Thursday, April 30, 2009

Genzo-e retreat - Day 1 - Ouch, I'm numb.

So, I am missing out on some sleep to update you on my retreat, because this has been a big day.

First off, since I am going to be whining here a lot, let me say that the reason I came to this retreat was to hear this teacher, Shohaku Okumura, teach Dogen, specifically a chapter of Dogen's seminal "Shobogenzo" called "One Bright Jewel." As an aside, just to relate how good this teacher is, most other translators render that chapter title as "One Bright Pearl" (including my own teacher) and Rev. Okumura spent 3 hours today (in two separate lectures) explaining why that is wrong. The word in Japanese can mean either jewel or pearl, but there's a very specific reason, related to the history and religious culture at the time it was written (1230's), why "jewel" is the proper rendering. The explanation for that was the most fascinating and enlightening 3 hours of zen lecture I have every attended. No kidding.

My butt is sore, and not in a good way, and not in the usual way when I do a lot of sitting. I am in the midst of a bit of a practice crisis here and I don't yet know how it is going to turn out.

Rev. Okumura, as it is typically done in Japanese zen centers, conducts zazen (sitting meditation) for 50 minutes. I am in the habit of sitting daily for 25 minutes. I have been at a number of sesshins where 40 minutes sits were the rule and I have never had a problem with those.

At the risk of providing too much information, my groin is numb and I last got off the cushion almost two hours ago. It is still numb, though it is getting better. I have never had this problem before. I can't continue. I don't know what I am going to do.

I am travelling with a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist priest from my hospice. He has some suggestions, but I need to take them up in the morning with the practice director. I also need to vent. I have been sitting with an angry, annoyed mind today.

First, this is a young sangha (think "congregation"), and young sanghas (as in the group's age, not the participants) often have a number of characteristics like this one. They don't have a member who regularly sits in a chair, as I do, and therefore they don't have good chairs (good chairs are those made for musicians, like cellists), they don't have a good method for dealing with chair-sitters during meals, and their zafus are all under-stuffed, which is what people who sit on the floor usually prefer, but they are not good for chair-sitting, particularly with a bad chair.

The chairs they have belong on the set of That 70's Show, around Red's dining room table, the seats are level with the floor (which means you have to arch your back to sit up straight), they are covered in a burlap-like upolstery, and they have no support in the middle of the seat, which makes it like sitting on top of a milk-crate stuffed with pillows. After 20 minutes I am in 7/10 pain, and after 30 minutes I am losing so much circulation that things go numb "down there."

This problem with sitting zazen, along with the exquisitely high quality of the teaching, is causing my crisis. I can't sit zazen with the group without practically injuring myself. The last time I sat for extended periods (at another center) I also weighed about 20-40 lbs more than I do now, and I had more padding on my butt. I don't know what the root cause of all this is exactly, but I do know I can't go on like I tried to do today.

I would just bag the rest of it and admire Indiana University co-eds (there are a lot of them around town) all day instead, but the lectures are too good to miss, and I came 700 miles to see this teacher. Like I said, the teacher has not only not disappointed me, he has far exceeded my expectations. If things go like they did today, this education I am getting at this retreat is going to a milestone in my life's zen practice. I am not overstating that at all. That also makes this a crisis. Just bugging out is not really an option.

So my priest companion tells me to "just freakin' stand up and stretch your legs" during zazen, he says they do this in Japan a lot, and that no one will care (as long as you aren't in a Rinzai temple, and we're not). I've never done this before, I pride myself on being scrupulous about practice, doing exactly what I am "supposed to," but doing that is not going to work this time.

What I'd really like to do is have my usual 25 minute sit in the morning, attend the lectures before/after lunch and spend the rest of the day admiring IU co-eds.

Then there's the food.

I could be really nasty, because I am annoyed and in pain, but I'll try to approach this from a neutral standpoint. The food is vegetarian, which is not unusual at zen centers, particularly young sanghas, but beyond that I think they are also hewing towards vegan and macrobiotic, which is at best annoying and at worst malnutrition.

If they continue to plan menus like they did today, it is malnutrition. Humans are omnivores, and they need fat and protein. We didn't get either today. Breakfast was some cooked grain, something like cole slaw, and some cold puree of greens. Lunch was another cooked grain, or rather the starch of a cooked grain (it may have been rice, but whatever it was it didn't appear to be whole), carrots and seitan (I think), and undressed salad greens. Dinner was a third cooked grain, I think it was millet, steamed broccoli and cauliflower.

Supermodels are more indulgent with their diet during an SI bikini shoot.

As regular readers know, I have been figuratively devouring a book called "Real Food" by Nina Planck, a woman I've met, who looks like a (now pregnant) supermodel, who will tell you that this kind of low-fat vegan macrobiotic diet made her chronically sick and put 25 pounds on her when she was in her 20's. Not surprisingly, the people who live at this center look pale, gaunt, pudgy (yes, that's possible) and tired. You can literally tell by looking who is in from out of town, the skin of the out-of-towner has a pink undertone.

Ok, so I got a little nasty. Like I said, I am hurting and Mr. Happy is numb.

I'll let you know what happens.