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.