Friday, August 24, 2012

Green galaxy

About a year and a half ago I had to go to the hospital because there was sand lodged behind my eyeball.  I'd spent the day with my then girlfriend at Stinson Beach.  It's a lovely place, the perfect Californian seaside town.  Unfortunately the beach was rather windy the day we were there, and we spent a lot of it huddled under various shawls trying to keep the pebbly granules from assaulting the flesh on our faces. I lost that particular battle, and spent a few hours at San Francisco General getting my eyeballs bathed,  a process which is less pleasant than normal bath-time, and not because of the absence of a rubber ducky.  And I also lost that particular girlfriend a few months down the line.  Funny thing though - about a year after that I was in Mill Valley for a friend's wedding and set off for the nearest beach with my current girlfriend.  I'd forgotten the name of that beach-town, so you can imagine my bewildered sense of déjà-vu as we drove up a rather familiar winding road and then down to a windy beach.  I didn't get sand in my eye that day, but I did notice something I hadn't the first time - the sign to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, pointing down the green hill into a secluded valley.

I'd heard of Green Gulch before, of course - it's one of SF Zen Center's three sites, the other two being the City Center I've written about here before and Tassajara Mountain Monastery.  I'd looked into getting to Tassajara, but it's very remote, and also amazingly expensive to stay there as a guest (we're talking hundreds of dollars per night - in the range of four-star hotels).  So I called Green Gulch and asked if there was any availability in August.  They said I could stay for two days only - they were otherwise completely booked up.  There are two types of guests - guest retreatants and guest students, and we got ourselves in the wrong place a few times by mixing the two terms up.  Guest retreatants pay $60 a night, stay in very pleasant private rooms, and each day they meditate for two periods of 40 minutes and work for three hours.  Guest students pay $20 a night, stay in less pleasant shared rooms, and their daily schedule involves four periods of meditation and six hours of work.  Why pay if you're working?  (Or, why work if you're paying?)  I suppose there are overheads, and besides, I felt that $60 was a pretty good deal for the guest room that I got.  

Since I don't have a car, I put my name up on the rideshare part of the website, but perhaps unsurprisingly it seems to be common for people to ask for rides there and not so common for people to offer them.  I planned on getting public transport into the city and then making the three-hour hike across Golden Gate Bridge up to the retreat center, but the night before I was booked to arrive someone offered to give me a lift up.  She was a ballerina working in San Jose who'd trained in Winnipeg and been raised by Washington state hippies as a devotee of a Hindu guru called the Hugging Saint (got that?)  The other person in our carpool was a lady from New York State who was starting an MA in transpersonal psychology at Sofia University in Palo Alto (no, not Bulgaria).  These are the the type of people you meet when you go to meditation retreats in California, and very pleasant they were.  The ballerina wanted to get to Green Gulch for the public Sunday session, which features meditation and then a talk, and turned out to be almost exactly like a Saturday session at City Center, if slightly less well attended.

I can personally attest that the meditation hall at Green Gulch is the coldest place on the face of the earth.  I proved this by shivering through a 40-minute meditation session and a 45-minute dharma talk, shivering even though I'd just bought a 'Green Dragon Temple' hoodie for $50 from the office.  (I'd forgotten to bring a sweater in sunny Palo Alto, but it gets cold and foggy that close to the ocean.)  The speaker that day happened to be Linda Cutts, the current Abess of Green Gulch.  ('Abess' is a lovely word I learned in California for a female Abbott - one of the best things about American Zen is that the women get to practice and take up positions of authority on an equal basis with the men.  There was even a Japanese female monk at Green Gulch, and I wondered whether she'd had to come to the US to be able to take a full part in the spiritual tradition of her native land.)  Linda Cutts talked about turning 65 and thinking of things she now felt able to let go of, first on the list being boxes and boxes of old letters, some of them Mother's Day letters from her children.  

She also talked about how the first time she went to City Center and everyone started bowing to statues of the Buddha she'd felt a strong reaction as a Jew raised never to worship graven images.  She said she'd asked Reb Anderson about it and he'd replied, 'Oh don't worry about that - you're just bowing to your true self'.  A crap answer (why would you need to put a statue of the Buddha at the front of the room if you were bowing to your true self?) but apparently she'd accepted it.  And the liturgy at Green Gulch is very similar to that at City Center - lots and lots of bowing and lots and lots of chanting.  I heard while I was there that they actually bow 9 times every morning rather than the traditional 3 because their founder, Shunryu Suzuki, had thought it would be good for Westerners to 'get their heads down'.  Good or not, Zen Center types certainly get their heads down.  Whether they can get their heads around the Japanese syllables they chant every day is another question - but the chanting certainly has a hypnotic quality which is powerfully tranquilizing, and that can be calming or worrying, depending on your point of view.

After the morning program we walked around the compound, which is beautiful in a slow, quiet way, with simple wooden buildings connected by boardwalks and walkways snaking through foliage and darting between huge trees.  It's kind of like the secret camp they make in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' that looks like a city of tree-houses, except this time with more of a Japanese touch.  North of the meditation hall you walk down an avenue lined with flowers of every size and hue, followed by orchards, greenhouses with Buddhas seated cheekily among the potted plants, and finally the fields, scored with long rows of fat green stars pushing upwards.  Then there's a gate, and you're back into ordinary beautiful California: a farm with horses, the predictably windy beach, and then a long path winding along the ocean.  I walked to Pirate's Cove and back both days I was there, and it took about three hours.  At night I'd hit the saunas, which are of a weird modern variety without steam but with infra-red rays instead.  They're outside where the pool used to be, but it's been covered over with planks of wood to make a deck, who knows why.

Even with the three hour walk, the work, and the sauna (not to mention the meditation), I had a hell of a time getting to sleep the second night.  That happened the first time I went to a sesshin at City Center.  It's probably mainly to do with the jolt in your schedule you get from suddenly waking up at 4:30 rather than 8 every morning, but it doesn't feel like that.  It felt both times as if two things had happened: 1) all the time I'd spent trying to be 'awake' had led me to be permanently awake; and 2) I'd lost all control over myself.  On the first count, it was as if I was playing out some ghastly parody of the Buddhist ideal, always aware, constantly conscious.  Every time I went into a half-dream I'd step back, cooly analyze it ('Oh look, you're falling asleep') and then automatically pull myself back into awareness of things around me, which I bloody well didn't want to be aware of any more.  On the second count, after an hour or two of this I put some clothes on, stepped very briskly into the kitchen in the guest-house, and devoured an entire loaf of bread with the ruthless efficiency of pure want.  An elderly Japanese man who was staying in the guest house came in as I was scoffing the loaf and looked rather bemused. 

I actually liked the Green Gulch schedule more than the schedule at your typical sesshin, since there are only two hours of compulsory meditation each day, and that means that my legs hurt less.  It also, unfortunately, means that there's more time for work, but I must say (and, amazingly enough, I can say) that work at Green Gulch is actually rather pleasant.  Everything is highly ritualized.  Every room, including the kitchen, has a little shrine in it, and before every period of work the whole team assigned to a particular task gathers in front of it to bow a few times, offer incense, and learn the names of newcomers.  We even had a reading of about a page from Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind one morning.  I am generally an ambivalent bower, but the little ritual seemed to endow the entire process with mutual respect and a kind of holiness - we weren't just dicing potatoes, but chopping them for our co-workers, for the Buddha (who likes potaotes every now and then), and what's more doing it with Beginner's Mind (or I certainly was, since even simple cooking tasks are genuinely entirely new to me).  The man running the kitchen, Phil, was one of those religious people you like, with a smile constantly playing on his lips and around each eye.  He even asked us not to talk in a way that didn't make us want to punch him.

The other nice thing about going up to Green Gulch rather than going to a sesshin is that you can talk to people at meals.  The thing it seems natural to ask people as an opening gambit is always 'how long have you been here?' and there's a lot of variation in the response.  One girl, who'd dropped out of college in LA, had been there a year and a half, basically since Stinson Beach had made its assault on my retina.  Then there was a student who'd been there one day, like me.  She was finding college stressful, and had turned to meditation for that reason, which neatly recapped my experience.  There was also a classic old-style East Ender (of London, I mean) - he had the tattoos and the accent and the whole look.  Apparently he'd fallen into a job at a meditation center in the Westcountry run by, wouldn't you know it, John Crook and Simon Child, the Western Chan people, the latter of whom gave a talk at Stanford only a few months ago.  He told me how John Crook was one of those stiff-upper lipped Englishmen from the distant recent past and ran Zen retreats like a military training camp.  At retreats he'd get everyone up in the morning to do jumping-jacks in the rain.  I laughed a lot because I'd found out that John Crook had been at my school in England and I remember seeing a video of the place in the 1930s.  Every morning at break they'd make all the students do jumping-jacks.

Pretty soon my two days at Green Gulch had come to an end.  On balance I think I like it slightly more than City Center, and I may well go back as a $20 a night Guest student.  Two hours of meditation a day is plenty, and getting some farm-work in between sits would certainly help me physically.  Their style of Zen is as rigidly formal there as it is at City Center, but I'm slowly realizing that they don't kill you when you're slightly out of step.  I know because I lived through a Zen disaster.  After we went to the beach the first day I went to the meditation hall for the evening sit and service.  I bowed to the Ino, I put my left foot first, I bowed to the Buddha or whoever that statue is, I put my hands together and in front of me like I had a stomach-ache.  I bowed to the room and to the wall, and swung myself clockwise (clockwise!) to face the wall.  As I pulled one of my legs into half-lotus, a thin but persistent stream of sand flowed down out of my turned-up trouser-leg.  I'd carted it all the way there in the fold of my khakis - the beach had gotten me again.  There was a long swirl of sand on my black mat like a galaxy.  When the bell went I got up like any other po-faced Zen student and briskly swept my mat with a stern hand.  


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Translating quiet

I don't know what's going on in China.  I've never been there, in fact.  Which is why when a member of the Buddhist Community at Stanford sent an email around inviting us to a dialogue with members of Beijing's Longquan monastery, I thought it was very convenient.  I haven't always been a big fan of Buddhist events involving foreign monks, largely because their English is often very bad - no fault of their own (my Chinese isn't too hot either), but still hardly conducive to passive understanding, let alone dialogue.  But I've been warming to this kind of event since writing this blog.  It makes me feel very worldly and journalistic to go to talks by teachers from Japan, Tibet, even England - and I don't even have to do any traveling.  They all come to the Bay Area, or we drag them here, because San Franciscans' hankering for gurus is on a par with Londoners' thirst for tea.

The other thing that's always put me off about monks is that they're always late for shit.  Or at least, they're late for meetings with me.  Once in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos in Spain - the monks there are the Metallica of Gregorian chant - a Benedictine fellow made my friend and me wait two hours to speak with him, and all we wanted to do was ask dumb questions about Catholicism for our school project.  Then there was that guy from the Dhammakaya Foundation who was studying towards a PhD at Stanford who used to hold regular meetings - and was late every time.  This time the monk and his crew were about an hour late.  Poor Rebecca from BCAS who organized the visit kept popping in, red-faced, to apologize and inform us that the delegation was on its way.  At first they were in Berkeley.  Then they made it to Palo Alto.  At a certain point they'd found their way onto campus but had promptly gotten lost.

Being Buddhists, we hunkered down and made a show of being good at waiting.  In fact we sat on the floor in a circle and meditated.  After the first session everyone introduced themselves, and I was amazed to find myself face to face for the first time with members of the Stanford Zen group: I knew them immediately because they looked very serious and calm and introduced themselves as members of the Stanford Zen group.  It felt strange to meet them, because we'd passed each other like ships in the night.  When I'd first heard about them I was above Zen, and just wanted to meditate with the 'normal' Buddhists.  Then I got into Zen through my Wednesday sitting group in San Francisco, and wasn't interested in attending evening events on campus.  And it seems like I'll never have a chance to sit with the Stanford Zen people, since I'm a regular at Wind in Grass the same night of the week as they meet...

They seemed very nice and to know exactly what they were doing, despite there being no certified teacher around.  But there were other people there who I knew from BCAS, like Forrest, the Chinese Master's student in something sciency, who occasionally came to afternoon meditation when I was there.  It turned out that he was actually from Beijing, or had studied there, and had even been to Longquan monastery once or twice.  He started telling us about how the monastery had been effectively left to rot at some point in the 1960s, but had seen a huge revival in recent years, not only providing a home for monks, but also welcoming thousands of lay Buddhists through its doors.  There were quite a few Chinese and Chinese-Americans there, some of whom I'd seen at Buddhist events before.  A few people were talking in Mandarin.

When the delegation turned up it was similar in its general modus operandi to the similar monk + hangers-on teams I'd seen with the Thai Buddhist community.  There was a thin young monk at the center of everything bowing in all directions; he never seemed to have enough spare cloth around him to conceal all the objects he needed, which meant that people constantly had to hand him things and later take them back.  This was the Venerable Wuguang, the first Chan Master I'd seen in the flesh (unless you count Simon Child, who for some reason I'm not counting because he's Western).  Besides the brown and grey robes rather than the bright orange ones I'd seen in Thailand, not much differentiated him from the Theravada monks I'd met in the past, except maybe a bit more focused calm and a bit less ebullient smiliness.  He sat down in the center of the circle.

Immediately everyone scattered from the area like frightened pigeons, but he repeatedly encouraged us to sit beside him, so I took one for the team and did.  He seemed friendly enough.  The session consisted mainly of us asking him questions in English, which a translator would then relate to him.  He'd answer in Chinese, at which point that would be re-translated back to us.  I seem to remember that most of the questions were about the place of Chan in modern-day China, the day-to-day workings of the monastery, and the interface between monks and lay practitioners.  I got the sense that things were much stricter there than at even, say, the San Francisco Zen Center: the Chinese lay people seemed to live like the monks in SF, while the Chinese monks seemed to keep all the old vows of absolute celibacy and almost constant silence to the letter.  I of course asked a question about accountability, and got a well-meaning but slightly bewildered response.

Some of our side were asking their question in Chinese as well as English, and eventually the session flipped to them asking us about ourselves.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and said a bit about why we liked meditation or Buddhism or had come to this event.  All this was related to Wuguang, who smiled very approvingly at everyone after they'd said their bit.  I wonder how it sounded to him to say that I'd taken up meditation because it helped with headaches, but he seemed to think it as good a reason as any.  At the end of the day they started handing out gifts to everyone, mainly DVDs of prayers and chants.  We were also warmly urged to check out their website, where they translate Buddhist texts into other modern languages, and also visit them in Beijing.  Maybe one day I'll make it, so that I can finally say that I know the price of tea in China.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Over the bridge

Here I am again, not writing a blog post.  To be more specific: 'Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands;/ I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding;/ When I pass over the bridge,/ Look, the water isn't flowing - but the bridge sure does'.  I stole that from the fifth-century Zen poet Fudaishi, and it doesn't make much sense.  I stole the poem from D.T. Suzuki's book, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, which I decided to read the week I did a three-day retreat at San Francisco Zen Center. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki is not to be confused with SFZC's revered founder Shunryu Suzuki; though this in fact often happened, and the priest is said to have invariably responded to being confused with the scholar by saying, 'He is the big Suzuki.  I am the little Suzuki'.  Top of my list for things to read that week had been the little Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, but there wasn't a copy of it in the library, so I went with the big Suzuki's introduction instead.  It turned out to be exactly as nonsensical as Fudaishi's poem.

Despite its emphasis on approaching things as if for the first time, I get the feeling that the beginner is not well served by the existing introductory books on Zen.  If you read the reviews of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind on Amazon, you'll see the occasional note of pious praise punctuating a flow of complaints about the book's incomprehensibility.  Introductory books about Buddhism that are clear, succinct, and accessible are not hard to come by at all, from Damien Keown's Very Short Introduction to Rahula's more scholarly classic What the Buddha Taught.  But for some reason the Zen sect has trouble making itself understood.  Insiders say that this is because the tradition contains mysteries that you can only appreciate if you find them out for yourself; cynics on the other hand will insist that the lack of clarity is a feature of a system that aims mainly to erect high fences against outsiders.  But not only is the language designedly obscure in order to keep people out; how well you can master its eccentricities determines an internal hierarchy, topped by teachers who can say whatever comes to mind.

I can't say how true that was of Zen as practiced at various periods in its long history, but American Zen certainly seems reasonably open to newcomers.  On the other hand, it still has problems with internal hierarchy.  But if you want a satisfying brief statement of crazy Zen, look no further than Suzuki's book, which has a chapter in it entitled 'Illogical Zen', and several more whose content would have justified similar titles.  Many of these chapters seem to consist entirely of mad koans whose point always seems to be the same: abandon all theory and grasp the reality right in front of your nose.  You might think telling that to people in plain language might be enough (and would also allow the ideas behind the recommendation to be criticized), but there's always the counter that people need to be surprised, confused, or shocked into dropping their stories and theories and excuses.  At times, there is an attractive rebelliousness about this tendency.  When Joshu was asked, 'Isn't it a praiseworthy thing to pay respect to Buddha?' he replied, 'Yes, but it's better to go without even a praiseworthy thing'.

After a few of these stories, though, one's patience runs thin.  Suzuki retells one in which the philosopher Doko came to a Zen master and asked, 'With what frame of mind should one discipline oneself in the truth?'  The master answered unhelpfully but typically, 'There is no mind to be framed'.  Doko was a reasonable man, so he persisted.  'If there's no mind to be framed, what are all these monks doing here?'  The master was an unreasonable man: 'No monks here'.  The philosopher was exasperated, and asked, 'How can you tell me a lie like that to my face?'  His Zen antagonist wasn't fazed: 'I have no tongue'.  Finally, the philosopher gave up, admitting to the master that he had trouble following his reasoning.  'Neither do I understand myself', said the master, perhaps with a feeling of triumph, but maybe just with the guilty sensation you sometimes get when you know you've been unreasonable to someone who was just looking for some simple answers.

Suzuki himself presents these stories with apparent approval, but by the end of the book he's doing what the master in that last koan refused to do: he's explaining why there are so many Zen monks in the East, and telling you what they're up to.  That's where the radical antinomianism of Zen breaks down, when it's faced with the undeniable fact that Zen is not just the direct seizure of what's there, but a set of practices and institutions that are as strict and concrete - if not more so - than piano-lessons and the swim club.  And it's probably a good thing that the absurdity gets tired and goes to bed at some point, because there's a point  - somewhere in that story I just quoted - at which it starts to make a fool of itself.  I'm no fan of ossified institutionalism, especially in religious traditions that are supposed to be about compassion and humility.  But I'm also no fan of nonsensicality and claims to have gotten beyond rationality once and for all - the perennial excuse for bad philosophy, or just run-of-the-mill sloppy thinking.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not the kind of rationalist who thinks that reason can explain everything and is universally applicable to every situation life throws at us.  I'm also not so ignorant as to believe that humans are entirely rational creatures - our minds are indeed like icebergs, with the rational tip distracting us from darker masses below the surface.  But I also think that there's a difference between admitting that there are certain situations that rational thought doesn't enter into - falling in love, say - and claiming that such situations trump, disqualify, or defeat rationality in all its forms.  Zen koans, just like faith, may bypass rationality or transcend it, but to say that they preclude or discredit it is going too far.  Indeed, to say that is to fall foul of some well-known philosophical traps.  All of these traps are set by irrationalists themselves when they go to the extreme of saying that nothing makes sense.

If nothing makes sense, neither does the proposition, 'Nothing makes sense', in which case nobody has any reason to believe it; indeed, it has no meaning at all.  Socrates skewered Parmenides by wondering whether his claim that all truths are relative was itself relative.  If it was, Socrates had no reason to go along with it; if it wasn't, the claim provided a counter-example to itself.  The logical positivists declared that all meaningful sentences had to be testable or analytic; but since 'All meaningful sentences have to be testable or analytic' turned out to be neither testable or analytic, it couldn't be meaningful.  And if all the thoughts and stories in your head - as Zen seems to suggest - are equally meaningless, then so are thoughts about Zen and the thoughts of Zen.  Of course, that is a conclusion that most Zen masters would willingly accept, but it leaves them in a dangerous place, where anything can be said because everything is equally senseless.

And that seems to bring Zen perilously close to nihilism, an association that Suzuki is eager to fend off. It's true, he says, that Zen declares that everything is empty, but what emerges when that is realized is joy in the present moment.  But isn't joy in the present moment empty too, bringing us back to nihilism?  Zen sets up an emptiness vortex that it's difficult for Buddhism to escape.  Maybe it's just that I'm skeptical that compassion is really what does emerge when people are convinced that anything goes - maybe what more often emerges is the domination of the less by the more bold, of the more by the less scrupulous.  Which is why my confirmation got me thinking about whether I'm really a Zen person rather than an ordinary old Buddhist.  After all, though Theravada belief is radical enough - it denies the existence of stable individual identities, for instance - it is understandable and coherent.  If you get the feeling that the bridge is flowing under you rather the water, maybe it's time to go back to the four noble truths.