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.

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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.

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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.

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grabbing the gearshift

I chuckled as I sat down on the zafu, because the invitation to sit dokusan with my teacher came at the last minute as it sometimes does, and I had no idea what I wanted to ask him.

I decided to start with some gentle teasing.

“I’ve been reading Fire Monks” (the book that just came out about the monks at Tassajara in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire).  “The book says you often shout at your students, but you’ve never shouted at me.  Should I be worried?”

“That’s funny,” he replied, “because as you sat down I was thinking to myself, what is it going to take to go deeper?”  It wasn’t shouting but it was fierce; he answered my teasing with a challenge.

In the service of taking things deeper we talked about the events and situations in my life that affect me the most, and he probed into my thoughts and feelings about them, my beliefs, my responses.  We looked at the language I use to describe these situations, whether the language was neutral or non-neutral.

The line of questioning, seeming to examine how well I knew my own state of mind, left me agitated.  Is this what he thinks has been missing in the two plus years we’ve been meeting?  Does he think I’m a shallow person, avoiding contact with my inner emotional states?  My system objected. Aren’t we cultivating equanimity here?  Isn’t my psychological stability one of my best assets?  And is he asserting that it’s built on a false base, that in reality I am disconnected from my own experience?

This great doubt, it is not fun.

One time in a workshop I was asked to walk a timeline of my life and stop whenever I came upon an experience in which I felt wronged or resentful.  Before I started walking the line I thought ‘oh no, this is going to be a disaster – I don’t have any lingering resentments, not me.’  And then I walked the line and stopped on almost every major relationship I’ve been in.   I would stop and see a mental picture of the person and my disappointment in them was right there, I didn’t have to go searching.  And this was almost immediately followed by the “extenuating facts” voice in my head that wanted to excuse the person for doing the best they can and bring up my own shortcomings and disappointment in self in that relationship.  But because the workshop exercise wasn’t about that, I was forced to just look at the resentments as separate events, see them for what they are, to notice that they exist.  How illuminating!  This is what I do.  I move so quickly to the wide view that I skip the original experience.

So perhaps my teacher has a point, if indeed that’s the point he is making.  It’s not equanimity if I’m glossing over the events of my life and jumping right into the it’s-all-good mantra to steady the ship.   Equanimity pulls from deeper waters and is ready for all storms.  Equanimity knows where the disappointments and resentments are, and includes them in the appropriate response.

Sometimes I look at my face and I don’t recognize myself.  I look old and tired, weighted down in a way that I don’t identify with.  Perhaps my face shows the sadness of my ancestors, their pain and bitterness coming through in physical form even though my life is unfolding in a way that feels less limited by my convoluted family soul, or ancient twisted karma, than it used to.  But I also wonder if I’m missing something; perhaps my face knows something about me that I’ve forgotten or never wanted to really look at in the first place.

This is my koan for today:  No one can know what my internal experience is but me; what is it that I really feel?

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back in the saddle again

Sometimes the universe screws around with you a bit.

I am back to being head chiden at the temple again.  In the same weekend I was invited to again be head chiden, my boss’ half-time scheduling support (at my day job) left to be full-time support for someone else, and I was invited to again be my boss’ executive assistant.  There was less “option” involved in this invitation than with the return to the head chiden gig. I was originally hired to be the boss’ executive assistant, and then the job grew and I got promoted, and now I am scheduling again until we find a replacement.

I struggled momentarily to find some grand meaning in the fact that I was once again head chiden and executive assistant, fearful that one way to look at it was that I was losing ground.   Perhaps the universe was telling me something?  That I had forgotten a lesson, that I needed to go backward along the path already traveled, pick up something I had missed?  For so long I had the idea that I had to keep moving forward.  I thought I had to accomplish one thing after another and that each accomplishment had to rest on top of the last.

Both of these gigs, being head chiden and being executive assistant, are roles I love.  I was reminded of that when a couple Saturdays ago during the dharma talk I looked at the beeswax candles on the altar and noted that the main candle was dripping wax down the side, a result of causes and conditions, perhaps an asymmetrically loaded wick or unstable base combined with inadequate seating of the brass follower that cradles the top of the candle.  I noted the drips dispassionately at first until I remembered that I was again head chiden and that one of my duties was to care for the beeswax candles, and that I would be the one to carry the candle down to the chidening area, lighting it to warm and soften the wax, trimming the candle to a level surface, cleaning the wax out of the follower.  I would be the one to watch how the candle was performing after that, visiting it after service in the morning, slightly twisting and seating the follower again if all was well.  Some part of my mind is reserved for observing these candles now, monitoring their well-being, giving assistance in the form of continued seating and trimming if necessary, supporting the activities of candles fulfilling their destinies to live complete temple candle lives.  It is how I imagine a mother always has one part of her mind observing the activities of the child, watching and listening perhaps even without conscious attention for any assistance that might be helpful to offer.

In much the same way, being an executive assistant is supporting the activities of the CEO fulfilling his destiny to live a complete CEO life. He has other roles to be sure, but my concern is limited to just this.   When he is in the office I have his daily calendar with me, either mentally or on paper, and whatever else I am doing that day I am also following his day, knowing when meetings are running over and the participants of the next meeting need to be informed, or perhaps going to stand silently by the door of the meeting room, where even just by my sudden appearance he might bolt out of his absorbed huddle and look at his smartphone to see if he’s supposed to be going somewhere else.  I am following his day to see that he gets fed, that he has the materials he needs for his meetings, to see if he has time for a quick phone call with someone who urgently needs to speak with him in Mexico or DC.

To me this is all about love.  I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, because I don’t have a specific attachment to either beeswax candles or this particular CEO.  These candles and this CEO are certainly worthy of love, but I felt this way even about supporting the famous scientist I worked for before, who was not nice to a lot of people.   They are all worthy of love, nice or not, but it’s not even about that – it’s about the warm feeling I get in the center of my chest when I think about taking care of things and people, paying attention to them, honoring the activities of their lives, honoring the nobility of things and people taking their place in the universe.

Sometimes things are changing in a way that seem to be moving your self and your life forward, moving toward something or away from something, and then you look around and the idea begins to form that perhaps the movement lacks purposefulness or directionality after all.  This idea, when it strikes, it is not comfortable.  I don’t think this current crop of humans enjoys the idea of directionlessness.

But just to love: isn’t that everything?

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The whole universe invites you …

Saturday was our monthly one-day sitting, required for all residents.  Actually it was a triple whammy Zen day:  a one-day sitting, the middle day of a three-day sesshin (meditation retreat), and the end of the spring practice period.  But I was only in for the one-day sitting. 

 The day was a celebration of simplicity. I managed to escape getting assigned complicated and responsible duties and could just “follow the schedule,” going to the zendo when the densho called, getting up to do kinhin between sitting periods, going to lecture or work circle when it was time to do that. The assignment I did pull (everyone gets an assignment) was on the serving crew for oryoki.  Oryoki is a formal, choreographed meal in the zendo and the role of the servers is to execute the instructions of the soku and head server, bearing pots of food into the zendo and being mindful to enter with an open and generous heart.  This isn’t really different than what is required of any other moment (perhaps if you substitute “the request of practice” for “the soku and head server”), but somehow taking away all the distractions I associate with more fussy activities made it easier to focus on just that.  I felt relaxed and appreciative.

After serving the oryoki breakfast the serving crew sat down for their own silent meal together, playing out an abbreviated form of the formal oryoki we’d enacted in the zendo.  Oryoki has a lot of specific rules, and one of the rules is that you don’t mix the food from your three bowls unless it is announced that the Tenzo (head of the kitchen) invites you to do so.  This announcement, when it happens, is a Zen version of Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail Free” card, a release from the constriction of a tightly scripted ceremony. We sat in silence with oats in the first bowl, pumpkin pudding in the second bowl, and toasted almonds in the third bowl.  As I picked up my almonds one-by-one with my chopsticks, I longed to dump them all into the pumpkin pudding.  I looked at the soku to see if perhaps he’d spaced out about announcing the invitation, but he did not seem to desire being prompted.  So I made the mental shift to remember to fully take in what the universe was offering, and settled in to eat my pumpkin pudding and almonds separately, tasting each in my mouth and experiencing their individual characteristics.

It was then that the soku broke the silence, saying “The whole universe invites you to mix your second and third bowls.”

There were some quiet chuckles as we all appreciated the soku’s twist on the usual announcement.  We don’t always find the sweet spot we’re looking for, and it never stays with us when we do find it, but it does pass through on occasion, affording an opportunity to make contact.  I luxuriated in the sweetness of the moment, as it seemed that the whole universe was offering up its generosity and kindness without discrimination to me and all beings.

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Bye bye chiden, goodbye


One of the things that has changed recently is that I am no longer the head chiden.

There are many jobs at the Zen Center – house jobs, bathroom jobs, kitchen jobs, dish jobs, staff jobs.  Chidening falls under the classification of doanryo jobs – the jobs that keep the temple going — chidens take care of the temple’s altars.  I have been head chiden for about a year now, primarily responsible for setting up altars for special ceremonies, which we do quite often around here.

Special ceremonies are a bit like Thanksgiving dinner, which I experience as hours of preparation, the food getting devoured in minutes, followed by hours of cleanup.  For a Zen ceremony, the set-up consists of moving things around, taking tables out of closets, changing ceremonial cloths, preparing offerings (sweet water, tea, and rice, or sometimes cakes or manju or pyramids of oranges), pulling out chant cards, lighting up charcoal and candles. Each ceremony has its own arrangement.  Then the ceremony takes place, lasting from ten minutes to two hours, and after that everything has to be put away again.

One morning as I was washing out ceramic bowls and the pot I cooked the rice in and folding up the cloths and generally straightening up, I was thinking about how much effort went into this whole affair.  Everything comes out and then goes back in the closet.  It comes out and goes back, over and over again.  If you think about it with a supposedly rational mind, it makes little sense. Why do we bother?

On that morning I went to my room and spotted the vase of flowers I keep on my dresser/personal altar.  The flowers were moderately fresh but the water was murky and needed to be changed. I vow not to let a container of steadily decaying organic matter fester on my altar, so I keep at it, but with the same thoughts as I had about the pointlessness of setting up for ceremonies – so much effort, and for what? Isn’t it so much easier to do away with the flowers and I don’t know, put a nice statue there or something?

But I do like this ceremony of keeping fresh flowers: I like the constellation of sight/sound/feeling I have when I see the flowers on my dresser and I like the sight/sound/feeling while I’m in the activity of changing them. This state of mind evokes something like optimism, of there being a purpose to activity although there is no goal, even as my thoughts trigger deep questions about whether feeling purposeful is rational.  Perhaps it is in opposition to my sense of defeat, to the inevitability of the entropy that conquers all hopes for “getting anywhere” with all this activity, that I find hopefulness itself, standing apart from the notion that something must be achieved.  Perhaps intimately witnessing the uncomplaining exertion of life propelling itself into the universe is found just here in the act of repeatedly gathering flowers that are doomed, like all of us, to die, having gotten – nowhere. Can this be true?  And is that why we do all these ceremonies, to remind ourselves of that, to drive hopefulness deeper into our bones through repetition?

Letting go of the head chiden role is another death accompanied by mourning.  I rather liked being head chiden; it was a good outlet for my love of forms, for using activity to create beauty and order and offer it in love to my sangha the same way I offer fresh flowers to my personal altar. The organizational structure of the Zen Center hasn’t come out of nowhere though – it’s been passed down for thousands of years, with cultural adaptations, from the practices that foster realization of the dharma in monastic communities.  In this system everyone is encouraged to experiment with nonattachment, and rotating out the jobs instead of assigning people for long periods based on aptitude and preference is part of that.

I’m fascinated by the forms of the temple and how they manage to be preserved over time given the high turnover.  I learned how to be head chiden from my predecessor, who learned from his predecessor, and so on.  But each head chiden also imprints their own ideas and preferences onto the role, so the role is a fluid, evolving entity.

Some of the forms for being head chiden are written down, but not every detail. I start to worry that if the details aren’t sufficiently passed to the next chiden, they will be lost forever.  Me being me, I am exact with the details.  But sometimes my own ideas about details prove to be wrong and my insistence on exactitude misplaced.

For instance, the Suzuki Roshi Memorial we do every month is two ceremonies, one in the evening and one the following morning. The form I was taught is that after the evening ceremony everything is put back to “normal” as if nothing had happened between then and the morning ceremony. I somehow generalized this into a philosophy about all ceremonies that said the setting up should be as invisible as possible and not interfere with temple activities that happen outside of the ceremony. So for a year I have been careful to not start setting up for the morning Full Moon Ceremonies until after the doshi has been in the Buddha Hall for the morning offering.  Imagine my surprise when the new head chiden brought me typed instructions for the Full Moon Ceremony, written years ago under an entirely different regime, which clearly stated that some of the setup was to take place the night before!

As the transition takes place, it’s fun to see how long it takes to let go of feeling responsible for things getting done and to note that as I watch the new head chiden all my thoughts of how it “should” be done come merrily rushing in.  Intellectually I know the new head chiden will realize the position in the way that her own personality channels the dharma, and it will all be just fine.  This place will carry on the way it will carry on, becoming what it will become and not conforming to my ideas about what it should be, for as long as there is need or desire for it to exist. The forms are important, but only as an instrument of focus, and if they stop performing that function then we must be willing to let them go.

As the great teacher Kosho McCall said to me once: keep your eye on the movement, not the object.  Perhaps another way to say that is: stay with what’s happening Now.  The Now includes the dying flowers in my vase and the sadness of loss and the hopefulness of just getting up every day to do it all over again anyway, whether the world conforms to my liking or not.

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