Saturday, July 28, 2012

Breaking an entering

Once when I was at secondary school I turned up to rugby practice wearing a green shirt.  This wasn't usually unusual, but it turned out to be unusual that day - when I looked around, I could see that every other player on my team was wearing a blue jersey instead.  The master gathered us round and told a parable: 'Once there was an Italian soldier', he told us, 'who said, "It is not I who is marching out of step - it is all the others!"'  Since the word had apparently fallen on stony ground, he pointed at me.  'In just the same way, our young Canadian might say today, "It is not I who is wearing the wrong shirt, but all of you!"'  The boys, suitably instructed, suddenly decided to find this very amusing indeed.  Strange, because that argument had always seemed to me to be a very promising line of defense.

This episode came back to me last week when I took refuge - Buddhist confirmation - at a ceremony at Wind in Grass in San Francisco, because when I arrived at the ceremony, I had no idea what it would involve.  (Afterwards an older friend asked, 'Haven't you ever been to a refuge ceremony before?'  Um, no.  This is the sort of thing people only ask you in California.)  At some point in the ceremony Chris Wilson said that our community was founded on the idea of not knowing.  You can say that again.  Of course, I'd been discussing individual vows with my teacher David Weinstein over the phone, once a fortnight, for the last few months in preparation for the ceremony.  But I didn't realize that we would be expected to give personal responses to every precept as they came up.

The girls had their notebooks ready - I could see their scrawled, cryptic responses on every page.  They looked deep.  Sara said, 'You're some kind of improv artist, aren't you?'  There were lots of people there, many more than the usual five to ten quiet souls who tend to turn up to our weekly meditations.  There were people I'd seen on Pacific Zen Institute retreats, including some who'd led exercises or done talks, and who doubtless knew an ill-prepared regugee when they saw one.  There were people I'd never seen before, parental types and cool kids and beautiful women, all clambering through the door to get a look at us.  It was the most people I'd ever seen in that space, with the possible exception of the workshop on the body, which had involved up to thirty adults moving around the room pretending to be blind.

It was also the most ceremonial occasion I'd ever seen at Wind in Grass.  There was even an order of service, which I flipped through desperately as soon as I got my hands on to try to get a glimpse of what was to come.  On the cover of it was printed 'Entering the Way' and a picture of a dog leaping off a dock into a lake, tail up, tongue out, eyes bulging in blissful brainlessness.  The 25-minute meditation period had been burning with worry round the edges and had now collapsed into clumps of ash.  David was sitting at the front with everyone else in a huge ellipse around the edges of the room and speaking about how he'd decided to change all the words used in the traditional English-language refuge service because they'd rubbed him up the wrong way.  We'd all agreed that 'Entering the Way' was better than 'Taking the Vows' beforehand.

On the night it emerged that he'd gone further along the same lines as that early change, replacing 'vows' with 'intentions' and 'I vow to (+ infinitive)' with 'I take up the way of (+ gerund)'.  He'd also got rid of all references to 'the Buddha'.  I'm usually up for a bit of iconoclasm, and I am all for updating translations every now and then, but I must say this last change came as something of a surprise.  When David said, in explanation, 'I don't need the Buddha', I got a chill down my spine; I don't like it when American Buddhist leaders say things like that, if only because the Buddha is usually the only person they have to answer to on anything.  But of course David was right in principle: I remembered my favourite story about the monk who threw a statue of the Buddha of the fire because he was cold (the monk, not the Buddha).  When reprimanded, he pointed out that he'd only put wood on a fire.

David was saying, 'When he got up from under the tree, people asked him "What happened to you?" and he said, "I'm awake" - "I'm Buddha", and unfortunately the name stuck, and now we have this whole religion'.  I saw Chris adjust his position slightly on his chair.  But with the preliminaries over, it was now time for some chanting, which Michael fulfilled with his usual aplomb.  Next up, the vows, sorry, intentions.  The format was announced: Michael would ring the bell, everyone would chant one of the vintentions, and then we would give our individual responses to them.  Of course the first response to the first intention ('I return to [not 'take refuge in'] awakening') went to me.  I said what I thought I thought: meditation was about waking up from what you thought was important in your thoughts to what you thought was a distraction in the world around you.  Alles klar?

David said, 'What about awakening?' and I said that meditation was a model for the rest of life: waking up from your obsessions into the unfamiliarity of everyday happenings.  I hadn't realized this was going to be an interrogation.  But then he moved on.  Sara and Marika were reading out exquisite postmodern verses, terse, spare, moving.  Jean-Paul had turned up late but was now throwing up little flags of verbal weirdness in response to every challenge - whether in surrender or celebration, it was hard to tell.  Something in me learnt the rules of the new game, and anyway the intentions were coming quick and fast, so I turned into Wittgenstein too.  'I take up the way of not killing' became 'Loving my brother, who's a trained killer'.  I'd remembered talking to David about I couldn't really be a pacifist with my family (and beliefs), and somehow this had been transmuted into silver in the intervening downtime.

The quickfire format drove me to a few other responses that felt authentic.  Asked to enter the way of not being stingy, I said, 'This one is impossible for me' (which may not count as entering the way, but was certainly not breaking the precept against lying).  When it came to lying, I said 'This one for me is still about trying not to lie', since I'd found the interpretation I'd been offered - not lying to yourself, etc. - wishy-washy and evasive.  But some of my own answers sounded just as wrong as they escaped  from what Homeric heroes went around calling 'the fence of my teeth'.  My answers to the precept against intoxication and against abuse of sex both sounded the same - I took the intention in both instances not to indulge in drugs or sex for any but two reasons: getting high and pure lust.  In both cases, there was a pure thought behind it, but when it came out I wondered whether I'd betrayed myself.

'Betraying yourself' is ambiguous, obviously, implying that you've shown something true as well as cheating on someone inside you.  My discussion with David had turned on the idea that both drink and sex were not bad things, as long as they weren't used solely to fill a void, supply a crutch, prop up a dependancy.  I remember reading a piece by Chesterton ages ago to the effect that the only real reason to drink is not for medicinal purposes but because it's fun - which was also, he believed, the only real way to reap its health benefits.  One of my concerns about getting into American Buddhism had always been that people here want to make things easy for themselves, twisting the precepts to say what they can live with, not what they've always meant.  But more than that I've feared that the confirmation ceremony would turn me into a joyless prig, readier to carp than cartwheel.

So if the ceremony preserved and showcased that ambivalence, my wholehearted dedication to both living well and letting live, perhaps that's not such a bad thing.  In any case, that part of the game-show was finally over.  Chris Wilson had been asked to provide a welcome to the community, and he hit the nail on the head.  There was an elephant in the middle of the room and he pointed at it.  'Many of you who've come to see your friend or loved-one take refuge tonight might be concerned about this being a cult' - the elephant looked down at the floor - 'but really, there are no gates to this community.  No gates to stop you coming in, and no gates to shut behind anyone once they're inside'.  Chris was probably one of the only people there who would say without hesitation 'I'm a Buddhist', and he'd taken the whole ceremony on the chin.  He'd also, in his sixties and with a history of heart trouble, surreptitiously entered the hall the day before and single-handedly swept and sanded the entire floor. 

Talk about showing the way.  When the ceremony was over, this being Wind in Grass, there was a party.  There was wine but I went for the organic lemonade - I'm not going to be living in San Francisco forever.  I was feeling a bit strange about the ceremony but Adam looked at me and said, 'Dude, you look radiant - I've never seen you looking this happy', so I must have been smiling.  Interesting, because usually I think I'm smiling and people come up to me and tell me I'm looking glum.  After half an hour or so I had to catch the train down to Palo Alto, where I'm living for the summer.  I read my Greek history book and thought about the last phase of the ceremony, when David had given me the name 'Curious Owl', not knowing that I am a scholarly devotee of Athena the grey-eyed.

He'd told Sara and Marika that it was traditional not to wear the rakasus (ceremonial bibs) he was giving them in the bathroom, but 'I think that's wrong, because if it's not in the shit and the piss, where is it?'  I closed myself in the jogging metal bathroom of the Caltrain and looked at the poem David had written for me,  'Looking long and hard/ Through the dark/ Never looking away/ But, who?'  I looked at the certificate he had written it on, wondering whether I would file it away quietly among my diplomas, take it to my parents for framing, or set it on fire some day in a field among riotous drunkenness, like my exam notes after finishing my GCSEs.  I looked down into the toilet and smelled the urine of a thousand techies swishing darkly below.  I looked long and hard and didn't look away.  I didn't need to ask who or why.  It was a perfect moment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Pain killers

A small friendly man with glasses slipped two white pills into my hands.  I closed them over the pills and bowed to him.  This was Day 2 of my second sesshin - meditation intensive - at the San Francisco Zen Center, and the small friendly man in glasses was Roger, who'd been my work-partner earlier in the day when we'd been assigned to sweeping the steps outside the temple.  He'd said that he'd noticed I was struggling in the meditation hall, and indeed I was.  I'd been sitting cross-legged left foot over right, then right foot over left, then kneeling with a cushion, then kneeling with a bench.  I'd had pain in my legs and lower back as well as in my head and neck, which is where I usually have it.  As we were sweeping the few leaves that had blown up the entrance steps onto Page Street, Roger offered to get me some Ibuprofen from his room upstairs.  'It really helps', he beamed.

And indeed it did.  That was the first sesshin I've made it through from beginning to end, probably because it was unusually only three days long.  I'd stayed up at retreats for longer periods - five days in the case of one Pacific Zen Center sesshin - but I'd always missed either the opening or the closing ceremony.  In the closing ceremony of this Spring sesshin, we all sat kneeling in rows with the two teachers - Wendy Lewis and Rosalie Curtis - sitting on chairs in front of us.  We passed trays with nuts and dried fruit on them to each other along the row, bowing every now and then to say thanks.  The people I'd just spent three days in silence with began to open up, producing accents I'd never expected to have to match with those particular faces.  The Senior Dharma Teacher said, 'There's always a first sesshin, and only one'.  I nervously offered my several failed attempts as counter-examples and said I was feeling pretty proud of myself just for still being there.

The last time I'd spent three days at SFZC had been during a seven-day intensive.  I'd signed up for five days and made it through three, dropping out because the pain in my legs and back had started to keep me awake at night.  This time everything felt less strange and less painful.  The constant bowing I took in my stride, which bothered me in some way because I hadn't changed my intellectual objection to it; only my attitude had somehow shifted nonetheless.   I genuinely enjoyed the ritualized oryoki eating, and this time not only the part when people in robes run down the meditation hall sliding a wet cloth along the wooden beams which separate the meditation mats from the floor.  I was even able to see the fun in the 'random reading' of the Diamond Sutra: everyone was handed a translation and asked to read from whatever point of the text they wanted.  Holy hubbub ensued.  And I made it through the three days with pain, but without feeling that the pain was taking over me.

Why did I go back after the first retreat, when I'd decided that SFZC's stern style didn't appeal to me?  I was about to move out of my room in the Lower Haight after nine months there, and I sensed I'd never again live within a stone's throw from a Buddhist temple.  I wasn't feeling rich (not that I ever am), and I knew that I'd be able to cut costs by sleeping at my place and making the five-minute walk to the temple for the early-morning starts.  And I'd been reassured by Victoria Austin's comments about SFZC's commitment to oversight and transparency during my interview with her.  This time around, the atmosphere was pretty much the same, and all the things I took a dislike to - the excessive and pervasive formality, the arid dogmatism, the grim-facedness of it all - were, unsurprisingly, still there.  Rosalie Curtis used her dharma talk partly to insist that things which beginners found rebarbative they would eventually uncritically accept.  I agree, but is that really a good thing?

Wendy Lewis' talk was better.  It was at least clear, well-prepared, and gamely delivered.  She is also knowledgeable, with an MA in Religious Studies from SF State, and her sermon certainly had something of the academy about it.  (She described Buddhism at one point as 'a non-theistic soteriological tradition'.)  The sesshin was also kept ticking along with military precision by David Haye, who would make a fine army officer if he ever wanted to trade compassion in for shooting people.  I ended my second intensive at SFZC again feeling pretty sure that this particularly faithful rendering of Japanese Zen wasn't for me, but all the same recognizing that the temple is a unique place in the West and one that I've been lucky to be involved with.  I don't know if I'll be back.  As for Roger, he sold his highly successful cafĂ© on Potrero Hill and has moved in as a monk full-time; he's traded in lattes for Ibuprofen, and I wish him and his co-residents as pain-free an existence as there can be.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sylvan approaches

'As someone who was raised a Christian, became a Buddhist, and also practices classical Indian dance, I often find myself in turbulence on an airplane wondering who to pray to'.  The President of the Buddhist Community at Stanford was introducing one of our recent visiting speakers, Sylvia Boorstein.  Hannah'd been prompted to make the remark by an anecdote that occurs in one of Boorstein's books and which the speaker then retold for the audience after the introduction was finished.  Boorstein had been traveling along winding mountain roads to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.  She was in the front seat and could see all the way down the sheer cliffs on her side of the road.  At a certain point Jack Kornfield, who was traveling with her, reached forward and asked, 'Are you scared?'  Boorstein said, 'Yes'.  Kornfield asked, 'Are you praying?'  Boorstein again said, 'Yes'.  'To Buddhist gods or the Jewish one?' Kornfield pressed her.  'All of them', Boorstain replied.  Kornfield said, 'Good'.

Sylvia Boorstein packed the house.  The house was the sanctuary, a religious space on the top floor of one of the Stanford student-union buildings.  Usually we get two or three people in there at a time for meditation, and maybe twenty if a local speaker comes.  When Simon Child came from England there were thirty or so people in the audience.  For Sylvia Boorstein they came out in droves, presumably down from Marin where Boorstain teaches, at Kornfield's Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  They had the look of devotees on what Kornfield calls 'the upper middle path': older, white, earnest, wealthy.  Boorstein herself fit right in, a kindly grandmother who's just made tea and now is going to tell you a story.  And tell she did.  There was the one about the trip to Dharamsala.  There was the one about activism in the 60s.  And there was the one about the hairdresser in France who asked her why she was always wearing a bracelet on her wrist.  'That bracelet was blessed by the Dalai Lama!' was her answer.  'If I had a bracelet blessed by the Dalai Lama, I'd never take it off either!' was, apparently, the hairdresser's reply.

There were lots of stories about the Dalai Lama.  People like the Dalai Lama.  He's like Nelson Mandela or the Queen - he's old, seems harmless, and he smiles a hell of a lot.  Now, it's probably the case that his policy of peaceful negotiation with China has been better  - or, at least, less disastrous - for his people than violent resistance against the world's largest army would have proven.  There's no question that he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1989.  And I have no wish to rehearse in full the standard attacks from the left that have been compiled by journalists such as Johann Hari: that the Dalai Lama is an unelected theocrat, that he has conceded too much to China, that he believes that disabled children are sufering for the karma of past lives.  (It's worth pointing out here that Hari's interviews should be read with great care after allegations surfaced that he made much of them up.)  All the same, there are a few things American Buddhists, and Americans sympathetic to Buddhism, need to realize and remember about the Dalai Lama.

First, the Dalai Lama is not the leader of world Buddhism.  He's not even the leader of the most widespread sect of Buddhism, so that his position lacks the authority of, say, the Pope (a figure with whom he is often implicitly compared).  He is a senior monk in one tradition (Gelug) within Tibetan Buddhism, and also fulfils a conventional role as the spiritual and political leader of Tibetans more broadly.  Second, the Dalai Lama's type of Vajrayana Buddhism is an especially strange form of the religion, departing quite far from the orthodox Theravada path and even from the more florid offshoots of the Mahayana branches of Buddhism.  It subscribes to the clumsiest and least rational forms of the doctrine of reincarnation: when one Dalai Lama dies, followers look for another by dangling the former incumbent's possessions in front of Tibetan babies, hoping their eyes will light up in recognition.  Finally, the traditionalism of the Dalai Lama's practice leads him to take up positions that would shock most of his liberal fans in the West; he believes, for example, that anal sex is an aberration.

Some observers have also found him to be intellectually underwhelming.  And then there is his closeness to celebrities such as Richard Gere.  As with many public fugures, the list of complaints could go on and on.  As I was preparing to write this post, however, I was afforded a reminder of the core integrity of the man.  A correspondent sent me the news of the latest scandal in the perpetually scandalized world of American Buddhism.  Ian Thorson, a graduate of Stanford, was found dead beside his girlfriend in the Arizona desert, after the two had left a silent retreat in the wilderness.  The leader of the retreat (who'd studied at Princeton) was Michael Roach, who'd previously been married to Thorson's girlfriend.  Although he'd taken vows of celibacy and poverty as a monk, Roach had recommended Buddhism as 'a path to prosperity', and had recently taken to hitting the dance-floors of New York.  But when the guru traveled to Dharamsala with a group of students in 2006, the Dalai Lama refused to see him.  Not even Tenzin Gyatso knew exactly what gods Roach was praying to on those winding mountain roads, but it's a fair bet that one of them was Moloch.