Sunday, May 3, 2009

Genzo-e retreat - Day 4 - Buying a book.

There's always something that happens that is emblematic and symbolic of my experience with a new zen center. Today it was buying a book.

Like most zen centers, they have a collection of books for sale, usually those written and/or edited by the resident teacher, this one is no exception. Shohaku Okumura is a scholar, writing is what he does, and he's been doing his life's work for 40 years. Even though it is excruciatingly slow to do what he does, in that time he has authored a number of books.

I already own a couple of them, but I was trying to make a choice today about which one among those I do not own to buy while I am here. I consulted my traveling companion who is very familiar with these books, and he recommend a particular one, "Opening The Hand of Thought," which Okumura edited. It is Okumura's teacher's writings (Kosho Uchiyama) for "serious students of zen," or so it asserts on it's cover.

On the bookshelf above the books for sale is a stack of forms with a sign that says "fill these out to purchase a book." Behind that is a box that says "for book sales" on it. On the form it instructs you to place the money with this form in the box behind it.

I reached up to do that and someone told me "Oh, we don't do book sales like that any more, you have to give the money directly to the Ino." Actually, this happened more than once, and the exact same instruction came from more than one person. I have been picking up books for a couple of days and each time someone new has given me this helpful instruction.

Ok, I thought to myself, then why do they still have this sign up here, the forms available, and a box clearly labeled "for book sales" behind it? Never mind, I further said to myself, just take the book, find the Ino (pronounced EE-no, aka the practice director, sort of the administrator for the zendo), and get it over with.

So, this was just before the afternoon lecture, so I cornered the Ino in the zendo and asked him "I have some money for a book, when would you like to have it?"

He looked at me quizzically, and said "After the retreat," then he corrected himself and said "I mean, after the lecture today."

I thanked him and sat down. After the lecture I found him again and offered him the money.

He said, patiently, "We have some forms up there that need to be filled out, then you can just put the form together with the money in the box behind them" while looking at me as if he was wondering why I was buying a book if I clearly couldn't read simple instructions.

There you go. That's this place in a nutshell.

It's not bad, not at all, it is just a relatively new center and they have a lot to work out. One thing that frustrates me to no end about American Zen is that the centers eat their young. By that I mean new students have to endure a lot of bullshit uncertainty, almost hazing, in order to find their way around, and then each center operates as if they are the only center which does things correctly, and a lot of these procedures and traditions seem to exist only to support the practice of the more experienced students, who should be supporting the newbies! Every single center falls victim to this to some degree or another, one can't just walk in, read the signs, and know what to do. No, you have to mess something up and be corrected before the correct procedures are revealed to you. Argh.

So, the fourth day is over, the lectures continue to be eye-popping and fascinating, and I am very, very happy that I went to the trouble and expense to do this one. I will look back on this as a turning point in my zen practice, the point at which I realized that Dogen truly is my homie. I am in the right lineage, this is where I belong.

Tomorrow is just a half-day, one lecture, and then we drive in Indianapolis for the flight back to Newark. That will be quite the transition, and I expect I will sum it up tomorrow night.

Again, if you understood anything I said about zen, I'm sorry, I caused you to completely miss it.