Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Zazenkai Notes: Zen As Process

Like Molten Lead
Like Molten Lead, Finnish archipelago off Ekenäs, 2006.

I got a quite a lot out of Sunday's zazenkai. The first one I attended was largely being worried about "surviving" it. Now that I knew that that isn't an issue, having already survived one, I could relax more and focus more on the practice. What's more, my six months of stretching exercises are finally beginning to pay off, and I was able to sit cross-legged a part of the time, which made it less punishing physically. I certainly hurt way less the next day than I did after the first one.

We finished off the zazenkai with recitation. That was another first for me. It made a deep impression; it wasn't at all what I had expected it to be -- it was somehow stark, simple; primal even. It helped that one of the things we chanted was the Heart Sutra, which has got to be one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever to emerge from the human mind.

I went to daisan (a formal one-on-one talk with an instructor). I told her about my practice, and a problem I've been having with it. She told me what she thought about that. We also sat there a while without saying anything, which was kinda cool, because it was the same kind of silence you get when doing zazen, not the awkward kind of "I wonder if I should say something" kind of silence.

A number of interesting things happened related to that.

The daisan was towards the end of the day, and the zafu in the daisan room was way too small for me, and I missed kinhin (walking meditation) because my turn was between two zazens. That meant that I was sitting for over an hour straight with only the short walk to and from the daisan room for a break, and that after six half-hour zazens. Consequently, my legs hurt pretty badly. The interesting thing was that I didn't care, because what was going on in daisan was just so much more important than my stupid legs. So I was sitting on my hurting-as-hell legs in a comfortable posture, while being focused on daisan. The pain was very much there, but the suffering from the pain was if not gone, at least greatly mitigated. That was way cool, and if I can pull of that trick the next time something's hurting, my practice won't have gone completely to waste.

I realized that daisan isn't just about me getting advice in my practice from a more experienced practitioner. It's at least as much about the more experienced practitioner giving advice. Daisan is a practice, for both people in it. I made it possible for her to practice by being there, just as much as the converse. That was also cool.

I'm sure the same is true of dokusan. Zen teachers need their practice too, and it's clearly not just solitary retreats and that kind of stuff. They couldn't do that without any students to teach. So although I'm grateful to have access to a true-blue Zen teacher, even if he only visits a couple of times a year, it's clearly not a one-way deal. Teachers need students for their practice, at least as much as students need teachers.

I learned something else in daisan: that Zen practice comes unusually easily to me. I had figured that it's more or less like this for everybody, but it turns out that apparently it's not. Zazen has, in fact, felt quite natural to me, and I haven't encountered many of the problems that, according to her, most Zen newbies encounter; instead, my practice has been deepening and developing rather rapidly. I've been reflecting a bit on why this might be.

(I realize that there are all kinds of risks related to thoughts like this one. Pride, for example. Although thinking about it I don't really see why I should be proud about finding Zen congenial. I am grateful for it, though. Plus, if I do get any big ideas about being the reincarnation of Manjushri or something, though, I'm fairly confident that zazen, not to mention the instructors and teachers, will sort that out nicely.)

I've always been sorely lacking in ambition. I don't care much for goals, achievements, or attainments.

I love physical exercise, like cycling, hiking, running, stretching, dancing the salsa (badly), or gym, but I dislike, and have always disliked, competitive sport.

As a kid, I used to love building model ships and airplanes, and then threw them away when I finished them.

I dropped out of my university studies because I lost interest, and didn't care enough about the goal of squeezing out my master's to actually squeeze it out, although I'm still very interested indeed in the stuff I was studying formally -- political history, or politics and history.

At work, I love doing stuff, but I hate "doing things for my career." I can't, in fact. I have repeatedly been offered what amount to major promotions, and I've turned them down, simply because I'm not happy ordering people about or counting beans. If that means that I'll never progress beyond my current position, then that's entirely OK with me -- I'd rather do what I enjoy doing for what I'm getting paid now than make a lame-ass job of doing something I don't enjoy for more money. That wouldn't work anyway; I'd just make a hash of it and everybody would end up worse off than before. I get the biggest kicks out of the flow of coding -- translating pure ideas into descriptions that then unfold on a screen, with the magical mediation of the computer. I don't care that much about what it is I'm coding, or if anyone will ever use it. (They do, though, but that's more of a side benefit, from my point of view anyway. My boss would probably disagree about that.)

I removed the speedometer/odometer thingy from my bike, simply because I don't want to measure my cycling. I feel freer when just rolling away as my body tells me to. I prefer familiar roads so I don't need a plan or a map and can just go wherever I feel like; they're never quite the same, and every ride is different.

I prefer a steady salary to working like mad for an eventual big payoff. 

I enjoy cooking, for its own sake: the alchemy of transforming ingredients into something different. Eating is fun too, but it's not really the point.

I used to love going fishing with my grandpa, but never cared much whether we actually caught any fish; the point was to sit in the boat listening to the water slap against the sides, and my grandfather tell his endless and fascinating stories, and go through the soothing motions of whatever kind of fishing we were doing. Of course, the fish were cool too, but they never were the point. My grandpa never forgot to mention that either; he was never disappointed over not catching anything. Instead, when coming back empty-handed he just cheerfully noted that at least we caught a nice experience. Or "lucky that this isn't our job." That sort of thing.

My grandpa rocked. He lived well, and died, literally, with his boots on, at the ripe old age of... old, past his mid-eighties I think. He keeled over from a massive heart attack just before he was about to launch into another story to his friends and neighbors, following a bunch of vigorous gardening. Lucky man.

Put another way, I'm a process guy, not a goals guy. In today's market-driven society, that's generally a Bad Thing. Zen, on the other hand, is all process and no goal. Okay, I mean, sure, there's kensho and all that commotion, but I'm fairly certain that kensho is just another dharma gate, albeit a particularly pretty one, not a goal in and of itself. Zazen is pure process for its own sake -- except that it has a scaffolding of community, ritual, and philosophy to direct it. I'm sure that once you get really good at keeping your attention on your practice, you'll find it easier to keep your attention on anything you do; in a sense, everything becomes your practice. I certainly have a ways to go before I'm at that point, though. A decade? Two? More?

That's why I find Zen so congenial. It isn't new to me. It's me sitting in that boat, trailing a line in the sea while my grandpa tells about the time a billboard advertising oatmeal saved his life. It's me a half-hour into a bike ride, spinning the road underneath like silk thread onto a spool, when I feel like I could go on spinning like this forever, connected to the landscape, at the same time immobile and moving. It's all that, only now I have a name for it.


  1. You really seem to be getting into this stuff and it seems to be making a positive difference for you. Much happiness to you on that.

    It all seems a bit alien to me, but that probably makes perfect sense given our different approach to things.

  2. You seem to have found a road to walk that suits you, and if it brings you comfort and peace of mind, from my sincere parental-type feelings for you, I'm very happy that you have all of this in your life. Your observations about your own nature strike me as sound--i.e not self-deception--and are in accord with the parts of you I comprehend and relate to best. You have your own maya,I'm sure but you have never seemed any more comfortable than I with the world of western illusion that revolves around fighting for stuff and power.
    You seem to have found a discipline that provides an outlet for your need for striving, yet directs it toward the contrarian goal of letting go of striving.

    I'm glad for you, Petteri. I don't pretend to understand the path you're on, but you sound very grounded and not at all flaky about it, which relieves my mind considerably. :]

  3. Thanks, mags and dte. It certainly feels that way. Could be that a part of it is just a kind of high from all the sitting on Sunday, but I'm fairly confident that it's not all that. And mags, it seems like you understand it just fine. :-)