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. 

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