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.

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