Saturday, March 21, 2009

Am I doing it right?

I lead the Tuesday and Thursday evening practices at Empty Gate Zen Center. Zen isn't terribly popular, particularly since the 70s. Nonetheless, an attendee or two generally shows up at these sittings. One such young woman, a university student who's a Thursday night regular, even started a group that sits on a different night, in the International House dorm where she lives.

Last week, someone in the I-house group asked her, "How do I know if I'm doing it right?" (I assume the reference is to sitting Zen.) She wasn't sure how to answer, so she asked me. I first gave her my gut response: "You don't know. You just try."

Zen tradition isn't so big on explanations. But my American society... particularly the sub-culture I swim among in Berkeley, one heavily influenced by psychoanalytic theory and such... is awfully big on explanation. I'm sometimes torn when it comes to gut reactions vs thought-out ones.

Whatever. After I'd considered it for a few minutes, I said to her, "If someone's wondering if they're doing it right, it means that they're holding some idea about 'right' vs 'wrong.' It means that they want something, so they're concerned about whether or not they're gonna get it. When thoughts like that appear, it's a really great opportunity to examine them closely, question them, see them for what they are."

I don't want to have canned answers to the Big Questions. I want to -- to some extent anyway -- respond freshly and flexibly, according the particulars of the situation. This question (Am I doing it right?) comes up constantly with beginning Zen students. How could it not? A couple decades ago, a new student had asked me, and I told her, "It's called sitting. If you're sitting on the cushion and haven't fallen off, then you're doing it right. And if you have fallen off, that's OK too."

I dunno. That answer may have been good or bad, or both, or neither. In any case, I enjoy the irony of the question. We've all been sitting, no problem, practically since we were born. Then we visit a Zen center and formally learn to "sit," and all of a sudden, we're not so sure any more that we know how to do it right!

If any reader has any thoughts about how I should answer this type of question, please speak up.

Monday, March 09, 2009

After Death, Before Birth

Riffing off of Seeking Lemonade, who was kind enough to contribute to the comment section of my March 5 post:

Seeking Lemonade said...
So, Stuart, a question. When I am dead, will I know what being dead is (or will I, since I will be in a state of deadness, not know)?

Whatever happens after death, how could we be any less existent than before we were born? And look what happened that time! There we were, minding our own business, not bothering anyone, not even existing fergawdsake... and through no fault of our own, boom, we appeared in this world.

If it happened once it can happen again. It makes more sense to me, anyway, that if we got born out of nothingness one time, it won't be the only time. I mean, it's not like there's any rush. We've got infinite time and infinite space to play with here.

There's nothing to stop us from appearing and disappearing, over and over. Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, "First you were zero. Then you got born, so now you're one. Soon you'll die, and you'll be zero again." In the end, we're back at the beginning.

Peaking on Salvia Divinorum, I once had flash before me all the various ways that existence could be divided: Good/Bad, Light/Dark, Masculine/Feminine, Happiness/Suffering, etc. Like a Yin/Yang. It culminated with a vision in which the entire universe (multiverse?) of name and form was on one side, with total complete vast emptiness on the other.

For a second, it was like sitting on the fence, ready to fall into either side, existence or non-existence. And I felt profound indifference. If I added up everything on the Existence side, the sum was Zero anyway. Perfect balance.

But then it seemed like the Emptiness choice was kinda deceiving. Even if non-existence lasted for eons before I popped back out, it'd be like going into deep sleep. From "my" perspective, it would pass in an instant.

Besides which, I had a tickle in the back of my mind, vaguely remembering that a couple of friends were "baby-sitting" my body while my mind tripped. I wouldn't want to disappear and leave them worried or bored. So here I am.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Good Thinking, Bad Thinking, No Thinking

I continue to be stretched thin, juggling two contracts to write computer code for MS Excel-based business tools. I do this mostly from home; no time commuting, so more time to squeeze the work into the day. When pressed, I can save additional time by skipping niceties like getting dressed. Programming in my underwear wasn't possible when I was a cubicle worker, not even on Casual Fridays.

In the midst of this comes the annual week-long sitting retreat at Empty Gate Zen Center. How much of the retreat do I have time for? Given the world situation, it seems like a good idea to over-perform in my work life, and maximize my chances for professional survival in hard times. Yet I can't forget the importance of sitting quietly, doing nothing, taking up the Big Questions of life.

It's challenging to find the balance. I'd write more about it, if I had the time. I ended up doing retreat over the weekend (6am Sat - 9:30pm Sun), and now during the week I'm working most of the time, and going back to the Zen center evenings and/or mornings.

Last night, the retreat paused for our weekly public program. Our Dharma friend Scott spoke, and related a nice quote about Good and Bad. As in life, Good and Bad play a core role in Zen teaching. Spiritual traditions always have an element of self-improvement, of trying to be a Good Person. Ain't nothing wrong with that; an eminent teacher said, "Good is better than Evil, because it's nicer."

But ultimately, Zen teaching points at something that doesn't depend on Good and Bad, something that's already appeared before our thinking creates dualities and distinctions. An ancient Zen master said, "Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing." My own original teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, first "hit my mind" with a poem that begins, "Good and Evil have no self-nature. Holy and Unholy are empty names."

In that context, I'll leave y'all with the aphorism that Scott shared last night, which he'd heard ZM Seung Sahn use in the old days:

Good thinking, good thinking, good thinking... go to Heaven.

Bad thinking, bad thinking, bad thinking... go to Hell.

No thinking, no thinking, no thinking... then what?