Today I decided to be an asshole. Wait...Can I swear on this blog? Uh, yeah, sure, who is stopping me.
Today, I decided to be an asshole. Not in the usual way, but in a constructive way. What I did was wait until we were sitting. 15 minutes into the sit, I said, "three minutes left". Then I waited. After eight minutes I said, "two minutes left". There were some groans, and some laughter. With 5 minutes left I announced "five minutes left". Then, with about 3 minutes left I said "Ok...30 seconds left". Finally, in an inspired moment of asshole-ness, at 25 minutes, I rang the bell once................and waited.....and waited......and waited. After over a minute, Bong.
I am a Zen asshole. This is probably not news to anyone.
I asked people to share what they noticed. Did thinking they knew the time left affect their sitting? How much longer or shorter did they think the period was? Did the time do anything to their practice? If so, who was doing it?
Great, great evening. As usual I will make a botch of the remembrances, so I am counting on the sangha to chime in or be faced with the totalitarianism of my memory.
A: Admitted he was in on the game. He guessed that if he had not been, he would have been angry that I was messing with his practice, and laugh at the humor in it.
B: Said that he had no idea if he was supposed to do something with the numbers, having arrived late, so he just settled into the sitting. He did notice that when the end was nearing that he felt himself straining.
C: Said she noticed that so long as the increments were linear, her practice kept going as usual, but that her sitting felt jumbled up when the time increments reversed. She also said that as she waited for the second bell, she felt her body pulling forward into the bow that she thought she knew was coming.
D: Said that he felt an urgency with his practice, a striving. He panicked, wanting to "make the most' of the remaining time, and that he found his mind scrambling for the "right thing to do".
I also then remembered to share this story:
Two students are admiring a flag. The teacher asks them what they are doing. One points and says, "the wind is moving", the other says "the flag is moving". The teacher, perhaps also a Zen asshole, says "your mind is moving".
Then things opened up and flew about the room. Does knowing how long you have change how you sit? Does enlightenment come at the end of long practice or at the beginning, or by accident? How do we know that we are done sitting? Somehow we got talking about death, about how you sit or live when you don't know how much time you have left. I recalled that my sister's husband, on a cross country bike race, had a fellow biker die in a car crash right behind him. I thought about how that guy probably thought that he had another 60 years, or another 5 minutes to sit, but he was wrong. How we all live believing the bell is not going to ring the next second for us, but that that is just a story too. A focused on how the tibetans said that if you don't think about your dying, you are likely to panic and get it wrong. He said that if we live our lives without acknowledging the inevitability of our own mortality, then we are flitting about aimlessly, missing the beauty. And we talked about how John sometimes says "You don't need to worry about de
ath, because when it comes time for you to die, you will know what to do". I mentioned how the sit reminded me of the saying in our liturgy..."and pass quickly from dark to dark". That I appreciated the urgency of that message. But what does that change? C mentioned that he knows, in some ways, that his life is subject to termination at any moment, yet what does that mean about how he lives his life now? Everynight cannot be one to see the dawn.
And there was a story about a 102 year old woman telling a teenage girl "its all over so quickly". And A observed that maybe at the end, all our life is one short blast of stuttering film, and all we have to answer for it is how much of life we loved.
So we left it there.
30 seconds left.
Tonight, as we sat, I spoke into the room the koan
You are buried in a crypt deep underground. The walls are stone and there are not windows. The door is locked from the outside. How do you escape?
We sat for about 15 minutes, after which I asked people to actively turn back to the koan. When they found their minds wandering, return it to their koan. Focus on the koan and hold it before them.
At the 20 minute mark, I asked people to spend time with the koan, and when they noticed their mind doing something else, just let that happen, but not to give it any energy. Just let it run, but don't fuel it. Let it be, and see what happens.
I rang the bell and we compared our experiences with "doing" meditation vs. "not doing" meditation, with the understanding that they are both right.
A: Noticed that for him, the focus of the active meditations was easier, that his he could not find his center when he did not direct his attention.
B: Noticed that for her, neither worked well, that her mind did what it did.
C: Noticed for him, that when he stopped focusing, things opened up.
D: Noticed that he kept coming to the border between inside and out.
E: Noticed that her mind started really wandering when she stopped actively staying with the koan
F: Noticed that her mind was fine either way
G: Noticed that the passive meditation was calm and that his mind settled in on important things and stilled. That they were both good, but one took more energy.
Then we opened it up to an open koan discussion. I really thank everyone for the lively talk. Great ideas and amamazing images. I will not be as disciplined in recounting them.
A: noticed that he started wondering, what was in and out of the crypt. that maybe it was in his heart and maybe to escape it, he had to let people in, not him out. And he remembered days where the commute home was a tomb, never moving fast enough, but how some days the same commute was too short and he just enjoyed the rushing.
B: Wonderful images. She said she settled into the inevitability of her own confinement. Maybe someone comes for her, but until then, she is consigned to just wait and be comfortable. Interestingly she said it was somewhat comforting to be in a crypt. She talked about giving in, opening the walls of confinement. She talked about her boy as the crypt, confining her in her mind and self. About opening up to the possibility of being more than that.
C: Was sure she could escape. She thought about lying in wait. Maybe finding a loose stone. She said even if she was in there indefinitely, she would keep trying to escape. And never stop calling for help.
D: brought up an amazing questions: Why is it that bodhidharma sits in a cave for 8 years and awakens, but put someone in solitary confinement and they go insane with the isolation? Is it a matter of intention?
We set on that like a pack of zen jackals. (How many times does one get to write that?). Maybe its a matter of intention. Maybe its giving in versus fighting it. B pointed out that Gs inside outside was a similar observation---what is outside the crypt and in? Does it matter? And what is the crypt? Is it really "not us"? And people long gone...are they gone? Do they visit us? how is it that they can be more dear to us then in our memory than the person before us?
E: pointed out that this crypt is a nightmare for him. He wants to get comfortable in it, but the boredom presses on him like claustrophobia. When asks how he deals with sesshin, he says that he notices that no one moment is boring...its only the contemplation of moments. Any particular moment is fascinating if he pays attention, to pain in legs, to hunger, to calm, to breath, to dreams. And the crypt...in truth, he never stops thinking that if he is a good buddhist, the door will open.
F: noted that for him this koan was bridge traffic, a person torture for him. He thought, maybe if he could relax, he could think of ways out if he needed to escape. Or maybe it wouldn't be so bad. But sometimes it is. Stuck on the bridge. Home getting no closer.
And what of it? Isn't the crypt our life, from which we cannot ever escape? Are we alone, or are there millions of crypts next to each other, each of us believing themselves alone?
Thank you bodhisattvas. What a great evening and discussion.
At the conclusion of the evening, we rolled up our sleeves and started work practice- making seiza benches. Thanks to everyone who stuck around to help with the sawing, sanding and staining.
See you all next week.
I don't know quite where this one goes. Today I saw something cruel. It was hard to watch and feel. Later, I saw something beautiful. It was also hard to watch and feel.
The cruel thing was early, but long in coming. Can we really be cruel except to those we love?
The beautiful thing was an evening with your SF young dharma group. There were maybe 20 of us and the theme was "Sob Stories". Much was done to explain the idea, but once it started rolling, everyone knew just where to go. We were invited to share stories that had us stuck and caused suffering. There was, I believe, a part b to that, but it never occurred. Never needed to I guess.
What stories. A girl whose mother handed her a suicide note that she had written several years earlier about how she didn't love her and had to kill herself. A girl who grew up on welfare and bounced from fosterhome to fosterhome, each more traumatic. A man whose anger and pain choked him from several unsuccesful surgeries when he was a kid. A girl who took the mantle of weird that followed the clothes her mother made her. Rape and battery, uncertainty that one was loveable and perhaps broken. Everyone just poured out. There was no way, no room maybe, to pity, because there was no way to stand above someone. There was no helping except stepping into the emotions pouring out and swimming there, noticing how their trauma was your trauma. There was no broken because there was no unbroken. There was no pain because pain was who we were. There was nothing wrong with us, and no more stories, because the stories were so human and we are so perfect at that.
And so something happened. Like Josh Bartok used to say when we chanted in Sanskrit, it doesn't matter that we don't understand. It changes us anyway.
Today I started working on a new koan. Yu the Donut maker:
"Yu was from Jinling and worked in the town as a donut-maker. She used to visit Master Langyeh Chi and ask him questions with the others. The Master taught her with Linji’s saying, “The true person of no rank.” One day she heard a beggar singing the song Happiness in the Lotus Land: “...If you haven’t heard the song of Yang Yi, how can you find Lake Tunting?” Hearing this, she was greatly enlightened. She threw her donut pan onto the ground. Her husband glared and asked, “Are you crazy?” She just said, “This isn’t your territory.” She went to see Langyeh, who, even from a distance, knew she had attained realization. He asked, “What is the true person of no rank?” She immediately said, “There’s a person of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain into two with a single blow. Her strength is like the ever-flowing water, which does not care about the coming of spring.” Afterwards she became a famous master."
Its 12, and I am about to sit with this koan for a bit. As I did so, I remembered learning Spanish. I was not, at all, a talented student with foreign languages. On the cusp of a C+/B- average in high school, with a couple tenths of a percentage point separating me from not having to take a foreign language in college, my Spanish teacher relented and gave me the B- on the condition I would never take spanish again. Well, I did. After college, I took an intensive Spanish course after working for a year, which, not surprisingly, gave me an entirely different motivation and focus. (like Zen, I guess it seems important WHY you are doing it). 5 hours instruction a day, 3 hours language labs.
I felt like I was going crazy at times. I started dreaming in pieces of bad Spanish. I felt, everyday, like I was drowning, and yet, every so often, I would catch a snatch of a conversation from another table and go "Holy Shit! I understood that!" Ok, some of that.
Koans can be like that. I work really hard with them, and sometimes it seems like I am not going anywhere, then, out of nowhere, I get a glimpse of my mind and I think, "Oh, wow, when did my mind start doing THAT?" And I catch snippets of conversations of life, the wind talking to the grass, the ocean chatting with the shore and I think "Holy Shit!" I understood that!". Ok, some of that.
We are in the business of transforming minds. Tonight's game centered on playing with, and comparing, some of the tools that have been found useful to different groups at different times.
Instead of our usual 25 minute sit, tonight we sat for 40.
After the bell died away, I asked the group to focus their attention on their breath. To count their exhalations, from 1-10, and whenever they noticed that they had lost count, to return to one without preference and begin counting again (previously I had explained that in some zen sects and group this was a common beginning instruction and most people, from time to time at least, enjoyed the simplicity of breath counting, but that we view it as another crutch that will have to be abandoned in time).
We sat like that for 10 minutes, after-which I asked everyone to maintain their attention on their breath, but this time to count in INhalations. After 10 minutes had passed, we sat shiken-taza, which I tried to explain as letting your mind become open and spacious, to notice thoughts and breathing, the temperature and sounds, but to open the hand of thought and let each pass away as it arose.
Then we sat for 10 minutes with Santoka's Stone koan: A stone, wet with rain, points the way. I asked that we all trust that our minds were doing the right thing, and that the koan was doing the right thing, and that we notice how they played together.
Finally, we stood and walked in walking meditation- kinhin - for about ten minutes; then we sat and had tea. I asked what people noticed about the different methodologies:
A: Said that he noticed how counting his breaths made it easier to focus, but how he enjoyed the openness of shiken-taza. He noted that the koan got him thinking again. Solving. He reported that it kind of "stressed him out" after a long day of work.
B: Noted that he had the opposite reaction to the koan. In his case, the koan quieted down his mind. That he started thinking about it, but then just opened up.
C: Noted how he enjoyed the return to breath counting, as a part of his practice he had long ago left behind. He said he liked the simplicity of it, that he knew he had a very limited job. He noticed a peace and a willingness in the shikentaza. And in the koan, a sense of excitement after a momentary reflex of "this is a test".
D: Noticed how the inhalations were more difficult. She attributed this to a tendency to speak the words in her head and that it was hard to do so while inhaling. She noted that she just counted the entire breath. Many nods came with that. She said with some pleasure that she must be getting better at koans, because right away she went "ok, be a rock". But she said that she wasn't sure if she should think about it or not.
E: Noted that the breathing practice was not, as he had presumed, more relaxing. It kept him constantly correcting himself and reprimanding himself for wandering off. He noticed how open and relaxing the shiken-taza was, and how he was not sure if he was doing or not doing. In comparison, he noted how with the koan he was not sure if he should be thinking, or not thinking, and that he kept going back and forth.
Finally, what did we notice about the koan? (amazing great discussion):
A: He almost could see a large open plain, and in it many stones, small dark ones, all dry but one. That one was him he figured. He had a special draw to it.
B: Said that right away he felt...well, the stone points in all directions, simultaneously, thus the Way must be in any direction in which we move. Later he noticed that the wetness had never made it into his awareness. When asked what it was to him, he said, "externalities". People, family, work. How it moves around you, but does not affect the stone.
C: Talked about how the stone was him, and that the wetness of emotions, made it glisten and show its amazing brilliance of color and form. He said, that if the stone was him, that it was always pointing the Way, because the way was him.
D: Noted how she caught on pointing...how can a stone point, but that she felt the rain and it covered her as the stone. She noted a sense of solidity and of perfectness and ordinariness about the stone.
E: Said he felt the rain falling on the stone, and falling and falling. That the stone was solid and got wet, but never saturated. He said for him, the rain drops were thoughts. Then, having a lot of thoughts lately, he saw the rain keep falling an falling and worried if the stone would drown, or if it could point the way as it was covered by the rain. He knew the stone at the bottom of a raging torrent or rainwater, still a stone, still pointing the way. Later, he noticed feeling the rain falling out of him.
It was a great evening. I think we really got deep into the koan and everyone was amazing perfect buddhas. As always, I learned so much from each of you.
I sat in Oakland on Monday night...David Weinstein was teaching. A video of his talk can be found on dharma talks link.
The thing David said that is still resonating with me is: "When someone begs, that is asks you for something without offering anything in return, the buddha is extending you a gift- the opportunity to give".
Its hard to blog about practice when you only made a little of it. I have a good excuse though, as my daughter was born that day. I left the hospital with her resting with her mother, and opened the zendo. We all sat a period of zazen, lit incense, then I turned the meeting over the Chris Wilson, who led the group in the koan:
The great way is not difficult, it merely avoids picking and choosing.
I am asking Chris, and the others who attended to add comments with their impressions of that day.
My impressions of that day?
“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.
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