I seriously love this post by long time reader and blogger Jeanne of the Dalai Grandma blog. Among other things, it speaks to American Zen's obsession with form and "real" practice, and to our collective failure to live compassionately.
Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone. It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight. They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness. They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.
I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left. I hope it wasn't to a bar. In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat. The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.
In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers. I've visited there. There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot. This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it.
Yesterday, I was in a meeting with one of our senior teachers, talking about vision for the Zen Center. As board president, I've been doing this kind of stuff for multiple years now, reflecting together with my dharma brothers and sisters upon what our sangha's values are, and how we might go about implementing those values into functions and structures in the future.
What is it that we are doing well, and what is it that we could improve or change completely? I asked those questions to this particular senior teacher yesterday, amongst several others. His responses were interesting. A blend of we're perfect just as we are, and we could use a little improvement, to echo Suzuki Roshi.
One thing I noticed though - and I've long admired this teacher's calm, wise, and reflective presence - is how there was a current of this "real practice" thing that Jeanne mentions in her post above. Namely, that what constitutes real Zen is found in retreats, periods of sutra study, and lots and lots of upright seated zazen. Now, the chair vs. cushion bit isn't an issue here. The teacher in question moved to sitting in a chair several years ago in response to his aging body. He, in fact, has even given time during dharma talks to speak about this move, and others. Like I said, I've long respected how he carries himself, and so it's important that I offer a more complete picture here.
When I read posts like Jeanne's, and consider my own, twisted and evolving practice, what I think we're getting at is the failure to really practice the relational. That Americans especially, steeped in individualism as we are, don't tend to do community well. Struggle sometimes with basic kindness. And sharing. Working together without lots of conflict. Feeling gratitude for each other. Embodying the relational qualities of Buddha's teachings, in other words.
For those of us who aren't living in monasteries, there's a lot of forgetting - or never knowing really - of all the ways in which Buddha's teachings were born of, and enhanced by, being in sangha together over the long haul. In a much different way than we lay folks are "in sangha." And yet, at the same time, Buddha's teachings were not exclusive to monks and nuns, and didn't emphasize one way of practice to awaken. He offered different forms and focuses for different folks. Those who came along later were the ones that decided certain forms and focuses were "the best" or "only true" ways to wake up in this life.
Even though I have rarely done formal retreat practice at zen center in recent years, I continue to have a love for its ability to support people to let go and see deeply. I wouldn't be the person I am today without the hours and hours of zazen and bowing and chanting and fumbling through oryoki I have done at zen center over the past decade. Nor do I think to myself "I'm done with all that." Not at all. It's more that I'm listening to the rhythm of my life and trying to be the reed for the current sound to come through. Which of late, has meant some unright zazen. And things like walking meditation with silent lovingkindness chanting in the skyways downtown during lunchtime. Or yoga nidra practice lying on my back. Or studying Dogen with dharma friends in their homes. Or simply offering a kind word, sense of gratitude, or a bit of humor for whomever I see when I'm at zen center.
What is real practice? How do you know?