Saturday, May 26, 2012

Coming back to earth

This morning I went back to the Tibetan Tse Chen Ling Center on Webster for their morning meditation.  Like the first time I went, I was the only punter, and, like the second, I was led through a bizarre series of visualizations involving deities (or half-deities, who knows) that I'd never made the acquaintance of before.  This time rather than Green Tara it was the turn of White Vajrasattva to take a spin above my head, to be blended with the image of my teacher David, and finally to be melded into the rather tired Satruday morning consciousness of Yours Truly.  Vajrasattva is associated with purification, so the meditation also involved calling to mind any little mistakes I'd made in the past few days, visualizing them as inky spots in my body, and then imagining them being eradicated as my torso filled up with white light.  Later on, I was asked to think of my frailties as puss or faeces that was being flushed out of what the instructor euphemistically referred to as my 'lower orifice'.  Later still, they were insects being driven from my mind out of my mouth and nose.  I thought, 'Yuck'.

At the same time, I could see how these visualizations could be understood as a more vivid form of some of the mental exercises I'd been led through by Jason Newland in his free chronic pain MP3s.  Many of them ask you to visualize your body as free of pain and whole, and this did in my case seem to have an effect on my suffering - hardly surprising, if the recent trend of research that sees pain as part of the brain's image of the rest of the body is on the right track.  Nonetheless I was a bit put off by the repellant nature of some of the Tibetan imagery.  I went to do my laundry, sat in CafĂ© International, and picked up one of the array of hippy dippy Bay Area magazines they have on offer there.  It was called Common Ground, and contained a piece on the commune in Marin once inhabited by Alan Watts, plenty of ads by charlatans claiming they could heal you with their 'intuitional insight' (which apparently is hereditary), and an interview with a former NASA astronaut who had an epiphany on his trip back from the moon and has since had his eyes opened to the truth about UFOs.

If there's one quality I admire in others and want to cultivate in myself these days, it might just be open-mindedness.  Still, I have other values (like a commitment to some minimal sort of analytical rigour), and the juxtaposition of ads for blatant fraudsters with notices about Buddhist retreats made me frightened - as happens every now and then - that what I was getting into by taking refuge is just another wacky superstition.  It made my ask myself again why I've chosen to take the precepts, as I'll be doing in a ceremony in July in a sort of Buddhist confirmation ceremony.  In the past, I've explored this question from the angle of what events or experiences led me to take that decision, a narrative approach that has much to recommend it in religious matters.  But there is also a more intellectual side to the story, or at least a rational one: I took the decisions for certain reasons, and it's these reasons that I return to when I'm feeling the pangs of doubt.  Which, naturally enough, I often do.

My attachment to Buddhism (if that's not too uncomfortable a phrase) stems mainly from my love of meditation, but of course meditation is something you can do in a secular tradition without taking any ethical precepts.  The reason I began to want to take up the ethical precepts was partly due to the intuition that meditation - developing knowledge of my own mental processes - was better if I avoided being a dick, and that not being a dick was easier when I made sure to meditate.  On a basic level this is simply a matter of being more contented, calmer and more patient after sitting.  And it also has to do, I think, with developing the ability to step away from the places your own thoughts or feelings are pushing you.  But there is a level at which the connection between meditation and ethics is even simpler than that, since both consist partly in returning to things we already know or sense are true.  This is why the precepts often seem pointless to people - everyone knows that stealing or killing is bad; who needs a bunch of vows to tell them that?

I spend a lot of time around academic philosophers, and they'd be eager to point out at this juncture that ethics is a rather complicated affair.  What is lying?  Would you tell the truth to an assassin who came to your door asking where your housemate was?  And so on.  Of course, we can all admit that ethics is a complicated affair in such extreme cases, and that its basic contours are fuzzy around the edges.  But doing good is an endeavour separate from academic philosophy; it's healthy to bear this in mind if you want to avoid being disappointed with either pursuit.  And nine times out of ten we know more or less what to do; maybe we don't do it at the time because we're angry or lustful, but most people looking on at the time, as well as we ourselves with hindsight, agree more or less about what was right.  That's why most people find it hard to disagree with any of the Ten Boddhisattva Precepts just as they have a hard time knocking many of the Ten Commandments.  Neither provide all the answers in all cases (especially the philosophical thought-experiments), but they remind us of something.

And what they remind us of is that we know, more or less, where to go in order to avoid being a massive prick.  They don't flesh out the content of what it is not to steal, or what it is not to lie, or what it is not to abuse sex, but they do remind us that speech and taking and shagging are areas of life that we might find it useful to be careful about.  This lack of content has actually been a boon to such basic ethical systems, since it has allowed them to remain true in the face of cultural change.  My friends in San Francisco take a rather different view about what constitutes sexual immorality than the average medieval Tibetan lama (I assume), and yet it remains true even in San Francisco that cheating on your partner with their sister (say) is probably not the right thing to do.  So the taking of precepts functions like many of the other aspects or religious practice: it reminds us of what we already know, of ourselves.  When I sit and meditate every day it's partly just to remember what I knew when I was lying in my back yard as a child, watching the clouds wander across the sky. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Black widows

Mind training in seven stages, stone scorpions moving up the river, green female superheroes hovering above my head: these are the main things I think of when it comes to the Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies on Webster Street at Oak in the Lower Haight.  After a few months of going to the SF Zen Center every Saturday I decided it was time to check out something in the Tibetan tradition, and I'd come across this place online.  It's just up the street from me, but it's hard to tell that it's a Buddhist center from outside.  What you see is just a largish San Francisco house, although once or twice I've stumbled across red-robed lamas when I've set off for runs in Golden Gate Park.  Once you climb up the long stone staircase, you know you're entering a place of peace: there are potted plants and flowers all the way up, and a stone statue of the Buddha at the top.  It's like the memorial staircase leading up to chapel at my boarding school: before evensong there were candles on either side.  You had to keep silence, and if you didn't your friends would punch you on the arm.

The first time I went in I'd decided to show up for their Saturday morning, 9am meditation session, which is supposed to be welcoming to newcomers and seems to serve the same purpose as the 'Introduction to Zazen' period at SFZC.  There was a determinedly kindly man with hippy jewelry and a pony tail who let me in.  To the left there was a bookstore full of yellow and orange volumes about tantra by lamas called Rinpoche; there were also some large metal containers with tea and coffee.  To the right of the entrance was the main part of the temple.  At the far end of the smallish room was the kind of ritual paraphernalia I'd last seen at the Tibetan place I'd once frequented in London.  There were seven glasses of water on the altar.  There were statuettes of lamas with saffroned hats that made them look like they were portaging with bright yellow canoes.  There were framed potraits of real lamas grinning piously and looking nice.  On the walls were tapestries full of strange deities of various colours and shapes and sizes.

That first morning I happened to be the only person to show up for meditation, along with the man who was leading the session, a gentle middle-aged guy with glasses.  We sat in silence for half an hour, and then for the next half-hour he read me the scripture the center had been working with for a few months, the Seven-Point Mind Training.  The text as we have it was composed in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa, but the tradition was inaugurated by Atisa some three hundred years earlier.  The Seven-Point Mind Training is not so much mind training and a set of ethical principles and pieces of advice on meditation practice; also, it has 59 points, though these are grouped into seven sections.  These include genuinely helpful reminders ('Don't expect gratitude'), sensible but rather obvious reccommendations ('Don't eat poisonous food'), haunting but hard-to-interpret aphorisms ('Don't make gods into demons'), and bizarre proverbs ('Don't transfer an ox's load to a cow').  My favourite was 'Don't make sarcastic remarks'.  Yeah, that's really going to work.

The following week I went on Sunday morning for the 10am dharma talk by the resident lama, Ngawang Dakpa.  This time the room was full of extremely earnest Western students, most of the sitting cross-legged on cushions, wearing beads on their wrists, and taking notes in notebooks.  Dakpa sat cross-legged on a raised platform at the front and began the session by chanting a series of Tibetan sutras in a guttural voice at an unfollowable pace.  The Western students did their best to keep up, mumbling the weird syllables printed in their liturgical handbooks.  The actual sermon was also in Tibetan, and was translated into English sentence by sentence by a thin white-haired Englishman sitting nearby (with occasional input from a very young Tibetan monk who seemed to have a better grasp of English than his elderly teacher).  In my limited experience of Tibetan Buddhism it has always struck me that native Tibetans still seem to have a monopoly on teaching; I haven't come across senior American teachers in this school to compare with the convert masters at SFZC or PZI.

Partly because of this, I've always found that the cultural distance between the Tibetan teacher and the Western followers is often very great, even if the Western students have spent some time in Tibet.  To the newcomer, the experience of trying to piece together what a lama is saying from a simultaneous translation is often nothing short of bewildering.  Dakpa gave level-headed advice based on the Seven-Point Mind Training, but also enlivened his points with anecdotes from his youth (for example, the story of a monk who gave away all his possessions, only to have a change of heart soon afterwards and go around asking for them all back).  At one point there was a story about a monk with evil thoughts who encountered a scorption underneath a stone.  Here the translator looked puzzled, and the younger monk intervened.  It was actually not a live scorpion, but a stone one.  Everyone looked very relieved that the matter had been cleared up, so Dakpa went on to tell us how the stone scorpion travelled every year a few meters up the river, towards the stupa with the miniature stupa inside it.

Confused?  I was.  I was also surprised that there had been no formal meditation as part of the morning's service.  So I went back two weeks later to the Saturday morning meditation.  This time it was led by a different person, a younger man called Scott wearing an T-shirt advertising Iceland.  He led us in the kind of visualisation exercise that I tend to think of as typical of Tibetan practices and that I'd come to the center partly to explore.  After the usual calming preliminaries (easing tension in the body, watching the breath), Scott invited us to visualize green Tara, a deity that was pictured on one of the tapestries hanging on the wall.  She was a princess, sitting cross-legged; she had silver bracelets on her wrists, a crown on her head, and a large blue flower in her hand.  On her face was an expression of serenity and compassion.  Her body was green but immaterial, and she was floating right above our heads like a green light.  We were invited to identify our mind with hers, and both of these minds with the minds of our personal teachers.

This was probably the most complex (and, frankly, trippy) meditation practice I'd experienced, so it's not surprising that I found it strange and difficult.  I noticed a resistance within me to meditating on my teacher as if he were an object of religious devotion; I felt a resistance to visualizing a deity (although Scott said it was fine to see her as an archetype rather than an actually existing spirit).  Above all, there was something that was just a bit Star Trek about a beautiful green woman.  Beautiful?  Well, I have to admit that when I was asked to visualize a woman, my mind immediately started visualizing a sexy woman.  Since I'd just seen a trailer for the new Avengers movie, green Tara in her regal attire started out looking uncannily like Scarlett Johansson in a one-piece leather outfit.  Then when we were reminded that G.T. symbolized active social virtues, she began to look a bit like my girlfriend, who does a lot of volunteering.  Then we were supposed to integrate our personal teachers, so that green Tara - an alien avenger version of my girlfriend - started to take on some of the features of my teacher David, who is a man in his fifties with a white goatee.

All of this was very confusing, so I asked about it at the end of the session, half wondering if the instructor would be shocked by the places my mind had gone and cast me out on my green-woman-fancying ear.  In fact he said that this was a very common reaction, and not at all to be discouraged, as long as the practioner was able to use the momentum of his natural desire for a greater enthusiasm for the practice.  He said that human desire is actually welcomed in the Tantric traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and that the Gelugpa school he was a part of sought to unite the Tantra and Sutra traditions.  The danger was that students would misinterpret the advice and let themselves go, so that meditation turned into sexual fantasy, and an esoteric practice of liberation into a familiar habit of dependency.  In this way, he said, Tantra was like walking a razor's edge between not using the energies you have natrually arising within you, and being wholly directed by those tendencies.  I wasn't too worried: David did recently tell me that when he visualized Guanyin the image that most came to mind was Alfred E. Neuman, so I took my experience in that spirit.

When I came out of the center and walked down the steps I noticed that the guy with the pony tail seemed to be holding a garage-sale.  I asked him about it, and he told me that they were getting rid of all the stuff they didn't need for their impending move.  Move?  It turns out that the Tse Chen Ling Center will only be at its current location only for a couple more months.  Where are they moving to?  They're not sure, but they are looking for a smaller place, in the city, with good links to public transportation.  It sounds like they have the resources to move, but haven't yet been able to confirm a new location.  They'll need quite the moving van for all their ritual objects.  In the meantime, they're there every weekend.  Go up the stairs past the flowers and pass the stone Buddha, who may or may not be a scorpion mounting an aggressive (yet very slow) takeover against a stupa inside a stupa.  Inside there are tapestries of kick-ass green superheroines, who will dance right above your head if you will only sit still and be quiet.  Because, you see, though it might look like there are 59 stages to Mind Training, there are really only seven, and they are all right here.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Attent chan

I've been spending more time on Stanford campus again recently, and the other night had the opportunity of attending a talk hosted by the Ho Center for Buddhist Studies, in their Distinguished Practitioner Series.  The speaker was Simon Child, a medical doctor and Buddhist teacher from England, and the title of his talk was 'Chinese Zen comes West'.  Yes, 'Chinese Zen', because although Chan is the proper term for Zen's Chinese precursor, Child decided to use a number of Japanese terms in his talks, since it is Japanese Buddhism that has so far been more influential in the West and whose terms are therefore more familiar to a Western audience.  Child is softly spoken, in his fifties, and has a gray beard, large glasses, and a passing resemblance to Oliver Sacks.  Before giving the talk he led the audience in an optional half-hour session of meditation, during which he kneeled in seiza position with a bright yellow throw over his legs.

Child studied in England with John Crook, an academic ethologist who - I learn from Wikipedia - went to the same secondary school as the writer of this blog.  Crook was in turn the student and protegĂ© of Sheng Yen, a Chinese master who was born in Shanghai but emigrated to Taiwan after the revolution.  Sheng Yen was a teacher in both the main schools of Chan, Linji and Caodong (or, in Japanese, Rinzai and Soto), and thus held lineages founded by Linji (810-866) and Dongshan (807-869) respectively.  (Both of these strands trace their lineages back to Huineng, 638-713, the Sixth Patriarch, who is supposedly linked by a single line of descent to the First Patriarch Bodhidharma, who is 28 generations removed from Mahakashyapa, the only one of the Buddha's disciples who knew what he was up to when the Buddha's sermon one day consisted entirely of him holding up a single flower.)  That, then, is how Buddhism got from Siddhartha Gautama to Simon Child, more or less.

Since Child's lineage has two separate strands, his practice also used two approaches, both of which I was somewhat familiar with from the Soto practice at SFZC and the more Rinzai style of PZI.  Child's opening meditation encouraged us to become aware of various parts of our bodies in turn, before inviting us to integrate the discrete impressions of the separate parts of our bodies into a single sensation of presence.  This is the method of silent illumination or mozhao, associated with the Song master Hongzhi Zhenje (1091-1157).  When he talked about his group's Western Zen retreats, however, Child described a practice focused on koans, or, in Chinese, gongans, and especially on the 'head' of the gongan, a particularly crucial phrase or question that the student is invited to repeat to himself over and over again.  This is the huatou practice advocated by Dahui Zong Gao (1089-1163).

The main subject of Child's talk was the coming of Chan to the West, some differences between Western and Eastern practitioners, and how to adapt Chan to a Western context while remaining true to the traditions of the practice.  Child said that in his experience of doing retreats in Taiwan, the UK, and the US, Westerners tended to be more questioning of the practice, while Chinese Buddhists were more ready to follow instructions without challenging the teacher to justify them.  He described the new style of Western Zen retreats that he and his colleagues in the Western Chan Fellowship have been doing for two or three decades now, telling us how they combined traditional silent meditation with periods of spoken practice in pairs that are closer to Western psychoanalysis.  According to Child, we should not be too wary of integrating therapy into Buddhism; after all, one of the Buddha's titles was the great physician.

I was very happy to hear what Child had to say about Chan in the West, since many of the issues he was discussing have been knocking around in my own head for quite some time.  Child was very careful to avoid stereotyping Chinese and Western Buddhists while all the same making some generalized comments about his experience of practitioners of different backgrounds.  But while Child seemd content to say that Westerners are skeptical and questioning of both teachers and methods because of their upbringing and leave it at that, I would prefer to go further.  Asking questions, insisting on evidence, and auditing holders of authority do not simply reflect Western values; they are a way of going about things that reflect universal concerns not to be misled, fooled, or abused by others.  In short, I am not sure whether seeking to unite Eastern mysticism and Western politics doesn't miss the point: what we should be seeking to synthesize are instead two systems with universal appeal, both centered around similar conceptions of human dignity.