with it to a much greater degree than any specific sutra can ever drag down Buddhism. It may not be fair, but Buddhism's lack of a stable hierarchy of texts allows it to slip out of accusations against any single passage. Judaism doesn't have that luxury; and nor does Christianity. But that is for another day, and another post.
I should end with some exceptions to what I have said above. There are a few books of the Old Testament which are readable (Ruth), exciting (Daniel), or even profound (Job). But the most spectacular exception of all is Ecclesiastes, a 3rd-century BC treatise traditionally attributed to Solomon. If I had any rabbinical authority (I don't unfortunately - can you tell?), I would reccommend tearing out all the other books of the Old Testament and letting this book stand on its own. 'Emptiness, emptiness, all is empty' it begins, like the Bodhidarma in the first koan in the Book of Serenity. 'The end of all man's toil is but to fill his belly, yet his appetite is never satisfied' it goes on, like the Buddha in the Dhammapada. It continues: 'Better one hand full and peace of mind, than both fists full and toil that is chasing the wind'. Solomon reccommends hard work and feasting as the only real response to the all pervading emptiness, not meditation and oryoki, but it is hard not to see in his brief letter the very spirit of Zen.
Friday, April 6, 2012
'Do not look around the meditation hall. Do not make eye-contact with others. Do not speak to others. If you must communicate, write a note. Sesshin starts now.' There were four black-robed monks sitting in a line. The Ino - the head of the meditation hall, who in this incarnation had an impeccable upper-class English accent - had just finished reading us the instructions that would govern the seven-day retreat I'd signed up to at the San Francisco Zen Center. After my conversation with John Tarrant, I'd decided not to go on retreats with his Pacific Zen Institute anymore, though I was continuing to practice on a weekly basis with his student David Weinstein. But I had undertaken to attend other retreats available in the area, and since SFZC was only a couple of blocks away from my flat, and is an important reference-point for American Buddhists, what better place to start but there?
From the beginning, I knew that these guys were serious. We were instructed to make an effort to turn up to every compulsory session of meditation and to every service, in order to support others in their practice. There was to be no use of phones or computers, and no reading or writing. (One woman asked at the beginning what we would be allowed to do in rest periods, given that these activities were forbidden.) Unlike at PZI retreats, where people would often talk quietly together and greet newcomers with a hug, here practioners followed the rules strictly. The whole experience reminded me of nothing so much as being at boarding school in England. All activities were forcibly communal; a great regularity prevailed; and the whole eccentric endeavour was presided over and punctuated by the periodic ringing of bells. At the end of the day I returned to my room feeling like my mind had been nuked with quietness.
Nowhere was the attention to etiquette more marked than in the traditional oryoki breakfasts. Oryoki is a ritualized form of eating involving a small bundle of kitchenware wrapped in a cloth. It looks like the kind of thing you bring on a picnic, or that a kid running away from home would hang from a stick he would then carry jauntily on his shoulder. When you unwrap it there are chopsticks, a spoon, a spatula, a cloth, and three bowls (or five if you're a priest - apparently ordination in Zen is partly about getting more bowls than everyone else). There was a special hour-long instruction session on the first day to ensure that we all lifted our bowls at the right times. At one point a controversy arose among the clergy about when we should be allowed to serve oursleves the gomasho, a poppy-seed condiment you sprinkle on your food. In the end, the Senior Dharma Teacher announced, 'The Abbots have met about this, and have ruled that the gomasho will be served after the third bowl'. So it was decided.
I enjoyed oryoki only to the extent that it gave me a glimpse into Japanese monastic practice, and if I'm honest that's the only way I could really put up with several of the other aspects of practice at SFZC sesshin. Every day we spent a couple of hours chanting, sometimes texts that had been translated into English, like Dogen's enlightening 'Fukan-zazengi', but just as often meaningless strings of Japanese syllables, 'to yota mitsu bishi ka rate to kyo', and so on. Now, I don't mind being made to repeat words that will stick with me and may eventually sink into my heart ('Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord'), but I do object to reciting phonemes that are simply not intelligible to me (or anyone else in the room) and are unlikely to become so in the future. Presumably the SFZC response would be that they are honouring the ancestors, but the ancestors in question were Japanese, and so presumably understood the Japanese text they were chanting.
Worse than the bowing were the prostrations. At about six o'clock every morning we'd file into the upstairs hall, bow once or twice in one direction (you can't go anywhere in that place without there being some statuette to kowtow to somewhere behind you), and then put our hands in gasho (prayer-position), kneel down, fall forward, softly head-butt the reed-matt floor, and then lift up just our hands so that we looked like caterpillar with curious antennae. Then we'd get up, and do the whole thing again, driven repeatedly forward and downward by a serious-looking young chap with an extra-large sacred bonker and a supersized bowl-bell. It was like a static pacifist version of the scene in Ben Hur where all the slaves rowing are being taken up to ramming speed by a man banging a drum. I don't really see the point of falling on the floor for a bunch of statues, or for Siddartha Gauthama: the man died in 483 BC, so it's hard to see why he would care.
I also had to bow when doing dokusan (personal interview) with the Senior Dharma Teacher, although she was such a humble person that it was easy for me not to think of it as an act of obeisance to her personally. In general I have to say that SFZC, for all its liturgical conservatism, has a much less top-down approach to teaching than PZI. When I went to speak to Victoria Austin, the retreat's other leading teacher, I asked her about Richard Baker and accountability, and she welcomed my questions, before responding to them in a straightforward manner. She said that SFZC Abbots served at the pleasure of a board of governors, that spiritual teachers should be expected at the very least to live up to the ethical convention governing other organizations, and that unusual insight should never be used to justify teachers' transgressions. I felt reassured by her response, not only because it confirmed my instincts, but because it made SFZC seem like a safe and sane place to practice meditation.
All the same, after four days the rigidity and strictness of the practice there - during a sesshin which was supposed to have been specially designed for the ailing - was making my usual low-level pain intolerable. I sat left foot over right, I sat right foot over left, I knelt with a cushion, I knelt with a bench. I went home the fourth night and couldn't sleep because my legs and back were in such agony. I stayed awake until five, wrote a note to the Ino, and then went and handed it in. It read: 'I am ending my sesshin a day earlier than planned due to excessive pain'. (Later I got an email back, saying 'I was sorry to hear of your pain; I hope you found the retreat a valuable experience nonetheless'.) I walked back along Page Street, thinking 'Well, that didn't work'. I stopped for a long time by a tree to listen to a blackbird singing; but that, of course, is something you could do any day.
Thursday, April 5, 2012
'What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind'. So begins the Dhammapada, the third-century BC compilation of aphorisms traditionally attributed to the Buddha himself which is generally recognized as one of the most important Pali scriptures. When I first started meditating, I had little interest in reading ancient Buddhist texts, and what interest I had was mediated through my knowledge of Latin and Greek, later descendents of the ancient Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali. When I got involved with a Zen group in a lay lineage, this evasion of texts - unusual for me, a professional classicist - became even more pronounced. Even though we worked regularly with koans spoken into the room, the emphasis on the direct apprehension of the real drove me to the cushion, not to the library.
Now that I'm in the process of taking refuge (a sort of Buddhist confirmation), I've decided that I need to open my eyes a bit and explore what it is that I'm getting into. This is the case even though I was drawn into Buddhism not because I found its philosophical system noticeably more sound than others I'd encountered, but because I found the practice of meditation helpful. Deciding what to read, and what to read first, has been difficult. In contrast to Judaism or Christianity, Buddhism has no single holy text that stands unchallenged at the top of a hierarchy of sacred or inspired works in the way that the Torah and the Gospel (and the Old and New Testaments) are ranked above the Talmud and the Church Fathers, or Maimonides and Augustine. And the canon of Buddhist sacred texts is large: besides the Pali scriptures - more than ten times longer than the Bible on their own - are the large number of other writings in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.
Fortunately, my choice is limited to the books I can borrow for free from the 'wine-box of wisdom' at Wind in Grass Sangha and from the library at the interfaith center at Stanford. (I could turn to academic libraries, but that would feel too much like work.) After skimming the titles once or twice I settled on the Dhammpada, in a slim Penguin volume translated and introduced by Juan Mascaró, the Mallorcan polymath who has the unusual distinction of having translated several works from one of his non-native languages into another. The Dhammapada seemed to fit the bill: it looked venerable, authoritative, and old - and when it comes to figuring out traditions, the very beginning is often a very good place to start. It also looked short, and at this stage of my pratice and my career I have no interest in wading through endless sutras, nikayas, pitakas, or any other sorts of basket.
The most striking - though hardly surprising - feature of the Dhammapada for someone engaged in modern lay practice is that its focus is rather starkly on monks and hermits, full-time mendicant holy-men, and not at all on working people who meditate in their spare time. It may even seem as times as if monks alone are capable of achieving nibbana (the Pali version of nirvana): 'Few cross the river of time and are able to reach nirvana: most of them run up and down only on this side of the river'. Connected to this foregrounding of professional meditators is an acceptance that the path of spiritual development is difficult and that it has many discrete steps. There is nothing here of the Zen insistence that the practitioner is already perfect, already a Buddha. And this, of course, is one of the main differences between the orthodox Theravada philosophy of the Dhammapada and the reformist Mahayana perspectives of most of the people I sit with in San Francisco.
But to stop here would be to give this ancient work short shrift. Its chief merit is the lucid simplicity of its verses. Some would no doubt complain that it sometimes verges on simple-mindedness, but it more often transcends doctrinaire Buddhism in apothegms that would seem equally true in any tradition. Mascaró in his introduction juxtaposes its verses with choice passages from the Spanish mystics, especially Teresa of Avila and Juan de la Cruz. Such games of syncretism - like that played by Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy - are easy and pleasant enough to play, though it must cross our minds that in such vast and complex traditions, one can find what one likes, and therefore write whatever narrative one likes too. Nonetheless, there is such a thing as truth that never dies. 'Hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal.'