Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - On Mind and Mindfulness

Here at Antaiji it’s been raining for four days, but regardless of the weather it sometimes feels like the days blur or smear, running into each other like watercolors on wet paper, losing some of the distinction that seems to mark them in a more secular place.

Because the days blur, I’ve been noticing what the ‘mind’ does with this sameness. How the mind likes to take me on a ride to virtual destinations that I had no intention of going to. Or take me on a thought loop, motivated by a desire to find a solution to a problem or resolve a scenario. In the latter case, I fool myself into thinking that my mind can reach a destination or solution, when in fact it just runs around in circles like a scared mouse. These days I can often stand back and notice that I’m being taken for a ride or a loop, and the mind’s influence lessens. So that I use my mind when I need to, but it doesn’t use me.

But who or what controls the kind of ride or loop? And who or what initiates it in the first place? Theoretically, I’m in control and the more I practice, the more in control I am and the better the overall ride should be...if I even go on a ride in the first place.

At least one key element of practice is mindfulness. But the meaning of mindfulness and its practice has changed drastically for me since I got here. Before, mindfulness, to me, meant short-circuiting mental rides and thought loops and focusing in on whatever I was doing whether I was brushing my teeth, washing dishes, or engaged in kinhin. Since coming here, I’ve often felt I haven’t been mindful enough, because when I focus, there’s a lot that’s going on that I’ve been excluding from my perception. Here, I’ve been gradually forced to increase the bandwidth (Docho-san’s term) of my mindfulness practice to include as much of the here and now I can possibly fit into my brain:

Not only do I want to be aware of the task I’m engaged in, but I also want to be aware of all the other Sangha members, whether I can be of assistance to someone else, the environment in my vicinity, and whether there is a Sangha-related activity or responsibility coming up in the near future I should be paying attention to now in order to perform it more efficiently. It’s weird that it should be so hard to do this. On a positive note, it does get easier as I become more practiced in the routines, in what to expect… But then, maybe the clue is really just to be so present, so balanced, so ‘out of the way’ of myself, that I can function mindlessly:

“If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation ("I - am - mindful -of - ...."). Don't be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: "When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma"). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep. Kinhin is nothing special. We do not have to make our everyday life into something special.” – from Antaiji - Adult Practice:18 (Dôchô-san Neruke Muhô)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - On Giving Up and Not Giving Up

"There will always only be something to give up and nothing to take away."

As I was planning to come to Antaiji, a couple of my Dharma friends responded with something along the lines that, in Zen practice, no matter where you go or what your circumstances are, there’s no escape: you always end up having to face yourself.

At the time I think that statement was made to suggest that I could practice anywhere so there was no reason to go to a monastery. While that's true to a degree, the change in circumstances has given me a lot of new 'self' material to work with. Whereas I was comfortable with my practice before, its obvious to me that, here, I am falling short. Though I’ve been mediating for more than 20 yrs, I am new to Zen and have minimal experience with Zen protocol and rituals, the Japanese language, and I'm female, older and less able physically compared others here. Also, being older, I’m less flexible mentally. While trying to memorize and remember one protocol, I become absent-minded with regard to others. (There’s a bit of truth to the ‘absent-minded professor’.. ) Maybe I shouldn’t have chosen a Zen monastery to retreat to, given the lack in experience. At any rate, I’m here now and to summarize what I am feeling, whereas before I got here my practice (and zazen in particular) was a source I could always turn to for a bit of peace of mind, right now, nothing could be farther from the truth. I also know that, in spite of these short-comings and difficulties, I have a certain amount of faith originating from my past experience given that sitting has ‘saved’ me more than once. So I haven't given up. But I can only speak for this moment… and as I say that, I smile, because this moment is all there ever is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - Arriving in the Cold

The most obvious place for me to begin this post is the night prior to my arrival on March 26th when I and a 19 year old fellow, also headed for Antaiji, spent the night in the waiting room of the Hamasaka train station. We both arrived after midnight and the town was shut down for the night. I 'gave up' of my idea of a comfortable hotel room and even thought the situation humorous, given I was heading to the home of 'Homeless Kudo'. Instead I spent the night getting to know my compatriot, pacing to keep warm, examining the pictures decorating the station walls, reading, closing my eyes and trying to shut out the noise of the train on stand-by, and even got in a bit of zazen. We thought that at dawn we'd make our way down to the beach, but it was pouring rain and very chilly at dawn so we decided against it. By the time we boarded the bus that would take us to the mountain road leading to Antaiji, the rain had started to turn to snow...

We were saved from most of the cold wet hike up the mountain by a van that stopped and offered us a lift to Antaiji's doorstep. Once inside, we were treated to hot tea and a warm wood stove in the hiroma (dining room). Although I'd been unaware of it in my preparations for the trip, the rest of Antaiji is without heat, as is typical in Japan. I went to bed wearing my coat and, in spite of the previous sleepless night, had trouble sleeping because I was shivering intensely. [Hint: Be sure to pack for a winter camping trip if you're arriving in March.]

My battle with the cold continued the following day, a work day, beginning with zazen to which I wore all the long underwear, sweaters, and coats I'd brought along. With about 6 inches of snow on the ground, wind rattling the shutters and blowing through a number of openings in hondo, zazen consisted mostly of facing the fact that I was cold.

After breakfast, the four of us that represented the first arrivals of the season and Docho-san, hiked through snow and up the mountain to drain and clean out the muck, mainly mud and gravel, from the bottom of Antaiji's water reservior. I was thankful for the hike and work because the exercise warmed me up. At some point, I was taking a break from shoveling and rinsing the mud off of the rock walls and noted that I'd gotten soaked getting the water from the nearby waterfall. It wasn't long before I was freezing again. In less than 24 hrs I'd managed to 'use' and 'use up' all my warm clothes. In addition, during our absence, the wood stove in the hiroma had been dismantled in recognition of the start of the spring season. Luckily, Antaiji keeps a limited supply of clothes left behind by previous residents. [Hints: If you're cold, try working. Also, water resistant pants are an essential. The ones I had intended to bring had either been loaned out or misplaced...Pack a couple of days in advance so you have time to correct for unexpectedly missing gear.]

Needless to say, I spent the evening zazen period again facing my miserable state of being cold. I know, to some folks, it may sound like I'm a bit of a whimp as far as being cold is concerned, but from conversations I've had with other meditators or overheard, I think I'm about average. Or maybe I am a whimp having experienced hypothermia on a winter backpacking trip in the White Mountains many years ago. Either way, as I was leaving the hondo I recognized that, while the cold weather was indeed impermanent, it was going to be around for a few more days at the very least. I knew that if something didn't change, I wasn't going to make it even that long. Most times, when I've been cold, there's always been somewhere I could go to escape from the cold close by and in the near future. That wasn't the case here. So as I was leaving the hondo, I 'let go' of something -- my psychological reaction to being cold. In other words, I've continued to be cold -- in fact, tonight marks only the third night I've been here where I won't be wearing my coat to bed -- but I've stopped cringing in response to it. Was this a one time fix? Nope, I've had to flip that mental switch over and over, but it gets easier every time I do. And now, finally, almost two months since I arrived, the impermanence of being cold has been realized. It is spring and heading into summer.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - A Few Notes on Sangha

Anyone with any commitment to Buddhist practice knows of the Triple Gem, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, because we take refuge in it on a moment-to-moment and daily basis, or when we chant if nothing else. For many years now I have used the word 'Sangha' loosely to refer to the group of people I gather around me (or go to) to support my practice and, if I'm lucky, they may actually get and even laugh at my jokes now and then. In the states, Sangha and "support group" appear to share similar meanings these days in at least some cases and that may not be a good thing, but who am I to judge..it may be what's needed there. As I write this, I also begin to wonder what I mean by 'take refuge' since I haven't taken monastic vows or vows in the formal sense. As a partial answer, what it means to me is a recognition and acceptance of a grounded source to which I can go and return to at any given moment, given that I still venture out into the secular world and have to navigate the stress and confusion that can result from those ventures.
But the Pali word 'Sangha' originally had a much more precise meaning, a meaning that I am learning on a practical level through experience these days. Like right now, even though its a 'free day', its time for breakfast!

tenso in kitchen before breakfast

...And now, an hour-and-a half later, the nine or ten of us here have had a wonderful breakfast, the dishes have been washed, and the dorms and hondo, etc have been thoroughly cleaned, things I would have spent my weekend on in the past, alone and likely with a bit of irritation, interruptions, and frustration along the way. Is everyone off relaxing now? Not at all, most everyone is doing a little extra thing, sorting their daily portion of rice, repainting a door, patching cement steps, or writing a blog (cough, cough.. Okay, I have plenty on my schedule for later and maybe someone will benefit or someone will come here who wouldn't have otherwise.) Dochosan is riding the tractor working on getting the new rice field ready for planting.
Here at Antaiji, Sangha is less of an entity and more of a process. A process in which 'I' is let go of in favor of 'just doing'. That manifests itself in a lot of ways. For example, when you arrive you are taken on a guided tour of procedures and rules for various activities. Even having read up on Antaiji, it's impossible for most to remember it all, including me. So you are bound to be corrected not just once, but several times, until you get it right. You learn to let go of the typical psychological responses to correction. My motto, an old friend, "don't take it personally" works well here. Try to do better. Realize that the purpose of correction is just to have the Sangha run smoothly. Typically, the person doing the most correcting, in trying to be helpful, is being the most compassionate of all.

"You should never be waiting for something to do."

Another example is that, as you may have gathered from above, if you aim to truly be part of this Sangha, there really is little 'free time'..or as I have come to think of it "self time", there is just time when the schedule is a bit more flexible and the doing is a bit more random. So if you aim to truly be part of this Sangha, you do it by giving up self-related notions and activities, and what results is a time-space that is filled with generosity of spirit, a buoyancy in which you can rest. An important note to this is that, though individuals in the Sangha (including, or maybe especially, me) may fall short from time-to-time, hopefully enough individuals practice Sangha that this sense of buoyancy of the Sangha is maintained. It is the institution of Sangha we take refuge in, not any given individual at any given time. In short, Sangha is a process of no-self, everything is just as it is... there are no major dilemmas that require mental gymnastics to sort through and, to the extent that I let go of I, "I" can be happy and at peace. Sangha is the chance of a lifetime to live the Buddha-Way and through our efforts and the efforts of those around us, if we are lucky, gain a glimpse of the happiness of nirvana through practice... Letting the Sangha be through me.