Thursday, December 13, 2012

Real Practice

I am seriously having great doubt about the Zen path for about the hundredth time.

The other night I went to a local sangha I sit with occasionally. The room that serves as the zendo was set up as usual with 10-15 cushion sets, for people to sit on the floor, and four chairs for us sick, elderly, or just incompetent. I don't remember now whether every chair was occupied.  But the setup makes it clear that sitting on cushions is a sign of belonging.  A young man came in near the bell and sat down on the cushions beside me. It is not done to talk once you're in the zendo, shoes off, and I have no idea whether he talked to anyone before he entered, or had been there before.

But it was easy to see that he was acutely uncomfortable, trying to find some position he could sustain.  If you do not grow up sitting on floors, it can be quite difficult to learn how to.  In my own life, I got help from a kind yoga teacher with my posture and my pain issues.  I've always liked to get A's, and I persisted, and I did sit on a cushion for maybe ten years, until I had an ankle problem that ruled it out (and might have been brought on by all those years of half-lotus position, now that I think about it).

After about ten minutes, the guy next to me got up and quietly left. I did not get up and follow him. I hate this. It's not me.  But I was quite depressed that evening, not thinking well at all.

You do not have to sit in lotus position to gain wisdom or "attain enlightenment."  Fortunately for me, I began meditating on my own, sitting comfortably in my brown leather recliner, recovering from surgery. Sitting in that same chair two years later, after my second retreat, I had a great awakening experience. My spine was not erect at the time and I was not sitting motionless. I tell this only to point out that you can have realizations without tormenting your body. 

I empathize with that guy.  I, too, went to the only Zen group in town when I was first practicing, and felt the need for other people to support me.  I, too, tried to sit on the damn floor, since no chairs were provided there, and, using considerable willpower, adjusted my posture only a couple of times during that first excruciatingly long sit. After that, while others walked kinhin, the leader drew me aside and talked to me about how I was disturbing others by moving, and went and found a chair in another room and put me in it, all by myself like the dunce of the class. I am still embarrassed at the memory. But it happens that I'm stubborn about not letting the bastards get me down, and I persisted in my practice.

People don't come to Zen - or yoga, or church - on a whim. We are looking for something; we are in need.  But the way imitation-Japanese Zen valorizes sitting on the floor and enduring pain (and sleep deprivation) , if you can't do it, you don't belong.  Nothing could make that any clearer than all those cushions and no chairs. And no welcoming.

I had a similar experience with yoga, once. There were just six of us in that class, arrayed in a single line in the long room before the teacher.  Three of us could do almost nothing that teacher did, though this was billed as a Beginner's class. She never offered one hint of what you could do if you were not able to balance on one hand and one foot for minutes on end.  It's the same delusion:  that It is attained by physical forms.  I didn't go back, if you're wondering.

This. Is. Elitism. It is reinforced by the idea that a Zendo is a sort of tabernacle you enter barefoot and silent.  It is there in the persistent grave problem of sexual scandals in Zen, which has caused some hurt feelings online recently.  Teachers are glorified by the aura of holiness around dharma transmission, students are attracted to the power (just as they are to politicians), the teachers have sex with confused students.  Often, it turns out, with many of them. 

Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone.  It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight.  They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness.  They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.

I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left.  I hope it wasn't to a bar.  In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat.  The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.

In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers.  I've visited there.  There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot.  This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it. 


  1. FWIW, just to share how my attitude towards the whole thing has evolved over the decades -- back at the Zen Center in the early 70's, I felt bad for the ones who showed up for sittings, but then were moved to get up and leave before the sitting was done.
    Some years later, I grew to understand that they were actually the fortunate ones, to have escaped the huge impediment to reality that most spiritual centers represent.
    These days, I have come to recognize that it doesn't matter one bit whether they stay or go. There is only delusion (not that there's anything wrong with that either). Om Ah Hum

  2. Followed a link here from Nathan's blog. I like what I see. You're in my feed now! Thanks!

  3. After starting out much you did, in chairs, I was able to "graduate" to the floor fairly quickly only based on yoga I had been doing. But I never forgot my roots, and so when new people come into any sangha when I am around, I reach for chairs, blankets, zafus anything to make them comfortable. I don't care if they fall asleep, but it important to feel some compassion from your other sangha members. I quickly learned to give up my seat. At the same time I began to stay back to clean, and met an incredible older lady who used to drive me home just to let me talk. She would do a lot... cooking, cleaning, etc. She inspired me that this is 'our sangha.' She worked tirelessly, and when I left, showed only interest as my path got more refined along the lines of what I needed. Later on, when I had little money she would help me go to pricey retreats and pujas if I wanted. She passed last year, smiling right up to the end, surrounded by family, and other members of the sangha... she beamed total acceptance and comfort. I learned a lot, dhamma in action. I wrote her husband a tribute, just to say how important she was on my path.

  4. I am really with you, DG. You are right, people do not come to a Zen Center because everything is going so darn well. Not only that, people are also tense and afraid to "do something disrespectful". We have been endeavoring to be welcoming, and warm things up at our place. And it's still Zen! It is helpful to hear how not enough chairs in the Zendo "reads." At Dharma Rain, one of the teachers sits in a chair, and I bet that is a big support for those who are more comfortable in them, which is many people! I always like to say, "I've had some CRASHING insights sitting on a chair!" Ha ha!
    Bows to you,

  5. AH! What a nightmare.

    I want to say GGF IS NOT LIKE THIS! My good friend Phil and long time resident lays on his back with his feet up on a chair, and he is our kitchen Buddha.

    However, I do sit in full lotus, deal with lots of pain, and I think that's because I'm the worst horse. I will sleep if I'm on my back. I'm very stubborn. We know Phil's not sleeping because he keeps time for us during sesshin!

    A good friend and older practitioner was talking about the cult of pain she perceived here during the last practice period. I disagreed. She asked the abbess during a public Q&A and she disagreed, too, replying that the zendo was big enough to hold all of us and our needs. I feel that our Zendo is a full accommodation Zendo. We have wheelchair bound practitioners, we have people who cannot bow, and our teachers, mainly our abbess, has feedback for us, for all of us. For me, who might look like the poster child for Zen with all my silly effort, she asks to switch postures, which I resisted, but am now pursuing.

    I'm just so, so, so sorry. How silly that this happens, and I saw it a happen a million times at a different temple I lived in. Bull shit, bull shit, bull shit.

    Deep bow,

  6. Another important post. It brought back memories of my efforts, not least the yoga class where we were given wooden bricks to lay our heads on; it was excruciatingly uncomfortable so I removed it but the teacher told me off and said I had to use it (HAD to??), that's what they did in this class. Then she proceeded to have a personal conversation with the person lying next to me. It was distracting and annoying. The next time I went, I tried another teacher; all I wanted was a normal, regular hatha class. But she introduced her own touches to the class, little dance numbers "to lift the mood" or some such idiocy. It sent me packing. I never returned.
    I find much of Westernized Buddhism, at least in my experience, to be one of outward gestures and little else.
    Too tampering going on in both fields, like the editor who has to put his/her mark on a perfectly well-written text by changing a word here and a word there..... and, by so doing, will sometimes change the author's style or meaning.