Zen Center

It was the Fall of 1994 and Claire had just returned from a visit to Atlanta where she had been reintroduced to old friends in the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and had spent a few hours meditating there over the weekend. Her description of and enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Zen Center dropped like a hot coal in my mind.
Giana and I had been living in Jesup, Georgia for some five years then, and we had been friends with Claire since she and her husband Neill had moved to Jesup about a year after we did. We had hit it off immediately and become best friends, especially as Claire became our doctor and delivered our daughter, Liana.

We shared lots of interests and values with Claire and Neill, but somehow the topic of Buddhism had never come up –we didn’t talk about religion or spirituality at all as I recall. We were all pretty much socialist and materialist in our life philosophies — one reason we hit it off so well in a small south Georgia town where to express such ideas was a sure path to social ostracism. In fact, in Jesup, the first question you’re most likely to be asked upon being introduced to someone is: Where do you go to church?

So we had become fast friends with Claire and Neill, and no one had ever noticed my half-carved Buddha statue sitting in the living room, nor had my quiet interest in Buddhism ever come up in conversation.
But when Claire told me about re-connecting with a friend from Emory University days who had for several years been leading a Zen meditation center in the Candler Park area of Atlanta, I pointed out my rude sculpture to her and told her of my early Buddhist experiences in Thailand, and my continuing interest in Zen. I think I was in the midst of reading Suzuki Roshi’s little book at the time, and was still trying to sit every now and then, so I was ready for the news that there was somewhere I could go for serious Zen.

And more than ready for someone to share it with. Claire had brought home chant sheets from Zen Center, and she and I began doing little meditation sessions in the under-construction second floor of their house, which I was helping Neill build. Of course, I didn’t journal during much of this, so the details and sequence are pretty cloudy for me now 24 years later. I did write in August of 1993: “…I know clearly that I am on the Path now. Consistent sitting (inspired by Claire’s jump into Zen and the legitimization in Giana’s eyes that Claire gives it) has made me sure of the Buddhism that I embraced those years ago when my Thai friend said, ‘Buddha say, just enough!’”

And it wasn’t long before I went with Claire to Atlanta for a weekend sesshin. That first day in the little Candler Park zendo, October 2, 1993, sitting on those black cushions facing the old granite walls of the converted gas station, is very clear in my memory. I remember the slight apprehension as I removed my shoes in the tiny, quiet foyer formed by old windows with white panes, the smell of the incense, and the black backs of the motionless meditators around the walls as I followed Claire to a vacant cushion.
Settling in to my cushion I remember a deep sense of gratitude and wonder at the opportunity to be there, actually sitting with a group of people doing Zen meditation.

For years, I had assumed that such things only happened in faraway places, and that seven years in a monastery in Japan was pretty much the only model for finding enlightenment. Now here I was in the midst of clearly serious Zen practice, only a few hours from home.
I spent most of that first day with tears rolling down my cheeks as I sat and breathed, walked and chanted. In my journal that night, I wrote: “I have wanted to do this for so long, and despaired of ever having the opportunity, so the reality is very sweet.”

I also discovered the Heart Sutra and quickly came to love it. The group chanting, and later my own chanting of it, seemed to open up meaning in the ancient words that a simple reading of it might not reveal. I had long loved the Buddhist sutras, since my introduction to them in the university class in Kansas City, but this was my first experience with how their use in meditative chanting revealed deeper meanings.

So the Heart Sutra and other chants became a part of my regular practice, one that has held up through the years since as a profound comfort through the difficult times of my life.

I think the most important effect from finding Zen Center and a zen buddy was that I began, really for the first time, consistent sitting. I began sitting on our screen porch, because there I could set up my cushion and a little altar and it wasn’t in anyone’s way — or in anyone’s face. I could pop in, sit for a few minutes, and move on with little wasted time. I was teaching school then, so I had a regular daily schedule and could work in one or two sittings each day fairly easily. I found that even a few minutes in the morning helped my school day — engaging with middle schoolers is not easy — go much more smoothly and I was much less affected by the stress of the job.

Surprisingly, my entry into open Zen practice also proved to be a very positive influence in the development of a better spiritual relationship with my mother.

As I mentioned in the chapter on Daddy and the problems we had surrounding my resistance to the Vietnam War, my mother and I had long been on a close spiritual path in many ways, and she understood my pacifism and the need to part ways with the Air Force. But she never had been able to accept my negative ideas about Christianity and my refusal through the years — despite the brief flirtation with the church in Missouri — to find an adult acceptance of “Jesus as my savior”. My mother’s personal faith was a profoundly spiritual version of Christianity, one that I deeply respected, and she was never a “hide-bound” Christian, to use a term she employed. She would have likely been run out of the southern Baptist church she attended had the folks there known the depth to which her differences with their theology extended, but her faith and love were so strong, shone out so clearly from her great, great soul, that no one ever suspected her heresies.
Because she was able to transcend what she saw as the human limitations in the Christian religion, she thought I should be able to do the same, and we had never quite seen eye-to-eye on any of it, especially as she was so acutely aware of the suffering I experienced without a truly liberating spiritual life.

My formal, open entry into Buddhism, while not what she would have preferred for me, was positive for Mother because it made me a happier and more balanced person. She could see that, and for her that was strong evidence in its favor, despite her differences with the beliefs and practices. So our relationship steadily began to improve and we began to be able to have meaningful discussion about spiritual matters.
Though I didn’t really talk about it a lot, I did “come out” as Buddhist to my family — and eventually to my students — with no negative responses. I even made it through that first Christmas with my siblings at Mom’s house smoothly, despite the fact that some of my siblings are toward the fundamentalist side of the Christian religion.

My wife, Giana, was supportive of all these changes, though she wasn’t too sure about it all, and didn’t have any interest at the time in Buddhism or in taking up the practice of meditation. She was, to my great relief, fine with my going off on weekends with our friend Claire for retreats, and fine with holding meditations in the loft of her pottery shop, even supportive of my setting up meditation areas in the bedroom when it got too cold out on the screen porch for sitting.

The next summer, I went off for a week-long retreat at Southern Dharma, this time by myself, and she was very supportive of that as well.

She was fine with most of it because she too could see that it was good for me. I was easier to get along with and less prone to the depression and anger that plagued me after beginning the regular practice.
But it didn’t fix everything.

 

(This post also appears here as a Page in the sequential section as 17.)

Gary…

… a quote from Gary Snyder that I want to remember, and hope will serve as the stub for more on this idea…

Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

Being the stream… I find myself resisting this so much lately, which is likely the source of my discomfort and stress. I just want to grab a rock and cling, hoping the rushing water of these last few weeks will subside soon. 

I recognize the wisdom of Gary’s words, but it’s hard to release that rock, roll over and see that the sky is still there, and go with the water, being the stream. Fear arises. Back to the cushion. 

Metta for All Beings

In these dark times, times that demand such awareness and commitment to strong action, we need to build each others’ heart strength for the suffering we will encounter, for the hard work we will do, for the long struggle we must endure.

One way of building this strength is to send out heart-felt messages to others, spoken and unspoken messages that come from the meditative state and have power to spread encouragement and support. In some Buddhist traditions, this process is known as metta, which is usually translated ‘loving kindness’, but goes far beyond that when part of a deep practice of compassion and compassionate action.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel composed this poem, whose words speak to us so strongly in light of recent words and actions, in the spirit of that powerful form of metta:

 

For All Beings

May all beings be cared for and loved,

Be listened to, understood and acknowledged despite different views,

Be accepted for who they are in this moment,

Be afforded patience,

Be allowed to live without fear of having their lives taken away or their bodies violated.

May all beings

Be well in its broadest sense,

Be fed,

Be clothed,

Be treated as if their life is precious,

Be held in the eyes of each other as family.

May all beings

Be appreciated,

Feel welcomed anywhere on the planet,

Be freed from acts of hatred and desperation including war, poverty, slavery, and street crimes,

Live on the planet, housed and protected from harm,

Be given what is needed to live fully, without scarcity,

Enjoy life, living without fear of one another,

Be able to speak freely in a voice and mind of undeniable love.

May all beings

Receive and share the gifts of life,

Be given time to rest, be still, and experience silence.

May all beings

Be awake.

The poem was published in Turning Wheel by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in 2009. May it be spoken, heard, understood and enacted throughout the world.

Metta!

The Need for Silence

Reading a disturbing essay by Andrew Sullivan this morning, shared by my wonderful friend Melissa Stiers Kretzschmar, that articulates so well why we need meditative silence. Published in New York Magazine, his new venue I think, the essay is titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Whatever we may think of Sullivan, (must say I’m not really a fan of Andrew’s, as he has been a leading conservative, neo-con, libertarian, neoliberal – God knows what he is) he’s an astute social observer for sure, and this account of his personal experience is telling. It’s also a chilling exposè/analysis of the dangers of the wired world… I say as I sit here blogging.

So this is not to be taken as the final word, but as food for thought. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to measure and mediate my own interaction with the news & culture media stream, and I’ve found, as Sullivan articulates in great detail, that it’s hard. Once you slip back in, it begins to grasp you more and more. Though I am staying pretty clear of the political aspects that tend to really stress me out. Didn’t even watch the debate last night. Won’t read about it. Can’t deal with it…

But I do find what Sullivan says about how meditation and retreats helped him to be very interesting. This is not a guy you’d expect to hear these things from. He’s a gay, British Catholic conservative writer, so not someone I’d ever think would do a 10-day retreat… but apparently he did.

The article is long but well worth the read. A few excerpts on silence:

Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn. …And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. … Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace.

He also weighs in strongly in favor of a disciplined meditation practice:

I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.

I’ve experienced much the same decline in my practice, probably due to these same influences he describes, and lately I’ve been making efforts to get my practice re-established. But it may be that I have to make a cleaner break with the media stream to actually make this work.

I’m working on a new approach to both media and meditation… I’ll try to keep blogging through this process… but it may fall by the wayside also. A conundrum.

Ah, just breathe…

One of my old-time meditation buddies – who practiced Tibetan Buddhism and eventually ordained and moved to India – used to say, “Let’s sit and breathe!” when it was time to meditate. I try to always remember that basically, that’s all ya’ gotta know to do this.

The trick in meditation and in success at “taking it off the cushion” is to remember to breathe. Much of the teaching and training done in any style or fashion of meditation involves ways to help us just remember.

Remember to breathe!

Yes, that’s it. Remember to Breathe!  This is in fact the title of  a wonderful web site I have recently discovered. Remember to Breathe is web site dedicated to that proposition, a site that provides as clear and pure an explanation of the process of mindful breathing and its wonders as anything I’ve seen in my long journey. In plain English, without esoteric or technical terms, Don and Jan describe how to approach this process and some great resources to help one along the way.

They also put the whole thing in the context of brain science – in a very understandable way – which makes it clear why — however you come to this, whatever cultural expression you look at — the essential elements are solidly part of the human experience.

With a long background in teaching yoga, breathing, and meditation as well as psychology, art and music, they seem like an amazing resource. Don has been commenting on my blog posts for some time now, and we’ve become online friends, but I just discovered his website – seems he was too modest to mention it in our conversations.

If you’re interesting in learning to meditate or want to improve your practice, this is a site to visit. Remember to Breathe!

Thanks Don!

Loving the world

Well into my second week being mostly off the media grid, I’m feeling a recovery of the feelings of beauty and wonder that constitute love for the world… at least most of the time!

Finding that beauty, wonder and love in all the grit and grime is the real challenge. I am working on building my strength, working on being able to engage fully without losing that sense of the worth intrinsic in life.

The universe gave me a little nudge in that direction a few days ago when I came across this beautiful passage written by a friend, Sonya Huber:

A concrete loading dock doesn’t ask anything of you, doesn’t demand that you agree with its crazy stories or its lies–and that is love, after all. It will wrap you in the baked-cookie smell of rain on warm asphalt, the earth as industrial rows of monocrop corn stretching on either side of the highway. It will give you billboard-sized abstract paintings in layers of faded paint and chipped brick and colors that haven’t been named yet. You can read a philosophy on those surfaces, can vaguely make out the palimpsest of hope in the foreign language of a splash of yellow that somehow survived around those lovely pockmarked metal walls.

Ah yes, finding beauty, love, philosophy, hope even, in industrial concrete! What a gift!

This is practice in its highest form.

The paragraph is from Love and Industry, Sonya’s winning entry in the Terrain.org Non-fiction writing contest from back in 2013, which I had missed, probably because I was going to really need to hear it in August of 2016, and would not likely have gone back to read it had I already done so. The universe is clever like that. At least it comforts me to think so.

However, why ever, it happened, it happened. I read it. And it was very meaningful for me… helpful in those little ways friends and writers have of supporting us through the dark moments when all seems lost. Reminding us that love doesn’t always come with hearts and flowers and pink lace doilies.

It’s a great piece, still so perfect for these times three years later.

I must confess, I had to look up palimpsest – tho I had an inkling of its meaning, the full definition is instructive: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.”

It’s a wonderful image. An image true to so much of life, especially in these times. So much of what we have thought for some time to be true and unalterable has been scraped away by the edges of life’s movement, and perhaps it is yet just the flailing about of our crushed longings, but something new is being written on the old forms, something perhaps better and more true.

If we keep our eyes and our hearts open, maybe we’ll survive these latest insanities and move on to create that more beautiful world, one that is easier to love, but in the meantime, we have to keep loving the world as it is.

As Sonya says, “What else is there to love?”

The value, and point, of practice

One thing I have tried to focus on here is why we practice, whether Buddhist or otherwise, meditation and other mindfulness practices. It’s often a difficult question to answer, and seems to me to be central to the process of offering help for others.

This article is a personal story that gives some very good, solid answers to that question. Primarily we practice to save our lives. And once we experience that, there’s some kind of natural inclination to want to share its benefits with others. If we keep at it a while, we learn lots about ourselves and the way one needs to live in order to stay connected with the meaning that keeps us alive.

This is to me the heart of the article, and the heart of practice:

As soon as I was willing to feel my pain, I regained access to my joy. I regained access to my love, and my boring, mundane life sprang forth in full color. The last day of that sesshin, I asked myself the question “When I am dying, what do I want my last thought to be?” and the answer came right away — gratitude. If I can die being grateful for my life, it will have been a life well lived.