To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Zen and the Art of Getting Up Too Early

I should, perhaps, have begun with Greg and Zen meditation, or with Alan and group therapy, since both meditation and group were required activities I started the first week. I was their student long before I ever saw Charlie do anything except sit quietly on a dimly lit stage. But of course, Charlie became central to my work at the school, so I wanted to introduce him first. In any case, I'm trying to keep my posts roughly seasonal, and getting to know Charlie is very much linked in my mind with early spring planting and the egg hunt. Group therapy and Zazen both happened indoors where it was hard to tell what season it was.

But Greg was the first of the faculty whose tutelage I actually came under, the morning of my first full day on campus. I would have begun there if I were actually doing what I'd wanted to do when I started out, which was to write this blog like it was twelve years ago and I were writing about these events as I experienced them. But, if I were going to do that, I'd have to wait until next year to start, and I don't know what will happen between now and then. Something could prevent me from writing, and writing is now the best service I can offer the school that gave me so much--this work must at least get started. So here I go, doing the best I can with what I've got.

I never really got to know Greg. I'm not sure any of us really did, except maybe his alchemy students--he taught Buddhist alchemy, in addition to straight Zen Buddhist meditation, though since he never told anyone he did so, he had very few alchemy students. He did have some. He was tall, almost skeletal in his thinness, with iron-grey hair buzzed not quite to his scalp. Although his father was white, his mother had been Japanese-American, and he had been raised Buddhist. Greg had the distinction of being the only one of the faculty who had never changed religions, the only one who had never attended the school as a student, and the only one who had been with the school from the very beginning. He was also the oldest of the Masters, already in his seventies when I met him. I have now told you most of what I ever learned about him--I could tell you the rest in another paragraph, but I've got to get on with this post. All he ever taught me can also be summarized in a single paragraph, which I will write for you shortly.

What I learned from Greg was something else again, and I learned that by sitting zazen for up to an hour a day, six days a week, every week for a year, plus periodic mini-retreats. This was a required activity, by the way--yearlings had to sit, everyone else had a choice. I will try to capture the flavor of that daily rhythm for you, day after day beginning by walking down the steps in my uniform and robe, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and counting my breaths, but to learn what I learned (or your version of it) you will have to do what I did; sit for a year. There's no way to do it but to do it.

So, as you may recall if you read my earlier posts, my first night on campus was February 2nd, 2000, which was a Wednesday. I stayed up late that night, talking with my new dorm-mates and drinking hard cider, but I had to get up early the next morning to go sit zazen. That was not fun, I have to say.

Zazen was at six in the morning, which in early February is not even close to dawn, and none of the campus buildings were ever particularly warm. We heated mostly with wood, and none of us wanted to carry a lot of wood around, so by six in the morning the fire would always have gone out and the air temperature in my room would be around fifty degrees. I was warm enough under my wool blankets--we all had these beautiful hand-woven wool blankets from the school's own sheep--but I never wanted to get out of bed. Plus, of course, that first morning I was under-slept and slightly hung over. As a courtesy to us yearlings, the senior students got up, too, and hauled us out of bed. That actually was a courtesy, and a generous one, since they'd all stayed up late too, and could have slept another two hours, but I don't think any of us really appreciated it at the time.

Sometime I'll have to post some maps of the campus buildings so these descriptions will make more sense. I lived in a dorm on the second floor of the Mansion, and zazen was in a small room on the first floor, and normally you could walk down the grand stairs, into the Great Hall, and through an internal door to the Meditation Hall.. But early in the morning that internal door was closed, and we had to walk out through the Green Room door, around the outside of the building, and back in through a side door. They did it this way so we'd have to step outside into the cold air and the snow for a few minutes, otherwise we would have fallen right back asleep on our cushions.

I know why the door was kept closed in the mornings, but not why we had to sit zazen at all. Some form of meditative or prayer practice made sense, but why that one, and why didn't we have a choice? I never knew--I did not ask. It may have been as simple as the fact that Greg was who we had to lead such sessions. The school never didn't have Greg on the faculty ("never didn't"?), so there is no way to know what it would have been like without the specifics of his interests and skills.

So we came in, knocking the snow off of our pants and our robes before it could melt, and took off our boots--a coincidentally appropriate gesture before engaging in a Japanese meditation form. Greg introduced himself to us and showed us the right way to sit on our little black cushions (you don't need a cushion to sit zazen, by the way; you only need something under your tailbone to raise your butt a bit, as this makes it easier to sit straight) and then he told us something very much like the following;

"Sit with your spine straight, your legs folded, and your hands resting together in your lap like so. Let your arms be like the branches of a tree, hanging from the trunk of your body. Keep your eyes open, and look--don't stare--at a spot about five feet in front of you. This meditation form was developed by samurai monks on guard duty, so your eyes and ears must remain open; be aware of what is around you, but not focused on anything--if you focus on one thing, the attack could come from something else. Count your breath, both in and out, up to ten then start over. If you lose count, start over. If you find your mind has been wandering, start over. If you find yourself worrying about your mind wandering, start over. I will tell you when to stop--it will be two sessions of ten minutes each today, and we will work up from there. If you do this often enough for long enough, you may hallucinate; Siddhartha Gautama did, before he became the Buddha. It is only illusion. Ignore it."

He recommended a few books, my favorite being Nothing Special: Living Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck, and once a week he gave short talks on meditation and spiritual development. He taught us walking meditation, which was like sitting mediation except focusing on the feet rather than on the breath, and he sometimes lead us on walks. If anyone scratched an itch during mediation, he would say "who is master, you or the itch?" in a loud, startling voice that made the rest of us hate whoever had scratched. Once, my foot fell asleep up to the knee, and I made the mistake of complaining about it to him as I stood on one foot after meditation was over. He came over to me, grabbed my leg and all of its pins and needles, and planted it hard upon the ground. That stuck in my memory. I noticed, when it got warmer, that although he sometimes wore insect repellent, if an insect actually bit him he never squashed it or even waved it away. He let it bite him and he experienced it. That stuck with me, too.

But mostly Greg simply began the Zazen session, watched as a twenty-minute incense stick burned down, then rang a bell, once, to stop the session. Ding! There was no guided imagery, no soothing voice, no soothing anything, just sit until it is time to stop. Ding!

Two twenty minute sessions with a ten minute break between, every morning, six days a week, for a year. It was like putting down a root in my mind every morning.

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