Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji — Back in the US

I haven’t been in the States for a day yet, but I know I still have a lot to share about my visit and maybe I’ll get around to it. In the meantime, here are a few immediate impressions and reactions:

1. There is a lot to do, but nobody telling me what to do. (So I don’t know what to do – right this minute anyway. I’m pretty sure that will change though.)
2. I own a lot of things but the only things I really need are still packed. (Where is my toothbrush?).
3. The house has been professionally cleaned.
4. Now that I’ve stood on a scale I’m familiar with (I check in about as often as I check my horoscope, i.e. not often), I can say that, yes, Antaiji also is a bit of a weight-loss program.
5. I can get more than one note in a row out of my Shakuhachi, but can’t play a full scale.
6. The birds sound different. (But I still have the same song bouncing around in my head. At least today it’s a distorted electric guitar.)
7. There are toilet seats! I admit I never got used to floor toilets. Its nice to sit.
8. Retreats may be the most difficult battles.
9. It still is nice to sit.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - Docho-san on Kinhin

At one point recently, using more than one question, I asked Docho-san if there was anything he would share about kinhin. His approximate responses as I recall them included:

Just walk.

After you get going, intention doesn't need to enter into it.

You are going around in a circle.

Observe how you interact with those around you. Adjust your speed or step length so that you maintain spacing.

Dang! Now that's realistic!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reflections: Just a Thought

"The ability of one's own nature to contain the ten thousand dharmas is what is meant by 'great.' The myriad dharmas are all within the nature of all people." - Platform Sutra

We all seem to have some vision of ourselves and who we’d like to be. For me right now its the perfect little compassionate Bodhisattva. But the perfect compassionate Bodhisattva is likely to be made of stone regardless of size. I may be a much more diverse and interesting person than that, or may be different people at different moments depending on circumstances.

Its the difference between the ideal and the Truth, and the effort that I put into maintaining those expectations and delusions that causes any psychological suffering I experience. If we realize Truth, get rid of delusions and expectations, that process isn't actually painful, it is a kind of realization of sorts, though it may cause suffering for those around us.

The challenge after that step of realization is not to close down and latch up, but to remain open to all possibilities. It is so easy to want to slide back into defined roles, instead of staying flexible and free. Sitting and a good Sangha help.

It just struck me as I was thinking about these things that this pretty well describes where my head is at right now – working with that urge to slide back into a comfortable defined space.

Thanks for being around.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Reflections: Visiting Antaiji - Two Monks

One option for my future I've considered is monastery life. To be honest, it was not an option I would have considered for myself, yet anyway, if it hadn’t been suggested to me last fall. As I read more about Antaiji, the idea blossomed as a real possibility. I’d like to point out that I didn’t go looking at the pretty pictures of this place until I was showing them to my parents to try to gain their support for my trip in a last ditch effort before leaving the States. So my expectations were pretty accurate, with some minor discrepancies. For example, in Japan, monasteries are not ‘No Smoking’ and a major one – me! By me, I mean my ability to fit in for all the reasons that have come up in previous posts, some of which could change with practice and some of which I’m stuck with, like my age.

I’ve asked several of the monks here or that have passed through what their take on monastery life is. One thing I’ve learned is that most wouldn’t choose a monastery to ‘retire to’ in their old age if they had another option. Sangha members here are expected to fend for themselves, contribute regardless of their age and competence, and there’s no health insurance plan. In monasteries in other countries, it costs to live there, so people still maintain a day job to support themselves. Docho-san has related that most of the students at the Soto School go there, not by choice, but because they have been told to by their families, so that they can marry their betrothed, or due to a lack of other options. I will certainly look into monasteries in the States to see how they compare. In the meantime, here’s a bit more about two monks who’ve spent time at Antaiji.

Koho-san, the head tenso here, arrived about a month after I did, but had been here before. He’s a programmer and has translated several Zen texts from Japanese into Russian. Whatever success I’ve had, I think I owe most of it to his frankness, patience, friendship. He helped me with my Japanese during the month I led tea meetings and meal chants, though he’s the first to tell me I remained far from perfect. Every sesshin Koho-san has to fight the urge to run away. In fact, he did run away during a sesshin the last time he was here. This urge to run away from Antaiji during sesshin is one that the monks younger than 50 that I talked to seemed to share and it gives me the greatest pause in my consideration of monastery life. How could a monk who’s made the life choice to come here not love sitting? For one thing, it seems they don’t really sit anymore, they’ve lost the motivation, that bit of effort it takes to focus the mind on not-thinking. Koho-san sometimes plans what he’s going to think about during the different rounds, and sometimes he sleeps, though he definitely prefers not to. He has gone so far as to bring sharp objects that will poke him when he starts nodding off. It doesn’t work most of the time. I’ve talked with him about it and can see how things change when sitting is obligatory and such a large part of the routine. There’s another monk whose been around for a couple of years that Docho-san will drag outside on his zabuton when he falls asleep, even when its raining or cold.

A Japanese monk who was here before I arrived spent ~ three years at Antaiji studying with Docho-san, and after finishing his years here went to Eiheiji to train to become priest. After only a couple of days at Eiheiji, he ran away, putting aside his robes to train in acupuncture and homeopathic medicine. Although he had successfully navigated the conditions, circumstances, and self presented by Antaiji, he was faced with a whole new set he was unprepared for at Eiheiji. Apparently there’s a bit of an indoctrination period when you get there...

left to right: Jido and Koho

I think no matter where you’ve been and what you’ve managed to get through or graduate from, whenever you move yourself into new conditions and circumstances there’s a whole new set of things to deal with, both on a practical level and a ‘self’ level. What is this resistance that we keep having to fight in ourselves when we find ourselves in new situations? I think it has something to do with loosing that safe and comfortable feeling that arises when we know the rules, what’s expected of us, and we know we can meet the requirements and expectations successfully to some degree. This ability improves our image of ourselves in our own eyes, but can lead to apathy, indifference and even laziness in the long term.

There's the other extreme too, where folks like to run and end up drifting from place to place never really confronting the challenges of self anywhere. But that's not been me often enough to relate to that story.

Can we approach each moment with a fresh, unlazy mind, a beginner’s mind – letting go of self-image, expectations, assumptions? If we could do that we’d be less likely to get caught off-balance. Would that be true freedom? It seems much easier said than done though.

Thoughts anyone?