Sunday, November 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 10: Epilogue (Up to Your Ass in Analogies).

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

At the end of my first retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim) gave a talk. He said that we refer to the intensity of a retreat as “hard practice,” but more accurately it's “hot practice.” The mind is sometimes like ice. It’s not flexible; you can’t wash your hands in ice. We do “hot practice” to melt the mind, so it becomes like water, freely taking the shape of any situation whatsoever. The final words of his talk were, “Don’t make anything; just do it!”

Water flows anywhere; it doesn’t attach to any thing or any idea. That’s what it felt like after the retreat, not clinging to anything. But… maybe I could make one tiny exception. The sense of clarity that arose so strongly during the final retreat days… couldn’t I cling to that? The wonderful feeling of freedom, the beautiful understanding that everything is insubstantial… if I held onto just that much, and made it into something special… that wouldn’t be cheating too much, would it?

I heard an analogy about “spiritual addiction” (from “non-dual” teacher Ayashanti). Imagine that for your whole life, you've thought you were very poor. One day, someone tells you, “You’ve got diamonds in your shoes.” You don’t believe him, because you know you’re poor.

Eventually you get desperate enough. You’ve exhausted all other hope, so what the hell, you take off your shoes and check inside. Holy shit! There really are diamonds in your shoes! That moment when you discover that you’re not impoverished (and really never were) is extraordinary. “Spiritual addiction” is clinging to the feelings you get from the discovery. The value of diamonds isn't in those feelings. It's in spending the diamonds, using them in a way that helps all beings.

Here’s a cruder analogy. Growing up, I chewed Bazooka bubble gum. Inside each 1-cent pack, there’d be a little comic. In one of them, Bazooka Joe sees his friend hitting himself over the head with a hammer. When Joe asks why, the friend explains, “Because it feels so good when I stop!”

My peak experience in the Zen retreat was something like that. For most of my life, I’d been holding these delusions about my “self” as a substantial thing. When that delusion disappeared in meditation, it was wonderful. The magnitude of that wonderfulness was equal to the magnitude of the delusion. If I wanted to hold or repeat that wonderful experience, what was I going to do? Build a new, even bigger delusion, so I could feel so good when it disappeared?

ZMSS had called the retreat “dry-cleaning your mind with don’t-know soap.” Indeed, it felt like I’d taken a mental shower that left everything pristine. But no matter how thoroughly you take a shower, you can't do it once and be finished. Every day you get dirty, so you make a habit of regularly cleaning the dirt away.

In addition to practice in day-to-day life, I do a day or two of sitting retreat, every month or so since that first one. These are retreats headed by different teachers in ZMSS’ school. During the first year, I was still processing the special experience of my first retreat, and discussed it with these teachers.

When I told Zen Master Su Bong about it, he asked, “Do you want to get that experience again?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Then you can’t have it.”

Zen Master Soeng Hyang’s advice was even simpler. The words may seem harsh in black-and-white, but they were delivered very gently. Here’s what she told me: “Just forget about it.”

ZMSS talked about the need to “digest” understanding. I pondered that word for years. If you’ve got an apple in your hand, it’s obviously separate from your body. After you eat it, for a while it’s still there in your stomach. When it’s digested, though, the apple becomes one with your body, and otherwise it no longer exists.

Was I holding the experience and understanding from the retreat, as if it were a thing that I’d gotten? Over the years, maybe I’ve digested it, but who knows. How can you tell if something’s completely digested? You’d have to examine what you excrete, and who wants to do that?

Damn, this analogy has turned way too disgusting. Forget I said anything.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 9: Why?

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

I've been writing about the 7-day retreat in 1988 that inspired my decision to practice Zen. For the first part of the week, I'd painfully struggled with the big question, "What am I?" Then during one sitting session, it had all dissolved into emptiness, punctuated by insubstantial thinking that came and went without hindrance. It felt amazing, as I described in the previous two entries.

Now it was the next day, and time again for my formal interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). I had no plan to discuss my meditation experience with him. It's not like I understood what had happened anyway. It's not like I had anything coherent to say about it. Even without words, though, maybe ZMSS' lifetime of intense practices would give him some special insight, allowing him to see that my mind was different. Or maybe my shit-eating grin at that point was so obvious that any idiot would notice.

ZMSS' manner was more stern and intense than in the previous days. For his first question, he demanded, "Why do you eat every day?" I mimed putting food into my mouth, like a hungry person. That said it all, didn't it? Each moment comes and goes naturally. When it's meal time, you eat. What more could there possibly be to life?

"No good!" shouted ZMSS. "That's like a dog. A dog just eats when he's hungry. A human being's job is different from a dog's job. Why do you eat every day? Why do you live in this world?"

I don't remember exactly how ZMSS explained it at that time, but here's the gist as I understood it. Our thinking is like scribbles on a blackboard. Sometimes, maybe with lots of effort, we erase all the scribbles and have a completely clean blackboard. That may bring a wonderful feeling of freedom.

But you don't leave a blackboard empty. What are you going to write on it? It's like a calculator after you hit the clear button and return to zero. One more step is necessary for the blackboard or calculator to function correctly. In ZMSS' teaching, it's loud and clear what he tells us to write on that blackboard: Help all beings.

The Buddhist direction of "Save all beings from suffering" has at least one great virtue. If you accept that as your goal, you don't have to worry about ever reaching it and having to find a new one. Beyond that, this teaching turned around my view of what practice was about. I'd always looked at meditation and such as a means to getting some special experience, or insight, something like that. ZMSS seemed more concerned about intention. Why practice, why eat, why live? For what? For who? Whatever you got, good or bad, if it was for me, it'd bring suffering. If it was for all beings, then no problem.

The final day of the retreat arrived, and I returned to ZMSS's room for the last private interview. His first question to me: "Today is the last day of retreat. What have you attained?"

That week had been far and away the most astounding experience of my life. But I was clueless as to anything I could say about it. Keeping silent wouldn't do either. If you ask a rock a question, it can be silent, but a human being ought to have something more than that.

Maybe I should show the mirror-like clarity of my mind by reflecting that moment? "The wall is white," I said. ZMSS shook his head, rejecting the answer.

Uhhh... maybe he was looking for that compassion thing he'd talked about? "How can I help you?" I offered. ZMSS swept that answer aside also. Jeez, not even that?

Typically, Zen teachers won't give away answers, waiting instead for the student to find it himself. But ZMSS came to Berkeley only once a year, and maybe he thought I needed to understand something before that. After I repeatedly failed to give a satisfactory answer, he eventually relented: "Now you ask me."

"OK," I said. "Today is the last day of retreat. Zen Master, what have YOU attained?"

He gave me a one-sentence answer that made my jaw drop with its elegance. A response that met the question, and did so without even a speck of I or no-I, attainment or no-attainment. A response that clearly demonstrated not making anything.

The retreat ended, and I returned to ordinary, everyday life. I'll write one final blog in this series, an epilogue to talk about how that's been going.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 8: Buddhism.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

In the last entry, it was the 4th or 5th day of intense sitting, my first Zen retreat back in 1988, and I'd had a big breakthrough in meditation. Just afterwards, during the pre-dinner break, I’d gone on a walk through the U.C. Berkeley campus, still enraptured with this perception of all things appearing and disappearing without hindrance. A young woman approached me, and I had a strong suspicion that she was a Jesus Person. That is, she had in her eyes the look of a True Believer, someone who'd stop strangers on the street to preach the Gospel and save souls.

I had a history of frequently being accosted by Jesus People. Maybe I had the aura of a seeker, or a lost soul. Maybe it was my Semitic appearance. Do Jesus People get extra points for converting a Jew?

Allow me a short tangent here to tell the story of my favorite encounter of this sort. At another time, there’d been this Jesus Person who was trying to get me to attend a weekly religious worship that his group held. The conversation went like this:

Jesus Person (JP): C’mon, this is very important, you really need to come to our service.

Me: I’m not sure… Tell me, what do you do?

JP: I told you, it’s a service.

Me: Yeah, you said that. But I’m asking: what do you do?

JP: We pray. We sing hymns. And we read from the Bible.

Me: Listen, it’s nice of you to invite me. Maybe some day I’ll stop by; I really do like to try new and different things. But I'll be completely honest with you, right up front. I don’t like the Bible.

JP: Would you like a Miller Lite?
(My mind reeled. I’d misjudged this guy totally! My head was filled with images of a church service with an open bar. Of a Bible discussion group that degenerates into drunken partying. Could this be real?)

Me: What?!?

JP: I said, “Would you like Eternal Life?”
(I didn’t want to be a jerk, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually I was able to blurt out, “No, no, no, I’m not interested in that,” and JP left me alone.)

OK, back to our story. The young woman on campus, the one I was sure was a Jesus Person, did walk right up to me. “Hi,” she said, “I’m a Buddhist!”

The universe has such a great sense of humor. I just love its ironic timing. For the first and only time in my life, I was about to get proselytized by a Buddha Person! What are the odds?

“Me too!” I gushed. “I’m a Buddhist too!” Maybe all those hours I’d just spent with my ass on the cushion had qualified me for membership in the club. Or maybe my mind at that moment was sufficiently mirror-like that I’d have responded the same way, regardless of what she’d claimed to be. If she’d said she was a Methodist, I’d probably have said, “I’m a Methodist too!” Likewise if she were a communist. Or Satanist. Or philatelist.

It turns out that there’s a huge variation among people who call themselves “Buddhist.” This Buddha Person (BP) explained that "Buddhism" to her meant congregational chanting of a mantra (something like “Namyo Ho Rengye Kyo”) in order to get whatever you want in life.

I think that chanting mantras is great... but how long can you do it? An hour a day? I prefer repeating mantras silently, since I can do that while commuting on the train, or other times when my mind isn't otherwise engaged. But even then, it's hardly a 24/7 practice. For much of my day, I'm at work, where I need to focus on computer code, not mantras.

I didn't like BP's definition of Buddhism. Why not practice something that's available everywhere, all the time? I tried to explain:

Me: What do you do for a living? You probably can't be chanting mantras while you're working, right?

BP: Right. I teach high school math during the day. I do my chanting after work.

Me: But even while you're working, you can still practice Buddhism...

BP: Oh no. It's a public school.

Me: That's not what I mean. If it's your job to teach math, and you're doing your best to help your students learn... that's Buddhism!
At the time, the words were just coming out of my mouth automatically. In retrospect, I realize that I'd gotten this kind of speech from the teacher at the retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim. Days earlier, he'd given a talk and Q&A, and it had included one of my favorite interchanges from him ever.

One of the questions had been from a Zen student who was a father. He explained to ZMSS that he'd been trying unsuccessfully to get his daughter to come to the Zen Center. His daughter had a friend who'd taken her to church, so now, the daughter preferred Christianity over Zen. "So my question is this," he concluded. "How can I get my daughter to understand Buddhism?"

In a flash, ZMSS replied, "Your daughter understands Buddhism better than you do!"

"I don't understand," said the father.

"True Buddhism," ZMSS explained, "means moment-to-moment, when you're doing something, just do it. If you go to a church... and when it's time to stand up and sing, you stand up and sing... and when it's time to kneel down and pray, you kneel down and pray... that's Buddhism!"

Anyway: it was time to say good-bye to the BP and make my way back to the Zen Center for dinner, followed by evening chanting and sitting. There were two days left in the retreat. In the next blog, I'll receive some more great pointers from ZMSS. And then there'll be an epilogue to try to bring this story full circle.