doing the work

  San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center

There is nothing dangerous in being completely, unconditionally what is.

Toni Packer


The over- and misuse of the word "zen" has robbed from the general consciousness one critical point: Zen is a lot of work.

I first learned that about six years ago when I spent at week at Green Gulch Farm, one campus of the San Francisco Zen Center.  I was eager to see if I might belong there, or in a place like it, so I became a Guest Student: paying a nominal fee for lodging and meals while sitting meditation for a few hours each day and working the rest.  I pulled weeds, chopped onions, and cleaned.  A lot of cleaning.  

It's safe to say that it was one of the more difficult experiences I've had.  What happens when you jump right in and immerse yourself in a different universe is you get a lot of stuff wrong.  Almost everything.  And for me, a person who is pretty well-accustomed to learning things with just one explanation, it's really difficult not knowing anything, and trying hard, and being wrong.  

I look back at that time with fondness, though: so many lessons learned, and the simple privilege of being in a world that is not your own.  So on a trip back to San Francisco this week, I eagerly chose to lodge at City Center, the Zen Center's building near Haight-Ashbury.  

The aesthetics alone are enough to make me take up residence here.  Sculpture and statuary everywhere, though not at all in the gilded way of temples and cathedrals: a large wooden abstract by the staircase, a tapestry of a single, silhouetted figure marking the path to the zendo.  Handwritten verses and prayers affixed to walls, a courtyard rich with plant and animal life, and always the motion of the priests and monks: silent, austere figures, shaved heads sweeping by in a drapery of black robes and long, kimono-like sleeves.  

Venturing out of the world of "zen" candles and "zen" tea and actually inquiring into the practice will show you quite immediately: there is almost nothing relaxing about it.  There is work, cleaning, service, meditation; a lot of 5am wake-up bells and learning which hand/foot/bow to use when.  In a pragmatic sense, the practice of Zen is about entering fully into one's life, with a diamond-clear awareness and wholly upright action -- not escaping into a quiet aromatherapy session with a glass of iced tea. 

The common marketing, though, teaches us that meditation is the act of clearing our mind and de-stressing from our busy day.  It's true that meditation helps us attain moments of clarity and relieve stress, but the act itself is work.  Iyengar said, "in meditation the mind is still but razor sharp, silent but vibrant with energy."  All that sharpening is something of an undertaking.  

On Saturday I took advantage of the blissfully late 6am wake-up bell and got up in time for 6:30am zazen, seated meditation.  There is a strict procedure for how one removes their shoes, enters the zendo (meditation room), bows, sits down on the cushion, sits for meditation, chants, stands, exits, etc.  I remembered most of it, though definitely not all, and I did have to ask three separate people where I was allowed to sit.  (All in a respectful whisper, of course.)  But it is an incredible experience, especially for a musician: the wood block, bell, chimes, and drum all working together to mark the passage of time, and the brief "Robe Chant" before finishing, which always seems to arise spontaneously in a chorus of deep voices: 

Great robe of liberation
Field far beyond form and emptiness
Wearing the Tathagata’s teaching
Saving all beings

When I was younger, growing up in Catholic schools, I always wanted to be the most upright: the longest kneeling during services, the highest-level altar server, the most knowledgeable and pure among my classmates.  If I could achieve in anything (grades, music, devotion), I did.  That impulse still burns strong in me, though I am doing my best to temper it in many cases, but here, in this setting, it seems especially corrosive.  

I've been reading Toni Packer recently.  She's a rather famous figure in the community: one who studied with great teachers and rose through the ranks of the Rochester Zen Center until, right on the cusp of formally taking its reins from Philip Kapleau, she left Zen and renounced her "Buddhist" label, seeking a type of inquiry free from the forms and trappings of dogma.  

She wrote in The Wonder of Presence

In direct discovery, authority dissolves.  We don’t need anybody to tell us how things are when we see for ourselves.  Nobody needs to teach us that it is raining when we feel wet drops moistening our skin.  But often we don’t see clearly, and in our confusion we blindly take over someone else’s teaching, become identified with it, and defend it without questioning.  That’s not what this work is all about.  Meditative inquiry is about looking together and alone, examining alone and together, and discovering the truth of this moment.

How difficult it was for me on Saturday in the zendo to see clearly, when I was focusing on how to do it right: do I leave next?  Don't be the first to stand up!  Keep an eye on the person to your left; they know what they're doing.  So little time I spent looking at myself during that hour of sitting. 

So it is with the rest of our lives: compromising our efforts because we're just following instructions; betraying our desires to fit in; acting without integrity in order to get something done.  What have we really achieved then?  

I've also listened to a few episodes of the Rich Roll Podcast during my time away (I'm really blitzing this self-inquiry thing), and as always Danielle LaPorte offers great wisdom (my abbreviated transcription):  

RR: In my experience, most people are very disconnected from themselves, from what's making their heart beat.  They don't have a healthy relationship with their impulses and their instincts and what drives them. 

DL: A really potentially offensive, powerful question is: who are you trying to impress?  That really cracked me open....  If you can bring your dream up in front of you and lay that question on it, you might be really surprised. 

So that's my question of the moment.  Who are you trying to impress?  Are you acting, seeing, speaking, and inquiring with honesty?  Or do your words and gestures arise out of a desire to fit in, be the best, achieve?  

I never became the most senior altar server in grade school, and I'll never be a Zen leader.  I'm ok with that now.  There is no cosmic council to impress, and certainly no one here on Earth whose opinion should take precedence over the stirrings of our own hearts.  I'm growing more comfortable with doing the work, "the work of this moment" as Packer says, and the work of each moment after that.