Sunday, January 20, 2013

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.  

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