about rohatsu

“I feel like no matter where I am this week, I’m in the way of something,” I whispered across the table.

“That’s the way it always is when you’re not in sesshin,” whispered back one of my breakfast companions.

Three of us were sharing a table in the otherwise empty dining hall, a small contingent of residents who were still “working outside” this week instead of sitting in the Rohatsu sesshin (a week-long meditation retreat) here at City Center.  We were whispering because the building is in silence no matter whether you’re in sesshin or not, and there was oryoki happening in the zendo directly beneath us. But it’s hard to just stop talking altogether, and sometimes the commentary comes out.  So there’s a dance we do, exchanging meaningful glances, maybe starting with a whispered “good morning” to see how strictly the other is observing these rules and whether a stolen conversation might be up for grabs.  It’s not unlike negotiating a first kiss on a date, but perhaps without the romance.

I love Rohatsu sesshin and this is the first time in four years that I haven’t been a participant.  The sesshin always coincides with a particularly intense time of year at my day job when we are preparing for our year-end Board meeting.  In the past I have foisted my duties onto colleagues while I stayed home to sit in a dimly lit zendo for seven days, but this year I decided that was not quite fair so I sat a long sesshin earlier in the year instead.  As I wrestled with the 380-page docket into the wee hours of the night it felt like a successful friendship between the two practices:  sesshin is an artificial container for arranging an intimate meeting with your own personal responses and habits, and a complicated board docket seemed to have much the same effect.  I confronted document footers and corrupted files and revisions and deadlines in the particular way that I do and thought of the people at home sitting majestically and steadfastly through the day and into the night, and it all just seemed to weave together perfectly.

The difference between ‘sesshin’ and ‘not-sesshin’ is not only in the silence.  The sesshin participants are all in muted dark clothing, eyes cast down, and over the course of the week under the influence of hours of meditation their minds settle in and their movements become more economical, their attention more open.  They glide through the building like Neo in the Matrix, knowing what is ahead because their ears and eyes are receptive, even if they are not looking around.  By contrast, it feels as though even my clothing is loud and distracting and that my incoherent thoughts must be noticeable as if I am carrying myself around muttering out loud.  I feel clumsy and apt to trip over every thing and every one.  It’s not that sesshin gives a person an increased sense of vigilance; rather, it creates an enhanced, relaxed awareness in comparison with everyday life. This week they had it and I didn’t.

The three of us at breakfast whispered about how not being in sesshin creates a practice of “slinking” for the week, trying to avoid running into ceremonial processions or people engaged in official sesshin business by timing one’s movements through the building and using back staircases when necessary.    This is not out of a feeling that we are doing something wrong that needs to be hidden.  For me it’s two things:  first, to support the sesshin participants in creating that environment that is free from distraction, and second, because frankly I just love a good ballet. To run into the doshi while he’s moving from one altar to the other offering incense is kind of like being a stage hand who bumbles onto the stage and knocks over a few props.  It happens to me more than I want to admit, and it’s not ideal.

Sometimes this choreography of slinking does work out well, such as Wednesday morning when I was heading into work a bit early and was coming out of the bathroom just when the morning service was starting.  I heard two hits on the han in the ‘holy hall’ signaling that the doshi was making his way down to the Buddha Hall, so I halted on the other side of the doorway, waiting for him and his jisha to pass.

At that moment my friend Daigan burst out of his room in his busily patterned robe on his way to the men’s bathroom (which is also in the ‘holy hall’) and whispered, “have they gone by yet?”  I peered through the thick glass wall next to the door and whispered back “here they come,” watching two dark blobs moving from left to right across the glass as the doshi and his jisha passed onto the staircase and out of sight.  We waited two seconds and then opened the door to pass to the other side, comfortably avoiding collision.

I have appreciated sesshin this week. Mostly my connection to it has been through ceremony:  the Suzuki Roshi Annual Memorial, the Full Moon ceremony, and Buddha’s Enlightenment ceremony.  Setting up the altars in my last month as head chiden (no, really!), I felt grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the efforts that people were making in their zazen.  The flow of giving seemed to go both ways, as the quiet of the building helped me drop down a notch from the busyness of my day when I returned each night.  Add to that the sweetness of being head chiden for Rohatsu – the small oryoki bowl left anonymously (somewhat) at my door with an offering of ceremonial manju from Buddha’s Enlightenment ceremony.  Delicious and thank you!

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thinking globally

She asked me whether I had brought People Magazine on the trip.

(The question was loaded with history, with the good-natured teasing we enjoyed around the fact that I sometimes buy People Magazine when I travel, that for awhile I used it the way other people use television at the end of a long day or a long week, to unplug and distract the mind with nonthreatening, unchallenging trivia. The question was loaded with the joke that I used to have a subscription but when I moved into the Zen Center I let the subscription lapse because I was too embarrassed to have the magazine sit in the common mailboxes for everyone to see.)

I held up the magazine I was reading for her to see:  National Geographic.

“I brought this.”  Not People.

“This is for all the People.”

We were out on Tamales Bay and one night we got into the car and I remarked, “I’m always amazed at how dark this place is when you get away from civilization.”

“And by ‘this place’” she quipped, perhaps because on the surface the sentence seemed clear enough but the congruence of the bits and pieces didn’t endure scrutiny at the scale of local geography, “do you mean earth?”

And indeed, that was what I was thinking.

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meanwhile, back in the zendo …

Completely unmentioned but silently at operation beneath the surface of these pages, the past couple of months have been characterized by huge dramas, my heart and energies wrapped up in traumatic changes not at Zen Center, but in the organization that houses my day job.  My duties almost completely changed when I got back from China and I have spent the past three weeks trying to un-bury myself from all the new and old deliverables that were awaiting my return.  During those three weeks it seems like I have started most sentences to colleagues with “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten you X….”

The zendo during this time has been missing me, and I it, on more than a few mornings as I either went to work early or returned so late as to make a 5am wakeup potentially disastrous.  But we had our monthly one-day sitting yesterday and I was able to carve out the whole day for a much-needed date with emptiness.

For the first time in awhile I was back on soku duty for breakfast.  (As a reminder, the soku is the person who directs the action inside the zendo while an oryoki meal is served.)  I didn’t have any particular concerns about being soku as I’ve done it many times, and I was grateful for the breakfast shift as it leaves the rest of the day for relaxed spaciousness, free from the temptations of anticipating tweaks in the schedule later in the day.

Things started to go wrong early on with the oryoki, but I failed to notice the pattern. I asked the head server to come up to help prepare right after the morning’s jundo, not thinking that there were two periods of zazen before breakfast and we only needed one for prep. She was kind enough not to question it.  The extra time turned out to be a blessing when the fukaten informed me twenty minutes before service that we had two condiments, which I should have asked about to begin with.  The head server and I had to scramble to bring up all the gomasio trays, put ketchup into 32 little bowls, rearrange all the trays and bring them back downstairs again before the servers showed up for orientation.

Once we were serving in the zendo there were some other little things that didn’t go quite well either.  The servers weren’t sure whether everyone got condiments and neither was I, so I breached protocol to ask if anyone was missing them.  And then when I went to make the food offering, somehow the chopsticks and spoon on Manjushri’s Buddha tray weren’t cooperating and it took so long to place them properly on the first and second bowls that I ended up rushing back to the back of the mat in order to synchronize my bow with the assembly’s chanting.

But the real disaster was in serving the first pots of food to the assembly.  The servers all went out to their positions, but they were running out of the food in the pots and for some reason I just wasn’t able to track where they’d been and where they hadn’t been – perhaps a bit of decision fatigue from the past few weeks at work.  The servers were doing exactly as I’d asked them and telling me where they had left off as they came back to the entrance, but none of it was sticking in my brain and I eventually had to wander out into the zendo to see where everything stood and who still needed rice cereal and who needed juice.  Getting food into everyone’s bowls took an enormous amount of time, time that encroached into the break everyone was supposed to have between breakfast and the next period of zazen. Ooph.

This sitting was about 60 people, which is only moderately large.  I’ve been soku for meals of 90-person sittings, half again as many as this weekend, that didn’t entail this sort of breakdown in efficiency.  This one was not my best delivery, and the Ino was cranky about how long it took.  I hate making the Ino cranky.

Here is the advice I gave to the servers before the meal:  to remember that oryoki is not so much about getting it right, but about being present with what’s happening and engaging in discovery about your relationship to the forms.  That the ceremony is about generosity, not only with the people you are serving, but also with yourself.  I wonder now whether I had been working with these ideas myself during the meal.  The gift of oryoki keeps on giving as I sift through possible lessons now.

Just before lunch I mistakenly wandered through the student lounge just as the lunch crew was about to start their orientation. The soku for that meal asked me, “How did it go?” and I said “Breakfast? [pause] I don’t recommend following my example.” That got a few laughs … and then the lunch crew actualized a beautiful example of how fluid and efficient oryoki can really be.  I wasn’t jealous.  Really.

Today was another rainy day in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I got to spend part of it wandering around a park getting soaked.  I was in the company of some beautiful spirits in the form of two lovely women and three rambunctious huskies.  Dogs really are healers, I think.  (Once I remarked to one of our priests that I loved “being around dog-consciousness,” and the way she laughed at the phrase let me know that she was not the serious, straight-laced person I had thought she was until then.)  Dog-consciousness is so straightforward and exuberant that it makes me feel silly about all my usual self-involved concerns.  To wit, regarding yesterday’s oryoki:  everyone got fed, and no one got hurt. Nothing seriously wrong, just a few things to think about.


husky love

another healing spirit

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the episode in which I monkey around with clinging and aversion

One more in a series of random snapshots from my October 2011 trip to China and Thailand.

Following adventures at the Fourth and Fifth Ancestors’ temples and the Luhua Nunnery in Hubei Province, my tour group took off for Anhui Province and Jiuhua Mountain, one of Chinese Buddhism’s four sacred mountains.  Our bus driver is shown here in one of my favorite photos of the tour, wearing a t-shirt that says “Impossible is Nothing.” He claimed his name was “Beautiful.”  I think it fits.

Jiuhua Mountain has a very nice new hotel with the first coffee (mm, can you call it that if it’s Nescafe?) I’d had in several days.  We spent the night there and in the morning headed up in a cable car to Tiantai temple, at 1342 meters the highest temple on Jiuhua Mountain.

The cable car was an older system with not enough capacity for the number of tourists trying to get up the mountain.  We snaked along in long lines as if we were at Disneyland waiting for  Space Mountain.  Eventually we made it into the cars and had a pleasant ride up the side of the mountain in some pretty nice country.  After exiting the cable car, we were dumped out onto a set of walkways and stairs that would take us to the first level of the temple.

That’s when I saw the monkeys.

It’s possible that someone had said something about the monkeys. But there were a lot of us and we weren’t all together all the time, so I didn’t get the memo.  All I knew was there they were on the path, looking adorable and acting as though it was completely natural for them to be just hanging out watching the tourists trudging by.

Of course.

That monkey over there on the left, up the path a ways?  I was thinking to myself it would make SUCH a good photo if only I could get down and shoot him from eye level.  So I walked up a little closer and crouched down below the chain fence to get a better shot.

And the next thing I saw was this:

The next thing I heard, probably before I saw the blurry blob of fur coming at me, was an enormous growl, or perhaps it was more of a scream, issuing forth from the beast.

And then I had this warm, muscled, hairy thing clinging to my right calf trying to sink his teeth into my shin.  I felt his (her?) weight pulling down on my leg, his hot breath, sensed the shape of his open jaws through my pant leg as he clamped down. And then from out of nothingness a second monkey, one of his buddies, was suddenly clinging to my other leg.

Nowhere in my plans for the day had there been the possibility that at some point I’d have two monkeys wrapped around my lower legs.  My overall response was pretty much “how astounding, look at this, I have monkeys on my legs!!”  and a huge sense of marvel.  I wasn’t afraid. I was flabbergasted.

My brain didn’t have a chance to kick into the next stage of figuring out what kind of action I might want to take that would prevent me from being devoured by monkeys or carried off by them or whatever their plan for me might be, because in the meantime my friend Sandy just ahead of me had seen what was going on and unlike me he was not distracted by the marvel of it all and so he made himself appear nine feet tall and yelled out at the monkeys “Haw! Haw!” Or perhaps the utterances were in Chinese which he knew a bit of, these were Chinese monkeys after all.  They sounded like just the right words from where I stood, whatever language they were in.

Too bad for Sandy, the net effect of his lightning-quick reflexes on my behalf was that the monkeys jumped off of my legs and straight onto his.  And then like in a dream, the air was filled with a barking sound and a big shaggy dog appeared from on high, bounding down the stairs toward the monkeys, and the monkeys jumped off of Sandy’s legs and chased after the dog, who did a quick U-turn, and the whole riled up animal entourage disappeared into the forest.  They left a few of their calmer monkey friends sitting in the trees or along the path, looking nonchalant as if nothing had happened.

It occurs to me that I’ve had moments like this before, and right now I’m thinking about the time I drove up from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz and took a shortcut along the back roads of San Juan Bautista. I knew this shortcut from years before when I had projects in the area working as a geotechnical engineer in San Benito county.  I was cruising along at a pretty fast clip down a farm road in my Acura Integra with the cassette deck at full volume, singing along, and it was 9 or 10 at night, and suddenly I remembered that the road I was on came to a “T” in just a few hundred yards, and in front of me was the line of trees marking the place where I was going to need to do a 90-degree turn, and I didn’t have enough room to slow down.  And in that long pause inside my head I heard “well, that was stupid – Mom and everybody else are going to be baffled as to how this even happened” as I prepared to crash into the trees and meet my demise.  Only I didn’t – I actually fishtailed a bit but made the turn, and suddenly I was on the next road heading in a new direction and my heart was beating about twice as fast as it should, but other than that there was nothing at all unusual about the road, my car, the speed, the farmhouses, the trees … and it was kind of weird, because I had almost died but absolutely nothing had changed as a result of it.

Similarly, once the monkeys and the spirit dog (or whatever it was) were gone, we all just continued walking, passing by the calm monkeys in the trees, appreciating the view.

Olga caught up to me a few minutes later and asked if I was doing okay, so at least I knew there was one other person who realized something had just happened.  We checked my leg to make sure the monkey bites hadn’t done any damage. There was monkey spittle on my pants leg, but no monkey teeth had penetrated cloth or flesh.

So that‘s the story of the monkeys.

The next day I caught up with Sandy and thanked him for his valor, and we rehashed the event a bit.  Embedded in Sandy’s version of the story was an implication that the monkeys had acted out of something like malice, and Sandy noticed this and apologized for it (good Buddhist!). I said oh yeah, really it was more like a big hug they were giving us, and we both laughed.

So now here are some photos from the mountain – 800 steps from the cable car up to the temple at the very top.  Like many of the temples on Jiuhua Mountain, this one is  dedicated to a Bodhisattva named Ksitigarbha, more commonly known in the US by his Japanese name Jizo.  Ksitigarbha is the guardian of beings in the hell realms and also of children. There was a Korean prince who lived at Jiuhua Mountain who the monks thought was a reincarnation of Ksitigarbha, and that prince encountered nirvana at this top temple; we visited another temple built for him further down in the valley that housed his body after his death.

Tiantai temple, lower level

Pilgrim doing prostrations up the stairs to the upper temple

800 steps!

theoretically possible to be carried up ... ethically impossible for many of us

eventually you reach the highest temple


lovers and pilgrims shackle their vows to the fences

my shadow side

gateway to the next episode

temple at lower level

monks hanging out

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The episode in which I meet up with some Chinese monks

One in a series of random snapshots from my October 2011 trip to China and Thailand.

I was sent to support business meetings in Beijing and that was my first week in China, including some local sightseeing with colleagues.  My business obligations ended Saturday afternoon and the next day I was to join a tour group of German and Australian Zen practitioners who were visiting some of China’s Zen temples, lead by a scholar of early Chinese Zen history who just happens to be from Marin.  Life is weird that way.

The gap between these two activities had been a source of excitement and concern during my planning for the trip:  it represented about 15 hours in which I was floating around China on my own, without tour guides or hotel staff to point me in the right direction, to a part of the country not visited by many foreigners.  I had to negotiate a taxi ride to a train station, find the right train/sleeper car, get off at the right station at 6:15am the next day, and somehow miraculously connect up with some monks who might or might not include a guy in a photo my friend Lucy had sent me.  I had two phone numbers on me and no ability to write or speak Chinese.  It was an achievable challenge, unlike those crazy Bodhisattva vows we keep talking about, but one that required some calm focus if I wanted to arrive gracefully.

As I left the hotel the sky was a deep blue and Tianan’men was lit up.  Apart from a blurry image of Mao I kind of like the photo I took from the taxi’s window.

Tianan'men at night.

Beijing West and Colonel Sanders

Beijing West train station was like any other, complete with recognizable corporate symbols, which was strangely comforting at the time.

Comforting, perhaps because my reference for Chinese train stations was the movie Last Train Home, about the migrant population trying to get home to their villages for the New Year.  Once a year, factory workers spend days at the train stations trying to buy tickets for trains that are so full of people it’s impossible to move or use the bathroom.  Think of Christmas travel in the States when the airports start closing down due to weather and everyone is trying to just get home somehow, by any route.  The Colonel’s familiar face that evening was a strangely calming force. And I had my ticket already through the hotel concierge, it wasn’t New Years, and my seat was in a sleeper car, so my main concern was getting to the right gate, which I accomplished in the usual straightforward manner:

Beijing West train station

I had some entertaining moments using the women’s restroom once inside the waiting area, trying to negotiate my huge suitcase into one of the stalls.  Seven or eight Chinese women watched me queue up, fascinated, and held an intent conversation about me that I didn’t understand.  Strange how one’s brain fills in the gaps according to one’s state of mind, whether it be relaxed or on extreme vigilant alert:  I leapt to the assumption that they were gossiping about me, that perhaps I’d committed some social faux pas they were passing judgment on.  But actually they turned out to be friends, fending off some line-jumpers and steering me away from a water faucet that was spewing boiling-hot water.

People holding tickets to the sleeper cars could sit in a roped-off area with big blue lounge chairs and tables (arousing self-consciousness about class distinctions), and that’s where I found a tour group of foreigners heading for Xi’an. A woman from San Diego said she was impressed that I was out traveling on my own and I had a moment of uncertainty about the sanity of my plan.  Then we all headed for our trains.  The Xi’an tour group turned right and I turned left, and I found myself completely surrounded for the night by people who did not look or talk like me.

I met the train attendant who exchanged my ticket for a little plastic chip, and again I was comforted by the familiar and expected, as I had read about this procedure during my preparations and it was all lining up with my expectations.  My bunk-mates confirmed I was in the right compartment and on the right bed. The train rode on through the night. It was dark along the track and I couldn’t see much, just the black outlines of trees passing by.  I fell asleep early and woke up around 5am, looked but couldn’t find coffee anywhere, only car after car of sleepers.  The attendant came to exchange my little chip back again for my ticket and kicked most of us out at Jiujiang.

I joined a stream of dozens of Chinese people swimming out of the station and into the daylight, where I finally stood in the middle of a plaza next to a crowded street.  Cars pulled up, loaded passengers, and took off again.  This was the point at which seeing a monk holding a sign with my name on it would have been good, but I was left in pause for about ten minutes to think about maybe starting to wonder what my Plan B was going to be if no one showed up. Then I heard a shout and there was a guy standing next to a BMW wearing a grey work outfit, not quite a samue but close, and he loosely matched my ideas about what a Chinese monk would look like so I rolled my suitcase over and let him put it in the trunk.  I tried a few words of introduction to see if we were sure we were meant for each other.  He responded quizzically to ‘Daoxin,’ the name of the Fourth Ancestor whose temple we were going to.  I wasn’t sure how the local monks were referring to the temple.* Then I tried ‘Chongdi-shi,’ the monk whose photo Lucy had sent, which almost got a response out of him.  Ultimately I decided it was unlikely that I would be kidnapped or that a renegade taxi driver would be wearing a monk suit and driving a BMW, so I got in the car. But it was an uncertain moment.

The driver was on and off his cell phone having serial conversations while driving through the streets of Jiujiang.  After about ten minutes the phone rang again and he handed me the phone.  I heard Chongdi-shi saying hello in English (or was it Eric, our in-country guide? things were confused that morning), telling me that the monk would take me to the temple to meet my tour group. I was in the right car after all.

Then we inexplicably did a U-turn and stopped across the street from a park, waiting in the car for another ten or fifteen minutes. What was this about?  I wondered – but couldn’t find a way to ask, and it was not unpleasant, as there was Qi gong and badminton to watch, music playing over some loudspeakers, men and women rolling by pushing huge carts with boxes or pieces of wood piled high.  And then two other monks opened the rear doors and piled in, one of them making the gassho mudra with a big smile on his face, and we were off again.

(Outside of Jiujiang, I spotted:  a small truck with three huge pigs crammed in the back; large brooms made of bamboo poles and something like juniper branches attached at the end; an open-air butcher stand; a woman riding a bicycle holding a handful of mylar balloons.)

Monk buying youtiao

Once we were in Huangmei we stopped at a streetside donut stand (I’m saying ‘donuts’ but I think they are called youtiao) and the driver-monk came back with a big plastic bag of them.

And then we drove through a busy intersection and cut across all the lanes of oncoming traffic to park on the left side of the street in front of a noodle shop.

I’m still looking for the joke that begins “Three Chinese monks and an American tourist walk into a noodle shop …”

Three Chinese monks (American tourist not shown)

One bowl of noodles came out and the smiling-gassho-monk spent a few minutes mixing up the black paste on top so it covered all the noodles and handed it over to me.  I took the noodles and the chopsticks he offered and sat there, thinking it was polite to wait until they all had their bowls. The smiling monk got up to speak with the cashier, and in the course of watching them it dawned on me that he thought I needed a fork in order to proceed. Hah!  I’ve been handling chopsticks since 1978, when I was first introduced to Sichuanese food on nights off from my job at summer camp, before that guy was even born.  I waved the monk back and said “it’s okay,” holding up the chopsticks and demonstrating my proficiency.  The noodles, the donuts, and hot soymilk were excellent.  I felt embraced in nurturing good will.  For them it was probably just an excuse to not eat temple food, but what the heck.

Rice harvest on the road to the Fourth Ancestor's temple

The ride out of Huangmei wasn’t too long and we took a turn off the main road and wound our way up into the hills.  All along the way we were driving over or around mounds of dry grass that turned out to be rice, and in many places the rice had been shaken from the grass and was laid out on the street waiting to be put into big bags, which we also saw piled along the road.

And then we were at the monastery and the monks left me, and I rolled my suitcase along the corridor …

Fourth Ancestor's temple

… and was introduced to tour group leaders Andy and Eric and the Australians and Germans and a couple other Americans who were all starting on week #2 of the “If it’s Tuesday it must be Jiuhuashan” tour.  (The Germans didn’t get that joke either, it had to be explained.  Google it with Belgium instead of Jiuhuashan.)

Fourth Ancestor's stupa

The rest of the morning was spent walking up to the stupa and dharma transmission hall.  The Fourth Ancestor Dayi Daoxin (or you may know the Japanese version we chant at SFZC, Dai-I Doshin – he lived approximately 580-651 C.E.) was buried in the stupa and reportedly the following year “the door of his stupa opened spontaneously and revealed the master sitting inside as though alive.” Early Chinese Zen history abounds with stories like this of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the deaths of the early masters.

Daoxin is also known for bringing farming and work practice to the Zen monasteries, an evolution from the itinerant beggar model that created more autonomy and self-sufficiency for the monks and was more practical for the cold Chinese winters.

Valley of the Fourth Ancestor's temple

This shot was taken from the front of the Dharma Transmission Hall, looking back toward the stupa and the monastery (buildings on the left) and out through the valley toward Huangmei.

Fourth Ancestor's temple - Buddha Hall

Monks at the Fourth Ancestor's Temple

Calling the monks into the dining hall for lunch.

Sunset at the Fourth Ancestor’s temple.

*the monastery’s alternative/historical names include:
  • East Mountain Monastery
  • Feng-mu-shan Monastery
  • To-zan Monastery (Jap.)
  • The East Mountain Temple
  • Sizu (Fourth Patriarch) Zen Temple
  • Shuangfeng (Double Peak) Temple
  • Zhengjue Temple
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Sa wat dee ka!

Greetings from Koh Samui, Thailand!  I’ve spent the last two and a half weeks in China and could have been blogging my way through the countryside (Shundo says I should write more, and I agree) but entering China is like a portal into another universe.  I was prepared to lose Facebook while I was there but unprepared to lose access to my blog.  Mai pen rai.

This morning I woke up while it was still dark and took my bare feet and a loaner umbrella along the beach for a stroll as the sky lightened up, starting from my  $30/night “resort” past the ramshackle beachside bars and cafes and massage huts and into the high-end $300/night villa realms, watching the early-morning workers with their sand rakes and trash hooks cleaning up the beach for the guests, all the while listening to a driving drum beat that seemed to be coming all the way across the water from Koh Phangan, some crazy all-night party that only stopped half an hour ago at 7am.

Bangkok was underwater from the worst floods since 1942, Koh Samui is in their monsoon season, and for the past several days I’ve gone back and forth with my travel agent wondering if it was insane to try to come here, wondering if I’d get stuck somewhere coming in or going out. The going out part remains to be seen, but coming in was easy, apart from delays on all ends having perhaps very little to do with the weather.  My travel agent was placid in response to my rants and proposals for alternate itineraries.  I have a feeling she is part travel agent, part emotional counselor, her success bolstered by a talent in assuring her clients that they’ll probably get through whatever tribulations their imaginations are conjuring.  I appreciate her equanimity.  The walk this morning made it all worthwhile, even before adding the time I’ll be spending here with my friend Meredith over the next couple of days.

In China we had a big meeting and sightseeing in Beijing, and then I left on the train for Jiujiang to join a group of Zen practitioners who visited the Fourth Ancestor’s temple near there, Tiantang temple where Dogen studied with Rujing and dropped body and mind, plus Jiuhua Shan (more temples), Huang Shan (which is temple-like in its beauty), Putuo Shan (more temples, and the biggest Guanyin I’ve ever seen), and Shanghai (home of the Jade Buddha temple as well as other sights). I have stories, of course, which I will roll out in good time.

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I’d rather have a …

Last week, upon a suspicion that things weren’t right on the left side of my mouth and a fear that I would be in agony over an infected tooth on my upcoming trip to China, I made an appointment to see my dentist.

The dentist breezed into the room and said hello, asked what brought me in that day, and I reported exactly the above.  Without even looking at my mouth, he said “you need a root canal.” My dentist is a bit of a jokester.

But in fact, it turned out I did need an RCT (Root Canal Treatment), something I’d managed to avoid despite extensive childhood fillings that have cracked and required crowning with logical predictability.  We verified the diagnosis five different ways and made an appointment for me to come back pronto.

I am a good dental patient.  I’m not freaked out by procedures and I remain calm and disinterested while people are poking and prodding and drilling and suctioning.  When I was a child my doctors told my mother I was “stoic,” which is pretty strong language to describe a five-year-old.  But RCTs have a certain reputation, so I took some precautions.  For instance: bladder comfort. I knew this was a two- or two-and-a-half hour procedure so when I arrived I checked in and took the restroom key up the flight of stairs to the restroom, even though the dentist was already waiting for me.  “Never mind,” he said.  “I want you to be comfortable.”

We got started on the treatment, which allowed for some conversation while he and his assistant puttered around and took X-rays.  We talked about how many dentists will refer their patients to an endodontist for RCTs, but my guy did two years of RCTs in the military and actually enjoys them.  Because you can’t see exactly what you’re doing, there’s some mystery involved and intuition comes into play.  I got the impression it gives him some creative joy to do these procedures and thought it was probably auspicious for my dentist to be in a good mood when I was about to be completely at his mercy.

And then my mouth was wired up with a contraption that looked like a football goalpost onto which was wrapped a purple dental dam to create an isolated theater in which to perform the surgery, and I couldn’t talk any more.  For two hours, they were drilling and filing and poking things up into my roots and spraying and suctioning.

I tried to be a good dental patient, but about half an hour into the thing, despite my precautions, my bladder decided to start talking to me.  At first it was just a low buzzing.  “Oh, hey, that coffee you drank this morning?  Yeah.  Still processing, by the way.”  And then the minutes passed by and I was talking back to my bladder, saying “oh yeah, that’s fine, we’ll be out of here at some point, just relax.” But my bladder just kept getting more and more full and not relaxing at all.  I shifted my body into various positions.  The sensations would subside for awhile, and then reappear.  An hour passed, and then 90 minutes. I could no longer focus on what was happening in my mouth, nor could I distract myself with thoughts about anything else.  All I could think about was how I needed to pee.  I found myself tapping my toes inside my shoes and wiggling my feet back and forth and wondering if I was going to make it upstairs when I was finally released.  I began fantasizing about escape and rescue: about whether the dentist had an employee bathroom in the back I didn’t know about; whether I could sign with my hands that I needed to go pee and then just slip away for a minute with the purple dam and everything else still jammed in my mouth.

I thought about the time in first grade when the teacher wouldn’t call on me when I raised my hand to go to the bathroom because she was in a reading group at the front of the room and I didn’t know the rule that said we weren’t supposed to wait for permission in an emergency.  I ended up piddling all over the floor.  That episode was one of the big traumas of my childhood, and it felt like I was reliving it.

At the two-hour mark my dentist came to the end of the drilling and cleaning phase, and informed me that we were moving on to the backfilling phase.  “It’s about a half hour more, and then you’ll be done.  You don’t need a break, do you?”

I didn’t need a break, did I?

I knew he’d rearranged his schedule to squeeze me in that day and that letting me up from the chair was going to further impact the flow of his patients in and out of the clinic.  But I was desperate.  With the goalpost and purple dam still flapping over my gaping mouth, I waved my hands wildly into the universal sign of “Time Out!!”

My dentist sighed.  It was a big sigh, but he exaggerates for effect.

As he packed up various instruments, he told me a story of working with a colleague who wasn’t very good with children.  One child was squirming all over the place and my dentist, working beside them, suspected that she just had to pee, but didn’t say anything.  The colleague picked her up under the arms and dangled her, telling her if she only sat still it would be over very quickly.  As she dangled, she peed all over the guy’s shoe.  My dentist said he’d wanted to laugh but didn’t want to get the guy mad.

As I listened to this story, I wondered whether he was torturing me on purpose.  I was still sitting there in my incapacitated state, and the visual my brain created of the child peeing and the imagined sensation of sweet release made my predicament even more agonizing.  When my dentist finally ripped all the crap out of my mouth and told me to go, I practically ran from my seat all the way up the stairs to the restroom.

After that it was all much better.

I apologized when I returned, mumbling something about the coffee.

“I’ve been working in dental offices for thirty years,” he responded.  “Me and the other guys can work all day long without having to use the restroom.  The women, on the other hand, seem like they need to go every twenty minutes.  I used to try to figure it out.  But eventually I just decided: women are mysterious.  I leave it at that.”

And that’s today’s story.

Posted in Daily Life | 5 Comments

the hidden-lands of como

I was expecting to write about sesshin, a five-day meditation retreat
that happened some weeks ago here at City Center.  But I had trouble achieving a useful meta-position from which to write about it, because this sesshin was personally rather unsettling, and the unsettling bits just kept rolling over and deepening, days after sesshin ended, without the catharsis or resolution of past sesshin experiences.

For the first couple of days of sesshin I was grumpy about Zen practice, feeling like I was never going to “get it,” and wondering why I was bothering anyway, as I am generally a happy person who could lead a normal life free of esoteric Zen rituals if I chose it. The incessant repetition of going up and down the stairs, into and out of the zendo, opening and closing our oryoki sets, setting out utensils and other accoutrements for oryoki and then having to clean it all up again day after day, seemed pointless, especially when compared to the idea of going outside and enjoying a nice walk in the park.  During the many periods of zazen I traveled into my own personal hell realms of doubt, disappointment, loneliness, and grief.  And then sesshin ended and I headed back to work, still stewing in it.

After sesshin I read this in Brad Warner’s blog:

I hate it — just absolutely hate and despise it — when people try to make some kind of a ‘dharma lesson’ about every damned thing that happens. I hated it when people did that with David Coady.  I’m not going to do that now.

I’ll admit to being a bit confused as to why he’s so cranky about people seeking dharma lessons in something so significant as a friend’s death, unless he’s pointing to a tendency cover up the raw emotion of “suicide is stupid,” in which case I agree with him.  But in any case I read that and it triggered whatever insecurities I have about the pablum that I push here on this site (not that I think Brad reads my stuff) and the insecurities became grounds for not writing anything, not then, maybe not ever again.

And then the grumpiness generally continued until a week later, when I found myself magically transported to Lake Como, Italy, where I was to enjoy a week of relaxation and agenda-less-ness with nine of my closest family members.  As an antidote to grumpiness and doubt, this was rather a good choice.

I brought a book that my friend Ed had given me that had been sitting on my shelf for awhile: The Heart of the World, A Journey to the Last Secret Place, by Ian Baker.  Baker spent several years exploring Tibet’s Pemako region, an area the Tibetans call a beyul, or hidden-land.  Beyuls are places where the spiritual and physical worlds overlap, and at the center of Pemako is Chime Yangsang Ne, “the innermost secret place of immortality.”  The beyul is not quite a literal geographic reality and not quite only a mental construction, but “an eminent paradise veiled more by habits of perception than by features of the landscape.”

Since I was also on a journey, and because I was alternating between these two worlds on my vacation, Italy in the external world and Tibet in the internal world, I amused myself by finding correlates in the circumstances and environment in Italy and the circumstances and environment that were playing out in Tibet as I read about Baker’s attempts to find the center of Pemako.

In comparison with the huge jagged mountain ranges of Tibet, I was surrounded by a magical landscape of limestone cliffs rising 1500 meters from Lake Como’s surface, banded and tilted jointed rocks into which caves and tunnels have been carved and settlements built perched on ledges formed by joint surfaces.   Baker was delving deep into the deepest gorge on the planet; I was skittering around over the surface of the deepest lake in Europe.  I looked around and saw an abundance of rhododendron, cypress, and juniper trees in the Lake Como region, which were also major protagonists in the Baker book.  In both cases we were in foreign lands where the customs were not our native customs. Baker was often at risk of hurling over the edge of a precipice if he made a wrong step; the stairs leading down from the bedrooms in our villa were perilous in the dark.  He encountered leeches, poisonous bugs and snakes; one night my sister fought a huge flying beetle that refused to be quiet in her bedroom.  (Okay. Some of this is quite a stretch, but it did keep me amused.)

Even the action in Baker’s book was sometimes strikingly parallel to my life in Italy and provided some small dharma lessons for me. (Apologies to those who, like Brad, are cranky about turning every damn thing into a dharma lesson.  There are days when I’m right there with you.)  One night I was reading about an excursion where Baker was having difficulty finding good information or guides for the area he wanted to explore, the porters were fighting with each other and then trying to renegotiate their terms en route, a horse fell through the planks of a bridge, and his Chinese liaison officer was not happy with him.  The next day my family wanted to go into the town of Menaggio. The water taxi seemed expensive so we thought perhaps it would be simple to ferry the eight of us down in the one car making two trips, but we got a late start, my niece was having ear problems, my brother missed the turnoff, my sister had to complete a business call before we could take her in the second load, the parking we finally found was at the opposite end of the town from where the first load was waiting for us, and by the time we all assembled in Menaggio it was already 1:00 in the afternoon.

Here is what Baker wrote about his state of mind when things weren’t going exactly as he’d planned:

Despite my initial concerns about restive porters and the composition of our group, the journey had begun, and I accepted the situation as containing its own hidden logic.  Tibetan tradition speaks of Kha sher lamkbyer – ‘whatever arises, carry it to the path’ – a Buddhist injunction to abandon preferences and integrate all experience beyond accepting and rejecting.  Without that dynamic openness to adventure (from the Latin ad venio, ‘whatever comes‘), Tibetans say, pilgrimage devolves into ordinary travel and the hidden-lands–both physical and metaphysical–will never open.

Pretty cool, huh? This book gets five stars from me.  The Dalai Lama wrote the introduction!

Contemplating the various parallels between Como and Pemako, both geographic and otherwise, I was reminded of a therapist I’d seen back in my twenties, who had spent a lot of time evaluating and treating inmates at a nearby prison facility. As I rambled on about my problems, he smiled compassionately and told me that what we were talking about was very serious but represented the “bunny slopes” on the ski resort of mental health issues.  I don’t think he was trivializing my concerns, but wanting to put them into a broader perspective.  My life is apparently not lived at a grand scale, not at a Tibetan scale.  It’s a structure in miniature.

On the journey back to California, I waited in the Malpensa airport in Milan with my father and his friend.  Dad’s friend had just tripped over someone’s luggage and scraped up her shin pretty badly, and was in an adrenaline-fused daze trying to get her bearings back when a handsome man from Seattle in adventure-travel clothing popped into view, sat next to us and started talking.  Oddly, he was just returning from a trip to Nepal and told us an amazing story about how he’d been trekking through the mountains with a girlfriend and they had run out of food and were soaked to the bones from the rain and had stumbled upon a hermit’s hut and the hermit offered them food. He began to describe the meal – at this point I reflexively ejected the word “tsampa!” because my mind had been in Tibet all week reading about butter tea and tsampa.  “Tsampa, that’s right,” he replied.  They had continued on, over a 16,000-foot pass, but his friend was wet and cold and turning blue with hypothermia  and they had to retrace their steps to find a flat spot where they could put her in the tent to get her warm and dry before continuing.  Eventually, they both made it out.

And then the flight attendant said something over the loudspeakers and the guy disappeared to run off and catch his plane.  The hidden-lands, or something close by, they jumped out of the pages of the book and showed up at Malpensa that day.  Pretty cool.

Posted in Travel | 1 Comment

the effort of continuous practice

The Ino asked if I could cover this morning’s fukudo position, and my response was “of course.”  I had recently trained on the position when I stopped being head chiden for awhile so the role was still fresh in my mind.  The reason for the Ino’s request was a sucky one: our friend Dave committed suicide last week and he was the last person on this doan ryo job; now that Dave’s not here, the Ino needed a replacement.  I toyed with the idea of getting morbid about that but instead decided that it was another way to honor Dave, by stepping into the position and continuing the practice.  It may be tempting to try to honor those in pain by following them in their defeat – “as you suffer, so I will suffer.”  I can’t help but believe that those who take their lives would instead have embraced life if they could, and the best way to honor them is to turn toward life even when they could not.

Fukudo is a physical position, with lots of bell ringing and beating on different drums.  The fukudo is up before everyone else, waking up the zendo and the whole assembly in preparation for the morning’s zazen. By 5am I had finished running up and down three flights of stairs to ring the wakeup bell in the hallways, chest heaving in and out with the exertion. My face continued sweating for another 30 minutes as I beat the han calling people down for zazen and then went to sit in the gaitan.  That early morning jog felt like a cleansing ritual, and I wondered whether Dave had enjoyed it when this was his job.

During service we did a memorial for Dave, chanting the Dai Hi Shin Dharani and each of us offering incense.  I’ve been noticing all week how much I suddenly enjoy service. I’ll admit it hasn’t been my favorite part of practice usually, but something about seeing everyone all together in the morning, even though most of our faces are still droopy with sleepiness, has been comforting to me in the aftermath of Dave’s death.  There is something magical about starting the day all in the same room and doing the same ritual together: bowing, sitting, moving our zafus, watching the zagus unfurl, passing out chant books, chanting, smelling the incense, seeing each other, greeting the day, giving thanks to our ancestors and dedicating our practice.  If I pay attention, I feel the reality of the one body. 

The words that Paul said at the beginning of service can’t be recalled now but this is what stayed with me:  people and all beings die and yet the living continues, how can this be?  We were there to honor Dave’s life by dedicating the ceremony to him, how could this possibly be adequate?  And yet there we were, making the effort.

Posted in Daily Life | 1 Comment

the thing that cannot be undone

It was Thursday night when we found Dave’s body.

I say “we,” although to be precise it was not me but some other specific people, and those people will have had a very particular experience of the events from that moment onward that I cannot share in.  But it feels like “we” all found Dave’s body at some point, all of us who are left walking this earth without him, the “we” who are left to feel the reverberations from that momentous decision Dave made to take his life.

The collectiveness of experience is witnessable.  I just have to look hereherehere, and here to know that whatever separation any of us feels while living this human life is a fundamental delusion.

My own particular contribution to the collective experience of Dave’s death began with coming home late on Thursday night to find the medical examiner’s van parked out front and my fellow residents in the Buddha Hall chanting the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo Sutra.  We followed his body out the door and, after the van took off, found our way through the beginning stages of unraveling what the heck had just happened.  Some went to bed, some went off to be alone; a group began to cluster first in the small kitchen, then moved to the student lounge, coalescing into a larger group, and someone made toast to share, and we sat just to be with each other for a bit longer.

And then Friday morning I took off for a yoga retreat down at Tassajara, feeling ambivalent about leaving while everyone at City Center was still raw, but it turned out okay.  People at Tassajara knew Dave too, and were also grieving.  I did yoga and felt my body breathing in and out, and walked the paths under the blue skies and hugged a couple of people and talked about how fucked up it was that Dave was gone.  I think that’s how death can be sometimes, everything all jumbled together.  Maybe you don’t notice the blue skies, and maybe you find it odd that people somewhere are still laughing even though you don’t feel like there’s going to be much to laugh about, even though you yourself are soon laughing at some dumb thing.

While I was gone from City Center I missed the discussion Friday morning during the three-week intensive that Paul Haller is leading; I missed the community meeting on Friday night; I missed Paul’s public dharma talk on Saturday.  All these opportunities to push through the experience with my home sangha, feel its texture, let it register, passed by without me.  I came back to City Center last night ready to talk and find out how things were for everyone, and many people were ready to give it a rest for awhile.  And then this morning in the Buddha Hall I began to melt a bit, seeing Dave’s photo on the altar.  He’s gone and he’s not coming back.  This one thing, it cannot be undone.  The men I see walking down the street with the same haircut and the similar walk, they are never going to be Dave.  We can talk to his door, sealed now by the medical examiner, and say it was all a mistake, please come back, we’ll try again, but it’s not going to do any good.

I’d known Dave for three years, and we weren’t close but we shared meals around the table, chatted in the student lounge, started up conversations occasionally when we found ourselves both heading downhill for the Muni station in the morning.  Dave was immensely likable.  The universal assessment of Dave is also my assessment — he was a gentle soul, self-deprecating, smart, and sharply funny.  We also knew that he struggled with the darkness, and had been struggling for a long time.  We were caught off-guard, but not completely surprised.

After the event people had a range of reactions, from the personal and visceral to the abstract and contemplative.   Some people chunked up toward broader questions of how Zen practice and mental health relate to each other, or if they in fact are (or should be) related.  Many tried to put the story together in such a way that it could make sense, stringing together what was known about the conditions of Dave’s life that might lead him to make that decision at that moment of time.  We’re constantly trying to make sense of things.  We hate not knowing.

At one point I was convinced that Dave’s decision was a noble and heroic act.  Birth and death for most of us are events we experience like passengers in a car, hoping the driver will keep driving for as long as possible.  The suicide act turns that on its head, taking death by the balls and saying fuck you, we’re going to do this thing RIGHT NOW, sucker. I have never been that close to it myself, though.  Perhaps my story is just a romantic idea that helped me for a few moments to feel okay about what happened.  I could construct an infinite variety of such stories.  Stories of relentless defeat followed by a moment of surrender to mercy.  Stories of confusion over the math of the situation, thinking that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.  Stories about making the action outside be congruent once and for all with how he felt inside.  Stories of waiting until he found a community that could hold his fragility, his hopelessness, the depth of his anguish without turning away from it, so he could lay down on that soft bed of support and give up all that he had struggled against into our loving arms.  I particularly like that last story; it makes me want to be strong for Dave, with the combined strength of all Buddhas and Boddhisattvas.  I don’t want to disappoint him.

Now I wander down the hallway to the altar that has been built in front of his room, a testimony to the undeniable love that people had for Dave, and the medical examiner’s tape sealing the door shut is just one loud scream.  We live in such intimacy here, with only thin walls between us.  And yet I don’t know if I believe a friend’s comment on one of my posts that “with intimacy, real intimacy, we do know each others inner experiences, because they are the stories we tell…”  We do tell our stories all the time, with our voices and faces and the way we walk and the books we underline and the notes we leave and yet no, no, we did not know that Dave was going to do this unspeakable thing.  The walls around our minds and hearts can be as effective at separating us as the walls around our bedrooms and sometimes we just don’t know whether to knock, because knocking can mean we want intimacy and connection but it can also mean intrusion and disrespect, so there is a conundrum there.  We cannot escape our delusion.  There seems to be no easy answer, only the middle way to constantly negotiate.

I am deeply sorry that Dave suffered so greatly, and I do not begrudge him the release.  It seems unfair that some of us take on more than our share of the burden of our collective pain. Knowing Dave, I cannot believe that he would want all of us to be suffering over this now.  But this thing cannot be undone, and everything else that happens next includes this event and this pain, forever.

Posted in Daily Life | 4 Comments