Tonight's game was called "Making Sausage". The koan to which it will be keyed is "Go straight down a narrow mountain road with 99 curves". The saying from which I get the title is "no one likes to see how sausage is made". Well, the path of zen has been a lot messier than I honestly anticipated- so I find this saying liberating...and I really like sausage.
The experiment was run like this--- sitting zazen, the koan was spoken into the room. After some time, I asked people to pay attention to how the koan is affecting them. How their mind works with it, how it works with their mind, how their body responds, how their heart responds, what parts are being answered by "them", and what parts are being worked on outside that identity. Are they bored? Angry? Peaceful? Does the koan lie there, does it find them? Does it resurface? After we ring the bell, we were invited to share our process and also what we noticed about the path.
As usual, it was unusual, and unexpectedly great.
A: Noted how she noticed separate reactions, one she felt was false, another true, or deeper. She mentioned how her experience with the koan was dream-like, noticing twisting-ness in her body and following its many curves.
B: Talked about how the koan was, for him, a visual representation. A series of curves, bisected by a straight line. How that image kept resurfacing from the murk and rising to the top. He also discussed how visceral the experience was. How he could feel the rocks under foot and the breeze passing by. He mentioned how this process is something familiar, that it leads him in his art, a certain honesty in the curving road through a project.
C: Told how his experience was one where he could feel his tormentor- the koan author, drafting a cunning trap. He noticed how he approached it cautiously, aware of the seeming paradox, and waiting for the snap.
He also shared the fear, he said, that awaits with this koan, and has since he first worked on it. Confounding the mind to set the body free.
D: Talked about how she worked with a koan exactly like she engaged life. There was commentary, the desire to share insights, practicing responses. There was that experience of following a sock in a dryer, watching it disappear, and reappear amongst the spinning chaos of thoughts. There was a sense of trying it on.
What did we notice about the koan itself? That we were home, that we were going easy down a hill, not up, that like a strip of colored paper, it was continuous with no mistakes.
Chris Wilson later spoke on the process of zen, and of the art of mistake making. His talk can be found on the dharma talk page.
The cool thing for me about tonight, is noticing how it seems there is no one straight path. That everyone works on koans differently, and everyone works on koans the same, and no matter how far away from the path I feel I am, I am probably going straight on a path with 99 curves.
And, like the pig says, t-t-t-thats all folks.
Well, more rambling than usual.
I went surfing. It was one of those days where the -ness of it all leaves you breathless and at home. As if God had honeysuckle for breath and the ocean served up great golden mountains of water to slide down. And it must be paradise because everywhere from here is the wrong way.
Now I am on the train. My phone has died and I cannot remember anyone's phone number so I have you. And the window. And I am glad to report that the clouds and the water and the decaying piers, and the whistle and the sore lower back, and even Martinez are all where they are supposed to be.
Enjoy the sunset.
Tonight’s game was based on the following koan:
A student asks the teacher “The whole world in the ten directions is a shining pearl, how am I to understand this?”
The teacher replied, “The whole world in the ten directions is a shining pearl, why would you want to understand this?”
Later, the teacher saw the student and asked “The whole world in the ten directions is a shining pearl, how do you understand this?”. The student replied “The whole world in the ten directions is a shining pearl, why would I want to understand this?”
The teacher looked at the student and replied, “now you are truly in a dark cave, full of demons”.
David Weinstein taught to this koan in a one day retreat in Alameda last weekend. In closing, he said “I don’t understand why I love my wife, but I do”. This profoundly touched me, that a dedicated and loving husband, a therapist no less who helps people with their stories, was content to know that he did not understand the source or reason for his love for his wife, and didn’t want to, but knew that he did. I imagined how true that felt and the seed grew into tonight’s game.
During zazen, I spoke into the room “I invite you to give your attention to a discomfort in your body right now. Maybe your ankles hurt, or your knees ache or your shoulders are tense or you have a headache, or you are cold, or you are hungover. Give that feeling attention, and turn into it. Let the stories about how it got there and if you can bear it and what you need to do with it, just fall away. And then, turn into the pain. Be pain.”
After ten more minutes, I introduced the second part of the game. I asked “Now give bring to your attention, a person in your life who brings up strong emotions. Fear, anger, love, lust, hate, envy…and then give your attention to that feeling. Let the stories drop away and let that feeling stand alone. Become a verb, be anger, be lust, be hate, be envy.”
I rang the bell. We walked kinhin and I invited people to invite their pain into their walk. To notice the numbness of their feet, and aching joints. To ache. To limp.
We sat, and passed the zen lotus.
The first pass asked what we noticed about our discomfort.
A: I went first because the whole game was my bad idea and I am not going to ask anyone to do anything I am not willing to do.
What I noticed was that there were so many stories about how much of the pain I could take. For me it was tired. I didn’t sleep much last night, or the one before it. It aches, and burned. My back hurt from it and I jerked with the nervous energy of staying awake. When the stories were laid aside, I noticed that I was not longer so sure that it was hard, or that I could not make it, or even that I was too tired for zazen. I was just tired. Aching, sputtering. And it was fine. I thought it would be unbearable, but when it came to it, there was plenty of room, and it was not even uncomfortable.
B: Noticed that at first, she was unaware of any aches or pains. But when she looked for them, they were there. So thanks for that. Later, she noticed that the little aching pains became tolerable
C: Noticed his knees. His knee that was hurt in an accident. How the story of the accident lingered in the knee and made it hurt before it hurt. How therapy was making it throb, but when it filled his attention, that was not what he expected and was fine.
D: Talked about waiting for a body part to give in. She talked about the stories of which one it would be, and how it eventually dawned on her that just anticipating it, was a pain in itself.
E: Had the most wonderful observation. He noted that though his hip hurt, when he went looking for the pain in his hip, he couldn’t exactly locate it.
F: Noted that her back hurt, low and deep, but when she turned into it, and didn’t tell the usual stories about how it was unbearable, she was not even sure it was painful. It opened up, and was quite tolerable.
We passed the zen lotus again. This time, we talked about what we noticed when we dropped the story about our emotions and were just our emotions.
A: I told a story about laying in bed with a girl. Laying beside her and not being able to sleep. About wanting to hold her and wanting to move away. About wanting to sleep, but heart racing and cold fear jerking me awake. The stories spun around, that night, about why I could not sleep. Oh, commitment issues, care issues, sensitivity to light and noise. It was her fault, my fault, someone else’s fault. But on the cushion, there was just longing toward and away. Caught in a pull and a push. There was nothing wrong with it. It was just stuck.
B: Told of a relationship with a man. Of resentment building, a growing desire for space and the suffocation of spirit. And yet being torn and needing, wanting the relationship. The stories about being right about this, about this being selfish and greedy, all dropped away and there was just torn.
C: Told of his brother, holding him in love, but also afraid for him. That knowing what he should be doing to help, what his brother was doing wrong, got somehow in the way.
D: Told of her husband and long and enduring love, but that occasionally, how, like an arrow, another person would strike her interest, and the cascade of stories and guilt were painful and unbearable. Leaving the stories behind, she noticed that she loved her husband deeply and that there was enough room for longing for another and that that could all be held and part.
E: Told of finding a quiet mind, but after looking for an emotion, finding stories, all kinds of stories, in the way about how to feel and why.
F: Told of cycling through friends looking for a strong emotion, finally settling on her best friend and the sense of contentment and sitting in that soft warmth.
Finally, we played our last hand. A great thanks to Ishara Hudson for her inspiration from her Zen charades game and the peach blossoms koan. Of course, if it all fell to pieces it was going to be her fault too. Ahh, the luxury of blame assignment.
Ok, I hate this stuff. I hate actions, because there is a safety in words. You can control and shape and push thins away. So I asked the group to show, without words, the emotion they had given their attention to. Not act it out, but to embody it. Be it. Whew.
A: I went first. I laid on the ground, hand crossed over my check and feet crossed over too. Jaw clenched, longing in my limbs. Eyes open.
B: Reached her hand out, touched the ground before her and then moving on agonized claw up, raked her hair. Perfect. No words needed.
C: Reached out and placed his arms around himself. Once, then again. The second time, relaxing into it. Great.
D: Said “I guess I need to lay down too”. She lay one one side, curving her arms out to hold something tight, then, at the moment it looked nourishing and warm and intimate, flopped to the other side and did the same. Then back, in obvious turmoil. It was amazing. I don’t know where it started, but everyone applauded.
E: Wrapped her blanket around her shoulders, and leaned on D, placing her head on his shoulder and exhaling into it. I teared a bit. Wow.
F: Gave herself a hug. Then plunged her face into her hands.
Wow. I cannot speak for the group., but for me, it was like lightening. Or Christmas, or pubtery. Full of surprises, all unexpected, and I am so grateful for our darkness and our demons and the glow of our lusterous pearl.
At the end, our own Chris Wilson spoke to the koan. He talked about how people don’t want happiness, they don’t want the peace of the grave, what we really strive for is composure, the willingness to let what was happening happen without judgment or expectation and to accept it all with dignity. How we are all hosts to the guests of our experiences and that when we turn to them, they are welcome and there is room for them. About how dualism, good or bad, right or wrong, led us to keep emotions, pains, discomforts at bay and thereby missing out on what was happening to us. I am doing a poor job of capturing his words. There was wisdom and darhma sparkling like champagne bubbles. I hope Chris might fill in a few for us in the comments.
Thank you all. That was an evening I will not forget.
[also, if you will indulge me, as I noted at the beginning of the meeting, only in the Bay area does a zen group discuss second round financings with VC's while waiting for the opening bell. I love this group. ]
Its late, and all my good thoughts have gone to bed.
I was speaking to David Weinstein last night. He said that he thinks koan should be a verb. That touched me. Later it hit me that Michael is a verb too. That makes things easier.
Tonight's game was inspired by the koans: "Save the person who jumped off the ninety eighth story of the world Trade Center" and "Make the Twin Towers stand up again". No one knew that ahead of time, of course. Except me. Thats because I am sneaky.
We sat Zazen. At the 15 minute mark, I spoke into the room
“There is someone, or something, in your life that you wanted to save, but could not.” Then I invited people to “Notice how it feels to hold them. Notice what it is like to want to save them. Notice your failure”.
T recalled her husband, and spoke of wanting to save him from his alcoholism. She spoke about the pain and the longing to see him relieved of the burden and the frustration that she could not save him.
L had many thought bubble up. She recalled watching her house burn and all of her letters and memories with it. But she said, the memory that came to sit with her was of June grass and springtime out a classroom window and wanting to hold onto that.
C told of him mother. A brilliant woman, a screen writer, she fought an 8 year battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s. C talked about the house where he was raised, and how a care taker allowed his mother to live there, comfortably. He and his wife would visit regularly. His mother recognized few people, but did, after some time, remember C. C was named her conservator and made sure his mother was cared for. One year, worn down from visits and caring, C and his wife decided to go down the week after his Mother’s birthday to celebrate with her. A person with Alzheimer’s cannot be expected to tell the difference, and C and his family were exhausted. She passed away that say, and C carries a fear that in a moment of clarity, she knew that she was alone on her Birthday, dying without her son.
A remembered his college roommate. Truly a bright kid, but unable, or unwilling, to make the leap to college. He struggled with his grades, with his professors, with fitting in. Ultimately, he dropped out of school and A was left wondering if he had done enough.
I remembered my nana. She lived 92 years. She was a formidable woman, and an inspiration, mentor, and idol for me, growing up. She was a brilliant woman, family legend says she was the first woman admitted to Oxford (she didn’t go and who knows, perhaps there is speculation on their part), but my memories of her are of being thoughtful, and educated on every subject. She never lost her composure and was always on balance.
In the weaning months of her life, she suffered from severe and quickly increasing, senior onset dementia. It was harrowing, for me, to see the woman I loved stripped of that thing so dear to her. It seemed such an unfair result to such a wonderful life. Surely being amazing prevented you from such things. She was paranoid, and made little sense. I remember her asking me one night if I too saw the Chinese people hiding in the hills. I lied to her and said yes, so she might not feel crazy. I remember seeing her cry. I averted my gaze. It seemed profane.
As I sat the memory that came to me was of her in the senior living facility in which she was ultimately and painfully committed, in her institutional pink room, with an impossible crumb clinging to her lip. The Nana I knew would have been mortified to have food clinging to her face, and I was paralyzed and unable to let her know. I rejected the crumb and my Nana and the illness, and sat there in disbelief.
As I sat, I started to cry. I remember being so angry at the doctors, angry at myself that I could prevent this. This humbling of a woman, this degradation of idolization. I remember my Nana, surrounded by jello and fake flowers, meekly complaining that she couldn’t get a decent cup of tea, and I cried because I couldn’t give that to her. Tea.
I held her there, crumb on lip, weak tea, and felt the desire to save her from that. I realized how I was trying to save me from that, from seeing my memories tarnished, from feeling powerless and scared. I sat with that.
After we had all spoken once, we sat again for 5 minutes. This time, after we had settled in, I asked:
“Hold that person, that you wanted to save, but could not. Now bring them back”
Yikes. What a difference.
I was completely caught off guard. I expected a lot of things, but all I got was drinking weak tea and geeing a crumb on my face, while my grandson looked on with a strange look on his face. Then it was all perfect, and my Nana’s death was perfect and her dementia was perfect and dignified and I remember how her sweaters smelled and the sound of windchimes on her porch.
T expressed that she realized that her husband’s battle was perfect too. That she would not change a thing.
L seemed really emotional. She mentioned that she realized how hard she worked at keeping good memories and not looking at the hard ones, or for them, or inviting them to sit in her lap.
E, who joined us, sketched the most beautiful memory of her friend, who had taken her life, her face filing E’s consciousness, hair blowing, and laughter.
C remembered the perfection of his mother’s death. Of that day. And holding it now, just right.
A tried to imagine his roommate, playing beer pong, going to classes, and wearing a college t-shirt. He mentioned that it didn’t seem right, and that for whatever reason, leaving his roommate alone seemed right and leaving everything where it was, right.
Thank you all. What a night.
(as always, my mind carries only a shadow on a cave wall. Please, if you would, add to the comments your experience)
Tonight we played a game.
A zen game.
With the adults gone at Sesshin, the kids had run of the house, and we, in grand fashion, ran amok. Everyone was invited to take their left hand and stick it out, then turn it left. There. That person. That person to your left, tonight, you are going to do their zazen. Tonight, you are going to leave your practice, and do their practice for them. You are going to sit for them. And while you do, do so knowing that your zazen is being looked after by the person on your right. Trust that.
I invited people to notice how this changed their sitting practice.
While we sat, after about 10 minutes I asked: What do you notice? Where do you hold that person? In your heart, you head, somewhere else? What are you doing for them? How does it feel to have your intimate practice being done for you? Then we sat for another 15 minutes.
After zazen, we continued the experiment. As we lined for kinhin (walking meditation), I asked that each person reach out their right hand and place it on the shoulder of the person before them. Then, we were asked to walk for that person. We walked slowly, once around the zendo and took our seats.
What did we notice? Everyone was given the zen locust ( a rubber bug I got from a doctor's office after the kids had finished with them), and asked to share one thing about their experience, knowing that we would pass the token thrice. Yes, I said thrice. My Nana was British and I picked up bad habits like that. Thrice. Bite me.
What did we notice?
Let me say in advance, listening was somewhat akin to sticking your head out the window of a speeding car. Everything remained as it was before, but all of a sudden it was exhilarating, challenging, different and exciting. Maybe more like a waterslide, moving you side to side and changing how you know movement works, but doing it gently like a good joke or a massage. So thank you bodhisattvas, your comments were transforming.
Second aside- I am never going to do this justice. I asked that our sangha add their own comments to this, to try to capture this evening.
I noticed that I kept reaching out for the person to my left, trying to find them out there, then wondering if they might not be inside more. I noticed that I shut my eyes, which I don’t when I sit usually, and that I felt apologetic and sorry when I found myself thinking. I noticed that I was kinder and more attentive to doing J’s zazen than my own. I noticed that I was worried about thoughts until I decided that it was ok to let R have them for me. Then everything settled in.
T noticed that her mind kept trying to calibrate with what she thought she knew about J. She asked herself what J would want, and remembered that J had noticed that she wanted to be compassionate and less prone to anger and tried to sit compassionately for her. She also plumbed her memory for what she thought J would focus on, decided that was her breath, and breathed for her.
J noticed energy, from her left side, like tendrils reaching out to L. She noticed a sense of warmth and that she was being pulled, physically to her left. When she remembered that someone on her right was sitting for her, she noticed a balancing and a warmth from that side.
L expressed what she noticed in pictures. Walks on docks, playing in the sun, piano lessons, dogs, and gymnastics. Later she noticed rolling S up in her tongue and consuming her until that too felt in-genuine and then left her where she found her.
S noticed gratitude, and trying to get into R’s head and trying to do zazen that he would like. She wondered if it should have to do with computers, but then decided to settle into her body and just sit for him. She also noticed how nice it was not to have to worry about herself for a spell.
R noticed trying to feel what it was like to be in my head. He noticed that he tried to have nice thoughts for me to have.
J noticed that when we walked she just walked and did not feel anything different. I noticed a sense of my walking, but then…a feeling of “many feet”. Both. S noticed how she never knows what to do with walking meditation, but that it was oddly liberating for her to just lose herself in it.
These other observations are not attributed, because I notice that I can only recall the first thing a person says, then the rest becomes anonymous.
Someone noticed that everything became circular, the person who was sitting for them was being sat for was being sat for , was being sat for until it was them that was sitting for them again and all a big circular river and the divisions illusory.
Several people noticed that at first, they reached out with their consciousness, but later, just noticed what they were noticing, and that that seemed good enough.
Several people noted that they felt inside the other person, or felt their attributes. No one was sure if this was projection, or honest, but we agreed that there was something there common and it felt like home. Most people noticed that they quickly stopped trying to think what the other person was thinking and just settled into sitting.
Many people got to some place important that they found no words for.
People expressed a feeling of great security and comfort and gratitude that someone was caring for their practice, carrying their load.
Interestingly on the SECOND sit of the night, people wanted to sit for the next person again. I noticed that my sitting was oddly deep and sincere. R noticed that he felt himself swell up in size, and eventually felt like he was in the middle of the room. No one wanted to stop sitting. It was…bizarrely sure, and still and…I cannot say, but several people commented that they were really...present. For themselves, for the other person? I cannot say.
We closed the night bowing to the person to our right, with thanks for sitting for us so sincerely.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
Get posts as they are published:
What We Read