Friday, May 1, 2009

Genzo-e retreat - Day 2 - Bodhidharma did not come from the East.

Bodhidharma brought Buddhism from India to China, which means he traveled west, or came from the east, to China.

But, he really didn't.

Thanks to this retreat, I realize why that nonsense is not nonsensical.

So, it turns out that I was manufacturing a lot of strife in my head. Surprise!

I went and discussed my situation with the practice director and I was told that I could do what I wanted to do. So, I did. I completed my work obligations, gave the cook my copy of "Real Food," went to the store to buy my sequestered fellow students some cheese and fruit, went to the lectures, and otherwise conducted zen practice on my own, sitting today in my motel room because it was raining outside.

Otherwise, I enjoyed some unanticipated down-time, which was what I really needed.

This gave me a chance to see a little bit of Bloomington, something I didn't think I was going to have a chance to do. It is a pretty idyllic little college town--clean, homogeneous, seemingly untouched by the economic downturn, just as dryer-fresh as the college kids running around everywhere. There seems to be a lot of upper-middle-class money here. Lots of kids driving shiny new cars. Maybe that's who can afford to go to college these days, I don't know.

Unfortunately, the grocery stores suck, there's very little real food, and little in the way of indigenous culture or cuisine. It seems like you go to college here and don't stick around for much else. All of my previous experience with Bloomington was from the movie "Breaking Away" and it looks the same. The movie was released 30 years ago.

On the plus side, I haven't seen any sneezing pigs, so I think I am out of the way of H1N1 for the moment. Of course, that's a delusion, but at least I know that.

Speaking of knowing delusions, my traveling companion, the Japanese Zen Buddhist priest who is attending the retreat with me told me about a fight in the zendo today I *just* missed (it happened right after I left), lest you think that zen practice makes people all calm and tolerant.

It was, ostensibly, over black pepper.

First a little background for those who don't know my religious stuff. I refer to myself as a student of the teachings of the awakened (I don't like using foreign names when there are perfectly good English words).

Other people call me a Buddhist. I don't object to that, I just hope I don't think of myself that way. But, to explain something, I have to go ahead and say that one view of what I do is to say that I am a Soto Zen Buddhist practicing in the American lineage of Dainin Katagiri. I have not taken Jukai, which is sort of like Baptism for Christians, and I won't until there's a reason to. Again, I resist all of this accoutrement and these titles, like the wearing of robes at temple and such, because I want to encourage myself to hold a wholesome view of myself. That is, I diligently seek to preserve the view that I am part of things around me, not separate.

So, Soto Zen is distinguished by the unique and contrarian views of it's founder (though I am sure he intended to do no such thing) Eihei Dogen, who lived from 1200 to 1253 in Japan and China. The teacher I am studying with for a few days is one of the world's greatest living scholars on Dogen, certainly the greatest one to which I have access.

Dogen wrote an essay called, no joke, "Fukanzazengi," which translates to "Instructions for sitting meditation," more or less. That is certainly what it is. It is a short text and it is what I rely upon when I am trying to resolve a question about practice for myself. There are as many English translations for this text as there are zen translators interested enough to undertake it. You could say it is somewhat analogous to the Sermon on the Mount for Christians. That is, it is an important text, it deserves respect and study, but taking any one of those translations absolutely literally is going to make you look silly to anyone but the most ardent of self-deluded pious pricks.

There are such people in Zen just as there are bible-thumping anti-intellectual zealots in evangelical Christianity who think the King James translation of the Bible is modern literal truth. No religion has a monopoly on insipid and blind religiosity. No religion is exempt from the siren call of certainty.

Ok, all of that was to prepare you to understand the screaming match today between two of the resident students at this zendo.

Dogen mentions in the Fukanzazengi that one should be moderate in drinking and eating when sitting zazen, and some translations render that as "no stimulating food or drink."

Apparently some people consider black pepper to be such a stimulant. Equally apparent is that the cook does not. Further, it is apparent that those who hold a different view than the cook's think the prohibition is plain in the Fukanzazengi. This led to the screaming match in the zen center.

Hilarious. Zen and the Art of Screaming About Seasoning. Fortunately no one brought salt into the discussion. I didn't notice any of that on the food either, though I do see some in the kitchen. Meals are taken in a very formal ritualized style called Oryoki. Usually (as in at other zen centers where I have practiced) there is a salt and sesame mixture called Gomashio available at meals, using it is a part of the ritual, but this place serves ground black sesame seeds instead, which aren't salty at all. Salt may seduce us into self-delusion, I guess, I don't know (I'm eating on my own now).

Of course, the argument wasn't about black pepper at all. Who knows what the real issue is, but it does reveal that communal living can drive otherwise seemingly sane people to ridiculous extremes, even when they have devoted themselves to eschewing any extremes. So, please divest yourself of the conventional notions of zen practice being a reliable way to inner peace.

On the other hand, that is exactly what it is. See?

If contradictions seem to abound, blame your mind, that's what I do.

Bodhidharma, when he arrived in China, having traveled from india (by foot), did not come from the East.

Speaking of inner peace, time for bed. Be well. I am.