Friday, March 13, 2009

Sweeping the Temple Steps

These days my awareness that I live in what John Tarrant calls "The Fortunate and Ongoing Disaster of Lay Life" has been heightened. For one thing, I have been reading a lovely book, Zazen, Jacob Blatte's diary and photographs of his experiences with Japanese Zen and culture. One of the photographs shows a barefoot monk sweeping the leaves off the temple steps with a handmade broom. Another shows a monk raking the curves into the gravel in the stone garden. The comment is that you must make the rake yourself, every prong, in order to do the raking well.

I love stuff like that. But I just emptied the dustbin on the Roomba, my beloved robot vacuum, cleaned its brushes, and set it going in this room. I suppose its whine and its gentle banging into the walls would disturb an entire monastery of people dedicated to noble silence. In the enormous canon of Buddhist writings, there is nothing about vacuum cleaners, let along robots.

Like many lay practitioners, I sometimes mourn the fact that I can't practice "real Zen" - residence in a center, frequent contact with a Teacher, wearing a robe, observing the schedule and rules of silence that force personal impulse and ego down. Daily chanting with others, sitting several times a day in an immaculately clean room wholly dedicated to meditation, in the community formed when people meditate together. Yes, that's my idea of the Lotus Land. I'm sure that somewhere in all that I could sneak off and write a poem.

This issue of staying out here is concisely discussed in Al Billings' blog, referenced in the link above. Like him, I honor a deep commitment to my spouse, and to my daughter and her family. Like Gary Snyder, the Zen poet, I feel deeply rooted in my neighborhood, and connected to neighbors and nearbye friends. And what about the cat?

Here he is now, in my first video, originally titled Sherlock Frightens the Roomba. (I did want to edit it, and cut out the later part about Tom's toes, but that would entail learning to use new software, sigh.)

I comfort myself remembering the stories of people who crash after leaving residency. Jack Kornfield tells how, when he returned from Asia he found within a week that he knew all about meditation, but nothing about getting along with people. As I remember the story, he disrobed and entered college in psychology.

I know from my own experience and others' that retreats, which mimic the monk's immersion in practice, change us. They accelerate our facing our reality, they stir us up, they motivate and inspire, even when we think they haven't. But the real work remains to be done when you get home, where there are still floors waiting to be swept however you can best do it.

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