Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's a trick

Since I'm moving to the ends of the earth, I recently went to Wind in Grass for the last time.  The others were nice enough to throw a party for me and invite me to say a few words about what I'd learned from practising with them over the previous three years.  I guess it was my first dharma talk.  It went something like this.

'I wanted to tell you what I'd learned from being a part of this group, and a number of answers immediately sprang to mind.  I've learned what Zen is, what Sanbo Kyodan is, what koans are.  I've learned that to have an effect on how things are done in a group you have to step up and participate.  I've learned that it's possible to have a group of young people come together to meditate in a way that's somehow both deeply committed and playfully irreverent.

Somehow none of these answers felt right.  I'll tell you what I think I've really learned from Wind in Grass in a moment, after a long digression or two.  Because I also wanted to address something Michael brought up the other night.  I'm referring to the strange fact that as Zen students we're meant to be doing two things at once: practising meditation earnestly, and giving up all thoughts of gain.  But if we're already Buddhas and don't need to progress, why do we go on week-long retreats?

First off, I want to give you a sense of what progress in meditation feels like.  I took up meditation after my first year at college, near the end of which I started having a lot of pain in my face.  The doctors all told me I was stressed, but that obviously wasn't right.  After a while I realized that it might be, and cast around for things that might help me.  I found a website with some instructions on meditation for beginners and went at it.

The meditation I was doing involved focusing on your breath, and labelling thoughts as they arose.  It's not our practice here, but it was helpful.  After four months or so of sitting every day, I felt significantly better, like I was finally on top of my pain.  If I have any allegiance to Buddhism, it's to a great extent because of the way, over those few months, the practice just picked me up and set me on my feet again.  It's hard not to feel grateful to something that has that effect. 

That was progress.  And it wasn't the only time I've felt I got somewhere through meditation.  It happened again about a year after I'd come to Stanford.  I hadn't been practising much, but started doing guided meditation with a grad student from Thailand.  This involved focusing on a visualized sphere of light in your belly - not out practice here, but helpful.  Within a couple of months I felt more both sharper and more relaxed, better able to cope with things.  That was progress.

A final example of progress came when I went on my first few PZI retreats.  I'd never really gotten koans until I heard John Tarrant speak, guiding us to follow the koan wherever it led, the way you follow an old overgrown track in the forest.  This is our practice here, and it helped me.  I just fell into the practice, and it was transformative.  That was progress too, I think.

So that's one side of the antinomy.  We just do feel that we're progressing, and it's probably true to say that none of us would be here tonight if we didn't have some sense of what that felt like.  At the same time, there's also a sense in which approaching meditation with some aim in mind is exactly the wrong way of doing it.  And this is where we come to the two tricks I've put into this talk.

The first way I'll talk about a trick is to say that meditation has a trick to it.  It's not a trick like the one all the 11-year-olds knew back when I used to play SimCity, where you could type FUNDS and the game would give you more money.  It's more a trick as in a knack, a style of doing things, like when someone tells you how to turn a key in an idiosyncratically sticky lock.  The trick of meditation is summed up in the old koan: 'If you turn towards it, you turn away from it'.  The paradox is that the only way you can progress in meditation is by giving up all thought of progress.

The other trick is meditation itself.  Meditation, I can tell you, is a trick.  It's a familiar one.  It's like when you book a hotel online through a website which shows pictures of a room with magnolia flowering outside your window and a pool with an infinity horizon on the patio.  When you get there, there's a shitty plastic plant on the windowsill and a deck next to the parking lot with a filthy little plunge pool.  You thought you were getting one thing but you got something else.

Meditation is like that, except instead of getting the plastic plant and the plunge pool you get to the hotel only to realize that there's an ocean right across the street and out the window a tropical rainforest.  You would lay on the bed and flick through the 14 million available free channels, but the forest is much more interesting; the amenities of the hotel don't seem to matter any more. 

Meditation is like that.  I started doing it to cure my toothache and came to feel I'd started a relationship with some inexhaustibly fascinating person who somehow was the same as the table and chair in my room.  It did help my pain a great deal but perhaps only because the pain had ceased to seem so relevant; and by the time it had helped my toothache, it just seemed to matter less whether I was in pain or not.

That's what I had to say about Michael's antinomy.  I also hoped you'd indulge me with another digression, one that might make Elana throw something at me, since it's about how much I like Christianity.  I was raised a Christian and it's always interesting to see how people in my family react to me being a Buddhist.  When I went to Canada for Christmas my aunt asked me very respecfully on the first night whether I wanted a beer; they would be going to a church for a service, and I was free to come or not.  I said I loved Christmas services, and was especially keen on beer.

I've also been dating a Catholic girl for the past couple of years, and I've been going to church quite a lot.  At first this was only out of solidarity, but it made me think a lot about what I prefer about Buddhism and what I still like more about Christianity.  My main issue with Christianity is having to believe the story about a guy who rose from the dead, but there's one way relevant to this talk in which it things right.  When I went to Rockridge the other weekend to visit PZI's new center, I passed some Korean evangelical church.  It sounded like there was some kind of sacred 80s disco going on inside, involving equal measures of synthesizers and songs of praise.

That strikes me as exactly the right way of reacting to the universe.  As Buddhists I don't think we celebrate enough.  People come to Buddhism because it offers a way out of suffering, but this sometimes has the unintended consequence of making Zen centers feel like particularly grim hospitals.  Our tradition always tries to remind us that there's really nothing to be healed; but even if there were, the right reaction might still be worship.  If the only way of experiencing the rainforest is with a headache, I'll take it, and I'm taking pictures too.

All of this was just a roundabout way of getting to what I've really gained from Wind in Grass.  I've gained nothing.  Instead, I've enjoyed every second: staring at the grain of the floorboards, getting splinters in my socked feet, looking over at people during meditation and wondering who's getting it on with whom.  I've just enjoyed being here with you, and I want to thank you for being here with me while I did it'.

As leaving presents I brought a book by Alan Watts, an English Anglican who turned into a Californian Buddhist.  I also brought a little owl figurine.  I spend much of my life studying classical Athens, so I guess in some sense I've always been an acolyte of Athena.  She's the goddess of wisdom, so she's in the same line of work as Buddha.  She's there on the altarpiece now with outsize eyes, symbolizing mindfulness and serving as a reminder that it's a good idea to look at things squarely - even when things go wrong, as they sometimes do in Zen groups. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Meditation on drugs

Recently a couple of friends admitted something to me.  They both asked me not to judge them, and then sheepishly told me they were taking antidepressants.  On both occasions I looked back at them and said, 'Me too'.

In fact, I've been taking them, off and on, for about a decade, ever since I began having chronic pain.  After trying a number of different drugs, I was prescribed amitriptyline.  It was easily the most helpful medication I'd been offered, and I've stuck with it.

Amitriptyline is an one of a family of older-generation drugs called tricyclic antidepressants.  It affects the levels of both serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, unlike the newer SSRIs, which more precisely target the reuptake of serotonin.

Nowadays it's very commonly prescribed for chronic pain, usually at a lower dosage than is indicated for depression.  I started off taking 20mg a day in England, which helped me finish my first degree but left me in considerable pain. 

In my first three years in California (with the help of more liberal doctors) I was on 100mg a day.  I had periods when I was pain free, and though I did feel the side-effects (drowsiness and dry mouth) more strongly, I felt that the drug would never do me any harm.

That all changed one winter when I started taking 150mg a day because of some extra pain deriving from some dental surgery.  I began feeling very depressed, and noticed that I was twitching, itching, and sweating profusely all the time. 

I didn't know it, but those were the symptoms of 'serotonitis', an overdose of serotonin.  When I realized, I went cold-turkey, which immeditately made me feel better but which brought the same symptoms on in a more intense form.  I remember sitting in the Castro Theater one night in that period, sweating and itching and twitching, watching some noir classic in a strange euphoria of relief.

After that I was more cautious.  In the last few years I've gone off the drug completely a few times, only to go back on it again.  In some ways being off it isn't that different; I feel the pain much of the time in both states, but it feels more distant and manageable when I'm on the drug (and sometimes it's completely absent). 

Both of my friends who talked to me about antidepressants had spiritual or religious doubts about taking them, so I thought I might raise the issue here.  Are antidepressants antagonistic to a spiritual practice, or complementary? 

I can't answer the question definitively, partly because there are a lot of different drugs and practices out there.  But I have looked into this a bit online, and it might seem at first as if meditation and antidepressants are doing more or less the same thing, since they both raise levels of serotonin in the brain.

This is actually more complicated than it seems, though.  One recent Norwegian study (with only 27 subjects) suggested that regular meditators had higher levels of serotonin than non-meditators, but that meditation itself seemed to reduce the level of serotonin in their blood. 

An older Harvard study appeared to show that people who meditated produced the same amount of norepinephrine (a 'fight or flight' drug), but that it had ceased to trigger an emergency response in meditators. 

So the scientific evidence on this appears complex, and I'm not particularly well-qualified to assess it.  Looking at this from a traditional Buddhist angle also raises some hard questions, such as whether antidepressants should be discouraged as intoxicants, or encouraged as pain-reducing medicines.

I'm not sure that I have much to add from than angle, either.  But I can say a bit more about my own experiences of meditation and one kind of antidepressant, in the hope that it may be useful to other people who are in a similar situation.

I've practised meditation through the whole period I've been on amitriptyline, usually for twenty minutes a day, though occasionally less (and very occasionally more) than that.  Of course all I can do is tell you what it felt like to me (which may not be unimportant).

I think that meditation without the drug is more challenging.  My mind is more anxious and I'm distracted by pain more.  On the other hand, it's also more rewarding, since the difference between my state of mind before and after sitting is more dramatic.

When I'm on a lot of the drug, meditation is often very pleasant.  I breathe in, I breathe in, and it all flows along very pleasantly.  But in some way it feels more superficial.  I feel like things have gone more smoothly but that I have gained less insight about myself and my condition.

Ultimately, the plan is to go off the drugs.  The plan (often revised) usually involves doing more and more meditation as I slowly come off it.  Unfortunately, I've been too busy lately to commit to longer retreats of the kind I had in mind, so full implementation of the plan will have to wait a bit longer.

In the meantime, I try not to beat myself up about it.  Some people take insulin for diabetes.  Other take statins for high cholesterol.  I take amitriptyline for chronic pain.  I also meditate, which is cheaper and doesn't make my mouth dry.  In other ways they're just two different things that help. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Making it wrong

For the past year I've been living with two philosophers.  Occasionally they leave books about ethics the kitchen table.  One of those books made me think again about the Buddhist precepts I took about nine months ago now, and about the discussions with a teacher that led up to them.

I didn't take the precepts for purely ethical reasons.  I did so mainly for other reasons - committing to a practice, a community, and so on.  But committing to precepts clearly has an ethical dimension.  So what does it mean to commit to Buddhist precepts?  What are they? 

I was inclined to viewing them as rules.  In that interpretation, 'I vow not to kill' means that you can't kill anything under any circumstances.  My teacher David favoured a more psychological interpretation.  For him, not killing was about not killing your spontaneity or your vitality.

Both of these interpretations I found difficult to take.  I found it difficult to take my own interpretation of the precepts as rules mainly because, if they were rules, I couldn't honestly commit to some of them.  I found David's interpretation hard to take because it seemed to drain the precepts of all content, allowing him to take them to mean pretty much whatever he liked.

Consider the precept against intoxication.  I took it to mean that you shouldn't drink or take drugs.  If it meant that, though, I wasn't sure I wanted to commit to it.  David thought it was about maintaining your attentiveness - whether you'd been drinking alcohol or not. 

Extreme versions of these positions don't work.  If the precept against killing means you can never kill anything, you might have problems dealing with hamburgers and Nazis, let alone E. coli. 

If you think it is guiding you not to kill your spontaneity, you should say how you can tell it isn't guiding you not to kill your depression, or your murderous urges.  You may choose to apply it to spontaneity because you like spontaneity.  But then you're just adapting the precepts to whatever ethical assumptions you happen to have already.

You're also draining the word 'killing' of any content.  If you take the precepts metaphorically, they can all end up saying the same thing: you shouldn't kill your vitality, you shouldn't steal your vitality, and so on.  But there might be ten precepts rather than one because each of them is trying to tell you something different.

There is natural middle way between these two extremes.  You might take the precept against killing to be advising you not to kill things - on a reasonable interpretation of what 'killing' consists in, and within the bounds of what might reasonably be expected of someone.  So it might mean you have to become a vegetarian or a pacifist, but not that you can't take antibiotics. 

This isn't a bad way of taking the precepts.  It makes them possible to commit to while also preserving their natural meanings.  On this reading, it's clear what the Buddhist path is; you may reject it, but at least it's clear what it would mean to embrace it. 

The problem with this compromise position is that it's fuzzy.  What is a 'reasonably interpretation' of what killing is?  And what can reasonably be expected of people?  Some people may find vegetarianism or pacificism as difficult to embrace as toleration of E. coli.

This objection claims that the precepts aren't informative enough.  And that may well be.  They may be best taken as guidelines rather than as a complete ethical system.  They may simply point to things that are important ethically and ask us to be aware of them: be careful about killing.

The book I found on the kitchen table was by a philosopher called Jonathan Dancy, and it helped me think about these issues.  Dancy is a moral particularist: he believes morality isn't about rules but about context.  That's closer to David's views than to my initial take on the precepts.

I didn't read Dancy's book through, but at this stage moral particularism doesn't strike me as particularly plausible.  One view that Dancy canvasses in his book, though, was more helpful.  This was the approach of W.D. Ross, whom I knew as a scholar of Aristotle. 

If Ross had moved to San Francisco and become a Buddhist, he would have called the precepts prima facie moral claims.  On this view, the precept against killing says that if an act involves killing, your starting assumption should be that it's bad.  You may later revise this view, for example if you find out that the beings being killed are E. coli; but it's a good starting assumption.

There are all sorts of reasons philosophers nowadays don't like Ross' theory.  Some of them aren't very important - such as the complaint that Ross should have used the phrase pro tanto rather than prima facie.  Pro tanto reasons are reasons that other reasons may trump, whereas prima facie reasons may, on closer inspection, turn out not to be reasons at all.

Despite this infelicity of language, Ross' main idea is clear.  Killing is a 'wrong-making' feature of actions.  If it has killing in it, it's more likely to be wrong when looked at as a whole.

There are further complexities.  You might (like my housemate) want to distinguish two versions of this idea.  In the first, killing adds some wrongness into the mix.  I may decide that killing E. coli with antibiotics is right in the aggregate, but there's still a bit of wrongness there (in the killing).

In the second, all we look at is the action as a whole.  If we decide that killing E. coli is good in the aggregate, then we have to conclude that killing simply wans't wrong in that case.  This is close to the epistemic claim that if killing is part of an action, it makes it more likely to be wrong.

I might be wrong, but I think that Ross' view offers us a pretty satisfactory way of approaching the Buddhist precepts (or any other ethical guidelines) that avoids the extremes of treating them either as inflexible rules or as nearly content-free suggestions. 

Whether I think the ten Mahayana precepts really identify 'wrong-making' features of actions is another question.  I actually don't have a problem with gossip, for example.  I like gossip.  Maybe I prefer the five Therevada precepts: killing is wrong-making, stealing is wrong-making, sexual immorality is wrong-making, lying is wrong-making, intoxication is wrong-making.  As they say.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Face to face

Recently I went out for a drink with a friend who worries a lot about money.  She worries so much, in fact, that she told me she'll only feel financially secure when she has about $80 000 dollars in savings.  I said, 'Do you know that passage in the Bible?'  (That's not something I say very often.)  'The bit about the lilies in the field?'  I've sat through a lot of church services in my time.

'Look at the birds in the air', the passage runs.  'They do not sow or reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them...Consider how the lilies grow in the fields; they do not work, they do not spin; and yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these...So do not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself'.

It's not great financial advice.  All the same, there's something true and valuable about the main idea it expresses: we constantly fall into the habit of worrying how we'll survive, and yet somehow usually do.  (Except when we don't, in which case there's really nothing to worry about).  In case you're wondering, the lines are spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, the 1st-century CE religious leader.  (And the lines are at Matthew 6.19-34.) 

That's a strange way of introducing him, of course, because most people know who he is.  All the same, it's often useful to look at things that are familiar to us as if we were considering them for the first time.  That was partly what led me to read through the whole of the Bible over the last three years.  I've already written about the Old Testament, and now I've finished the New Testament too.

I thought the Old Testament was mostly really bad, in both the moral and aesthetic senses.  Since I wrote about it, a few people have told me that I should have read it with a scholarly commentary or companion.  And there's no doubt I would have gained a better knowledge of the text that way.  But I didn't have time to do that.  I also thought it might be interesting just to read the thing and see what struck me about it.

The New Testament is a lot better than the Old Testament, in both the aesthetic and moral senses.  For a start, it's much shorter, taking up around 300 pages of my 1000-page Bible.  It tells a coherent story, running from Jesus' life, through the early history of the movement he founded, to the writings of one of that movement's early leaders, Paul.  It's a bit repetitive, but it's not a bad thing for historians that it includes four different versions of Jesus' life.

Jesus is a pretty nice guy, and his teachings have a lot of good in them.  He thinks the peacemakers are blessed, wants us to love our enemies, and claims religion boils down to loving God and loving your neighbour.  What he says at Luke 6.28-9 neatly encapsulates this side of Jesus: 'Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you.'

Jesus is also something of a revolutionary.  Often this is a good thing: Jesus is impatient with pointless rules, and tells a rich man to sell all he owns and give his money to the poor.  Sometimes, though, he can be a little unsettling.  'You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth', he says, strangely enough, at Matthew 10.34-6.  'I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son's wife against her mother-in-law'.

In other words, he is complex.  Despite all his talk of love and forgiveness, he occasionally loses it and talks about how sinners will be flung by angels into a burning furnace, 'the place of wailing and grinding of teeth' (Matthew 13.47-50).  He also believes that he is the Messiah and the son of God. 

But we are now in the murky territory of things the gospels attribute to Jesus, but which he might never have claimed to be true.  All the gospels say that he was a miracle-worker, for example, and that he rose from the dead. 

One element of his teaching that emerges clearly is his belief that the world will end sooner rather than later.  To be precise, he believes that the world will end in the lifetime of some of his disciples.  As he says to them, 'There are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power' (Mark 9.1).

That was what struck me about Jesus as described by the gospels.  He's a religious leader with his heart in the right place but who also has a vengeful streak and who believes he's the son of God.  His followers for whatever reason were inclined to attribute miracles to him.  Finally, he explicitly predicts on several occasions that the world will end within the next century at the latest.

That looks like an example of a falsifiable claim that was falsified, but that didn't stop the early Christians.  The Acts of the Apostles were for me the most unfamiliar and surprising part of the New Testament. 

On the one hand, they're heartening, the story of the survival and growth of a tiny sect in the teeth of violent repression.  The early Christians are simple folk, and live in a kind of commune: 'Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common' (4.32).

On the other hand, they can seem like a cult that comes under the increasing control of a violent and unscrupulous leadership.  Peter kills two dissidents by miraculous agency (5.5-10), and claims the privilege of passing on God's word through the laying on of hands - a monoply he vigilantly protects (8.18-25).

Once we get to Paul, things have normalized somewhat.  The Paul whose words we read in the letters is clearly the head of an organization, who is giving instructions to subordinates.  At the same time, his advice is often wise, and always well expressed.  The influence of Greek literature on his paradoxical prose style is noticeable; this is an educated man, learned and literate.

A lot of the highlighs I was read as a child were written by Paul, including the famous passage on charity (or love, depending on the translation: Cor. 13.1-14).  He tells us that we brought nothing into the world and can take nothing out of it.  He reminds us that we reap what we sow.  He encourages us to be humble, helpful, and cheerful.  In the best tradition of his master, he assures us that 'He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law' (Rom. 13.8).

In Paul's writings there is no trace of Jesus the revolutionary.  Instead, Christianity emerges partly as a way of being stable and dependable.  As he says, you are free to do anything - but not everything is for your good, including extra-marital sex (Cor. 6-12-20).  Members of the Christian community should be honest and upright and religious teachers should lead especially blameless lives. 

Paul's moralizing often spills over into condemnations.  Women were made from men, and therfore should be subordinate; a woman preaching a sermon is an abomination; in fact, women should just be quiet (Cor. 11.8-9; 14.35; Tim. 2.12).  Homosexuality is unnatural and will be punished (Rom. 1.26-7).  All of these judgments are extremely clear in the text. 

Those were my main impressions of the New Testament.  (Revelations is just batshit.)  What conclusions do I draw from my reading of it?  That Jesus meant well and was a charismatic leader but was probably delusional; that his followers very quickly clouded his life with stories about miracles; and that Christianity had both good and bad in it from the very beginning.  I won't try to substantiate those judgments further; they're simply what I concluded after reading the Bible.

I was raised as a Christian, both at home and at school.  Am I still a Christian?  Culturally, yes: I still celebrate Christmas, have an understanding for Christian mythology, and am often moved by Christian art.  I can't imagine being married or buried without some sort of Christian ceremony. 

I also think that there is a lot in the New Testament that makes sense and is ethically valuable.  It's just that I don't see why you need to believe the miraculous portions of the text to value kindness and humility.  I also don't think that we should cling to every word of a book that advises us to punish homosexuals and prevent women from having a voice. 

This is part of the reason I practice Buddhist meditation.  It's true that the more Buddhist scriptures I read, the more offended I am by their nonsensicality and superstition.  But none of the Buddhist scriptures has quite the status or authority of the Bible; there are scriptures, but not one Holy Bible.

It's an interesting historical question how this came to pass.  And an important one, too.  It might explain why nobody (at least in the West) has ever told me that I have to believe anything at all about the Buddha's life, while most Christians would still say that believing in the resurrection defines them.  It might explain how I can (at least in California) be a Buddhist without being a Buddhist.  And why, until Christians stop being Christians, I can't be one too. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Giving freely

A couple of months ago our teacher at Wind in Grass, David Weinstein, sent an email out informing us that he'd no longer be working with students who weren't members of Pacific Zen Institute.  Since there's a charge for membership, this effectively meant that he wouldn't be working with people who weren't paid up.

David did point out that there's no minimum membership fee, so you could be paying as little as $5 a month.  Also, we already give David the money in the donation bowl on the nights that he comes inFinally, the change will really only affect one night a month, when David's there.  So is this really much of a change?

I think it is, and I also think that it's a step in the wrong direction.  (And I know that I'm not alone in feeling this way.)  But before telling you why I should say that I have valued having a teacher in over the last few years.  I also think David is a very good teacher (and I've been to quite a few Buddhist events since I moved to California).

That said, I think this move is wrong for three reasons.  The most important one is that it brings us very close to paying for the dharma.  But if Buddhist teaching is centered on doing without material wealth, giving generously to others, and so on, that seems like a strange situation to be in.  Asking for payment undermines a central part of the message that we're trying to convey.

As I admitted above, we do give dana to our teacher anyway.  So what's the difference?  The main difference is that dana is freely given.  In other words, it's a real donation or gift, and symbolizes the very values of generosity and unstinginess that we're promoting.  It also gives us an opportunity to enact those values in giving freely what we can.

But paying for membership also creates a division between members and non-members, insiders and outsiders.  This is the second reason I'm against it.  People need to feel like they can come sit with us whenever they want, and not sit with us whenever they want, too.  As Michael said to me, one of our main strengths is that we don't ask newcomers for any kind of commitment. 

There's a related, practical issue.  It may make sense for someone like me, who turns up every week, to pay a monthly fee for membership.  But we have a lot of people who turn up once every two or three months.  Are we going to have to start presenting them with a choice of either committing to membership or going elsewhere to talk to a teacher?

The final problem I have with this is more personal.  It's that it brings WiG more clearly and firmly within the bounds of PZI.  Of course, WiG has always, strictly speaking, been a branch of PZI, but most nights it doesn't feel like one - it feels like a bunch of friends meeting for informal meditation.  I like WiG a lot, but have doubts about PZI.  But other people may feel differently about that one.

I've deliberately dodged a big issue here, one I might get around to discussing in a future post.  That issue is the whole question of how we should compensate Zen teachers, if at all.  For now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that they should receive regular and generous donations, since they often do work comparable to Christian ministers, who are salaried. 

But I'd still want to insist, at this stage, that they receive donations, and not pay.  I'd also want there to be a way of collecting donations that doesn't divide people into an inside and an outside group.  But these are just some thoughts from someone who's enjoyed having a teacher for the last three years and would like him to be able to work, at least occasionally, for no money at all.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Buddhism without Buddhism

After we decided to break up, my girlfriend and I turned to the question of when.  Her preference was 'right away', whereas I favoured waiting until I was actually leaving, in June.  In the end, we compromised.  We would break up over spring break, at the end of a short road-trip up the California coast.

Part of the reason we could agree on the timing was because I'd signed up for a week-long sesshin at SF Zen Center that same week.  I thought it would help me deal with the break-up.  I had to write to the Ino to ask if I could only come for three days, and I did so with trepidation, because the practice at SFZC is strict. 

I got an answer almost immediately: 'We will be happy for you to join us whenever you can'.  It wasn't from Shundo but from the new Ino, Valorie.  I also told her that I'd injured my knee and couldn't sit half-lotus.  She said she'd arrange for a chair to be provided in the meditation hall.

We got back from our road trip at about 11pm.  I got up the next day at 4am and walked to City Center.  But I don't live in the Lower Haight anymore; I live on 24th Street in the Mission.  So the walk had expanded since my last retreat at SFZC from five minutes to a bit less than an hour.  But the pre-dawn hour is a fine one to be up in San Francisco.

This was my first retreat with a chair, and it was much more enjoyable because of it.  I felt I could concentrate on my meditation rather than on simply making it through the next period without changing my position too many times because of the pain.  I also joined the invalids no doing full prostrations in the various ceremonies, and that also helped a great deal.

I quickly got back into the rhythm of sittings, services, work, and eating.  I was surprised to discover that I had a certain fondness for the Zen Center, even though I've never really liked the formal style of practice there.  I even enjoyed the formal oryoki breakfasts, once I remembered how to do them.  The night the sesshin ended I went to my first Passover seder at a friend's house, and took to it like a duck to water (or, as the Zen poet says, like a tiger making for the mountains).

There were two teachers, City Center Abess Christina Lehnherr and lay teacher Marsha Angus.  I met with Marsha and talked to her about fear.  She had a background in various types of therapy, and struck me as very Californian.  When I asked her about whether to accept thoughts or try to get beyond them, she said she'd need to have known me for longer to be able to answer that question.

In one of Christina's morning talks she told us her own story.  Until she was 30 she was almost always depressed.  She moved into the Zen Center and liked it, but left it for a year to make sure she wasn't simply trying to avoid life.  She worked at a care home for catatonic patients.

It was hard.  Her job involved feeding, cleaning, and clothing adults who couldn't move or communicate.  One day she was about to undress someone to clean them when she was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of love and awe.  Changing a grown man's diaper had sparked some sort of realization.

In another talk, she told us about someone she knew who married herself.  At first I thought she had mis-spoken (her native language being German), but no - her friend had given herself a ring and taken herself as wife.  Why?  As an experiment in treating herself with as much forbearance and patience as someone she loved. 

When I went to speak to her I talked about whether when I moved I would continue to think of myself as a Buddhist, or go back to just meditating on my own.  She said I didn't need to make declarations one way or the other; I could just follow the path wherever it led me.  'Would you consider yourself a Buddhist?' I asked.  The head of the San Francisco Zen Center, dressed in her ceremonial robes and in a room with at least three statues of the Buddha, thought for a moment and said 'no'. 

I told her I wasn't upset about my break-up, which worried me.  But we quickly found reasons why it might not have been so hurtful: the fact that it was mutual, and a product of circumstances rather than a falling-out.  The main thing I remember was her saying to me that it was okay to be sad sometimes without a reason, but that it was also okay to be happy.

I didn't have any spiritual breakthrough during that retreat.  Nor did I marry myself, although I may have come a little closer to engagement.  I didn't get better at zazen.  But sometimes in the half-hours between sittings, I would get a cup of tea and just sit out in the courtyard with the fountain and the flowers.  I wouldn't try to meditate.  I would just sit there, with the birds chirping and the thoughts tumbling over one another, and the water in the fountain splashing over and over on the stone.

The spirit of the way

About a year ago a friend in England sent me some CDs.  He'd done so before, and usually they contained music by obscure UK bands from the 60s and 70s.  This time, though, they contained lectures by Alan Watts, like Aldous Huxley (and Mr. Propter) a Californian Buddhist who was also a transplanted Englishman.

Watts is often called a philosopher, although he had no formal academic training in that field.  He was educated at the King's School, Canterbury, at the heart-centre of Anglican Christianity.  After moving to the US, he qualified as an Episcopalian priest, only to renounce his vocation a few years later.  He moved to California, ending up in a circular house in an artists' colony in Marin County.

He is perhaps best described as a free-lance writer, and he is best remembered for his books about Zen.  Watts' 1957 book The Way of Zen was one of the first widely read books on Buddhism in a Western language.  I meant to read it, but its title is so similar to that of Watts' first book, The Spirit of Zen (1936) that I read the earlier work instead.  (I've since noticed a good, cheap edition of the later book on sale at my local bookstore.)

One of the things that strikes me whenever I read Western books about Buddhism from the pre-war era is how rare they were.  Their writers seem to be working in a vacuum of accurate knowledge about Eastern religions.  In his Foreword, Watts states that before the First World War there was 'only one work on Zen in any European language - Kaiten Nukariya's Religion of the Samurai'.  He also claims that his bibliography - which runs to little more than two pages - is an exhaustive list of the books on Zen that had appeared up to the date his book was published.

Watts is therefore reliant on a few personal channels between Buddhism and the West.  One is Christmas Humphreys, the English barrister who founded the Buddhist Society of London and who is the dedicand of Watts' book.  Another is D.T. Suzuki - not to be confused with SF Zen Center founder Shunryu - whose many books for Western audiences Watts credits for a growing interest in Buddhism among Americans.

Since I read Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism only a year ago, his influence on Watts was quite clear to me.  Like Suzuki, Watts moves from a vague yet appealing characterization of Zen in purely psychological and mystical terms to a concrete description of practice in a Japanese monastery.  Like Suzuki, Watts never faces up to the obvious question: if Zen is a way of thinking free of limitations, why are there all these strict practices? 

A third theme of the book is Zen as a key into the cultures of China and Japan; indeed, the book is subtitled A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East.  This theme is treated mostly in the final chapter, which is the weakest part of the book, or at least the part that feels the most dated.  Watts moves from Zen and samurai through jujitsu and flower-arrangement, all the while avoiding asking how common (let alone representative) such practices are in the China and Japan of his day.

In spite of its limitations, though, the book is a valuable one.  Watts has an intuitive understanding of religious phenomena and writes in a way that is both unpretentious and engaging.  The book is not for scholars, but may be for practitioners.  It is full of passages that perfectly encapsulate the essence of some of the central ideas in Buddhism.  Let's end with Watts' lucid description of karma:

'A man may be free to travel where he likes, but there is no place on earth where he can escape from his own karma, and whether he lives on a mountain or in a city he may still be the victim of an uncontrolled mind.  For man's karma travels with him, like his shadow.  Indeed, it is his shadow, for it has been said, "Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark."'

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Breaking the spell

This weekend, rather than spending my Saturday cycling up an enormous hill, I decided to sit on my ass all day.  The Stanford Zen group (loosely affiliated with the Buddhist Community at Stanford) had organized a one-day meditation retreat in the inter-religious center on the top floor of the Old Union.  Since I was going to be in the South Bay that weekend anyway, I decided to go along.

I don't really know the people in the Stanford Zen group, since their regular meeting is on Wednesday nights, the same night that Wind in Grass meets.  They seem to be run by two or three serious-minded and dedicated undergraduates who organize the regular weekly sittings and the odd one-day event on campus.

I don't know what kind of crowd attends the weekly meetings, but the crowd that turned up yesterday was a mixed bunch.  There were naturally a lot of students, both undergrads and grads.  There were also a few people who lived in the local area and had come in for the day.

There were more Asian people than I see in the meditation groups I go to in the city.  I've read that a feature of Buddhism in America is that so-called 'ethnic' (Asian) and 'convert' (European) Buddhists tend to gather in different groups.  But the group that I saw yesterday seemed evenly mixed.

Seated opposite me were a Chinese mother and her son, who looked about 11.  Every so often she notice him fidgeting and give him a sharp tap with her hand.  I thought of how unused I am to seeing this sort of thing in a Buddhist context, whereas I grew up in a world where parents forcing their children to church was very familiar.  There was a way in which the mother encouraging her son to meditate was sweet, but it reminded me how easy it still is in the West to forget about the more customary, religious aspects of Buddhism.  I've met very few Buddhists in the US who didn't come to it voluntarily.

We had three periods of meditation with breaks in between.  The meditation periods consisted of half an hour of seated meditation plus about five minutes of walking meditation.  The breaks were ten minutes long.  During the meditation periods people went for one-on-one talks with a visiting teacher, Max Erdstein.  At one o'clock Erdstein gave a talk, followed by a Q&A.

In my interview with Erdstein, I talked to him about my experiences over the past few years: the initial experience of falling in love with a new group, my disagreement with John Tarrant, and then my increasing disillusionment with institutional Buddhism more generally.  He told me that the inclination to test out a teacher was worth honouring, but reminded me that not all groups were the same.  He told me to trust my instincts.

In his talk, he told the story of why he started meditating.  When he was an undergrad at Stanford, he contracted a chronic illness that left the doctors perplexed.  Out of desperation, he bought a meditation book and CD by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  After a while, his health began to improve, and he stopped practicing.  A few years later, while working at Google, the stresses of the job brought him back to it.

He said he remembers considering two paths through life.  The first was trying to be so successful in business that he'd never be at a loss for anything.  The second was trying to moderate his wants.  He looked at people he knew who'd embarked on both paths.  While he was often impressed by the top people in his company, it seemed to him like they'd acquired more skills than wisdom.  Conversely, although his meditation teachers weren't perfect people by any means, they appeared to have a kind of depth, an level of insight about their own lives that seemed valuable.

He passed on a few similes that some of his teachers had used to describe what a meditative practice might bring.  It was like when you're in the movie theatre, and you're entirely immersed in the world of the movie.  Then, for some reason, the spell is broken, you look around you for a second and see how everybody else in living the ups and downs of the characters on the screen.  You remember, just for an instant, that none of it's real.  But then you return to the movie anyway, and somehow your pleasure in it is enhanced, not ruined, by your knowledge that it's all an illusion.

Or it was like going up in a plane to do sky-diving for the first time.  You jump out of the plane, and for a moment it's exhilarating, you can fly, float, do somersaults.  Then you're falling, it's horrible, and you realize that the parachute you'd been depending on is missing.  Buddhism, Erdstein said, wasn't like being handed a parachute.  It was like realizing that there isn't any ground to hit, that you'd go on falling forever, and that the falling really was like the flying you'd taken it for the moment after you jumped.

I found myself very moved by Erdstein's talk - but not so much by the analogies as by the personal narrative.  That was partly because it was so much like mine.  But there was something else, something I've noticed about dharma talks.  When people offer advice, instruction, or admonitions, I usually find something within me resisting (which is a healthy enough reaction).  When people just say plainly why they started meditating, I almost always hear in their experience an echo of mine, an echo that somehow confirms mine or at least keeps company with it.

I had to leave half-way through the Q&A, but it had been a great morning: twenty or so people in a simple room meditating together and talking about it afterwards.  There weren't any statues, or robes, or all that much bowing.  There was a teacher, but nobody demanding prostrations when I went to talk to him.  The event was free: the first meditation retreat, in my three years in SF, at which nobody asked me for money.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Showing spine

I have a friend in England who occasionally sends me links to articles about meditation.  They're usually more or less enthusiastic explorations of meditation or mindfulness.  But a couple of weeks ago he sent me the recent New York Times piece about allegations of sexual harassment against Zen teacher Joshu Sasaki.

It's all very sad.  A few months ago, the same friend sent me a link to Sasaki's Mt. Baldy training center.  I spent a few minutes on the site and distinctly remember thinking, 'How nice, an old-style Zen center without any sign of untoward behaviour or controversy'.  I sent an email back saying, 'Looks like a good place to do koan work'.

That judgment will have to be revised now.  It seems that the kind of koan work that went on at Mt. Baldy involved women being encouraged to expose their breasts to the teacher as a way of 'showing' the answer.  It also seems to have involved a lot of unwelcome groping, and the occasional tea-time at which the Zen master would do his best to seduce his students.

My own view of this is clear: Sasaki should be stripped of his status as a roshi and should never again be allowed to teach.  More generally, Buddhist teachers who fail to live up to the few simple rules that govern their conduct - the norms that we apply to teachers of any sort in our society, as well as the basic ethical tenets of their own religion - should no longer act as teachers (at least for a significant period of time).

Western Buddhist communities need to apply these rules strictly for a number of reasons.  We need to send a clear signal to those who might be interested in Buddhism that sexual harassment and abuse will never be tolerated.  We need to affirm in a public way that everyone in our communities, from the most experienced practitioner to the complete beginner, partakes of a fundamental equality and is bound by the same rules.  And we need to make it clear to those in authority that abuse of this sort will not be taken lightly, so that it is less likely to happen again - or, at least, so that it happens less frequently in the future.

This is, of course, not the first case of a Zen teacher abusing his authority for sexual gain.  Part of what upsets me about the Sasaki case is that it is the latest in a long line of such cases.  And nobody ever seems to learn from the past.  Each time this happens we are told that next time, things will be different.  More people are going to speak out earlier.  Nobody is going to be hoodwinked by a charismatic teacher ever again.  From now on, people will go into things with their eyes open.

Then the next scandal breaks, often revealing (as in Sasaki's case) that abuses had been going on for decades.  That nobody had been brave enough to speak out against them (or only a few people, who were ignored or condemned by the community at large).  That the master's inner coterie had done everything they could to sweep the allegations under the carpet.  And that people calling themselves Buddhists had, on the whole, preferred perpetual forgiveness of the master to standing up for the rights of their fellow students.

If everyone agreed on what needed to be done, that would be one thing.  If everyone agreed that what we need to do is ensure that our religious institutions are accountable and transparent, then we could start the conversation about how exactly we might go about doing that.  Instead, as a glance at any online Zen forum will tell you, a lot of people think that we should avoid being too harsh, or judgmental, or hung-up on sex, or disrespectful of the tradition, or whatever.  A lot of these people have the best of intentions, but it's worth pointing out why their arguments won't wash.

The first argument I've seen is that we shouldn't take action against teachers like Sasaki since to do so would be unkind.  In other words, it would violate one of the core teaching of Buddhism, that we should be compassionate.  Some people even claim that whistle-blowers like Eshu Martin - who broke the story of Sasaki's abuses with a letter to Sweeping Zen - are guilty of triumphalism, or showboating, or of profiting from others' suffering.  In any case, stripping an 105-year-old priest of his dignity can hardly be seen as the kind of acts Buddhist should be advocating.

The problem with this argument is that we can all agree to be kind, while disagreeing about what being kind should consist in.  It's arguable that if we take into consideration everyone that might be impacted by this - including potential future victims of harassment - the kindest thing to do is to impose strict sanctions on teachers who do wrong.  And while it's good to remind ourselves that showboating doesn't help, the actions of whistle-blowers can also easily be interpreted as acts of kindness, since the intention behind them is often to reduce future harm.

The second argument is a more sophisticated, more Zen and less Buddhist, version of the first.  It is that we should avoid being judgmental of others, and that we should have a certain detachment from the judgments our minds often make.  But it seems impossible to avoid judging altogether.  In Sasaki's case, not taking any action would constitute a judgment just as much as taking robust action would.  Given that we're all going to judge the situation in various ways, we need some way of arbitrating among judgments.  So it's probably better to focus on whether a given judgment is accurate than to try to get rid of judging altogether.

The Zen recommendation to keep your thoughts at a certain distance is often a helpful one, in that it can prevent us from taking our own upset for a disorder in the world.  But it's important to realize that never endorsing any of your own thoughts leads to an infinite regress.  Radical doubt is simply impossible, because the thought 'I should never believe any thought I have' leads to paradox.  People who say 'we should not judge at all' are caught in a bind; if we shouldn't judge anything, why should we judge what they say to be true?  The healthy way of applying the original recommendation is to remember to take some time to gain some perspective on each thought as it arises.  Eventually, though, you will have to decide one way or the other. 

There's another reason that it's perfectly permissible to judge teachers like Sasaki by certain ethical standards.  This is that they themselves have chosen to take certain vows and precepts as Buddhists and as Buddhist teachers.  It's not like we're imposing some entirely foreign system of values on them that they never signed up to or saw coming.  All Zen students who take refuge agree to the ten Boddhisattva precepts, among which is the precept against sexual immorality.  Zen teachers are obviously bound by these precepts too - indeed, as teachers, we should expect them to be especially committed to them.  And though ideas of what constitutes sexual immorality thankfully change over time, what Sasaki was up to clearly fits the bill.

This helps with a third common argument, that we in the West are too hung up on sex.  Really (the argument goes) there's nothing intrinsically wrong about sex; and even if there were, the way we are reacting to the Sasaki scandal is exaggerated.  In the normal course of things, teachers will sometimes have sex with students, and there's no reason for us to freak out about it.  (This seems to be Brad Warner's view, though he is careful to draw a line between consensual sex between students and teachers and Sasaki's non-consensual groping.)

I don't want to revisit the issue of why consensual student-teacher sex is unacceptable, except to remind everyone that power differentials within Zen groups is often considerable.  But I will say two things.  The first is that in the case of Sasaki, it's clear that the vast majority of his groping was done without the consent of the women involved.  You don't have to be prudish about sex to see why this is wrong.  All you have to understand is that sexual choice is an important right, and that this right was violated by Sasaki's actions.

The second thing I'll say is that the idea that we should be careful about sex is not simply a Western idea.  It is present in many Eastern belief-systems too.  One of these is Buddhism.  Both the ten Mahayana precepts and the five Theravada ones warn us to avoid sexual immorality.  Of course, we can disagree about what sexual immorality is, and whether a particular person has committed it.  But the idea that we are introducing Western concerns about sex into Buddhism is a non-starter: the concerns about sex were already there.

The final argument I want to confront is that stripping Sasaki of his authority as a teacher would be an affront to his ancient lineage.  Now, I personally am moving towards the conclusion that we shouldn't have spiritual teachers at all: the potential for abuse is just too great.  The claims of lineages seem especially spurious: even if were true that there were chains of teachers reaching all the way back to the Buddha, I still wouldn't see why that would necessarily make people at the end of those chains better teachers.

But I recognize that there are lots of good people who value lineages.  I can certainly appreciate the intangible and yet real value of being part of an ancient tradition.  And I have met and worked with teachers who had a lot of worthwhile things to say.  Even if we grant that lineages should play a role, though, we might still want to take action to make teachers accountable.  Indeed, people who value lineages should arguably be the most active in disciplining renegade teachers, since their transgressions visibly dishonour the traditions that those teachers claim to be part of.  Besides, if we truly believe that the precepts reduce suffering, helping teachers to abide by them is a gentle act.

The bottom line in all of this is that we need to remain level-headed about meditation and meditation teachers.  If a teacher in a high school sleeps with a student, he ceases to be a teacher.  If a doctor fails to live up to a code of medical practice, he ceases to be a doctor.  But whenever a Zen teacher is caught abusing his position for sex, and (moreover) contravening a clear ethical code he himself has signed up to and continually advocates, there is always a chorus of voices saying that no practical measures should be taken.  Why?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The mousetrap

Yesterday we decided to do some cleaning.  We at Wind in Grass have been talking about this for some time, and now we've finally gotten around to it.

We meet every week in a space owned by the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.  The main building, designed by Julia Morgan, has several different rooms which always seem to be in use and which get a corresponding amount of upkeep.

The space we use is a kind of annex to the main building, except that it's actually entirely separate, and you can't get to one from the other.  It also fronts onto a different street, so to get to us from the main building you have to walk around the corner and the down some steps.

That will get you onto Carolina, a street which plunges sharply downwards.  From the top you get a marvelous view of the skyscrapers downtown and the Bay Bridge and the flashing Coca-Cola sign.  To find us you have to break your downward plunge and take a sharp left into a little entranceway.

I love everything about our location, even though the first couple of times I tried to find the group I walked right by it.  During one-days you can take food outside and eat it on the street and look out over the city like you were sitting on the grassy slope of a mountain.  A few times I've gotten a lift downhill on Michael's scooter -  a moment of pure experience if there ever was one.

I also love the space itself.  It is down to earth, unpretentious, simple.  It is basically a large rectangular room with four pillars near the center.   In one corner there is a bathroom and on the far side there is a small antechamber leading to a slightly larger storage area.  We have dokusan in the antechamber.  It's good to practice with humility and simplicity, and easy to do so in a place like this.

On the other hand, those wooden floorboards are pretty rough, and it's not uncommon for people to get splinters in their feet while doing walking meditation.  I like it to think it keeps us awake, but it's probably not the best introduction to kinhin for newcomers.  The place looks generally dilapidated.

So we've finally decided to try to renovate it a little.  Yesterday was the first scheduled day of work practice.  We spent most of it clearing out the storage area.  Apparently nobody had done any kind of sorting of the stuff in there since the 1970s.  The result was a sort of archaeology.

The top layer was our stuff: a few large crates containing stuff for the tea, stuff for the altar, and two big piles of mats and cushions.  The next layer down contained pictures and magazines and children's art projects from the 90s and 80s.  The next two layers, Vietnam War posters and JFK campaign material.

After that things started to get ugly.  At the lowest level the stacks of magazines started to dissolve into amorphous lumps of pulp.  If you tried to pick a pile up half of it would come away in your hands.  By this point you could see the ancient mouse-traps and the scatter of rat-droppings on the floor.

We pulled everything out and placed it into three piles: keep, throw, maybe.  Miscellanea in the throw category included: a set of leather-bound volumes of the complete works of classic authors; a series of large plates for stamping pre-computer spreadsheets into being; milk cartons swilling mysterious liquids.  

The keep pile included an old notebook in which someone had copied hundreds of passages of poetry and philosophy.  I was going to throw it when Marika saved it for our liturgy.  The maybe pile is still there: it is how objects that are too awkward to be carted to the dump have so far avoided destruction.  There are also some pictures nobody wants but were too nicely framed to throw away.

It was all much worse than I had thought.  Every month I've gone into the antechamber to meet with David, who sits right in front of the door to the storage area, blithely unaware of the rat-droppings carpeting the room behind him.

And every week we've sat in the main room practicing mindfulness, completely ignorant of the piles of rotting newsprint festering on the other side of the wall.  There was all this trash right there, just beyond a space we felt so sure of.  The hidden stuff was going to make itself felt at some point, so it's a good thing we dealt with it sooner rather than later.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Game of lives

This Christmas holiday, besides reading the Diamond and Heart sutras, I also finished reading Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game.  Hesse was a German (later Swiss) writer who was deeply influenced by Eastern mysticism.  He traveled to India and Sri Lanka, practiced meditation, and wrote a novel called Siddhartha based on the life of the Buddha.  The Glass Bead Game, his last novel and his greatest, is profoundly marked by Buddhist themes and perspectives.

The novel takes the form of a biography, written in the distant future, of one Joseph Knecht (whose life is in the narrator's past but the reader's future).  Knecht's life plays itself out in the utopian realm of Castalia, a 'pedagogic province' that has been set up to protect and foster learning and the arts after a period of warfare.  The most promising pupils in every school in the land are sent away to Castalia, where they receive an extensive and varied education before joining the order of scholar-monks.  Joseph Knecht is among them.

The scholar-monks of Castalia spend their time engaged in the study of literature, history, languages, physics, mathematics, and music (they are especially keen on these last two).  They are also devoted to meditation.  But the activity they value most highly is one they invented themselves: the glass bead game.  This is a sort of game that is also a public performance, in which the artistic and scientific productions of the past are condensed and translated into an array of glass beads that provide unsurpassed material for contemplation.

The narrative follows Knecht's progress from diffident pupil to magister ludi, the Master of the Game and one of the chief officers in the Castalian elite.  It also describes the master's eventual decision to leave the order to dedicate himself to teaching in the outside world.  Since the hero of the novel ultimately repudiates Castalia, it might seem that we are being led to mistrust, rather than encouraged to realize, the ideal which the province represents.  But a number of elements in the novel conspire to ensure that our view of Castalia cannot be entirely negative.

The narratives of two characters in particular make the case for the defense.  The first is the Music Master, the high-ranking yet humble official who first discovers Joseph Knecht's promise as a boy.  In his old age, the Music Master attains a sort of enlightenment - described in the most orthodox Buddhist terms, yet without dogmatism or pretentiousness.  The second character is Plinio Designori, a politician who had some experience of Castalia as a boy, but left it to return to the workaday world.  Overwhelmed with anxiety, he exemplifies all the harm the world can do, and thus (by implication) showcases the real value of contemplative repose.  

The message of the novel is perhaps that meditation and learning are fine (even indispensable) things, but that they need to be put to the service of others to have any value.  This is the point of minor characters such as Elder Brother, a sinologist whose reclusiveness comes ultimately to seem selfish, and Father Jacobus, the Benedictine monk who criticizes the Castalian order for not submitting itself to a guiding deity.  This is also the point of Knecht's final renunciation of the Castalian way of life.

If the novel has a weakness, it is in the final part of the narrative of Knecht's life, when he returns to the world to teach but dies soon after.  Hesse clearly wanted to make Knecht into a Christlike figure (he dies while trying to engage with a pupil by swimming across a lake with him), but I would have liked to see evidence of a more genuine educational contribution to a larger number of students (his one pupil is the privileged son of Plinio Designori).

If this is a weakness, it is quickly compensated for in the novel's final section, a collection of three stories that were supposedly written by Knecht as school exercises but which Hesse originally wrote as previous incarnations of the novel's hero.  The first story imagines Knecht as a rainmaker in a primitive village who eventually sacrifices himself to the weather gods to appease his people.  The second reintroduces him as Josephus Famulus, an early Christian ascetic who serves others by hearing their sins and forgiving them.  The last and longest of the three stories is set in ancient India.

This last life tells the story of Dasa, a prince who is raised as a shepherd, ignorant of his true pedigree, because of palace intrigues.  In this brief narrative, Dasa gains a kingdom and loses it, gains a wife and loses her, fathers a son and loses him.  In the background is Dasa's growing relationship with a holy man who sits in silent meditation in the forest.  At the end of the story is a Borges-style twist that forces us to reevaluate what is actual and what is illusory.

The interest of the final three tales lies not only in the number of fine passages that they contain, but in the question of their relationship to the main narrative of Knecht, the supremely sophisticated master of a future artform.  All of the stories show some appreciation for learning, while making clear that true attainment comes only with service.  They also suggest that a form of devotion that combines deep contemplation and useful action can provide a refuge, perhaps even a release, from the turbulent trajectories of our lives.

I was disappointed with the Diamond and Heart sutras partly because in their dry intellectualism they failed to provide an appealing picture of what a good life looks like.  This is precisely what The Glass Bead Game is ultimately all about - ironically, the abstruse intellectual exercise of its title is eventually displaced from the center of our attention.  In the lives of Knecht, Famulus, and (especially) Dasa, we find as attractive and as vivacious a presentation of the central tenets of classical Buddhism as I have seen anywhere.

Brown bread

Last December I decided to sign up for a one-day retreat at Green Gulch Farm.  It was led by Ed Brown, a Soto priest who is also a skilled chef.  He helped set up Greens restaurant, a Zen Center offshoot in the Marina district of San Francisco.  He is also an expert break-maker.  (Although I hadn't heard of Brown before the retreat, I was well-aware that they make their own bread at Green Gulch, having been made to lug sacks of flour into the kitchen during my first stay there.)

I was late getting there.  When I reached the meditation hall the wooden slide doors wouldn't open; eventually someone heard me fidgeting with them and let me in.  (Later that day I realized that there were tiny wooden bolts you had to slide to one side to be able to open the doors.)  The meditation hall was only half full, with about 20 or 30 people having turned up for the one-day sitting.  Brown was making some introductory remarks.

After a the first session of seated meditation, Brown sent us outside for kinhin (walking meditation).  This time though it was more like the random mindful walking around I had seen at Spirit Rock than the controlled, group marching that was the practice at PZI and SFZC retreats.  Instead of stepping slowly and carefully around the room in a circle, we went out into the fields and scattered thoughtfully in all directions.

There was a second dose of seated meditation, and then qi-gong.  Qi-gong, it turns out, is something like tai-chi, or at least it is the way Brown teaches it.  (He led off with the disclaimer that what we were about to do might not be qi-gong; he had once taught a class only to have someone approach him afterwards and insist that what he was doing was not qi-gong).  It was peaceful enough, and a good way of shaking off the discomfort that comes with long periods of sitting.

After lunch there was a question and answer period, which was strangely enough before the dharma talk.  (It was also a lot more interesting than the dharma talk, during which I drifted in and out of sleep a number of times.)  Brown talked about the discomfort of a rigorous Zen practice, and though he said that he practiced a gentler 'Zen lite', he warned against trying too hard to make things comfortable.  'If you keep trying to make things comfortable for yourself, you'll reach a point at which even lying down isn't satisfactory, because even that's not quite comfortable enough.'

In the afternoon there were a couple of more periods of sitting bracketing a period of walking meditation.  This time we walked indoors, since it was now raining outside.  For the last period of sitting we faced into the room, so that we could see each other, the way I learned to sit with PZI and which I've always preferred to the SFZC norm of sitting facing a blank wall.  (In City Center they even paint the windows white so that you can't be distracted by what's going on outside.)

At the end of the day my girlfriend picked me up and surprised me by saying she'd made a reservation at the nearby Pelican Inn.  She'd driven me up and had spent the day cycling up and down the coast (in the rain on the return leg).  We sat by the fire in a very good imitation of a medieval English pub.  I felt slightly stunned and giddy.  It wasn't the pint of beer in front of me; it was the two hours of sitting behind me.

On the sign there was a depiction of a pelican, an old friend of mine from college.  In the middle ages they took the pelican to symbolize Christ, believing that the bird (which often cleans its front-feathers with its beak) took pieces of its own flesh from its breast to feed them to its children.  Not a comfortable procedure, surely; but you have to make your daily bread.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dark heart

Recently I decided to start reading up on Buddhism.  Of course I'd read introductory books before, but for a long time I avoided studying up on things, since I wanted to focus on the practice of meditation itself.  But I've come to see this approach as naive - Buddhism in a complex tradition, and with so many different brands out there, it's worth being well informed.

Before the Christmas holiday I borrowed a book with the unpromising title Buddhist Wisdom.  Instead of being a repository of bumper-sticker slogans, though, it in fact contained a translation and commentary of two of the most important Buddhist scriptures, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.  I thought it would be helpful to start with these, two texts which are central to almost all Zen schools and to many other Mahayana traditions.

Both of these sutras are part of the Sanskrit collection known as the Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita).  These scriptures are supposed to have been rediscovered in the possession of the serpentine kings, the Nagas, by the master Nagarjuna.  Scholars used to date them to somewhere between 500 and 800 AD, but now prefer a much earlier date, somewhere around the turn of the millennium.

Both of them have a central place in most Zen practices, and I've heard them recited at both PZI and SFZC retreats.  The Diamond sutra has the additional distinction of being the text that the all-important Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (639-713 AD) was reading when he attained enlightenment.  A Chinese edition of it from 868 AD, now in the British Museum, also happens to be the oldest printed book in the world.

So what did I make of these two holy texts?  Very little, I'm afraid.  Both are disquisitions on doctrine given by enlightened figures (the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra and Avalokitesvara in the Heart Sutra) to less enlightened disciples (one Subhuti in the first text and one Shariputra in the second).  Both are concerned with meditation, enlightenment, and transcendence.  Both emphasize the dogmas of non-attainment and no-soul, both central features of the Mahayana path.

Beyond this, I had trouble making head or tail of them.  They are full of technical terms, many of them devotional in character (so the Buddha is at one point referred to as 'the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One').  The questions the text raises seem either like tricks ('Is there any dharma that the Tathagata has expounded?' answer: no) or like simple invitations to assent ('If there were as many Ganges rivers as there are grains of sand in the great river Ganges, would the grains of sand in them be many?' answer: yes).

If there is one part of these sutras that rises out of the quagmire of unrewarding obscurity, it is the famous statement in the Heart Sutra that 'form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form'.  The teaching here is that of transience - objects are nothing but their passing away, and things passing is what objects are.  This may be clear enough, but it is startling (or jarring) to see it presented as a plain contradiction in terms.  We are back with Heraclitus: 'We are and we are not'.

I received little help from the commentary by Edward Conze, the Anglo-German scholar who did much to make Buddhist scriptures accessible to the West.  Conze announces in his preface, 'What I have left unexplained, seemed to me either obvious or unintelligible', and he has left much unexplained, and therefore unintelligible to his readers, who may not find things as obvious as he seems to think they will.

If Mahayana Buddhism has positive doctrines, neither of these sutras make it easy to understand what they are.  Instead, they wrap a few striking insights in a language which is difficult to penetrate, insistently contradictory, and over-pious to the point of sycophancy.  I may yet become more used to this language and become capable of seeing through it more quickly.  But at this point I must say that the Diamond and Heart Sutras will not be much help to those in need of help or understanding.

One reason I became interested in Buddhism was because it seemed to offer a religious path that was less littered with irrational belief than most others.  The more exposure I get to ancient Buddhist texts, though, the more I'm convinced that this Western image of Buddhism as a rational religion is as much of an imposition on the sources as versions of Christianity that seek to downplay Jesus' resurrection, say, or his miracles. 

What allows me to stay within the Buddhist tent is that nobody inside of it has ever insisted that I take what these sutras say as authoritative (though I have been asked to chant them a few times).  And there's also the practice - sitting in silence, avoiding striving, trying to be kind - which somehow is never less glaringly the way no matter how much of a mess the texts make of pointing to it.

Conjuring a collective

Things are moving at my home sangha, Wind in Grass, now a little more than three years old.  The group was started by Michael, a dynamic young businessman who started practicing with Boundless Way Zen in Boston before moving to the Bay Area.  A few times in the past couple of years he's asked regular members of the group how things might get better.  One common suggestion was smartening up the space we use, in the basement of the Potrero Hill Neighbourhood House.  My suggestion was always the same: make the group more cooperative and less hierarchical.  Now it looks like both suggestions are being acted upon.

I'll update you on the upcoming makeover of our meeting space later (if work-practice is a part of any good retreat, then sanding and decorating can be part of this blog).  This post will be about the effort to make the group more of a communal endeavour.  Or, at least, it will be about trying to keep the group as informal and horizontal in organization as it has been for the past two years.  In other words, it will be about the logic of collective action.

There are basically two ways that a group can organize itself.  It can delegate the things it needs to get done to one or two people, or it can make a concerted effort at making things happen as a group.  The first option is often the easier one, since it means that most people don't have to do anything.  It's particularly tempting for a group like Wind in Grass, where (for various reasons), a few people are going to be more dedicated than others.  But it's a dangerous path to start down, even with the best of intentions.

The reason it's dangerous is that the more tasks that are delegated to one or two people, the more power they'll have over the direction of the group, even if that wasn't their aim in the first place.  It's in any case unfair to the one or two people taking on the extra responsibilities, who are carrying an increasing burden.  The only answer to this is to insist that a broader section of the group gets the chance (and has the duty) to fulfill some of the community's essential functions.  That way, both power and responsibility are distributed more equably and tolerably for all involved.

At Wind in Grass, Michael's usually taken the lead.  That's partly because he founded the group, but partly because he's been the only one with the drive, commitment, and organizational nous to make things happen, week after week.  Chris, with his long experience of Buddhism and Zen, has headed up the more religious side of our operations.  And David, of course, is our official teacher and the closest thing we have to a priest or director.  These three usually lead the meeting three weeks out of four (or five - which happens every few months)

The reform we've now decided to make is to invite some other regular member of the sangha to lead practice on the last Wednesday of every month.  I was asked to make the invitations, and I have to say that it was tough going at first.  There was more shyness than I expected; and some uncertainty about planning two or three weeks in advance.  But as soon as one or two of us had sat on the hot seat, others were more ready to step forward.

With us, it's not a matter of doing a 30-minute dharma talk - you can do anything you want, really, as long as it involves some meditation.  Most people simply choose a koan and then lead a discussion about it.  I've done some experiments involving non-Zen forms of meditation.  One brave soul did a (refreshingly Theravada) dharma talk.  I've assured people that they're welcome to do magic tricks, a stand-up comedy routine, or a yoga session, but unfortunately nobody has taken up any of these opportunities yet.  The crucial thing is that we've stepped off the default path of leaving everything to the willing few.