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.