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.