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 café 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.


  1. It seems to me that if need painkillers to do something then maybe you shouldn't be doing it.

    1. That may be, but then, I need painkillers for most things! Still, you're right that most people should be aware that sitting in half-lotus isn't essential to meditating. I've written a post on these issues below called 'Half-lotus land'.