Saturday, December 5, 2009

Rohatsu Weekend with Brad Warner

Rohatsu is upon us again. For those who don't know about Rohatsu, it's the time of the year when we remember Shakyamuni Buddha's enlightenment. Also known as Bodhi Day, Rohatsu has been traditionally celebrated on December 8th, and often is proceeded by more intensive meditation practice in Zen communities.

Tomorrow, I will join my regular sangha for morning services, and we will have ceremonies on the morning of the 8th and also next Sunday with the children. In this darkest of months, the joy of community is that much more precious.

The past two days, I, and a group of dedicated college-age practitioners had the opportunity to spend part of Rohatsu week with Zen teacher Brad Warner. I feel fortunate that members of the Macalester College meditation group have also been attending my zen center, Clouds in Water, and invited me to join them for an evening talk last night, and a half day meditation retreat today.

Brad Warner is well known on the Buddhist blogosphere. In fact, you might say he has become infamous in many parts, due to his irreverence towards tradition, as well as his wacky blog that seems to be a lightning rod for all kinds of conflict and odd behavior. I have even taken a few of the comments he has written on his blog to task in past posts, although I also have found other parts of his writings very insightful and fresh in their approach.

Last night, Brad gave a talk/interview on the subject of his forthcoming book: Buddhism, sex, and sexuality. I have to say it was pretty fun to be in a room full of people willing to ask intelligent questions and listen to a talk focused on sex and the dharma. One thing I appreciate that Brad spoke about was how it's truly impossible to have an intimate relationship with another and not cause some level of hurt. Each of us having different conditioning, different expectations, different habit patterns, even if the similarities outweigh the differences between the two people involved. This is true of romantic relationships, as well as friendships, and relationships with your family. There's going to be some hurt that happens, which isn't the end of the world. It just calls us to be careful, and mindful, of the other person. And I, personally, think it's essentially to differentiate hurt from harm. Hurt is usually a short term feeling; harm is causing longer term damage for another. I think of practice calls upon us to develop the capacity to wear down harmful tendencies, so that we cause much less harm in the world. Brad's reminder that all relationships are impermanent, a very simple teaching really, also plays into this. When you remember that someone in your life will be gone someday, and that you really don't know when, you're more likely to refrain from the kinds of nastiness that can cause major damage for that person, and for your relationship together.

After a fitful sleep that included a zany dream with Brad using the kyôsaku, or "encouragement stick," on me multiple times because I was "slumping over" - an anxiety dream perhaps? - I woke to a cold December morning, and a short, brisk bike ride ahead of me to the meditation retreat. (What's absolutely hilarious about that dream is that Brad is almost phobic to many of the traditional elements of Zen services and meditation retreats. The image of him carrying the kyosaku is almost blasphemous.) Anyway, the half day retreat was sweet. There were about ten of us. We sat in the center of the campus chapel building, which is this beautiful, wide open, six sided modern building with huge windows that allowed the morning light to shine right through. I rekindled my love affair with walking meditation in a group, something I have done a lot of on my own, but haven't participated in much lately at my home sangha. Each step was its own moment, full and complete from heal to toe. So simple and so commonplace that most of us forget how wonderful it is to feel your feet slowly lifting off of, and then slowly coming back into contact with the ground. Outside, the temperature was about 20 degrees. Inside, sitting quietly with this earnest little group of practitioners was very warm indeed.

Spending a chuck of time with Brad Warner made it even more clear to me how off the mark many people's views of him are. I think his writing style, and his penchants for goofing off and stirring up shit make him seem a bit larger than life. In person, though, he is much more of an unassuming, somewhat anxious guy who enjoys a good conversation and a chance to do zazen with others.

Seeing him in action makes the comments he recently made on his blog about jukai and not wanting to be anyone's spiritual daddy more clear for me now. This isn't the kind of teacher who wants to have students submitting to his/hers' complete approach, nor does he seem like the kind of teacher that wants to have a huge cadre of students to work with, and support. Some people on Warner's blog have suggested he's just being lazy, or that he just doesn't like doing traditional ceremonies like jukai, but I think it's actually more that he recognizes that his place right now is as a Buddhist writer and traveling teacher. Sure, maybe it's easier, and maybe there's a bit of copping out going on as well when it comes to tradition, but I think it's much smarter to recognize what's driving you, what your passions are, than to try and fit the stereotype of a Zen teacher.

So, bows to Brad and to all my fellow practitioners at Macalester. May we all manifest the buddhadharma in our own, unique ways.

p.s. You gotta love this photo because it is such a contrast to the guy I sat zazen with today, with his holey white socks, jeans, and cartoon monster sweatshirt.


Richard Harrold said...

You should write a post describing how you do walking meditation. I have tried it before, but I just don't think I am doing it properly. And everything I've read about it seems so esoteric.

Please simplify!

Sebastian said...

Who is the man with Brad? Is that Sensei Ren?